By Bonnie Dykoff
Special to the Dispatch
This story was written with the blessing of a family member.
This is the story of Patrick. Patrick was a VietNam vet. He was a sniper. Patrick came home from war, but let’s just say he never “came back” from the war.
What he witnessed, had to do and had to endure put a heavy burden on his soul. Patrick abused alcohol and drugs to mask his pain. Patrick had few friends and was alienated from most of his family. Patrick died of cancer all alone in his home at a fairly young age.
A short time after his death, his house went into foreclosure. I was asked to sell this home for the bank. This is where I stepped into Patrick’s life and he told me his story without even speaking a word. I never met him when he was alive, but I got to know him very well inside his home. The first time I went into the house it was if time stood still. Everything was as he had left it the day he was removed from his home. It was littered with alcohol bottles and cans, drug paraphernalia, it was messy, dishes were not done, things were not cleaned. It was in a state of extreme disrepair. His home gave me such an overwhelming feeling of sadness and loneliness that I actually sat down and cried. My job was to inventory, photograph and document this man’s belongings and put a value on it and the home.
At first the task was easy as there was little of “value” there. Or at least what most people consider to be valuable; cars, computers, TV’s, furniture. Patrick lived a simple life. When I went into his bedroom things began to become clear to me. This is where I started to piece together his life. In this room I found his purple heart, his folded flag, his many letters, memorabilia and things he saved from his time in the war. There were family photos, momentos, letters and other items that were important to him. Nobody had come to claim any of it.
When I went into the basement, I was met with two rooms full of willow branches. If you are not familiar with diamond willow, it is a willow tree that has been attacked by a fungus and causes a canker where the branch once lived. This can cause beautiful diamond growth on the inside once you peel the bark away.
Patrick had spent his time alone collecting, peeling, stripping and carving diamond willow canes and walking sticks. Here were hundreds of pieces in varying sizes, shapes and condition. Each one had been touched by Patrick’s hands. Some were very ornate and had beads, symbols and carvings in them. Some were just simple walking sticks. All these pieces spoke to me.
I was told to throw away all of this willow as it had no value. I was just to dispose of it and clean up the house. I couldn’t bring myself to do that. Too much time had been spent on all of these pieces to just throw it aside. Instead I packed up all that willow and I took it to my garage where it sat for a long time.
It dawned on me one day that Patrick was a lot like these diamond willow sticks that he lovingly worked on. Probably calloused, rough on the outside with internal bumps and bruises caused by the “fungus” called war. Peeling away his layers, I have no doubt that this man had a kind heart, patience, artistry, and saw beauty in things that others look past. He was beautiful underneath in spite of how he looked or lived on the outside. I can’t help but think Patrick wished someone would see this in him and recognize his worth.
I knew Patrick needed a legacy. He needed something to leave behind to show he lived and his life mattered. Since then I have been telling his story, giving one of his walking sticks to Veterans and those who have served in some capacity. I share his story in hopes it resonates with people who may have also felt like Patrick sometime in their life. So they can look at and feel the wood and see the beautiful diamond patterns that trauma has caused.
If you are a vet or know a vet, please stop by Centennial Realty to get a walking stick made by Patrick. Share his story, understand him, get to know him, and when you take a walk with it, maybe you can quietly have a conversation with him and tell him you see it. You see he was beautiful on the inside too.