Sunday, January 3, 2010

My Father . . . A Man I Wish I Had Known

Pictured is my dad and I at Roan Mountain State Park, when I was around six.

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.


Hope T. said...

Wow, your father sounds like an amazing man. I think most people would have been completely broken.
I am reading the book "Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys". It seem like a book that would be right up your alley (it is not a Christian book, though, despite the title). It is about how often boys' emotional lives get shut down from an early age and all the factors that play into that shut-down. With your Dad's tragic story of losing his parents and siblings, he had to have closed of his emotions in a vault that was probably sealed by the horrors he experienced in war.
I also want to comment on the part about you never having been born if your dad had not won against the sniper but I will put it in a different comment.

MJ said...

I think that my dad was one man in millions who suffered the same and in silence. The book sounds interesting and I would like to put it on my reading list.

I guess boys and girls each have their albatrosses that they must bare. For one, I have so many female patients who were abused as young girls. That’s sad. So the male grief is that they have to burry so much of who they are, their emotions.

My wife grew up in a very stoic Northern European (Swedish and Norwegian) culture. In that culture it seems like neither male or female should show emotions. Denise says that she is sure that her parents loved her, but the word “love” was never used in their house . . . nor any other word that has emotions attached, such as “hate,” “fear” or “sorrow.”

I think that was one of our greatest adjustments in marriage (and maybe still is) and that is for her to still respect me when I speak emotionally. I think that is why should would never visit this blog although I’ve almost begged her to. The emotions are too raw here.

I’ve survived two bouts of serious depression in my life, the last about 10 years ago. During that last one, (and the kids were older than when I went through the first one), Denise had great difficulty because she felt like she had to protect the kids, especially the boys, from my expression of emotion. I went through a period of crying spells and she did not want me in the house when I was crying. So I did a lot of long drives, long walks and laid on in the back seat of my “king cab” Toyota pick up, which was parked out in the driveway far form the house where I my sobbing could not be heard.

So there are days I wish I could sake her family, boys and girls, and raise all kinds of emotional issues. But it would be like picking scabs off wounds.

But I do think that generally men fair worse in this situation. Anytime we are faced with hard things, like last year becoming almost empty nesters, people assumed that Denise was having a hard time, which she was, and that I should only be there to support her . . . not feel any pain myself.

I think now we seem to be in a new type of stoicism in America, what I call the “fear of whining.” I’ve noticed that in my other social circles, such as medical professional interactions, if you say anything about, “Wow . . . that was a hard day,” that someone will accuse you of “whining.” Some people, including myself, do whine at times. But that should not exclude talking about our feelings.

My dad’s sister, who now lives with my mom, is still doing well. She lived through the same hardships of the depression, yet she was the baby of the family and may have been spared. I try my best to get her to talk about things whenever I can.

MJ said...

bear . . . not bare.

Hope T. said...

The book that I mentioned discusses the anger and aggression, both verbal and physical, that boys display when they can't talk out their emotions. I am reading the book to help me in raising my sons but I found that that idea explained much of what I, personally am struggling with right now. My husband does not come from a stoic culture but he certainly does have a stoic mother whose method of weathering the many hard times in her life was to be sure never to mention those hard times. It has kept her sane and it seems from this post that silence was an important, even vital, coping mechanism for your father, too. While it may work for some people, it does not work for me. I do better talking things out but my husband does not like it when I talk about negative emotions (positive ones are okay). Well, I have many negative ones right now, especially related to the church and I seem to be filled with anger more and more because I am not able to talk them out on a regular basis.
For example, just now I read the news that three evangelicals had gone to Uganda and given lectures on the evils of homosexuality. Then came the Ugandan "stoning" bill and now the evangelicals trying to distance themselves from this travesty. I was filled with rage when I read the article and I think it is because I can't talk to anyone about my feelings about that situation. No one I know would understand why I think it so outrageous for those American Christians to go another country and whip them up into a frenzy of hatred and violence. It seems so obvious to me, though and makes me feel like I am from another planet.

Anyway all that long-windedness to say that trying to adjust to a spouse's differing communication style is very difficult and I think that a properly timed whine can be therapeutic.
My other comment will have to wait because I can't wrap my head around what I wanted to say.

MJ said...

I heard about the Ugandan thing, I think on NPR. At the time the involvement of US Evangelicals was not confirmed. Has it since? If so, it would make me angry too.

Anonymous said...

This was beautiful.

molly (from adventures in mercy)

MJ said...

Molly, I hope you are doing well. I notice that you took a "sabbatical" from your blog.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing a true and more complete Father's Day Tribute. It inspires me to look into more of my family history too. I have been hugeley influenced by my Dad too and don't understand him in many ways.

I'm new to your blog and have really enjoyed reading it. Thanks for your writing, I hope you publish a book someday!