• author
    • Debra DeAngelo

    • June 16, 2013 in Columnists

    May my existence be the reason for an outline of bullets

    It’s not like I didn’t know I’d turn 54 someday. Well, hopefully I’d hit 54, unless I got hit by a bus or lightning first. “Hit” is truly how this birthday felt, like hurtling face-first into cement.

    Yeah. It stung.

    You see, last week, I reached the age my father was when he had a cerebral hemorrhage. I was 18. I barely knew what a stroke was, let alone a brain aneurysm. Well, didn’t I get a quick and nifty lesson about that.

    Strokes, particularly the aneurysm type, strike suddenly and fiercely like a cobra from the dark. You’re walking around, living your life, you bend over to pick up the newspaper or run up some stairs, and BAM — out go the lights.

    For some, the lights never come back on. For others, they flicker on momentarily and then off for good, like my mother, who also died from a burst aneurysm in her 50s. Others, like my father, survive and recover. But rarely are they the same again. Recovery is a relative thing.

    “Aneurysm.” Nothing strikes more fear in my heart. Cancer and heart disease don’t even come close. Given my family medical history, it’d make far more sense to give me a yearly brain MRI than a pap smear or mammography, but there’s little logic in modern medicine.

    Unlike my mother, my father technically survived his aneurysm, but was completely mentally and physically disabled. He learned to walk and talk again, sort of, but that peaked out early on, and a steady decline into convalescent care ensued. Twenty-six years of total disability in all until he passed. But, I realize now that he died in 1977, not 2003. And yet, there was no grieving in 1977 because he was still “alive.” And, therefore, no closure, like a book you just stop reading halfway through.

    Let’s recap the plot.


    My dad, Henry Paul Lo Guercio, with his mother, Alma Lo Guercio, while attending Bordentown Military Institute in New Jersey.

    Before the stroke, my father was a brilliant physician, and even served as president of the Sacramento Medical Society. Able to speak five languages, with medals in swimming and marksmanship, he was the valedictorian at Bordentown Military Institute in New Jersey, from where he was drafted into World War II directly as a Second Lieutenant. He landed on the beach in Normandy. By day’s end, a German assault killed every man in his unit, except him.

    My father told me that amid the carnage, bullet holes outlined his body. There wasn’t a mark on him. But he lay there, amongst dead and dying soldiers, seeing for the first time what happens in battle at a time when there were no movies or video games to desensitize an 18-year-old to in-your-face blood and gore.

    Thankfully, he was rescued. But his fighting days were over. He spent six months in a hospital in “shell shock,” unable to even write his own name, and was finally shipped back to his parents without so much as a “thanks for your service.” Because my father wasn’t physically wounded, he received no Purple Heart. Let me assure you, my father was wounded. Deeply.

    “PTSD” didn’t exist in the 1940s, or even ’50s, ’60s or ’70s. The Veterans Administration didn’t take any responsibility for the results of what we now call PTSD, and it eventually came roaring back to my father in the form of flashbacks, hallucinations, delusions and alcoholism. It took him about seven years after his discharge to patch his psyche back together, and after what he’d seen in battle, he decided to become a doctor and save lives — a mitigation of sorts. In medical school, he met my mother, a fellow student, and they went into practice in Sacramento.


    Drs. Henry and Jean Lo Guercio were the picture of success in the 1960s. On the surface. Beneath it, things weren’t really going so well. This photo, taken around 1967, was just before the effects of alcoholism and PTSD started becoming noticeable to everyone.

    They were the picture of success.

    On the surface.

    Beneath it, PTSD kept eroding his mind, but alcohol seemed to help. “Seemed.” The synergy of PTSD and alcoholism ultimately overtook him. He went rogue, declaring it immoral to charge money for medical care, abandoned his practice, and saw patients only from his apartment, free of charge (my parents had separated and filed for divorce in the thick of his emotional instability). The Medical Society did not look kindly upon any of this, and revoked his medical license. When? As he lay in a coma from a burst brain aneurysm. He never even had the chance to defend himself.

    No matter. The stroke ripped through his brain. He never could have practiced again. His career, and life, were over. Worse yet, the stroke wiped away his entire personality. The person who emerged from the coma was not my dynamic, amazing, troubled father. Twenty-six years later, when he technically died, the person I grieved was that sad, meek, dependent person I’d been parenting for more than two decades. I still hadn’t grieved my “real” father. Until I turned 54.

    Wow. So this is 54. Young and vibrant, full of potential and brimming with unfinished business. And to have it all ripped away? Right now? Without warning? Oh, I SO get it.


    My dad in November 1977, about two weeks before he had a stroke. He was 54 in this photo, taken at Thanksgiving.

    My father and I are now peers, fellow 54-year-olds, standing shoulder to shoulder. What happened to him in 1977 has snapped into harsh focus. On my 54th birthday, more surprising to me than anyone, I didn’t feel like celebrating. The dull ache of grief settled onto my chest, and the tumbling, tumbling, tumbling of comparisons between my life and his began.

    Finally, 36 years later, comes the grief. And with it, closure. How fitting that it’s Father’s Day, when I honor not that sad shell of a man that I cared for, nor the troubled and struggling physician, and not even the doting daddy who held me as a toddler and walked me around the yard, teaching me the names of all the plants in the garden and stars in the sky. No, today, I honor that bright, brilliant teenager, whose life was catastrophically spun sideways in a barn in France. May I aspire to be the reason that bullet holes outlined his body. I’m only 54. There’s still time. God willing, there’s still time.


    My dad and his father, Bert Lo Guercio, about 1965. He was unashamed of his great love of Playboy magazine, and all women, for that matter — young, old, thin, fat, beautiful or not so much. He simply loved women.


    I remember my dad in the mid-60s, young and handsome. He had a medical practice with my mother, and loved gardening and puttering around the yard in his spare time.


    My dad had a nutty sense of humor. This is his interpretation of a hippy, taken in the late ’60s. Note the peace flower, shaggy hair, faux-leather jacket, and the douche wand hanging as a necklace is a pretty nice touch.


    My dad at a family Thanksgiving dinner in 1977, writing a prescription for antibiotics for my cousin, who had strep throat. One of the last photos taken of him before he had a stroke in December. He was a doctor until the very end. I remember taking this photo with the bottle of wine in front, symbolic of the alcoholism that blocked the view of the real person.


    My dad on his 80th birthday in 2003, and probably the last photo ever taken of him. He’s smiling at me.


    Henry Paul Lo Guercio, valedictorian at Bordentown Military Institute in New Jersey, graduating and soon to enlist in the U.S. Army and to land on the beach in Normandy as a Second Lieutenant. He was the only one of his unit to survive the day. Bullet holes outlined his body, but he was untouched. I hope to become the reason he survived.

    • WOW, such sadness so early in a developing young man. I can only imagine what life would have looked like without Normandy and the brain aneurysm. I am glad you are living your life with gusto and love Debra. What a handsome young man and seems a fighter until the end to live.

      • Thanks, Madge. I believe that he fought until the end because he wanted to squeeze in a little more time with me. And yes… without Normandy or the aneurysm, wow. My dad could have been anything!

      • Michael Ann

      • June 16, 2013 at 8:43 am
      • Reply

      What a moving tribute to your dad. It made me tear up. I can’t even express the overwhelming feelings I have right now, thinking about how the sad events of life can snuff the life out of someone, even when their body is still living. And how powerful calendar dates… birthdays, anniversaries of events…. can be. Great piece of writing, Debra. And I would definitely say YOU are a wonderful tribute to your father.

      • Jesse

      • June 16, 2013 at 9:05 am
      • Reply

      I love that your shared your dad with us. You look like him. You have his eyes. War really takes its toll on the future of generations. I really am awestruck by your tribute. Jesse

      • Randolph Graham

      • June 16, 2013 at 9:32 am
      • Reply

      Powerful and tender at the same time. You are the reason he survived. If you know the story of his WWII experiences, would you consider writing a monograph or book about them?

      • Thanks, Randy. I also believed that I am the reason he emerged from the coma. He wanted to hang out with me awhile longer. As for writing his memoirs… sadly, there aren’t enough for a book. He rarely spoke a word of the war, other than the story of the outline, and sometimes he would sing “Taps” (always off-key). He was not interested in shows of patriotism or flying the flag on holidays, never said much of anything about the military. I don’t know if it was repressed, or something he actively blotted out.

        But… one weird thing… he frequently would tell my sister and me to get under the bed and hide, and he’d go outside with his rifle and patrol the grounds, sure that someone was after us. It was terrifying, of course, and it was many years later I came to realize that he was patrolling the grounds to protect the troops. His unit – my sister and me.

        The only other memory I have of him regarding WWII is that he seemed to have a mild dislike of Germans. It was the only group of people I ever heard him utter an unkind word about.

    • Thanks, Michael Ann. Yes, calendar dates can really shake you up. Thanks for your comments. I hope to aspire to be that tribute!

      • Kelvin

      • June 16, 2013 at 11:07 am
      • Reply

      Wow. What a tremendous moving tribute. Thank you for writing this on so many levels. Your dad lived such a full, amazing life up until that fateful day. It brought tears to my eyes because I can so relate to having a parent suffer debilitating health issues and all of a sudden you’re left with someone who wasn’t….wasn’t who you knew. And I totally understand your trepidation at turning 54. This was such a beautiful, powerful, moving, reflective piece that I’m just blown away. Thank you for opening your heart and life and sharing it with us, Debra. I’m just….wow.

      • Kelvin, it’s why I appreciated your column so much. We both had less than perfect dads, but…. those were the dads we had. And, in retrospect, we can choose to view them through a positive lens… warts and all.

      • davidlacy

      • June 16, 2013 at 11:57 am
      • Reply

      Beautifully painful piece.

    • perfect. absolutely perfect. like you. i love you so…

      • Kate L.

      • June 16, 2013 at 4:27 pm
      • Reply

      Tremendous column, Debra. And it makes sense (as much as anything emotional can make “sense”) that 54 would hit you hard. I hadn’t realized that turning 54 had also activated grief–very fresh and very real grief–for your dad who (physically) survived WWII but then, essentially, died twice decades later. My heart goes out to you.

      • Maya North

      • June 16, 2013 at 4:27 pm
      • Reply

      This had me in tears. I can so easily imagine having him to grieve over and yet also alive. I also have put my family through quite a bit with my own (much lesser) PTSD. My husband’s brother had a brain bleed in his 50s; my husband had a stroke after his cardiac bypass. This pulls at so many old griefs and my love for you and empathy forms your words into something that rattled and yet filled my soul. And yet — the life he had was also rich, full of love and of such value — plus he and your mom gave the world…you. That’s an accomplishment right there. XXXOOO

      • Maya, thanks for “getting” it. His life though… not so full of love… mostly dysfunction and delusion, and after the stroke… dependence. :/
        Such a waste.
        But… I’m glad I’m here too!

    • In so many ways I empathize with the depth and pain of your feelings. Thank you for sharing this loving and thoughtful piece , your tribute to your lost and then found Dad

      • Thanks so much, Barbara! Sue and I had a good chat about this today. She called me after reading the column. She was with me when I went to the hospital that morning he had the stroke. Thanks for reading, and commenting. 🙂

    • Thanks, David. Tough to write… but cathartic.

    • Thanks, Amy. 🙂

      • Terri Connett

      • June 17, 2013 at 8:23 am
      • Reply

      What a beautiful, honest and moving tribute to your father. I totally relate to examining your life at 54. I’ve marked those birthdays in myself for both my parents (27 and 59). It made me cry but also made me feel I’m not alone. Please know you are not alone either. Just lovely.

      • Thanks, Terri. You are not alone. There are lots of us in this club… who lap our parents’ lifespans. Strange feeling, isn’t it.

    • Powerful stuff. Sometimes, it can be difficult to merge the man with the father, and analyze how it filters through us. Given his pre-parent history, I understand how Mom got “sucked in.” 😉

      • Julie, you and your family knew my dad at the height of his dysfunction. Such strange times. Somehow they seemed to comfort each other… to the discomfort of everyone else. :/

    • Wow, Debra. I only “know” you through Theresa, but I feel like you told me this story while we were in same room together. My father also went through some traumatic stuff, which ultimately resulted in him ending his life when I was 11 and he was 46. It took me 10 years to finally let myself grieve so I really feel you on how it just hit you like a bus. I pray you find some peace and can enjoy all your future birthdays, because I’m sure there will be many!

      • Heather, it’s strange how sometimes grieving isn’t done at the “normal” time, isn’t it. Feelings have a mind of their own. Thanks for your comments, and I also wish you peace and happiness. 🙂

      • C. Wike

      • June 17, 2013 at 6:19 pm
      • Reply

      It was with some familiarity that I read your touching piece. My father also served at Normandy. He was a surgeon during that landing, came home with schrapnel wounds and shell shock I still remember him screaming during the night when he had nightmares. He also became an alcoholic and died at the age of 54. My mother said, “The man I married did not return from the war.”

      When I turned 54, I spent that year assessing my age, comparing my health to my father’s.

      I wonder now, as so many soldiers come home with PTSD and do not receive treatment, how many times the stories of our fathers will be repeated.

      Thank you for sharing.

      • Wow… we have a lot in common. How wild that they were both the same age when they passed — and that you had the same “comparison” experience. I suspect there are thousands upon thousands of WWII soldiers who came home and were never treated for PTSD. Probably from Korea and Vietnam too. It is just tragic, and the effects of PTSD not only steal that person’s mind away, it ripples out and touches the entire family.

        Thank you for reading, and understanding. Maybe my experience isn’t so strange after all.

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