What I Want You to Know is a series of reader submissions. It is an attempt to allow people to tell their personal stories, in the hopes of bringing greater compassion to the unique issues each of us face. If you would like to submit a story to this series, click here. Today’s guest post was submitted by Amy Bowman.
My dad was a living, breathing ghost in our house until I was an adult, when he finally began to “wake up” from the fog he’d been living in since his second tour in Vietnam.
The most my father shared about his time in the war was the brief, numb commentary he’d offer while we all sat and watched movies like “Platoon” and “Full Metal Jacket.” I was around eight years old when I first watched those movies with Dad. Of course it wasn’t appropriate but I would’ve done anything to gain favor or attention from him.
Those were the mid-80s. No one talked about PTSD in combat veterans let alone diagnosed or treated it. So Dad treated it himself with beer and cigarettes. The image of those gold Miller High Life beer cans and red and white packs of Marlboros are seared in my brain. When I see them now at age thirty-nine I feel a strong juxtaposition of nostalgia and grief. I see him sitting in back of the house in the grove of trees, next to the barbeque pit he fashioned from an old oil drum. I see the round metal table with two chairs, green and white and rusting more and more with the passing of each day. I see myself peeking out of the gold lace trailer curtains to gather intelligence. From fifty yards away, could I tell if he was safe to approach — the ghost in the rusty chair with the gold can in his hand? Could today be the day I might strike up a normal parent/child conversation? Or would it be like every other day when the end goal was to just let him be and hope he returned the favor?
The first time I remember my dad saying “I love you” was when he realized he was about to lose me. It was on my high school’s football field after my graduation; I had just given my speech as class president, finished thirteenth in my class, and couldn’t wait to get out of there. He came up and with an awkward hug and kiss on my head he said it — I love you. I will never forget that moment as long as I live because I’d been aching for it for as long as I could remember.
Dad started to change around the time I left for college. I was five hours away and he’d drive straight to campus, fix my car, and straight home at a moment’s notice. I never understood why he’d do that or the other massive efforts he’d put forth just to be in my presence. I know now that he was grieving and trying to reconcile the years lost to his PTSD stupor. It was painful to see him working without ceasing to finally be a father. I wasn’t even sure I wanted him to be one after so many years of emotional absence.
As we all got older, his children married, he gained grandchildren, and my dad got the gift of emotional life but his body was steadily failing him. The official reasoning is that he suffered multiple negative effects of exposure to Agent Orange while in the jungles of Vietnam. I knew that to be true for some of his illnesses but it was difficult to look past the decades of heavy drinking and smoking which lead to a heart attack and stroke at age 48. My dad was slowly dying, Veterans Affairs said we could blame Agent Orange, but I blamed every single thing about his time in Vietnam. What I knew about him before the war was the story of a different young man – a man with a charming, irresistible personality and zest for life. He was an army brat, attending and graduating from high school in Hawaii. He was a surfer and performed ski shows for money. When he walked into the drugstore where my mom was working she fell instantly in love. But that’s not the man who came back to her after the war. That man was angry, aggressive, and in incredible psychological pain. As my dad neared the end of his life he shared some of what he saw, details too graphic and painful to share here. Worst nightmare material. But there’s still one thing he never shared and it’s haunted me for the seven years he’s been gone. “It’s between me and God. I’ll take it to my grave.” And he did. I’ll never know what that one thing was that festered in his soul for over forty years. It’s one of the biggest heartaches and regrets I have for my father’s life and our relationship. Why couldn’t I help him find peace? I know it was neither my responsibility nor in my skill set to make that happen. But as he lay amongst my mom’s kitchen plants one night during a particularly bad nightmare my heart continued to break.
I’m seeing a counselor now. Actually, a counselor and a psychiatrist. I’m on three different medications to address my anxiety and my mental health has never been better. Never. I have yet to fully address my father’s role in it. Veteran’s Day and his birthday are the hardest, and I’ve come to realize and accept the normality of that. So I cry to my counselor on those days and she tells me it’s all understandable. We do some reframing but mostly I just grieve. I’m mostly okay with that because that’s a huge part of what being the child of a Vietnam vet is, the grief. And we should grieve. We lost our fathers whether they returned from that jungle or not.