Recently, my uncle and I have gone back and forth on Facebook. We’re not the first to engage in these kinds of inter-generational disputes. Built by blood and bound by a history, these relationships turn easily to argument.
Prior to Colin Kaepernick and the protests in the NFL, what tied me to my extended family, strangely, was also Colin Kaepernick. There isn’t a Gulig in the state who doesn’t painfully remember his performance in the 2012 divisional playoffs, a lanky blur of red moving gracefully and unabated through a sea of flailing yellowand green.
But lately my relationship to Kaepernick has changed, as has my sense of what it means to be a member of a community, to call Wisconsin home.
When the Packers stood arm in arm in solidarity with the targeted players, my uncle wrote,
“Too bad, Mr. Rodgers.” And then he wrote some more.
This didn’t surprise me. He is, as we all are, much more than a fan of football. An ordained deacon in the Catholic Church, my uncle is also a humanitarian who builds libraries in Laos and a US Navy Veteran who flies the flag on a pole that he erected on the day before his father died. My grandfather, too, served our country, and so when my uncle raised that flag in the uneasy moments before his father’s death, he did so not only as an American, but as a son, as a way of saying thank you to his dad.
And maybe that “thank you” was also a “good bye.”
It doesn’t take much for me to think this. As a poet, symbols are my lifeblood. So when the flag on my uncle’s lawn returns to life, waving in the cool wind, I see his dad—my grandfather—returning also, a kind of resurrection.
This matters. I say this because I lost my own dad, my uncle’s brother, two years ago. I miss him and there isn’t much I’ve found that helps except, perhaps, the things that bring him back.
My father used to wear a compass around his neck when we’d go fishing. These days, my mother keeps it beside the urn that holds his ashes. When I come home, I like to sit in the chair in the room we’ve turned into his grave. I lift the compass off the table. I hold it. I talk to him. The talking brings him back.
And so the compass, too, like my uncle’s flag, possesses a second life. Made to guide a father and a son across a lake, it also helps me navigate his absence, which, I suppose, is also a kind of lake that one must move across.
And this, the giving of meaning—to actions, to symbols, and to lives—this, I’d like to offer, is what the protests were about.
The older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve come to feel the real difficulty of living in a country as diverse as ours is that it requires us to listen.
“We chose to kneel,” writes Eric Reid, “because [kneeling] is a respectful gesture. I remember thinking our posture was like a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy.” I don’t expect this explanation to change my uncle. I know how closely he identifies the flag with everything he loves, and also with everything he’s lost. My faith, however, is that those who choose to kneel equate the flag with something loved and lost as well,. Maybe, at the very least, in an effort to listen to those we do not know, we might all be willing to hold this second version of the flag, arm in arm, beside our own. This is all, as far as I can see, that Aaron Rogers was asking us to do.