As I was growing up, I was continually aware of my father’s participation in Vietnam. It was right there in front of me every time he took off his shirt. The bullet went into his shoulder, and on its way out it tore up a sizeable chunk of Dad’s upper back. The scar is at once beautiful and gruesome. Gruesome because of the waxy white skin left behind and the strange crater on his back, and beautiful because when I see it (not often now, but I can picture clearly it in my mind’s eye) it means that he lived.
As I was growing up, that scar, and my father’s predilection for silence, constantly reminded me of Vietnam. I’m sure that’s one of the primary reasons why our soldiers were ignored – they were walking monuments to the war, and their presence in domestic life made people profoundly uncomfortable. It’s one thing to support troops overseas and talk the big talk, wear your yellow ribbons, but it’s another thing to sit and listen while a discharged soldier finally brings himself to talk about what he went through. It’s another thing to let the war into your heart. I don’t think many people did.
So as I was growing up, I was strongly attracted to the romance of the 1960’s counterculture – the activism, the drugs, the music, and especially the anti-war movement and the voices that were raised in protest. Part of me always wanted to go back and live in those times so that I would have something to protest, too. Be careful what you ask for, right?
As I was growing up, my father taught me how to play chess. He makes chess sets now, including chess tables and boards. He’s gone farther and created a new game based on the rules of classic chess, but more complicated and challenging – chess on steroids, if you will.
My father taught me how to think critically. When we weren’t sitting quietly together watching TV, noshing on Swarthmore Pizza fare (oh and weren’t their hoagies fantastic? almost as good as the pizza!) while Mom was working late, we were talking. In my freshman year of high school, it was all about biology – I would come home from school and rewrite my notes in the form of questions, and he would sit and quiz me on them. That’s how I managed to memorize the circulatory system of a frog. He helped my brain work out. We were damn near unbeatable at Trivial Pursuits.
I think I inherited my appreciation for silence from him. It drove Mom nuts that he wouldn’t talk, but I found it restful, for the most part. (Except when he was ignoring me, of course. I think I was twelve or thirteen when he was ignoring me particularly well and I decided to get his attention by pinching the inside of his arm, hard – not knowing how terribly sensitive that area is. He pinched back. Needless to say, I bawled. Such is puberty. Oh and Dad, if you’ve ever wondered about the karma of that moment, let me say that from the time Duckie was about five months to eleven months old, she spent a lot of nursing time grabbing at that tender flabby skin. I had bruised leopard spots under my arms for about six months straight.)
My father accepted who I was, and always has, no matter how lunatic my ideas, no matter how ridiculous my goals. Mom was the cheerleader, but Dad was in the stands, watching quietly as he always does.
I can’t imagine how nuts I would be without his stabilizing influence over the last ten years. Dad and Judy took me in after the madness and heartbreak of New York City and helped me stop avoiding issues that I had dodged for years – an out-of-date driver’s license and my own crappy way of expressing myself are the two that stand out most clearly from that time. He and Judy have been there to help, financially and emotionally.
I remember the day I went to Ohio for my half-brother George’s funeral. My ex-husband and I had driven several hours up I-81, through the most gorgeous fall display I had ever seen (I felt guilty for that, already.) That morning was grey and rainy, and a constant wind swept those bright leaves all over the road. Maybe it was because I felt so raw that day that the images of those swirling leaves have never left me.
I saw my father in the funeral home and we hugged. I started to cry, but not just for his loss. I cried because George had left behind two kids and a girlfriend who loved him dearly. I cried because I hadn’t really known him, and I should have. And I cried because I didn’t feel like I deserved to be the one to live. I told my dad all of this, and he accepted it with open arms and an open heart. And somehow, during this incredibly hard and selfish moment (my selfishness, not his), he managed to say something that comforted me – I can’t even remember what. But it was enough to help me through the rest of that day.
I was in a really lousy relationship after my first marriage ended, and I remember the day Dad & Judy came to visit. (I made strawberry swirl cheesecake from scratch.) For various reasons, they didn’t condone the relationship, but they still supported me. And that day in early January when I broke down sobbing because I hated myself in the relationship and I couldn’t see any kind of hope or future (not just in the relationship, but also in my life) my father was the one who lent me the strength to stand up and say, “This is bullshit. This is enough.”
I’m using the recent holiday as an excuse to post this, but I should note that my father is present, a voice in the back of my head, almost always. My recent experience as a mother has given me some idea of what parenting does for a person, so I’m not going to say something trite, like “I see him now as a human being, not ‘just’ a father.” For many of us (my father included, I think), being a parent can’t be picked out of your psyche, even if your kids aren’t around. Parenting enhances us as human beings. What I am blessed to experience now is my father’s presence without the burden of being one-hundred-percent responsible for my health and safety. He still feels responsible, of course, but in a way that I can reciprocate. Now we can take care of each other.
Love you, Dad.