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Monsters are Real

I was reading a story to Jenny, my great-granddaughter, the other day, when she asked me a random question. “Papa,” she asked, “Are monsters real?”

I was caught by surprise and I quickly replied, “No, of course not. There are no such things as monsters.” I thought nothing more about it at the time, as Jenny was at that age when she believed everything that she heard. She had just turned four and was in preschool with several other four year olds. No doubt that’s where she had heard some other kid talking about monsters.

Later that evening, after Jenny had gone home with her mother, I was reading my email on my laptop and I recalled Jenny’s question. I began to research the origin of the word ‘monster’ and the definition of the word. I read about monsters in the folklore of several countries. Stories and legends about monsters had been around for centuries. When I looked up the definition of the word in the dictionary, I found several. The first to catch my eye was ‘one who deviates from normal or acceptable behavior or character’. Another was ‘a threatening force’. A third definition stated; ‘person of unnatural or extreme ugliness, deformity, wickedness or cruelty’. Then, I found a definition that children could understand; ‘extremely wicked or cruel person’.

I disagreed with the definition that included deformity. When I was a small child, there was an elderly lady who lived in our neighborhood, who had a large growth on her neck. All of the children in the neighborhood believed the stories that they had heard about her, which included, that she was a monster and a witch. I am ashamed to say that I was one of the believers. But, then one day, when I was eight years old, I saw her walking down our street struggling with two heavy bags of groceries. She was three blocks away from her house. At first, I hesitated, but then I walked right up to her and offered to carry the heavier bag for her. She was very grateful for the assistance.

When we reached her house, I again hesitated before I went into her house with the groceries. I had heard the stories about children who went into her house and never came out again. But, I had come that far, so I decided to finish the job. After I helped her put away the groceries, I headed for the door, but she insisted that I stay for some milk and cookies. She had discovered my weakness. I could never say no to cookies.

As we sat there, I tried not to stare at her neck, but it was hard not to. Mrs. Franklin must have noticed that I was uncomfortable about her neck, because she told me about it. She explained that the growth on her neck was caused by a disease of her thyroid gland in her neck. She said that it was called a ‘goiter’.

I got a little braver and asked Mrs. Franklin if she had any grandchildren. She became very quiet and stared off into space for a moment. I immediately regretted asking the question, as I could see that it had made her very sad.

After a moment of awkward silence, she began speaking. “No, I don’t have any grandchildren,” she said. “I always wanted them, but my only son died before he could get married and have children of his own.”

Before I could ask any more questions, Mrs. Franklin began to tell me her life story. She was born in 1890. She was an only child. When she was eight years old, her father joined the army and went off to fight in the Spanish-American War. He never returned home. He was killed in battle nine months later. Mrs. Franklin and her mother moved in with relatives as they didn’t have much money.

When Mary turned eighteen, she was taking some college classes during the day and working in a diner in the evenings. She hoped to get a teaching degree. It was in college where Mary met her future husband; Ben Franklin (no relation to the famous Ben). Mary graduated from college in 1914 and got married a month later. Three years later, their only son was born.

When Ben Jr. was a few months old, his father joined the army and was sent to Europe during World War I. Ben wrote letters home to Mary as often as he could and Mary treasured those letters. Ben never returned home to Mary. He was killed while fighting in the Hundred Day Offensive, one month before the war ended.

Mary had taken a leave of absence from her teaching job so that she could take care of her son while her husband was fighting in the war, but after he died, she needed money to support herself and her son. Mary’s mother moved in with them and took care of Ben, while Mary began teaching again, to pay the bills.

Ben Jr. graduated from college in June 1941. Six months later, The U.S. declared war on Japan and Germany. Ben Jr. went through a quick officer training program and was sent to Europe to fight the Germans. In 1944, Ben was involved in the Invasion of Normandy and he died while helping to liberate France.

Even though I was only eight years old, I became very sad after hearing Mrs. Franklin’s story. She had lost her father, her husband and her son in wars, and her mother had died eight years earlier in 1947.

After that day, I went to visit Mrs. Franklin often. Since my own grandparents lived clear across the country, she became a substitute grandmother. She insisted that I call her ‘Aunt Mary’, saying that ‘Mrs. Franklin’ seemed too formal. Over the next ten years, we became very close. My parents liked her very much as well and accepted her as part of the family.

After I graduated from high school, I was drafted into the army, at a time when our country was in the middle of the Vietnam War. I had heard a lot of stories about Vietnam and a lot of people didn’t think that we should be involved. I thought about avoiding the draft by fleeing to Canada, as so many others had already done. When I discussed it with Aunt Mary, she seemed very disappointed in me. I asked her how she could support me going to fight in a war after she had lost so many loved ones in wars. She told me that they had all fought valiantly for their country and that she was very proud of them. She also pointed out that if I left the country, it would be hard for me to attend medical school, like I had planned to. “You don’t know how long you will have to stay in Canada,” she said. “You may never see your parents again. I know that they would miss you, as would I.”

For some reason, what Aunt Mary said, really made me ache in the pit of my stomach. I didn’t want to disappoint her and I didn’t want her thinking of me as a coward.

Two months later, Aunt Mary waited with my parents at the bus station, as I left for Basic Training. After my parents hugged me goodbye, Aunt Mary hugged me and told me that she would be counting the days until I returned home. Then, she placed something in my hand. It was a St. Christopher medal on a chain. She told me that it was given to her by her grandfather when she was very young. She told me that it would keep me safe. When I told her that I couldn’t accept her family heirloom, she told me that it was just a loan until I got out of the army. Aunt Mary tried to put up a brave front, but as I sat on the bus, I looked out the window and I swore I saw tears running down her face.

Because of my interest in medicine, and my volunteer hours at a hospital during high school, I was trained as a medic in the army. Six months after being inducted into the army, I was on a plane headed for Vietnam. What I saw in Vietnam gave me nightmares for several years, but I learned a lot and gained valuable experience in battlefield surgery. I was able to help the surgeons save the lives of my fellow soldiers. I wrote to my parents and Aunt Mary as often as I could, but it was weeks and sometimes months before I received letters from home.

The surgeons that I worked alongside on the battlefields were very impressed with my skills and they trusted me to work on my own to stitch up patients and perform more delicate procedures on my own. When my tour was up, and it was time for me to rotate back to the states, I extended for another tour in Vietnam and then another. I finally returned stateside in 1971, after serving six years in Vietnam. During all that time in Vietnam, the one thing that kept me focused was holding that St. Christopher medal in my hand while I prayed. But, I didn’t pray for my safety. I prayed to God to keep my parents and Aunt Mary safe.

When I stepped into the airport back home, I saw Aunt Mary standing there with my parents, waiting to welcome me home. After hugging Aunt Mary, I tried to give her back her medal that she had loaned me; she insisted that I keep it because she wanted me to have it. She told me that she considered me her grandson, so in a way it was staying in the family.

After I got out of the army, I used my GI bill to go to college and then I applied to medical school and was accepted. I was thirty-four years old when I graduated from medical school and Aunt Mary was sitting in the front row as I received my medical degree. She was ninety-one years old and was very frail, but her smile showed me how proud she was of me.

Even though Aunt Mary could have had surgery to remove her goiter from her neck, she never did. When I asked her why, she told me; “When people first see my neck deformity, they either look the other way in disgust, or they look past it and get to know who I am on the inside. I don’t want to waste my time on the people who can’t bear to look at me. I would rather spend my time with those who see me for who I really am.”

Sorry, I strayed off the topic. My point is that according to one of the definitions, Mary Franklin was some kind of monster. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Mary was the kindest, most generous soul that I have known in my life. I loved her like the grandmother she was to me. I spent two years planning her 100th birthday party. The guest list was quite long, and it took me a long time to track everybody down, because it was still in the early days of the internet

There were so many people that her party had to be held in the city park. The guests ranged in age between their late fifties to their early nineties. Each and every one of them was a former student of hers. As Mary sat in the seat of honor, she heard dozens of tributes from her former students explaining how she had helped shape their lives to become successful in their chosen fields and in their lives. Mary cried tears of joy that day, as did most of her students. Most of the same people at that party returned to the same park three years later to attend Mary’s funeral. She had died peacefully in her sleep at the age of 103. Mary, a monster? No way, not in a million years.

Now, there was someone who lived in our neighborhood who was a monster. On the outside, he was normal, you might even say quite attractive. He was in his early thirties, good looking and was involved with the local youth of the community. That was the problem. He was too involved. He would gain the trust of the young girls in the neighborhood and then he would molest them. He made them afraid and ashamed to tell anyone. It was five years before any of the girls got up the nerve to tell their parents. In those five years the man had molested more than thirty girls who would spend years in therapy and be unable to have a healthy relationship with a man when they became adults. Now, that man was a monster.

I began to think back on my life and realized that monsters come in all shapes and sizes. When I was in grade school, there were bullies that picked on kids smaller than them. Their victims became afraid to go to school. To those kids, the bullies were the monsters. Over the years, I’ve heard of teenagers who were so traumatized by bullies/monsters that they committed suicide to escape the torture.

Monsters come in many forms other than human. Sometimes they come in a bottle or a syringe. Drugs and alcohol do horrible things to people, and sometimes turn those people into monsters as well.

Sometimes, people’s beliefs turn them into monsters, such as bigotry or racism, especially when they act out with their hatred of others.

Then, there are the monsters of power, such as slumlords, who treat their tenants horribly because of their greed, or politicians who accept bribes and kickbacks, instead of protecting and serving their constituents, or cops who abuse their power and beat people to death

Then, there are the monsters who physically, mentally and emotionally abuse their spouses and children. Sometimes, they learned their behavior from people who abused them when they were younger, and sometimes they became abusive from the effects of the monsters called drugs and alcohol, or sometimes the monster is that way because of some mental condition or chemical imbalance.

I have decided that the next time I see Jenny; I will have to sit her down and have a more serious discussion about monsters. I have to tell her that monsters exist and always will. I will teach her to learn how to identify them and how to deal with them, either by going to a teacher, parent or other adult, or by running away. I will have to teach her that just because someone might look scary on the outside does not make them a monster, and that sometimes monsters can look normal or beautiful on the outside. Jenny will have to learn not to make quick decisions about somebody based on their looks, but by their actions. If more parents and teachers would educate kids about how to identify and deal with the monsters on their lives, whether they be bullies or abusive family members, or addictive substances, then maybe society can start to rid itself of monsters or at least keep them under control.

The End

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