The immaculately groomed cemetery, offering unimpeded views of the Pacific Ocean, is the eternal resting place of Marion Mitchell Morrison, popularly known by his stage name, John Wayne.
The Duke, who died in June 1979, enjoyed a film career that spanned more than three decades. He was best known for playing gruff-on-the-outside, big-hearted cowboys and frontiersmen. Indeed, the American Film Institute posthumously named the Academy Award-winning actor one of the greatest male screen legends of all time.
To this day, John Wayne epitomizes the true American hero in the minds of many fans the world over.
My Uncle Don, on the surface at least, couldn’t have been more different than John Wayne.
Frail from youth and never athletic or imposing, Uncle Don lived a quiet, unobtrusive life of little public note. He, too, labored more than three decades, only Uncle Don worked in a nondescript office as an IRS agent and retired in 1995 in virtual anonymity.
Yet as I stood graveside a few weeks back at Pacific View Memorial Park, I couldn’t help but think that Uncle Don was no less an American hero than The Duke — perhaps even greater.
Born in September 1933 to immigrant parents who had no formal education, Uncle Don struggled mightily with obsessive-compulsive disorder from childhood. In the 1940s, when he was growing up, not much was known — and even less spoken — when it came to OCD.
Uncle Don’s father, my grandfather, was of the parenting school that thought the way to treat Uncle Don’s obsessions and compulsions was to “make a man out of him.” Toward that end, Grandfather mocked Uncle Don and criticized his behavior. He yelled at Uncle Don and subjected him to every imaginable form of verbal abuse — all in the horrific, mistaken belief that he was helping.
That Uncle Don didn’t spend his life institutionalized — or as a social monster — was a miracle.
In fact, Uncle Don not only took the abuse, he deflected much of it with affection and humor.
Uncle Don loved to tell jokes. Silly jokes. (What has four legs and chases cats? Mrs. Katz and her lawyer.)
Wherever Uncle Don went, he made people laugh. They recognized in him a sweet soul, who always had a smile and a kind word for those he encountered. He listened with a sincere interest to what others had to say and was the least judgmental person I ever knew.
What few outside his immediate family recognized was that Uncle Don carried the 800-pound gorilla of OCD — not to mention the emotional scars of his adolescent abuse — on his back his entire life. For most other people to get up daily for more than 30 years and traverse the Los Angeles freeways to work at an unpopular government bureaucracy would have been drudgery. For Uncle Don, with his OCD, it often bordered on torture.
Uncle Don constantly had the urge to wash away his “bad thoughts” at the sink or in lengthy, steaming hot showers. His compulsive routines were exhausting — both because he felt the need to repeat them a thousand times a day and because, on the job at least, he had to keep his OCD in check or face the prospect of losing his job, or worse, the respect of his co-workers.
In later years, with help from newer medications and some dedicated psychiatrists with whom he was blessed to work, Uncle Don suffered less from OCD, although he never lived a moment of his adult life without it preying upon him.
At his funeral, men and women who worked with Uncle Don at the IRS more than 20 years earlier turned out in force to remember the man who was a loyal friend, a good listener, and someone who always made them laugh. At the rent-by-the-month office where he went daily in retirement to manage his affairs, the receptionist who knew him best wept, as did the cafeteria workers who volunteered each day to bring him lunch at his table, when toward the end he became too weak to carry it himself.
Uncle Don touched people deeply with his kindness and his ability to look past their surface flaws to see them in a positive light — one that was seldom cast on them by others who were too busy or too self-centered to notice. Most of those people who came to cherish Uncle Don never knew about his OCD or the massive burden he carried.
To me, John Wayne was only a celluloid hero. It is the Uncle Dons of the world — and their supportive families, such as my Aunt Barbara who was profoundly dedicated to Uncle Don throughout their 43-year marriage — who are the true, flesh-and-blood heroes.
OCD and other mental illnesses are better understood these days than they were back in Uncle Don’s youth, when Grandfather thought the only way to treat it was with a firm stance and a loud voice.
Yet too few of us recognize just how heroic those who suffer from mental disorders are for having the courage to face life every day and squeeze the most out of it.
There are and will be no statues or airports to honor Uncle Don and so many others just like him for their genuine bravery. But there should be.