Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Strawberry Sundae

Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.
~Khalil Gibran

I’ve been thinking of writing this for some time. It’s one of those experiences in life that takes a very long time to come to terms with and even longer to place meaning on. I’ve spent time as a scared teenager and an angry that I’m in the twilight of my 30’s, it’s time to lay this to rest.

Before I was around, my dad joined the United States Air Force. He did it because he knew he would be drafted to Vietnam. He was the youngest of his siblings and was off to war. He ended his career at Forbes Air Base in Topeka...which is where he met my mom. They were married and not long after, I joined them.

From the very beginning, I can remember a picture of my dad that my grandma had in her curio cabinet. It was his Air Force headshot with his dress blues. I loved that photo and I was drawn to it. Dad said he had it taken for grandma and it was the only one that existed.

My childhood was riddled with extreme bond with my siblings and an extreme relationship with my father. Back then, I didn’t know why he yelled at us. He was angry and said mean things. As a child, you don’t understand. You simply learn to learn what you can say and what you can’t. You learn to pick your battles...and you learn to look after your siblings as yourself.

As I grew older and closer to a teenager, I began to develop two very opposite yet eerily complimentary feelings. I was seethingly angry at my father...a deep, carnal anger. On the same wavelength, however, I was exceedingly proud of him and wanted nothing more than for him to be proud of me. Much of the time, I never felt like I quite managed to instill that pride in me...I just couldn’t get there.

So, in order to not disappoint, I didn’t make an effort. I am almost 6’ tall, but I didn’t play basketball because I was afraid I would fail. I wanted to join the Air Force, but I didn’t, because I didn’t think I could make it through Boot Camp.

In high school, dad went into in-patient alcohol treatment. I remember my whole family had to sit in a circle with him and his therapist and tell him why we were mad at him. This would be the first time in my life I had EVER critisized my father to his face and I was scared to death. I knew what happened when I ran my mouth and I was paralyzed with fear.

After this, when dad came back home, things just got worse. I cannot remember him drinking, but I do remember that he simply stopped doing anything. His paranoia at his Post Office job became so bad that he retired. Everyone was after him. He spent all his time in bed and never went anywhere with us. I was in high school but spent a lot of time helping to care for my youngest brother, 13 years my junior, because my mother was so busy caring for my father. I look back and my heart breaks for her.

During my senior year in high school, things were just crazy. Dad was unavailable emotionally, mentally or physically...he just wasn’t there. I have never in my life witnessed someone so ill.

February 2, was a Sunday and my family and I were going to Mass. Dad, of course, didn’t join us. None of us were surprised, he never went anywhere anymore.
A few hours later, we arrived back home. My first brother, two years younger than me, was the first to walk in the garage to go in the house. I heard him yell, “Dad!” Just the way he said it, I knew something was wrong. I ran in the garage and the scene was something that I will never was my father, lying on the cold garage floor, the car running. He was passed out and there was a little blood running from his mouth. I thought he was dead. My very first instinct was to protect my youngest brother from everything. He was 6. I grabbed him and moved him away, out of sight from the scene. Meanwhile, my brothers opened the garage door and someone called 911. My mother grabbed my limp, lifeless father and pulled him out into the fresh air. I heard the sirens from the fire department a few miles away. They were heading to us.

The remainder of the day is a blur, although I remember the ambulance taking my dad away, but not until after they told us he was still alive...but just barely. Apparently one of my brothers had decided to sneak out of the house the night before and left one of the garage doors cracked a bit when he closed it. That tiny bit of oxygen would end up being what kept dad with us.

They life-flighted my dad to Kansas City and he spent time in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber for some time. Mom said when he finally woke up he was angry. He was mad at her for saving him. This was difficult for me to hear and it still bothers me.

After dad was back from the hospital in Kansas City, they sent him to inpatient psyche at the Topeka VA. I remember going to visit him often. This would be the very first time in my life that I actually saw may dad as a real, true human with feelings and humanity. It would also be the first time in my life that he showed me how important I was. There was a Dairy Queen down the street. He loved strawberry sundaes so that’s what I would get. I had a job so I had a little money...and those sundaes were the conduit to a relationship that was being built on eggshells. We would sit outside of the ward, eat ice cream and talk. He always was happy to see me, with that glorious smile. He would always say, “thank you for coming to see me and thank you for the ice cream. You always remember that I like strawberry.” Yes, daddy, I do.

But one of the most poignant memories was a day that I was up to visit my dad in the ward. I was alone with him and he grabbed me in a massive hug and started sobbing. He cried like a baby and apologized for everything. All the times he was angry, all the mean things he’d said, all the times he’d hurt me. He then apologized for trying to kill himself. I will never forget, holding my massive father like a baby, patting his back and telling him I loved him and it would be okay. He sobbed and sobbed. He was REAL.

From this point on my dad had a lot of struggles. A lot of medications. He was diagnosed with Paranoid Schitzophrenia. Things weren’t easy, but they became less difficult. I went off to college and enjoyed that freedom. I enjoyed my family but the anger was still there.

I eventually got married and started having my own kids. The experience with my father has been something I’ve dwelt on when dealing with wounds of another man and another war. The wounds are as different and as similar as they can be. I spent much time with anger....WHY did I spend a childhood dealing with this and now I was dealing with it again? The anger never did disappear. Eventually, divorce came. But divorce isn’t an end-all, be-all...

Family Of a Vet has been a Godsend...through this organization I have been able to see that my anger is justified but that there are treasures to take from everything. I am living my life right now on the path I need to take to care for myself and my kids, but still care for THEIR father. He’s taking the time he needs right now to work through his demons while I work through mine.

As I passed by my closet this morning to get the kids off to school, as I do every morning, I glanced at the photo of my dad in his Air Force dress blues. When my grandmother passed away and my dad asked me what I wanted, I said “that picture of you.”



  1. Unbelievably beautiful - thank you so much for sharing. It's when we share our trials and triumphs over them that we give others the opportunity to learn and grow.

  2. What an incredible post, Steph. Thank you for sharing your story. I know that takes guts!!


    Brannan Vines
    Proud wife of an OIF Veteran
    Founder of - an organization dedicated to helping heroes and their loved ones survive and thrive after combat with real world info about PTSD, TBI, and more!

  3. Thank you for writing this. My dad is a Vietnam veteran and I am going to visit him tonight at the VA hospital.