Watching my children tend to their “father wounds” reminded me of a similar process with my father.
Howard died alone in the dilapidated trailer shortly after his wife, Vi, died from alcoholism. When they found him beneath the sagging tin roof, which was draped with a filthy black tarp to keep out the rain, dozens of empty booze bottles lay scattered at his feet.
Howard and my mom had been divorced for many years at the time of his death, but she saw to it that he had a military burial. I remain in awe of the generosity of spirit that she alone extended to Howard by arranging his funeral.
Grandma Kelley, my adoptive father’s mother, had been dismayed at the change in her son’s behavior when he returned from overseas. She said that the war had changed him beyond recognition. She told me that he had witnessed the deaths of his entire platoon, which was blown up before his eyes. He was their sergeant and the only survivor. He was awarded medals for acts of bravery and valor—a secret that he took to his grave, never even discussing it with his family. His medals, discovered by my mother, were among his few belongings. One can only imagine his lingering inner turmoil.
Post-traumatic stress disorder was not a commonly acknowledged symptom of war in the mid-1940s. Who but those who have shared a similar experience could possibly imagine the demons that dwell in a human heart and mind after witnessing, perhaps even participating, in such horror?
I am sorry now that Howard lived and died alone. I am even sorrier that he suffered his internal torments alone; hiding the medals of honor and bravery that were awarded for acts that engendered his nightmares and perhaps precipitated his subsequent abusive behaviors.
The time came when I needed to ask God to forgive the unforgivable within me. Perhaps it was then that I learned to forgive you. Or maybe some of the forgiveness I feel now came when I participated in a therapy session in which I enacted a scene between you and me. It was the time that you tethered me to the floor in the bedroom with orange and blue linoleum tiles. Remembering it and reliving it through the power of psychodrama, I was able to reclaim the child part of myself that was metaphorically nailed to the floor. I was also able to tenderly place you into the arms of an angel for safekeeping.
I don’t know if you are in a place like that now—safe, where angels abound. I hope so. Wherever your spirit may be, I want you to know that your life was not lived in vain. While there were times like the scene in the bedroom, there were also the contributions you made to my life. You took on a family of four when you were but a young man of twenty-four. You gave me your name and relieved me of some of the shame of my birth. You taught me to see the subtleties of love given in small moments, like when I watched your eyes reflected in the prism of the countless milk bottles you hauled in and stacked so carefully in that old fridge. It is true that you eventually chose a different kind of bottle to calm your internal minefields; but how could I ever blame you? The same bottles eventually became my harshest teacher as well.
The medals found at your death spoke much of the legacy that you bequeathed. You aided in the freedom that millions derive and benefit from in the world today. Thanks, Dad, for giving all that you gave. All that no one thought to remember. Dad. I feel blessed to call you that— Dad. May you now rest in peace. Your daughter, Dawn