My step-dad and I had a complicated relationship. There was a lot of love between us. When my teacher decided to push a gifted student over the edge by giving me Trigonometry homework in the 4th grade, he stayed up with me until 2:30 in the morning, teaching me this math that I had no foundation for, and somehow we got it done. When I proudly turned it in the next day, she looked at me dumbfounded. When I asked what my grade was, she said “oh this wasn’t for a grade…” I went home that night feeling defeated and the next day he went to school with me, and I got my grade. I’m sure I was quite a nerdy kid, but he didn’t tell me that.
Once he caught me coloring in a giant coloring book, and he taught me how to blend the pencil to make the metal look realistic. Once he let me drive his old Chevy truck, 3 speed on the tree. My mom told us a story about a woman who’s husband died of a heart attack. She lived in the boondocks; her car battery died and she couldn’t drive a standard. The 30 minutes it took the ambulance to get to him was too long, and ten minutes of her driving toward them could have saved him- moral of the story: I should learn to drive a stick.
One year my Dad took us on this glorious vacation. We went from Texas up the coast of California, down to Mexico and back. We went to the Grand Canyon, the Painted Dessert, the Redwood Forrest, The Petrified Woods, and the cherry on the cake- DisneyLand! My mom sent me with a little 110 film camera and several rolls of film so I could take pictures and when I got back, my step-father carefully studied them. He sat quietly for a while, and then he looked up and said “you have a real gift. There is the perfect amount of sky and dessert in these. You need to get a fine camera someday.” And so I did, just last year, but I spent many years dreaming of it and my love of photography was boosted by that one little sentence.
It’s easier now to focus on those moments without thinking of the rest of it. The day after he died I was watching a news story about a soldier from Fort Hood, Texas. He wanted his daughters to know that none of his moods were their fault. He wanted them to understand “Daddy didn’t mean to be so mean” and my light-bulb turned on.
I closed my eyes and thought of the moments when the sound of biting forks sent him over the edge. Then I remembered the one and only time I ever lied to him. This is a tough one for me.
I had been at Marching Band practice all afternoon. I had missed lunch that day. I was warming up pizza in the microwave when he came in. He was standing there a few seconds when “DING” and off he went into a rage. He was so furious that someone was cooking pizza with dinner only a few hours away. He wanted to know who had done it.
It was me, and I wanted to say it, but for some reason that day I couldn’t get the words to come. Maybe because I was struggling with my weight and I couldn’t handle the idea of being in trouble for eating a snack after school. Before I could gather my courage up my little sister said “it was me.” I’ll never know what made her do it. Maybe it was payback in some way for the times I had done the same. Maybe she just didn’t feel like standing there any longer. All my life I was so focused on the rage that I forgot about the DING. (Noises like that often trigger PTSD.)
I listened to this soldier, Seth Kastle, as he talked about PTSD and how it affected his family and suddenly pangs of guilt washed down my face. He wasn’t angry at me. He never meant to show me that dark side. He tried to make it up to me.
He bought me a Mazda RX-7 when my mom wanted me to have a “family style car” and even though I blew-up that little red coup at 110mph, it made my soul happy to drive fast on the open roads. He took his big BBQ pit to contests and cooked hundreds of hamburgers for the marching band. He helped me make a poster of my poem about life the first time I entered a contest. I was going to turn it in on paper, but he knew a poster would be better and I came home from school with a ribbon, so proud of myself.
He got me to join the debate team, even though it took me a few months to muster the courage to walk up the stairs and ask how I could sign-up. That took me a million places I never thought I’d go, and I got to argue all the time without getting in trouble for it. In fact I got big trophies, and he was proud of me.
I could go on, about what a proud grandpa he was, or how he showed up once and gave me all the money in his pocket to replace my broken cell phone when my mother was sick with cancer. I remind myself of these things each day, because I’m so sorry I ever thought of the anger. I’m so sorry I just didn’t really understand, but at the end I knew.
The last time I saw him, he had applied for his VA benefits after many years of being too proud to use them. He thought they might help one of his daughters, and so he went down and humbled himself. In going through his paperwork, they found that he had 4, not 3 Purple Hearts. One had never been awarded.
They made a special ceremony. He invited all of us. I had no idea it would be so special. I didn’t take the kids out of school. WHY DIDN’T I TAKE THE KIDS OUT OF SCHOOL???? I went with Blondie, and her Beau, and he lit up when he saw her face.
Hours later, as we left the luncheon, I felt this pull in my heart. I stopped and hugged him extra hard. I told him “I love you so much” but I had this feeling that the words weren’t enough and on the way home that day, I told Blondie I thought he was near death. She scoffed at me- he was young, relatively healthy, I was a nut job.
I am a nut job, but I was right. The next weekend he took my husband and my son to drive NASCARs- something they’d talked about forever and ever. He called me and made plans to come to a football game the following weekend, but that Wednesday he was rushed to the ER and then he died in the early morning hours of November 6th.
As the months staggered on, we discovered many ways in which he had prepared himself for this moment. Although his death was unexpected, he must’ve had that same gut feeling I had. He tried to tie up all the loose ends.
We had his funeral on the Marine Corps birthday, and his grandchildren sang songs to him and celebrated his life in a way I will never forget.
Much has changed in the two years since that fateful day, but the things I will never forget are that he loved me, and he was a hero.
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