War Stories

The first time I saw daddy cry was five months before he died. At the time, I didn’t know what was ahead of us, but looking back, I wonder if he did. It was December, right after Christmas. I didn’t admit it to myself (or him) that for a while I had suspected something was wrong.

The year before, he had quit drinking after spending a night in jail for his second DUI within two months.  When I picked him up the following morning, I talked to him in a way that I never had before. We always had superficial conversations; we talked about television, current events, daily routines, the weather, or we even sometimes just watched t.v. in silence. We never talked about our feelings, our struggles, our dreams.

We never confronted one another. That day, however, I looked him in the eye when I dropped him off, and I told him, “I won’t do this again. Next time, you can stay there.”

I went on, “Something has to change, or you will end up dead.”

img_0072I knew what it took for him to call me that morning. He was a proud man. And that day, he was ashamed. I also knew what it meant that he called me. I was all he had.

For an entire year, daddy was sober. He attended classes in order to earn back his driver’s license. He stayed out of the bar. But, more than that, he attended AA meetings every day at noon. Then, a year later (almost to the day), I found him drunk.

In the beginning, I blamed the changes I saw in him to his falling off the wagon. But, if I’m honest with myself, I knew something was wrong long before. I just didn’t know how to confront or talk to this stranger who I loved so completely. It started with small things. He rarely left the house anymore. It wasn’t uncommon for daddy–who spent most of his life on an off-shore oil rig–to spend his time at home when he was on leave. At home or at the bar. He was nothing if not a creature of habit. I told myself that now that he had stopped drinking, he was perhaps depressed. Most of his “friends” were people he met at the bar he frequented. His     sister was in a nursing home, and he really had no other family besides me and my sister who lived in Phoenix. To help, I made sure to visit him several times a week, calling him on the days I couldn’t. I encouraged him to get out of the house, to do the things he loved doing. And I continued to deny that there was a problem. How do I talk to him about something so personal?

Then, he stopped taking care of himself and his house. My father was a fastidious man. He was a marine. His hair was always closely-shorn, his face clean-shaven, and his clothes neatly pressed. He even had all of his jeans dry-cleaned and professionally starched. Likewise, his house was clean and organized. I always found him in a good mood on the days he spent vacuuming, dusting, laundering.

Now, his clothes were wrinkled, and he sometimes smelled. He had a week’s worth of stubble on his face, and his hair hung in his eyes. The garbage was piled in the corner of the kitchen, and the refrigerator only contained a few expired items. The toilet was filled with urine and feces, and there was a suspicious stain on the carpet. After seeing it for a few days in a row, I asked what it was.

He replied, “It’s crap. I didn’t make it to the bathroom.”

This was not my daddy, a proud man, a military man, a clean man. I still blamed it on the drinking.

I decided I needed to take action. I had to do something. One crisp December day after work I called him. He didn’t answer, so I knew he must be at the bar, which gave me at least a few hours. I drove to WalMart, looking for his truck in the parking lot of his favorite bar as I drove by (something I always did and still catch myself doing to this day, despite the fact that the bar closed a couple of years ago). His truck was parked where it always was. I don’t know what he would have done if he ever found someone in his spot. At Walmart, I loaded my cart with cleaning supplies, stain remover, disinfectants, and a few grocery items: milk, bread, canned soup, and some fresh fruit. Then, I headed to his house.

I spent the next few hours taking bags of rotten garbage out, attacking the spot of “crap” with everything in my arsenal. I emptied a pan of unbaked, moldy cinnamon rolls I found in the oven. I don’t know how long they had been there.

Daddy staggered in as I was vacuuming. He begged me to stop cleaning the stain on the floor. And I yelled at him as I continued (I never got that spot out). He sat on the couch and pleaded with me to talk to him, to sit down, to stop. Then, he began to cry. I had never seen him cry before. He hugged me tighter than he ever had and asked me, “How did you get to be such a good young’un?” “You’re so good.” I didn’t feel good. I didn’t feel proud. I knew something was really wrong, something more than drink. I knew he had suffered from high blood pressure for years, and he never sought medical attention or took his medications regularly.

And I didn’t know what to say to him, didn’t know how to talk to him about it. So, I said the first thing that came into my mind, “Are you sick? Have you had a stroke?” We were both stunned into silence for a few moments.

He shook his head, “No. I’m fine. Just stop cleaning. Sit down.”

I was too shaken by daddy’s tears, my tears, and simply by my own helplessness and anger to do anything but leave. I told myself that he would be fine. It was just the alcohol. I knew we were both lying that day.

My parents divorced when I was only three-years-old, so I don’t have memories of them together. There were no family Christmases. Daddy was never at my birthday parties or school events. I didn’t run home to tell him about my day or to ask his advice. For that, I had mama. But, my memories of daddy, those that are untarnished, are very much influenced by my mother. It is because of her that I loved him so completely in spite of (and because of) his flaws, his brokenness. In fact, most of what I know about him, his family, his life, I learned from her, and these fragments may not all be fact. See, my daddy was a liar. I learned to understand that when he said, “I’ll pick you up and let you stay with me next weekend,” it really meant there was little chance of me seeing him that weekend (or for the next month). He even lied about small things, like those fishing tales where the fish gets larger with every telling. And according to mama, he often tried to drag her into his tall tales, asking her to lie with him, to make his lies true.

When I was a child and even after I was grown and married, his lies hurt. But, oh how I loved him. I can’t explain it, and it certainly would have been easier sometimes if I didn’t. When I looked at him, I saw myself. I grew up in a family where almost everyone was taller than I am. They didn’t look like me, really. So much so that it was easy for my sister to convince me that I was adopted. Until I looked at daddy. Then, I knew that couldn’t be true. More than that, I inherited things besides my eyes, hair, and short stature. I inherited his love of music, decorating, and crafting. He taught me to crochet. I didn’t see him often, but when I was with him for the weekend, we had a routine. We made the rounds to the music store, the bookstore, and the video store. I was beyond excited when he let me rent 11 movies at once and that he didn’t mind watching Alice in Wonderland for the hundredth time. We liked the same kind of television shows, movies, and he was the one who bought me my first collection of fairy tales.

He wasn’t perfect. He was absent more often than not, and for years I struggled with both my anger at him and my love for him. I was angry at his distance and tired of his lies, but I eventually learned that not all of his lies were untrue. When I was an undergraduate in college, I took an American literature course. One of the books we had to read was The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, the fictional study of military men and their stories of Vietnam. I grew up knowing that daddy was a marine in the Vietnam war. I had heard stories of the times he was wounded and of his purple heart (I learned only after he died that he received at least two Purple Heart medals). As an adult, he told me a few stories. They may or may not be true. About the first time he was shot. He was supposedly stranded on a hill and waited twelve hours for his platoon to find him. When he opened the first aid kit, all he found in there was some gauze and two joints, which he smoked while he waited. About the time he and his platoon decided to celebrate New Year’s Eve by blowing up ammunition. I wasn’t allowed to talk about Vietnam as a child, or as an adult for that matter.

I quickly learned that talking about Vietnam led to daddy shutting himself in his music

Daddy, Vietnam

room with a bottle of whiskey and albums that brought to life memories that he had tried his entire life to suppress. Nothing good came from that music or from that room. When I was growing up, Mama told me that the things he did and saw were traumatic. They were, at least in part, the reason he was so distant, so scared, so alone, such a liar. But, I was always curious, and I eagerly began reading The Things They Carried. I knew it was fictional, but I hoped to gain some insight into a war that teachers really didn’t discuss much when I was in high school. I hoped to gain some insight about my father and the man that Vietnam and the U.S. Marines had made. Because I was a reader, I naturally sought out stories–in this case, war stories–for the answers. I was rewarded for my efforts in a surprising way.

In war “there is no clarity. Everything swirls. The old rules are no longer binding, the old blends into chaos, love into hate, ugliness into beauty, law into anarchy, civility into savagery. The vapors suck you in. You can’t tell where you are, or why you’re there, and the only certainty is overwhelming ambiguity. In war you lose your sense of the definite, hence your sense of truth itself, and therefore, it’s safe to say that in a true war story nothing is ever absolutely true.”

I began to understand that daddy’s lies often contained truth. I realized that when he said I could spend the weekend with him, he wasn’t lying. He believed it. I learned that those words really held a grain of truth and actually meant, “I want you to come next weekend, but I’m horrible at maintaining relationships, even with my own daughters. And I really won’t pick you up or see you until you miss me so much that you cry about it, and your mama calls me to threaten, beg, cajole, whatever it takes to get me there. Instead, I will be too filled with regret and fear to fulfill my promise. But, I will mean it. I want to be there.” Sure, at times I felt as if I justified his actions and tried to make sense of things so they wouldn’t hurt so much. I even hated him sometimes, for his weakness. I hated that I had to call him. I had to make the relationship work. That I had to force him to see me. I was the child. He was the adult. When I was a teenager, I stopped trying, and for at least three years, I didn’t see him. I didn’t talk to him, but even then, my life was defined by him. By his absence and by his silence.

So, I did what I always do. I wrote, and I read. And I looked for more stories, this time from mama. She was married to him. Surely, she had to know the answers to my questions. She had some, but even she didn’t know if they were true.

Daddy, first grade 

What I do know is that Daddy’s childhood was hard. I never met either of my grandparents who died long before I was born, but I didn’t need to meet them to know the influence they had on my father’s life and, therefore, on mine. I’ve heard that his mother committed suicide, and that while their mother died, my aunt kept my dad hidden in a closet. This may or may not be true. But, it doesn’t matter because for daddy and his sister, it was real. The trauma of her death, however it occurred, scarred them both, and it wasn’t a story they shared with others. Instead, the story was theirs alone, one of the many ropes that bound them together always, even when they hated one another, and kept the rest of the world at arm’s length–including me.

Daddy and his sister went to live with their grandparents. While both talked openly and lovingly about Big Mama, it was clear that their home situation even then wasn’t great. Their grandparents were poor. I mean, dirt-floor, out-house kind of poor, and from what I heard (or rather didn’t hear–they didn’t talk about him much) I don’t think their grandfather was a nice man. Much of his life, daddy fought against that life, earning money and spending it on whatever struck his fancy.

His father was an alcoholic and often absent (familiar, much?), and daddy inherited his love of drink. In fact, at the end of daddy’s life, he couldn’t remember his mother’s name, his own birthday, and he couldn’t work simple appliances around the house. But, when the doctors asked him his drink of choice, he responded, “Bourbon,” with no hesitation.

His drinking was one of the few things I knew and understood about daddy. I sometimes didn’t know where he lived as I was growing up. I never knew what he thought about or what his life was really like. So, it makes sense that when he became sick, his drinking was the only thing I had to give to the doctors who pummeled me with questions. They asked his birthday. I didn’t know the answer. They asked if he was allergic to anything. I didn’t know. They asked when the symptoms started, and I began to cry. What came out of me was a jumble of words and excuses that the doctors didn’t want and didn’t need: “I’ve only been in contact with him again for a few years. He’s an alcoholic, and I didn’t see him. Something is wrong. I think he had a stroke. I know he said he retired, but I think he had a stroke on the oil-rig. He told me that they had to medevac him to a hospital, and he couldn’t feel his leg. I ignored it. I told him to make a follow-up appointment, but he didn’t. I don’t know.”

It had taken all of my strength to get to the hospital. I had forced him months before to schedule an appointment with the VA clinic. The waiting list for an appointment was two months out, and I knew we couldn’t wait. But, I also didn’t know how to take care of him or what to do. We didn’t have that kind of relationship, and I was paralyzed. Finally, my husband and I drove him to the VA hospital ER two-hours away. That day, daddy was wearing two shirts, buttoned to one another. He smelled, and I knew the doctors would see me as a neglectful and horrible daughter who should have intervened long before. When they removed the boots he always wore, his socks didn’t match and were covered in feces. I was ashamed. Not of him. But, of me. And the questions the doctors threw at me were nothing compared to questions I asked of myself.

Why didn’t I notice? Why can’t I talk to him? What am I supposed to do? We don’t really know each other. How is he going to handle me taking his keys? How am I going to take his keys? What if I had brought him earlier? What are we going to do? I came undone.

Over the next few months, I became his caregiver, and I got to know daddy like I never knew him before. It was stressful, emotional, exhausting. And I wasn’t the best at it. I still regret that I left him alone at night and that I didn’t finish watching Overboard with him one day when he asked. I cooked for him, fed him, regulated his medicine. I washed his hair, and because neither of us was comfortable with me bathing him, I ran his bath and sat outside the bathroom door explaining to him what to do. During that time, I had some of the sweetest, most honest moments I’ve ever had with him. I also had some of the most devastating ones.

For those months, we fought death together and created war stories that I will always cherish and that still break my heart a little. One day, I was trying to find him something to watch on t.v. while I made dinner. He was mad because NCISwasn’t on. He had always loved the show, but when he became sick, his love for it turned into obsession. Maybe it was comforting or familiar. I don’t know, but we watched it over and over and over. I tried to explain that it would be on in an hour and put it on another crime show. Criminal Minds or something. Same genre. I looked over at one point and noticed that he was wiping away tears. He hadn’t cried since that day in December, even through all of the tests, diagnoses, and misdiagnoses.

I rushed over, “What’s wrong, daddy?”

He simply pointed to the screen. Exasperated, I sighed. Was he seriously crying about NCIS?

“Do you want me to turn it in to something else?” He shook his head. And pointed again at the screen. Then, I noticed the story playing out on t.v. A war veteran who has returned from war a broken man has alienated everyone in his life. His wife has taken their daughter and left. And now, something had happened to the little girl. The man on the screen cried about all of his regrets, about not being there for his little girl, about how much he loved her. My daddy sat on the couch and cried openly. He took my hand, nodded his head, and pointed at the screen again. It was the first and only time that he had acknowledged his feelings, his regret, his brokenness. Daddy told me every time he saw me that he loved me. But, that day, I felt it in my bones.

The last week of his life, daddy spent it in the ICU. He was sedated, and, scared, I waited. I sat in the waiting room to visit him for ten minutes every three hours, only leaving at night to sleep. Many of my colleagues and friends didn’t understand why I didn’t leave, why I didn’t rest. There was no way to make them understand that he had alienated everyone in his life, but me. There was no one else to visit him, to make sure that he was taken care of. During those long, isolating days, I read to him and sang to him and turned the t.v. to NCIS every day at 6:00. I also replayed what few memories I had with him over and over again.

I felt cheated. I didn’t have enough. The one I always came back to was my earliest memory of daddy. I don’t know how old I was. Maybe four or five. As Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me” played on the stereo, I stood on daddy’s feet, and we danced. While sitting in that waiting room,

I realized that all of the stories I had sought for so long about daddy– about the war, about his parents, about his life–they weren’t the ones that would tell me who my daddy was or how he felt about me. Daddy always told me that music is honest when the rest of the world isn’t. I should have listened and understood. I could always tell what daddy was feeling by the music he played. I came to realize that our dance to “Stand By Me” was what daddy longed for his entire life. His mother had left him. His father had left him. His wife. His daughters. Though he knew he was to blame for the last two, I suspect now that he felt he was somehow to blame for his parents, too. He never felt good enough. He believed that everyone would leave him.

daddyWhen I was a little girl, my biggest fear was that daddy would die and that I wouldn’t know about it. It seems like a bizarre thing for a child to think about and to fear, but I did. He always felt so far away, and I was afraid that my whole world would change without me knowing it. Who would call me? Would anyone? It was usually around the time that I would begin expressing my fear that mama would track him down and do whatever she did to talk to me or to come see me. And for a couple of months my fear would subside. I didn’t know then that I needn’t have worried. The day my daddy died, I was holding his hand, and he was looking at me when he took his last breath. And I played our song:

When the night has come

And the land is dark

And the moon is the only light we’ll see

No, I won’t be afraid

Oh, I won’t be afraid

Just as long as you stand,

stand by me

So darling, darling

Stand by me, oh stand by me

Oh stand, stand by me

Stand by me

If the sky that we look upon

Should tumble and fall

Or the mountain should

crumble to the sea

I won’t cry, I won’t cry

No, I won’t shed a tear

Just as long as you stand,

stand by me

All daddy wanted in life was for someone to stand by him. And all I wanted was to know him. At the end of his life, I knew my daddy as much as anyone ever did. I know he loved me. I know I loved him, too. And, God, I hope he knew it. Either way, together, for the last six months of his life, he and I wrote war stories that only I am left to tell. These stories are not perfect. Some of them are hard and ugly. But they are all mine and as honest as stories ever can be.