When I was 5 and crying, my dad said to me, “I saw guys in ‘Nam who had their heads blown off, and they didn’t cry.” I choked back my tears and thought, “How could they cry if they didn’t have a head?”
In retrospect, I understand that he was suffering. His time in Vietnam left him with various maladies from Agent Orange, as well as PTSD. He had congestive heart failure. He was an alcoholic. He was seeing things he couldn’t unsee. Some 23 years later, I became a veteran of Operation Desert Shield/Storm, and we were then linked with the feeling of being spiritually homeless.
My father was also the funniest and kindest man I’ve ever known.
He lived in Charleston, South Carolina and spent his afternoons at the College Corner grocery store. Imad and Abdulla ran the store, and they were my dad’s best friends. My father would talk with all the customers who came through the door, tell jokes, loan money to neighborhood people who were down on their luck, straighten the racks of junk food, and just be Bob. People loved him.
My dad always loved people of different ethnic backgrounds and religions. He’d ask questions that most people wouldn’t. He didn’t ask questions to argue or prove a point. He asked questions to learn. My sister and I were raised by our parents as Episcopalian and sent to summer camps, Sunday school, etc. Imad and Abulla were devout Muslims. When my dad was dying, they tenderly took care of my sister and me by making us meals, visiting with my dad in the hospital, and supporting us every step of the way. They are two of the most beautiful people I have ever known. With the anti-Islamic sentiments in the United States, my heart breaks every time I think of my Imad and Abdulla. They were integral in the happiness of my dad’s crossing, and forever I am grateful to them.
Growing up in Wisconsin, my parent’s closest friends were from India and were Hindu. My sister and I have the best memories of attending the Indian holiday parties in Milwaukee. My dad always had to dress up as Santa, as the kids wanted a blue-eyed Santa Claus. I loved the lime pickle relish, cardamom cookies and fresh Roti bread. Eating with our hands was so much fun and being teased by the other kids for eating with my left hand is something that still makes me laugh.
My mom worked with adults and children with intellectual disabilities. She was an advocate for mainstreaming children into classrooms and received an award from the governor of Wisconsin for her volunteer work. She loved disabled adults and wanted a better life for them. Every holiday in the 1980s, my mom would bring her clients home from work. Their families had forgotten about them or, quite frankly, didn’t want to be bothered by them. The “guys” (as we called them) stayed overnight, shared meals with us and became our rag tag family. My fondest memories of childhood involve the men and women my mother brought home from work.
Making friends and strangers feel comfortable and important is a core value both my parents instilled into both my sister and me. I think a better term might be hospitable. When you are cordial with someone and generous with your time and sincerely want to know people without having to impose your beliefs on them: that is called hospitality.
For the last five years of my dad’s life, he was sober. We were able to have the relationship that I always wanted. My dad wanted desperately to be reunited with his platoon from Vietnam. The day after my dad died in 2012, I found the members. In May of 2013, the members came together in Dubuque, Iowa to reunite in my dad’s memory. They came together for me and themselves. I know my dad was there, too.
Sometimes you have to be hospitable with yourself to heal from the past. I have learned that it’s not what happens in life that counts—it’s how you to choose to react to what happened that matters.
When you react with love, compassion, and a genuine want to know who others are and how they feel, then your life has meaning. Always give others a warm reception. When you make others feel valued, you’ll be more valued yourself.
I saw a sign at gas station that read, “Hospitality: making your guests feel like they’re at home, even if you wish they were.” I guess that sometimes holds true as well. It’s hard to be understanding to people who have opposite political or moral beliefs as your own. When I was in Saudi Arabia, I had the revelation that my exposed arms in my uniform was just as offensive to them as women not being able to drive was to me. I took that moment to respect their beliefs and unroll my sleeves. I was a guest in their country.
When you become the person you don’t understand, enlightenment can happen.
Moriah Rhame was raised in Wisconsin and is a combat veteran of Operation Desert Storm. She is happily married and has four children. She wrote the book “How to be a Happy Medium,” and appeared on A&E’s “Paranormal Cops,” which also airs on the Biography channel as well as a guest appearance on “Hoarders Buried Alive” on TLC. She teaches workshops, motivational classes, performs at casinos and public venues.