Every now and then there are people we meet who change the trajectory of our lives in the most unexpected but eternally astounding ways.
Terry McGregor was that person for me.
There were others, of course. The poet George Venn who first declared me a real writer. Patsy Ward, that beautiful young woman who helped me find my way to Jesus, after years of abandonment. Judge Rufe McCombs who asked me to write her memoir. Marc Jolley who agreed to publish my first book and is still publishing my books. I could probably spend all day writing about the people who have shaped me into the woman I am.
I honestly can’t remember the first time Terry and I spoke, I only know it was by phone and that he called me. I don’t recall who put us in touch with each other, but our first phone call took place prior to my visiting the Vietnam Memorial Wall in 2002. At the time, I was the Oregon Bureau reporter and columnist with a Washington State newspaper. For several years I had also been working on a memoir about my father’s death in Vietnam. I documented my first face-to-face meeting with Terry in that book.
It was at the Key Bridge Marriott in Arlington, Va. I remember how he looked that day, all Peter Faulk Columbo-like with his trench coat and umbrella. I have always thought I remembered those details because Terry was the first person I met who, other than my own siblings, had also lost his father in Vietnam. Only a person who has been through such an experience can understand it. I jokingly told Terry it was like finding other green martians on earth. I was 45 years old.
I know now, however, that it wasn’t only the collusion of our shared loss that solidified that memory of meeting Terry. It was just Terry. It was about the kind of man he was, and by that I do mean “kind.” Terry McGregor was hands down one of the kindest people I have met in my life. Thoughtful. Considerate. A good listener. The most decent of humans. Generous in heart and spirit. He could turn the worst day into a better one.
Terry was the one who told me that I needed to hook up with the non-profit organization SONS & DAUGHTERS IN TOUCH. Insisted, in fact, that I do that. I had spent too much time in isolation with my grief. Terry knew that SDIT would provide me with a much-needed community. It’s not like the women in weekly Bible Study or small group could grasp the nuances of what it meant to be a Gold Star daughter during a time when the nation abandoned its Gold Star families. Terry got it. He understood me better than I understood myself. This was 2002, after all. The public-at-large had no idea what a Gold Star family member was. We hadn’t yet invaded Iraq, or deployed troops en masse to Afghanistan.
It was Terry who urged me to join SDIT for its historic trip to Vietnam in March 2003.
I thought Terry was nuts. I couldn’t go to Vietnam. I was the mother of four teens. I was working a very demanding job as a journalist, often working up to 60 hours a week. The newspaper wasn’t about to let me have three weeks off work to go anywhere. I was the lone bureau reporter covering some very big breaking news stories. They couldn’t afford for me to take the time off work.
Besides, I’d just recently conquered my decades long paranoia of flying. No way was I going to take a 24-hour plane flight anywhere – least of all Vietnam. No thanks. I had no desire to go to the country that took my father from me.
But Terry was persistent if he was anything. He called me weekly, always encouraging me in the gentlest of ways. Telling me I really needed to take this trip. And then there was that story in Salvation on Sand Mountain by one of my own literary heroes, Dennis Covington. The one about when he picks up the rattler. There’s power in holding in your hands the thing you are most afraid of. A power that cannot be gained any other way than owning up to all that you fear. For me, the trip to Vietnam was an opportunity to do that – to claim power over all that had held me in its grips for decades – all that loss, all that anger, all that hurt.
Terry understood better than I did how badly I needed to go to Vietnam.
Going to Vietnam was hands down the very best thing I have ever done for myself. I would never had made that trip had it not been for Terry’s encouragement. I recorded a piece about that trip to Vietnam for NPR. You can listen to it here.
Although, our journeys with our fathers took us to different places in Vietnam, Terry and I managed to squeeze in a boat trip down the Perfume River, which doesn’t get that name from flower petals, in case you were wondering. Our friend and photographer, Gary Lee grabbed video of Terry & I hitching rides with locals in Hanoi. If you’ve ever been to Vietnam and hitched a ride on those mopeds, you understand what a crazy thing that was for us. Our drivers were weaving in and out of traffic. I was screaming. Terry was laughing.
That was just one of many adventures we took over the years.
In 2004, the medic who treated my dad in the field called and asked me to go to the Vietnam Memorial Wall with him. He’d never been. I promised I’d go before I understood we’d be traveling by motorcycle – across the country!! We went with the group RUN FOR THE WALL. I wrote about the experience as we traveled. You can read it here.
Before we left, however, the medic had to have neck surgery so instead of riding his motorcycle, he drove an RV. He needed help driving so Terry pitched in and joined us for the bulk of the trip, helping Pablo drive the motor-home. I alternated between riding on motorcycles and riding in the motor-home. Oh! The stories we shared. Terry and I talked for hours on that trip. We slept in the captain chairs in the RV, while Pablo and his wife slept in the full-size bed. One night, after our trip to Angel Fire in New Mexico, I had the most gosh awful nightmare about my father, about Pablo. It was terrifying. I was screaming. The nightmare woke Terry but not me. So he had to wake me and then I was so shaken up we stayed up talking until almost daybreak. Did I mention what a good listener Terry was?
For several years, Tim and I would fly down to Southern California to go camping with Terry and other members of Sons & Daughters in Touch. We even celebrated our 25th anniversary with Terry and other SDIT friends up at Hurkey Creek, where a spider the size of a softball greeted me in the bathroom one afternoon. It was a good thing I was sitting down on that toilet before I noticed that spider!! Who leaves Oregon to go camping in Southern California, anyway?
But we did.
I was even in Southern California with Tim when I got an urgent phone call from Terry one August day. He said that my literary agent had called everyone I knew in Southern Cal trying to reach me. He laughed and said wryly that probably all literary agents think everything they do is urgent. Still, Terry advised that I probably should give her a call since she wasn’t going to quit bugging him until I did.
I called her from Catalina Island where Tim and I had been hiking and kayaking. My agent was calling to tell me that several publishing houses were making offers on the memoir about my dad only 24 hours after she’d submitted it. That trip to Catalina was magical in every single way. (Well except for running into the herd of buffalo on that hike).
When we got back to Terry’s house later that next day, Terry and several other friends from SDIT helped me celebrate the sale of a manuscript that had consumed my life for many years. I wept for an hour before I made the decision to go with William Morrow as my publisher. Partly with relief, but as I told Tim that day, I knew the story wasn’t about me, not ultimately. I knew it would be about a whole new generation of Gold Star families.
I was sharing our story. Not my story.
Terry knew that, too.
He supported my writing career in ways that few people know about. When my memoir was published, I was asked to do a reading at the Library of Congress.
At the LOC, y’all!!
I was so thrilled. I hoped and prayed my mother would come to DC to hear me read and speak. Who wouldn’t want their parents there for such an event?
Terry knew how badly I wanted Mama there. But he also knew how reluctant my mother was to get involved. And the other thing? My fear of flying was her gift to me. I overcame it. She never did. My mama, who had been so brave in so many ways, could not bring herself to board a plane to fly to DC to hear me speak.
It was breaking my heart and Terry knew that.
So he did the thing Terry was so great at doing. He tried to fix it. He wanted me to have my mama there that day. So he offered to buy my mother a first-class ticket to DC, thinking that if she flew first-class Mama wouldn’t be near so nervous and might even enjoy the trip.
Only a handful of people ever knew about Terry’s generous offer.
Now you, too, know what a kind and good-hearted man my friend Terry was.
Mama still didn’t go, but Terry was there, along with dozens of other Gold Star family members, listening to me read from the memoir, and knowing that in some ways I was telling their stories, too.
When my dear friend Connie Henricks was dying in 2009 from the breast cancer that ravaged her, some of her last words in that waning hour or two before she died, were: “We have had some great adventures.”
Those are the words that come back to me as I prepare to head to Southern California for the funeral service for my Gold Star brother Terry.
We had some great adventures, Terry.
So many memories. (Remember when the Angels played the Yankees and we watched the sun set during the game?)
Your friendship changed the trajectory of my life. I’m not sure I ever told you that, but I know you knew it.
When Terry was diagnosed with the brain tumors that took his life, I was quite simply devastated. Mama had six brain tumors when she died. My good friend and Vietnam veteran Gordon Wofford had one very deadly brain tumor.
How could it be that so many people I loved so dearly would all die in similar fashions?
When Terry and I were on that cross-country trip with the motorcycle gang, Terry, a huge Eagles fan, would often sing one of their tunes. I will never be able to hear Winslow, Arizona without thinking about the walk we took to get ice cream cones at Dairy Queen in Winslow on a day so hot the asphalt burned through the soles of our shoes. Of course, you can figure out what tune Terry sang that day.
It was on that trip that Terry gave me a roadname: SGH. Within a certain circle of friends, I am known by the moniker Terry assigned me.
On Thursday, I’ll join with other Sons & Daughters and Terry’s family to see our brother to rest. I’ve been putting off writing about Terry, about the devastating loss Terry’s death is for those of us sisters and brothers who have known the loneliness of grief since early childhood.
I want to take solace knowing that Terry, who was only six when his daddy was KIA, is reunited with his dad at last.
But, honestly, I am too broken for all of us left behind.
For Terry’s own boys, Donald and Jason.
For his wife, Julie.
And for his momma, who has had to bury her husband and her boy.
If ever a boy loved his mother, Terry loved his.
I pray his momma takes comfort in knowing that she raised up a good-hearted man. A kind man. A man who became a brother to so many of us.
Love you, buddy.