On the phone, at a gas station, in our dreams
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My father’s name is Arthur, which he has told me comes from the Celtic words for “bear,” “warrior,” and “king.” From an early age my father knew this meaning of his name and intended to live up to it. He read the legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, studied and absorbed their code of chivalry: to serve the Church, protect the weak, defend thy country, speak the truth, keep thy word, and devote thyself to the causes of Right and Good over Injustice and Evil. He read about boys who became men and men who became heroes. He read all day, curled on top of the heating vent by the window in his living room, overlooking 72nd Street and Broadway in Manhattan. He read at night, too, under the covers with a flashlight. He read so much because he loved to read but also because his father had lost his temper one evening and bashed the television with a baseball bat.
“Why did he do that?” I ask, after hearing about this formative event for the tenth or so time.
“Your uncle Philip got smart with him and wouldn’t stop watching the damn television. He refused to join the rest of the family at the dining-room table for dinner.” My father chuckles as he recalls this, saying the word refused with a tone of accusation, as if to imply, He had it coming. We had it coming.
“Quite a reaction,” I say, after hearing the story for the twentieth or so time, when I’m no longer inclined to agree that bashing a television with a baseball bat is particularly funny.
“Your grandfather was harsh, yet effective,” my father says. “While the other kids my age were hooked on Leave It to Beaver, I was reading Rudyard Kipling.” Then he straightens his posture, lifts his chin.
He also tells me about the worst discipline he can remember: My grandfather beat him with a long wooden shoehorn. My father couldn’t walk or go to school the next day.
“Why did he do that?” I ask.
“I was a fat boy. He caught me in the kitchen in the middle of the night, fixing myself a snack.” My father laughs.
“That’s abuse,” I say.
My father shrugs and says, “Things were a lot different back then.”
The last two books my father read were shortly after 9/11: the Bible and the Quran. He wanted to understand the origins of these feuding religions. Now he reads only news from right-wing websites such as Zero Hedge and Drudge Report. He reads all day, in between naps, hunched at his desk, staring at the computer with the television turned on and turned up behind him. He reads at night, screens shining and flickering, commentators discoursing and blathering. He complains that he doesn’t sleep enough. He reads because he needs — that’s his word, needs — to stay informed.
“Why?” I ask. “What good does it do you?”
“It’s my duty as a citizen.”
“Yeah, but it’s making you depressed.”
My mother tells him he needs to move more, go for a walk.
I tell him that he’s brainwashing himself. “Read a book.”
My father spent much of his childhood as an altar boy and a Boy Scout. He obeyed the priests. He earned badges. By his account he made straight A’s in school and read every textbook cover to cover over Labor Day weekend. He could recite the longest and most difficult passages in Latin and would defend himself, the smaller scrawny kids, and his fellow chubby peers against bullies by swinging his big bag of books at them. He applied to Princeton University just to show my grandfather the acceptance letter, then enrolled in Fordham University — a Catholic school where he received a full scholarship — because my grandfather had two other children to put through college.
The Vietnam War had already begun, and my father had plans to enlist. In 1967, while other students were organizing antiwar protests, he joined the ROTC so he could enter the Army as a second lieutenant instead of a private. My father believed that he could lead men to honor and prevent them from harming civilians and sparking scandals that would get blown out of proportion by misguided pundits and naive pacifists. He could also prove himself, his love of his country, and his devotion to the causes of Right and Good.
As part of his personal program to prepare physically, he joined the rowing team, which met each morning for practice on the Hudson River. He exercised. He trained. He ran a mile, then two miles, then six miles a day. He didn’t care about his grades. For the first time in his life he got straight C’s, but by the end of his junior year he felt invincible. He ran the secluded paths of Central Park in the dark, hoping a mugger might give him a reason to test his strength. One evening, he says, on the subway ride home from Fordham’s Rose Hill campus in the Bronx, he saw a man harassing a girl and intervened. When the man pulled a knife, my father tackled and subdued him. Some nuns who were riding in the same car thanked and blessed my father. This was what he had been waiting for his whole life: the chance to become a hero.
A week after graduation, in the spring of 1969, my father shook his father’s hand, kissed his mother’s cheek, and left for boot camp at Fort Indiantown Gap Military Reservation near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He loved boot camp. He loved having to wake up before dawn, do jumping jacks, and run for miles. He loved the punishment of push-ups. He loved getting called “city slicker,” “rich boy,” and “Park Avenue,” getting teased for his aristocratic prep-school accent. He believed that in the Army everyone was equal, everyone could prove himself. He believed that if every American joined the military, we could build a nation of citizens, not subjects.
After boot camp my father signed up for four years of combat duty in exchange for one year of Special Forces training. He went on to become a Green Beret, then a captain. He served for six years in Vietnam before he quit, devastated by what he deemed to be our nation’s cowardly abandonment of the South Vietnamese army. For the rest of his life he has carried a sense of defeat, a sense that he fought, ultimately, for nothing.
After the war he searched for opportunities to confront Injustice and Evil. At work and on daily errands he kept his antennae raised, scanning for crises, charging toward conflict without reservation or concern for consequences. I have many memories of his valor. For instance, late one night, as he was driving my friend to her dorm at Nazareth College, we passed a herd of drunken frat boys stampeding knee-deep in the snow, chasing another frat boy who was scared and naked except for a pair of boxer shorts. My father swerved onto the lawn in front of them, leapt out of the car, and shouted like a maniac. The frat boys stopped, stunned, then laughed and ran back inside.
“Dad,” I said, “you could’ve gotten hurt. There were twenty of them and only one of you.”
“I had to do something, Elizabeth.”
He always has to do something. About an irate customer unleashing on a young cashier. About a fender-bender hit-and-run in a parking lot.
Recently I texted my father from the backseat of a taxi at LaGuardia Airport to complain about a possible swindle. He called the company headquarters, inquired about the rates, then implored the dispatcher to put him through to the driver directly, so he could reproach him for his “bum-rush” tactic. The driver said that in his twenty years of driving a taxi, that was the first time he’d ever been scolded by a passenger’s dad.
My father is always willing to fight, especially for the safety and well-being of his only daughter.
When I was growing up in Fairport, New York, my father was constantly within eyesight or earshot or looming in the back of my mind. His physical presence commanded attention: at five feet nine inches and 260 pounds, he was technically obese but solid, with perfect posture and a wide stance. He wore thick bifocal glasses and dressed all in black — black collared shirt, black slacks or sweatpants, and a black nylon jacket no matter how high the temperature. His voice was what really impressed people: booming, unapologetic, with a tone of authority and elevated diction. His language was exceedingly formal. For example, when I asked if I could be home at seven o’clock instead of six, he would say, “That’s within the realm of possibility.” Or when I left the house to hang out with friends, he would say, “Keep me abreast of your whereabouts,” or, “Please notify me as soon as you’re ensconced.” He could talk for minutes without pause — meandering, impromptu orations dense with obscure facts and statistics.
“Ask me the time,” he would say, “and I’ll give you the history of watchmaking.”
When I was six, seven, eight years old, I would play on the playground behind our house, and he would pace on the grass, or sit on our balcony or at the dining-room table with the curtains and windows open, and he would watch, just in case any trouble arose: a slip from the swing, a tumble off the slide, a scraped knee, a concussion, a kidnapper. If I wandered into the woods to build forts or onto the street to ride my bicycle down the hill, my father would yell, “Elizabeth!” and I would yell, “Yeah, Dad?” and he would yell, “As long as I can hear you!” If I didn’t yell back right away, he would yell again and again until I answered. I had a keen sense of where that boundary lay: the farthest I could venture and still be able to hear his voice. If I drifted too far and didn’t answer, he would come find me. Sometimes, if he found me somewhere that posed too much of a risk, such as at the side of a busy road or on a construction site, he would exhibit the temper he’d inherited from my grandfather, his face red and twisted. But more often he would nod and wave, then watch and wait. As a child I relished his protection.
As I got older, I would ask my father to drive my friends and me to the movie theater, the mall, the local amusement park. He would pay for our tickets, our snacks at the food court, our games at the arcade. He would sit at the end of our row in the theater, pace while we perused shops or rode roller coasters. As I got older and craved independence, he would walk my friends and me to the entrance, then return to his car and sit for hours in the parking lot. If we didn’t get back to the car in time, he would come find us and scold loudly, no inhibition, no awareness of the bystanders just trying to enjoy their Saturday afternoon, which had now been interrupted by a big man wearing all black and roaring at a group of young girls. The ride home would be silent. My friends would whisper and snicker and tease me, but they also understood that none of their parents would volunteer to drive us wherever we wanted to go and pay for admission and snacks. Perhaps my father’s generosity felt a bit like bribery, compensation for his tagging along. Most of my friends were being raised by single mothers who worked or went on dates with their boyfriends on the weekends. Perhaps my friends — and their mothers — relished his protection as much as I did.
When I was thirteen, fourteen, fifteen years old, the repertoire of hangout spots expanded to include diners, the bowling alley, the pavilion at Perinton Park, friends’ basements, and vacant warehouses where bands played. Even then he would wait for hours in his car. His black Nissan Altima might have remained inconspicuous, might have evaded scrutiny, if the dome light hadn’t been beaming onto his face, which was stern with concentration as he listened to the radio and read a magazine or a newspaper spread over the steering wheel.
“Oh, my God. Who is that?” a new acquaintance, not yet aware of this omnipresent guardian force in my life, might ask. “Is he spying on us?”
“That’s just my dad,” I would say, no longer embarrassed.
“Um, that’s creepy.”
“Yeah, I know.”
Some were curious and approached his car to tap on the window. “So you’re Liz’s dad?” they would say. Or, “What’s your deal?” Or, “What are you reading?”
Forbes. He was delighted to engage, to offer a recap of news events, a political analysis, a history lesson. One friend asked me if my father was medicated: “He’s so freaking cheerful.”
“Trust me,” I said. “He doesn’t take drugs.”
A few of them told me they wished they had fathers who cared so much, which made me feel special. I was shy, and my father helped break the ice.
At the end of the night many of my friends would come to his car for rides. He always welcomed them, driving off with two in the passenger seat, four or five in the back, and me squished on the center console. He heard all the gossip. He gave advice and pep talks. We would actively seek his approval, eager to hear him say, “That’s a good point,” or, “I think you’re right.” He was undeniably the adult, the patriarch, but also our friend.
And, yes, I might have protested, whined, begged him to let me go some places alone. And sometimes, if a place became familiar, he would drop me off and pick me up — early, of course. But even when he wasn’t there, he was still there, like the Holy Spirit or Jiminy Cricket, as he referred to himself: a moral conscience nagging in my ear, guiding my choices.
On weekday afternoons my curfew was four o’clock, to allow for extracurricular after-school activities, which I often skipped, opting instead to roam the village of Fairport, stroll the paths by the canal, loiter on docks and under bridges, and then walk the two miles to my house, savoring a brief stretch of precious freedom.
In order to guarantee I was home each afternoon at precisely the hour I should have been, my father would call the house. If I didn’t answer, he would call every ten minutes. I had about a half-hour leeway before he would start checking in with his list of contacts: the secretary at the school attendance office; the managers of Ricki’s, Friendly’s, Tom Wahl’s, and Salvatore’s Pizzeria; the parents of my friends. More than a few times he persuaded local law enforcement to get involved. Nothing was more embarrassing than being stopped on the street by a police officer and hearing the exasperation in his voice as he asked, “Are you Elizabeth?”
“Please go home and call your father.”
On weekends my curfew was ten o’clock, but first I had to dedicate two hours every Saturday and four hours every Sunday to “mind enrichment.” He assigned me articles from The Wall Street Journal and The Economist to read, highlight, and annotate. I could also watch the news or a documentary that was suitably academic, or read a book. My favorites were A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith; I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, by Hannah Green; and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers, but my father advocated for Dickens and Orwell, Hemingway and Fitzgerald. If my friends called the house during mind-enrichment hours, he would say, “Elizabeth can’t come to the phone right now. She’s tied up,” and I would hear my friends laugh, probably picturing me actually bound to a chair. Sometimes I cried and threw tantrums. Once, I tore apart his collection of National Geographic magazines. Sometimes I spent those hours lying on my bed and staring at the ceiling, reading nothing. “Well,” my father would say, “you can lead a horse to water . . .”
By the end of my junior year in high school, I was in full rebellion mode. I would skip electives like PE and choir, and during lunch and study periods I would sneak past “security” — four middle-aged women, two of them named Nancy and two of them named Carol — then escape the school grounds to smoke cigarettes and marijuana. One afternoon, my judgment clouded by hubris (or cannabis), I convinced myself that the teacher wouldn’t be bothered if I wasn’t in class for a chemistry test, and the secretary at the attendance office, in deep cahoots with my father, called him at work to alert him of my sudden absence. He found me at an abandoned bridge that was a notorious haven for delinquents, my feet dangling over the edge, my hand caressing a boy’s bare chest. I remember seeing his car, seeing the door swing open, and then seeing his face, the rage aimed at me from the other side of the chained gate at the end of the bridge. I considered jumping into the canal thirty feet below and swimming home. He drove me back to school and escorted me to my next class, yelling the entire way, his huge voice reverberating through the halls. Teachers poked their heads out of their classrooms to glance at me with sympathy, then quickly shut their doors.
“Dad, please,” I whispered. “You’re embarrassing me.”
“Public humiliation is part of your punishment!”
And, to be honest, this punishment seemed fair. I’d disappointed him. I’d worried him.
At home, the basement was my refuge. My father couldn’t hear any noise from down there, or smell any odors. There was a window, and if I pushed the couch against the wall, I could lean out and smoke cigarettes. I could also crawl out in the middle of the night and swing on the swings in the playground by myself, or meet my friends in the patch of woods, or at the bridge, or at parties, bringing bottles of booze I had stolen from the liquor cabinet and stashed in my closet. My friends joked that “Mr. Brina” was probably following me, hiding behind the trees, spying on us. Until I’d put enough alcohol in my bloodstream, my heart would pound. I feared his wrath, but I feared his fear even more. What if he went downstairs to the basement and discovered I was gone? I knew his mind would jump to the worst possible conclusion: Abducted. Bleeding to death in a ditch. I knew I would feel guilty for worrying him.
One night I had too much to drink and puked on the futon, and the next day my father caught me trying to drag the mattress to the dumpster.
I couldn’t lie, not to my father. He’d raised me to be honest, to admit my mistakes. I confessed everything: The window. The woods. The bridge. The parties.
To my surprise he didn’t scold. He didn’t forbid. He thought it was natural for me to “experiment.” Instead he struck a bargain: he would provide the booze if I promised to stay home and drink under his supervision. I could even invite my friends.
I remember my father pushing a shopping cart loaded with six-packs of Zima, Hooch, Mike’s Hard Lemonade, wine coolers, vodka, and mixers. I remember how my friends and I bounced with glee to the checkout lane. I remember the blatant debauchery at our house: minors drinking in the kitchen, drinking in the dining room, drinking in the living room, drinking and chain-smoking on the balcony. At first his sanctuary for underage drinking was strictly for girls, but getting drunk without the added incentive of talking to boys soon lost its appeal. So we would invite boys to meet us on the playground, and we’d share our booze with them. And since they were drinking on my father’s watch, they were compelled to enter his sphere of protection. All of us would sleep on the floor of the basement, bodies in a row, wall to wall, some passed out, some kissing and groping each other. My father did his best to contain us. He would sleep on the living-room couch, ears peeled for the squeaking sound of the basement window.
Were we safer? Were we better off? If my father hadn’t provided the booze and the place, I believe we would have secured an alternate source, an alternate location, like most kids our age. None of us died of alcohol poisoning or in a car crash. None of us got seriously ill or hurt. But I wonder now how much of his bargain was about safety and how much of it was about control, and if there is a difference in his mind. I wonder if his enabling and normalizing and condoning skewed our perceptions of binge-drinking in general. I know I still struggle with binge-drinking.
One memory in particular from my teenage years stays with me: I am thirteen years old, and my favorite band is Hole. I idolize their singer, Courtney Love. I worship her bleached-blond hair. To look like her, I wear baby barrettes, baby-doll dresses, Mary Janes, and bright-red lipstick. I practice singing and screaming along in the mirror to every song on the Hole album Live through This, emulating the rasps and cracks in her voice. I learn how to play “Doll Parts” on the guitar. This year, 1994, Hole is playing the Horizontal Boogie Bar in downtown Rochester. An all-ages show.
I ask my father if I can go to the concert. I tell him it’s rock and roll, like the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and AC/DC. I don’t tell my father that the music of Hole is heavier, cruder, a bit of a departure. I don’t tell my father that Courtney Love is the woman in the photograph that I carefully cut out of a magazine and taped to a discreet spot on my bedroom wall; the photograph in which she is crowd-surfing and playing guitar while wearing a very short dress and a thong, flashing a buttock and the labia of her hairy vagina; the photograph my father detected, then ripped from the wall and crumpled as he called her a whore. I don’t tell him that many members of the audience might be just as “unladylike.” I just want to see my favorite band.
He drives my two best friends and me to the venue, a large brick warehouse with metal bars on the windows. “Horizontal Boogie Bar,” he says and laughs. “Cute name.” He walks my friends and me to the entrance and buys four tickets. My friends dash to the front. “Sit back here,” I say to my father, pointing to a wooden bench in the corner farthest from the stage. Then I join my friends. When I turn around, my father is six people behind us, his face stern and disapproving, his crew cut and bifocal glasses out of place amid the bleached-blond hair, the leather, the fishnet stockings. I stop looking at him so that maybe no one will notice he is looking at me.
The opener is Maggie Estep, a feminist spoken-word artist with a surprisingly mellow accompaniment of upright bass, horns, and keyboard. I turn around to see my father swaying and smiling at the clever lyrics. He gives me an OK sign. I ignore him but think to myself, Huh, maybe my dad’s sort of cool.
Now it’s time for Hole. There she is: perfect tangled hair, black-lace bra beneath a white-lace slip. She lifts her leg and places a high-heeled Mary Jane on an amp. She smacks her guitar. She screams. I can feel the erratic pulse of the crowd, pushing forward and back. In a moment of empathy I check to see how my father is doing and immediately realize I have neglected to warn him about the mosh pit. People are jumping, flailing, slamming into each other. He isn’t swaying and smiling anymore. He is punching and kicking, grabbing collars and wrists and ankles, tossing people aside and yanking them to the floor.
“Dad, stop it! What are you doing?”
He whips around to look at me, crazed and furious. “Elizabeth, what is happening?”
“Dad, it’s OK. They’re dancing. They’re having fun.” I point out the smiles and laughter.
He tells me that I have to stand with him or we’re leaving. I tell him that I will stand in the front with my two best friends. I tell him that I will stay away from the mosh pit. I tell him that I just want to see Courtney Love and my favorite band up close. Before he responds, I bolt back to the front, weaving between bodies, and reach my friends just in time for the second song.
“Elizabeth!” I can hear his voice even over the music. I can see in his face that he isn’t angry: he’s terrified. He grabs my arm. Hard.
“You don’t have to go anywhere with this man!” a husky woman with a septum piercing and a shaved head says, putting her hand on my shoulder.
“He’s my dad,” I mutter.
I don’t want to stand with my father. I also don’t want to leave and spoil the concert for my two best friends. My father and I compromise: we will sit in the car and wait.
I can hear every song through the brick wall, and it hurts. But for some reason I don’t blame my father. I don’t think of the situation as his fault. Instead I feel pity. I feel guilt.
When I was younger, my father never talked about the horrors of war. Not the fighting and killing and death. Not the terror and panic and confusion. Not the remorse and regret.
But he loved to talk about jumping out of airplanes and how the mountains glowed purple in the moonlight. He loved to talk about wading through sludge and tying himself to a tree so he could sleep without slipping into the water. He loved to talk about the time he shined a flashlight on a spider the size of his head and how he jumped backward so fast he did a backflip, and how his buddies covered their mouths with their hands, not wanting any Vietcong to hear them crying and shaking with laughter. He loved to talk about the time he earned a buffalo nickel, a prized token of bravery, by dropping the coin into a full bottle of cognac, then lighting the rim on fire, chugging the whole bottle, and catching the coin between his teeth with his last gulp, and afterward he stood on a stool while ringing a bell and shouting, “Truth and courage!” He loved to talk about the friendship and solidarity, the special bond between soldiers.
But now, after several glasses of bourbon, more of the war leaks out of him. He talks about running for his life through dark thickets, throwing grenades to clear escape routes, the guts of snakes splattering as the Vietcong unloaded rounds of gunfire. He talks about positioning an enemy on his side or facedown so that the blood from his slit throat drained to the ground rather than flooding his lungs, so that the man bled instead of choked to death, which is more merciful. He talks about giving the uniforms and medals of men who had been killed to their families. When my father mentions the names of men who were killed, men he couldn’t save, his eyes water, and tears stream down his cheeks. These are the only times I have seen my father cry. Not when he dislocated his knee. Not when his foot swelled from gout. Not when his stores went out of business. Not when he got fired from jobs. Not when his father died. Not when his mother died. Only these times.
My father tells me about the ghosts.
He tells me about lying on his stomach in a trench and falling asleep and hearing the voice of a friend who had just been killed shouting, “Brina, look out!” My father woke up and looked in the direction of the voice, and a bullet grazed his left ear. When I sat on his lap as a child, I used to trace the small dent in the cartilage with my finger.
He tells me about a lieutenant nicknamed Jelly Bean, who was missing in action for weeks, then appeared one night beside my father’s bed. He held my father’s hand and whispered, “See, Art? Don’t worry, I’m OK.” My father felt a rush of relief and calm. “Oh, thank God, Jelly Bean. Thank God you’re OK.” The next morning my father received news that Jelly Bean was dead.
He tells me that many of his friends who were killed approached him in dreams to let him know they were OK. He tells me these friends used to visit him often, even long after the war had ended. He tells me that his friends mostly just wanted to talk, but sometimes they wanted him to come fight with them, to go back, to finish what they’d started. My father used to join them on missions until one night, for reasons he can’t explain, he didn’t want to fight anymore.
“Stop coming to me, damn it!” he shouts, reenacting the dream, slamming his fist on the dining-room table. “I’m too old! I’m too fat! I can’t help you!” Then my father cries when he tells me that he hasn’t seen them since. “I miss them,” he says.
Growing up, I didn’t understand PTSD. I thought PTSD was suicide and schizophrenia. I thought PTSD was a homeless person holding a cardboard sign. I thought I was lucky because my father was a veteran who didn’t have PTSD. He wouldn’t let me watch Platoon or Full Metal Jacket, because those movies were “pinko-commie-liberal propaganda,” not because those stories and images were upsetting to him. My father didn’t have PTSD.
It didn’t become apparent to me that I’d been wrong until I was thirty-four years old. My parents were visiting me for Thanksgiving weekend. My mother was sleeping in my bedroom, and my father and I were sitting on an air mattress on the living-room floor in my apartment in New Orleans. I was living by myself, having recently moved out of a place where I’d been living with someone else. I didn’t have a couch or chairs to entertain guests yet. My father and I shared a whole bottle of bourbon and talked about the civil-rights movement. He kept referring to “Negroes,” and I kept correcting him. We talked about Guantánamo Bay. He kept referring to “Bradley” Manning, and I kept correcting him. Somehow we wandered to the topic. He told me that a doctor at the VA clinic had diagnosed him with PTSD years earlier and suggested he file for government assistance.
“Why didn’t you?” I asked.
“Because that would have been dishonorable.”
“But, Dad,” I said, brave on liquor and learning for the first time that a doctor had seen it, too: The loud nightmares. The cursing at himself in his sleep, or while taking a shower, or while washing the dishes. “You do have PTSD.”
“I know I do, Elizabeth,” my father said. “But I survived. My friends died in that war. What right do I have to complain about PTSD, to collect a few hundred dollars a month, when my friends died in that war?”
Then my father cried. Thick, hiccupping sobs.
I didn’t think about the money. I didn’t think about how my father’s obsession with honor was preventing his own healing. I just thought about his pain and what he was hoping to accomplish with his pain. I wrapped my arms around his neck and kissed the top of his head.
“You’re a good man, Dad.”
“Thank you, Elizabeth.”
My father believes that letting emotional trauma interfere with duty is “goldbricking,” a term used by General George S. Patton when he chided a young soldier who suffered from shell shock. He believes that priests should replace all therapists. He misses the world he knew before the war, before he tried to save the world and was thwarted, before he tried to save the world and was defeated. He misses the world he read about in books — the world of heroes, of strong men who protect the weak. He misses the old order of the world, before the rest of the world challenged the old order: We don’t want your protection. We don’t concede to your noble intentions.
And I feel pity. I feel guilt. For no longer wanting his protection.
Now I feel I must protect him: from rejection, from the pain of being cast aside, made irrelevant.
After I moved away from home to Boston, Missoula, Oakland, Kansas City, New Orleans — places too far away for my father to follow me and wait for hours in the parking lot — he still called me every morning and every night. If I didn’t answer, he would leave a dozen messages. If I didn’t return his calls within a few hours, he would call my friends. More than a few times he called a man I had met at a bar the previous night.
“Um, Liz?” this near-perfect stranger would say. “Your father called? He wants to know if you’re OK?”
“Jesus Christ, I’m so, so sorry,” I would say, hungover, just waking up at one o’clock in the afternoon. I’d explain that my father was crazy, that he would get people’s numbers by looking up my cell-phone records.
One time a park ranger came to my tent in the redwood forest of Northern California: “Are you Elizabeth? Call your father.” Another time two deputies of the Oakland Police Department came knocking on my door at midnight on a Saturday: “Are you Elizabeth? Call your father.” Both times I was twenty-seven years old.
When I did call my father, I would hear the sheer relief in his voice, as if I had been brought back to life.
I also remember the countless times I needed those phone calls, when his voice gave me strength or comfort, reassurance that my mistakes weren’t so bad or consequential. I remember the countless times I called him sobbing, anxious, on the verge of panic at one, two, three o’clock in the morning. He always answered.
As I got to be thirty, thirty-one, thirty-two years old, I weaned him to one phone call a day, then one phone call every other day, and then, finally, to one text a day and one phone call a week. Sometimes he cheats. I try not to get too annoyed.
I think about how, after my father’s gone, I won’t get those phone calls anymore.
I’ll miss them.
Elizabeth Miki Brina
In “Missing Ghosts,” Elizabeth Miki Brina’s father frequently manages to reach her by telephone in different places — her school, restaurants, national parks. This reminded me of when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Western Samoa.
We had just been hit with the shockwaves of a nearby tsunami, and there were reports of dead and missing people, when a Peace Corps SUV pulled up at the school where I was teaching. A man jumped out and handed me a cell phone. “Hi, Matthew. Are you OK?” It was my mom. I was annoyed that she had tracked me down, but later I was thankful. Like Brina with her father, I will miss that care and concern when my mom is gone.
I read Elizabeth Miki Brina’s essay “Missing Ghosts” [September 2020] with a mixture of horror and recognition. Like Brina and her father, my mother and I were very close. She was always there for me, no matter what. We talked several times a day, and she resisted my attempts to separate from her as a young adult.
When I reached my thirties, I felt that having to constantly check in with my mom was keeping me from becoming my own person. In therapy and Codependents Anonymous meetings, I worked on no longer feeling responsible for her. When I moved away from home in 2006, I set a limit on the number of times we would talk each day.
My mother was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2009 and died two and a half years later. Though I returned home to see her throughout treatment and the last months of her life, I sometimes regret erecting those barriers. If I’d known we had only a few more years together, I wouldn’t have pushed back against her frequent need to talk.
Brina’s last line, about how she will miss calls from her father after he is gone, brought me to tears. I would give anything to hear from my mother now.
I was nervous as I began to read Elizabeth Miki Brina’s “Missing Ghosts,” about her father’s strict parenting. His dedication to the military didn’t bode well for a happy relationship with his daughter. Just the opposite was true, however. Brina’s portrait of him is so loving it made me fall in love with him, too.
I am a nurse at a VA hospital, and I hope Brina’s father gets relief from his PTSD — but I also know that may never happen.
Elizabeth Miki Brina’s essay “Missing Ghosts” [September 2020] resonated with me. Like her, I have a family member who is a veteran: my husband, who fought in Iraq.
After almost two decades of living with him, I hardly think about how the military way of doing things is standard practice in our family. When parking, we back our vehicle in so we can leave quickly. At restaurants we sit facing the door. We avoid large crowds. When my husband talks, no one had better interrupt: he might be giving us instructions for our safety.
Now, with COVID-19, there really is a crisis we need to be protected from. I know the virus is real, but sometimes I resent the directives.