A Day for Loss
“Don’t let her see it,” my dad told my husband after the movie Saving Private Ryan was released in 1998. “The first twenty minutes is what it’s like to go to war.”
I scoffed at that one. I’m 25 years old, Dad, I thought, experiencing that same prickling irritation as when he would tell a waiter, “My daughter would like to have...” or when he’d shut the car door behind me, like I somehow couldn’t manage to do it myself. And telling my husband to not let me see it, as if he had any authority over what I do. Really, now.
And yet, when my husband went to the theater a few days after later, he went alone. I didn’t need to see it to know what war can do.
I wasn’t surprised my dad had already seen it. He was raised on those stories, the ones that showed noble World War II soldiers, romantic and chivalrous. He could not stop consuming them even when the real war had consumed him.
One of the few family pictures I have of my dad was taken when he was about seven years old. He wore a soldier’s uniform, and the gold buttons shone in the sunlight. He clutched the toy gun at his side, smiling. It was all he had ever wanted to be.
I was born a little over two years after he came home from Vietnam. But it was like we were at the airport. He was in the line for departures, and I was in the line for arrivals. We could wave at each other, but we were headed different places.
Later, after he died, I watched other movies. I saw the Ken Burns “Vietnam” documentary. I saw “Apocalypse Now,” and I recognized the term I-corps, a section of Vietnam near the Cambodian border. His job was to train Vietnamese soldiers and when he was there in 1970, the Marines turned over the area to the Army after five long years of defeat. I know he jumped out of planes because he would wake up screaming, holding his hands out as if he was gripping a bar.
I’m looking for my dad, because he is gone, but he was gone before he died.
He told me, after his second stint at rehab, that the clinical psychologist told him he would be frozen at age 23 forever. He had PTSD, but I think the term used during the Civil War—soldier’s heart—explains it better. I don’t think about my dad on Memorial Day since he didn’t die on active duty. And I don’t think about him on Veteran’s Day since although he was deeply patriotic in his way, he was not a flag-waver, and he did not like flowery speeches and sentiment.
There needs to be a different day. Maybe call it A Day for Loss or Ghost Day. It would be a day where we talk about what it’s like having a dad who can only stay with you an hour or so at a time, in pieces, in fragments, in shells, before departure.
After my parents divorced, we saw my dad every other weekend. We would sit in the darkened pizza parlor and play songs on the jukebox, then go to Toys ‘R Us and then the bookstore. Then we would go back to his apartment and play or read while he would watch hour after hour of TV. The TV was never off, even at night. My brother and I would try to sleep, huddled in our Fritos and Doritos sleeping bags. Although we were mortal enemies at home, at my dad’s, we would hold hands. Sometimes my dad would wake up with nightmares, screaming.
On Sunday mornings, we would go get donuts or to IHOP for chocolate chip pancakes. It sometimes felt like the sugar and syrup was meant to make up for his absence, for regular breakfasts we never had with him. He would drink large cups of 7-11 coffee, his hands shaking, and we would run out of things to say. He would withdraw until my mother arrived at 4pm.
Those days are shrouded in my dad’s cigarette smoke and chilled by tendrils of the San Francisco fog. It was always overcast. I do not remember one sunny day.
The only place I remember my dad telling me a story about the war was, ironically, at the Happiest Place on Earth—Disneyland. He told me about how one of their Vietnamese counterparts had a family funeral to attend every time their US troop unit was attacked. Eventually, they figured out the guy was a spy.
“So, what happened to him?” I asked.
I didn’t get to find out. It was time to head to the airport.
It was not until I was 18 that we really connected. We traded book titles. We talked about politics. He said, “You know those hippies who were against the war? They were right.”
And the war never really went away. He was still only able to be there in pieces, in fragments, in shells. But this time, I refused to let it take the rest, refused to let it disappear into the quicksand of wherever he retreated to.
I treasure the memory of the year he called me at 5am on Christmas morning, already having opened his gift, his delight overflowing on the phone. On my wedding day, he loved that I told my bridesmaids to “forward march”. And he tried to protect his daughter from watching the first twenty minutes of Saving Private Ryan.
Towards the end of my first semester of graduate school, I couldn’t fall asleep one night and was up reading. The last sentence in the book was, “And I looked up into the sky and said goodnight to my dad.”
His friend called at 5:30 am to tell me he was gone, nearly thirty years exactly from the day he set foot in Vietnam. He had died right about the time I finished reading that sentence. He didn’t come home this time. Or maybe, finally, he went home. I will never really know.
When I received the autopsy results, the woman said, “It was his heart.” I couldn’t find the words to tell her that I already knew, and that it always was.