I don’t remember the last time my dad and I shared a father-son moment. I can’t recall a time after childhood when awkwardness, discomfort, and suspicion didn’t taint our relationship. The father-son times we shared before I entered my teens weren’t yet memories by the time I turned thirteen.
I learned at various times as a teenager that I was no good, that I would never amount to anything, that dad was ashamed of me. By then I had learned to lie to protect myself from harsh words, put downs, the belt. But I was a poor liar and the verbal abuse continued, if not the spankings.
I think I would have preferred the spankings. The verbal abuse cut deeper, left me with a bruised heart and horribly scarred self-image. A spanking is a tangible thing; you feel the physical pain and know it’s temporary. It’s soon over and things are forgiven and forgotten. The verbal abuse is somehow more personal. It isn’t punishment for a single event but is meant to force change. It’s a harsh jerk by the shoulder to jolt you into becoming a better person. It seldom works.
I don’t remember either the things that caused the punishment. Whether I’ve blocked them from recall or they were too insignificant for the punishment received, I don’t know. I remember the words though; they’ll never slip away. I remember too how I felt when I stood in front of dad and each verbal dart was a bullseye that pierced me through and through. How I yearned for physical pain instead.
My father passed away in 1994. The Red Cross message reached me when my ship was returning to Pearl Harbor after a six-month deployment to the Persian Gulf. My mom requested I come home on emergency leave to help her take care of dad while she recovered from hip replacement.
Dad had suffered a heart attack and was in a coma. There was no hope; it was only a matter of days before he died. We brought him home from the hospital and placed his bed in my old bedroom. Looking back, it was fitting that he die there since in many ways I died in that room over and over before running away to join the Navy when I turned seventeen.
Dad lingered for ten days on oxygen tubes and painkillers. During that time I unburdened myself to him. I thanked him for the many jobs he worked in order to feed and clothe my sisters and me and make sure there were a few gifts on birthdays and Christmas. I forgave him for the verbal abuse that still resonated in my mind. Beyond that, though, there was nothing else for which he needed forgiveness. Did he try to save the shattered bond between us? Once, I guess, but I pretty much told him it was “…too late, Dad. You should have thought of that when I was a kid.” He was fifty-five then and asked me out of the blue if I wanted to go canoeing with him. I look back now and know, I know the words had their intended effect. I spoke the words without looking at him and walked out of the house. I’ve wished a thousand times I could take the words back, but hurtful words once uttered are tattooed on the soul, deeply tattooed on mine.
But, I asked for forgiveness too, not just for the wrongs I committed as a kid, but for the wrongs I committed as an adult. I begged forgiveness for never trying to patch up the relationship with Dad. The suspicion of a row was too deep, his quick temper still too real. I told my father I understood him now, why he lashed out with such verbal anger at me. I realized too late why he wouldn’t go aboard my aircraft carrier that time he and mom visited me in Norfolk. I told Dad I understood now how the horrors of war had affected him and why he never spoke of the war itself. I asked Dad to forgive me for not understanding him sooner, for not understanding the PTSD that afflicted him for the entire eighteen thousand two hundred and fifty days he lived after war’s end. He died from the war a little bit more every day. He never healed.
My own healing took another ten years. By the time dad died, I had gone from a young enlisted Sailor avoiding the mess hall for fear of being looked at and judged, to suffering imposter syndrome as a successful officer. My naval career took an early hit when I was punished for smoking pot. I lost a stripe and some pay, and took a big bite of humiliation. I learned from the experience though and changed my habits. I promoted on time, received many Sailor of the Year honors and eventually earned meritorious promotion to Chief Petty Officer. I applied for an officer commission and was accepted and later earned Officer of the Year honors.
One day in 2005 I went to sick call and laid it all out for the psychologist, a lieutenant younger than I. I explained what brought me there, how, though I tried and tried, I couldn’t seem to shake my negative self-image or the imposter syndrome that shadowed me despite my highly successful naval career. That dad’s verbal abuse still rang loud in my head. She told me I needed to snip the loop tape. To stop the mental recording of dad’s voice repeating the darts that continued to hurt so much.
It seemed so simple, but that was the turning point. That loop tape doesn’t play anymore because I stopped listening to it. It was difficult at first because listening to it had become like having tinnitus; it’s always there though you may not notice until something trips it. There were setbacks but at least I knew what I had to do. I had to stop believing the words. They weren’t true but I believed them because they were spoken by my father; they were words spoken out of anger and frustration. Eventually the loop ran out of tape. The memories are there, but the words are just words now and not darts in a constantly bleeding wound. I don’t play that tape anymore.
The greatest feeling a boy can have is knowing his dad was proud of him. Dad was proud of me and told me so, but only on the telephone or in letters. Mom told me he would show photos of me in uniform to complete strangers while they cruised around the country on his bike. When he died I asked mom if dad were indeed proud of me. “Yes,” she said. “He was very proud of you, Willy.”
The best words from father to son ever, even if spoken through someone else.