I often have patients tell me, as we are getting to the family medical history, that they know practically nothing about their fathers. They each tell the story about how as soon as their mother started having children, that their father just took off one day and never came back or even looked over their shoulder. One lady in her thirties corrected me as I asked about her father. She said, “Father? Huh. You mean sperm donor.”
But my upbringing was very different from that. I grew up in a two parent—Leave it to Beaver—family with its roots in the stable, pro-family post war, 50s. My dad was always there. He was a good father . . . actually a great one. He was a successful (though not financially) businessman and leader of the local Boy Scout troop. He eventually became the president of the Tennessee Archeology Society.
He was a good man . . . involved with his kids and wife. I sat on his lap and he read the Sunday morning comics every week just before we went to our little Baptist church on the hill. But I’m wondering if I knew my real dad. I had some new information that came to light this fall that has me re-thinking that.
The information that I am about to share has no disrespect written between the lines. I respect and love my late father very much. However, I am speaking candidly. I do believe that every family has these issues, often locked in the closet. I know that there are the same types of things in my wife’s family however if I, or anyone, dared mentioned them, it would be a humongous scandal . . . like the blast coming from a psycho-social Death Star.
Before I break the new story about dad, I have to give a little more background.
Dad was born just before the great depression. His family was poor and the only thing that spared them from the ordeal of the Joad family (in The Grapes of Wrath) was not having the means of buying a Hudson truck to venture out West on.
When dad was a young teenager, he watched, first his mom, then three sisters slowly succumb to TB and die horrible emaciating deaths. They didn’t have medicine for even the simplest pain pills. Then, almost without a pause, when he was about 17, his father suddenly died . . . some say from a “broken heart.” Dad had to drop out of school to try and find some work to help support his other sister and two brother. I think my dad could have earned a Ph D if he had had the opportunity.
Before my grandpa’s grave had a chance to grow grass, the US declared war on Germany and dad was drafted into the Army. He was sent immediately for intensive training for some big mission. First to Georgia, then New Jersey and then the SW shores of England. Dad was in the first wave of grunts to land on the beaches of Normandy.
Dad never talked about the war and I didn’t know why. I knew it was a big part of his entire life. I knew that for sure when I was the one that broke the news to him that he was dying.
It is part of the Appalachian folklore that you never tell a dying person that they are just that. I called dad to explain his future. But then I asked him how he felt. You never ask a stoic man how they “feel” about anything . . . but I had no choice.
It was one of the most candid conversations we ever had with him and I will never forget it. I was standing in our large country kitchen in our old farmhouse in Marquette, Michigan. I had just gotten his biopsy report. I asked to speak to dad who was still in the hospital. I looked down at the quarter-sawn maple floors between my toes and mentally focused and searched for words.
After the typical “how are you” I asked, “Dad . . . it is cancer and you are dying.” “Okay,” he said softly.
“Well dad . . . how do you feel about that?”
“I should have died on the beaches in France. Every day since has been a gift I never expected.
Dad was a good man. He kept all his pain inside. I wish he was here now to share some of that pain with me. I think the other reason that this topic is coming to my mind this week was that infamous conversation took place just before Christmas. We drove down through the northern hills of snow to the warmer and wetter hills of Tennessee to spend that Christmas with dad. I said my good byes, my very last good bye about this time exactly 15 years ago.
I had never asked dad about Normandy until I studied the battle in college. I came home the next week and asked him for the details. He told a story that created a visual image in my mind that was exactly as it was later portrayed in Saving Private Ryan. It was horrible. I know that after dad had been pinned down behind a barrier on the beach for over an hour with his best friend. His friend looked up to see if the coast was clear to run for the cliffs. As he looked over the barrier his head literally exploded (apparently a large shell when through it) throwing parts of his face and skull all over dad’s face. They had just been looking at each other’s family photos and talking about how much they loved their kids. Dad took off running for the cliffs hoping for protection . . . or death. It didn’t matter by that point.
I also knew that dad had been hit by a mortar with shrapnel in his leg. But I also knew that he was able to continue on their march inland for a couple more weeks . . . long enough for dad to have killed a German solider in a duel (both were snipers and they took turns shooting at each other . . . dad “won”). Dad described how he rolled the man’s body over and they went through his papers. Tucked under his belt was glossy b & w photo of the man, his wife and three young girls. Dad remembered that photo for a reason.
Dad was a good man, whom I love dearly . . . but, like all of us, he was not perfect.
Mom told me once—in one of her many moments of insecurity—that the first question she asked dad when he got home was if he had “slept with any French women while you were there?” Dad became visibly angry and raised his voice to her, “That’s a question you NEVER ask a solider who is returning form war!” Mom knows, and I know that he could have simply said “no.”
I don’t think dad was always faithful to mom even after the war. I can remember, and I must have been only about seven, when mom found lipstick on one of dad’s white shirts after he had just returned from a business trip. I know that it hurt her a lot and I don’t know why he did it, except that it was part of the nomenclature of businessmen’s life in the 50s.
But the information that took me by total surprise was something else. I knew that dad ended up in a hospital in England after the war. But somehow I thought it was due to his leg wound. But again, I heard some story that he had suffered a head wound from some type of shell.
My aunt, dad’s sister, told me in September that the “shell wound” was actually “shell shock” and that the hospital that dad was admitted to in England was a . . . mental hospital. He stayed there two years and was placed on all sorts of drugs. I have no idea what the symptoms were. He never exhibited symptoms while I knew him, symptoms of what we now call, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.”
Now that I know more about what dad endured, and the fact that he never showed any sign of anxiety, fear doubt or depression tells me that maybe I never knew my real dad. I hope that in the new world that dad and I can hold each other share our sorrows and cry together . . . but then again, there should be no sorrows there. Maybe we can share memories of sorrows.
A year ago, on my previous visit to Tennessee, my first cousin handed me something that I never expected. It was an original envelope sent from France during the war from dad to his brother, my cousin’s dad. In the letter was the story about him having to kill a German solider and about seeing the photos of his family. Enclosed in the envelope was the armband swastika from the dead solider . . . covered in old blood stains.
In my wildest imagination, I’ve thought of how I would like to trace the DNA from the blood (of course I would have to know more about who the solider was) and find the family of the man who dad had killed. I would love to tell them that my dad was a good man and he felt the pain deeply of killing their relative. He shot the man as last resort. One of them had to died, and I was lucky enough that dad had survived. Since I wasn’t conceived until a decade later, I wouldn’t be here if the German solider had succeeded and dad had failed. But that may have been the tipping point that sent dad over the edge into the abyss of despair. It was because of all the grief that my dad had carried, including the grief of killing their relative that he suffered mentally. Those who watch others die and feel no sorrow . . . those are truly the insane ones.
My father treated his sorrows in his last years with alcohol. That was the only way he knew how. I wish I could have known his heart and his sorrows and that I could have helped him bear them better or that we could have borne them together.