Expressive 1010 Runner-up
I was numb…fitting. He was numb the first fourteen years of my life, and I was numb that last two of his. I remember the smile on my face, completely fake. It was like plastic. It wouldn’t go away. It stayed there the entire service. I remember scanning the faces of my family. I remember staring into the eyes of each and every one of them, knowing they pitied me. This knowledge is what put the false grin on my face. I would not admit defeat. I would not allow them to see me hurt. I wouldn’t allow myself to feel hurt. He never did.
My attention locked onto the soldiers with their guns at ready. The smile stayed plastered on my face. I remember little of the detail of that day. I remember little of the detail of our relationship, and yet I am now closer to him than anyone. As I sit down and write out this experience, it is a mystery to me how I can know my father so well and remember almost nothing about him. I now know, beyond doubt, just how similar we are, and yet, when I think about this man…it seems I have seen him at just a glance.
I was suffocating inside of myself. I was a machine on autopilot. Waving, nodding my greetings, I was acting…fighting without realizing it. These people looked down on me. I hated them. I didn’t want their well-wishing. Since the day I was born everybody had had such high hopes for me. Their voices rang in my head “so bright, so kind…God has given you so many gifts, I see such bright things for you Michael.”
I had always been fighting. At first I fought to live up to all of the greatness they had seen in me, and then I fought to rebel against what they saw in me. As I stood there, I fought to stay alive. I knew my father, inside and out. I knew every corner of his mind. Destiny may sound corny, but we were born to walk the same path. Somewhere…probably a dark jungle in Vietnam…he had lost his path…he had lost himself.
“There is so much respect for him…all of this is so beautiful,” my grandmother Parker said to me. She was referring to the uniforms, the flags, the view…I’m sure it must have been pretty to all of them. Looking back on the memory, I now see what they had seen. The grass was at its ripest green just before it began to turn yellow. The sky was open and blue. The view from the military cemetery covered all the way from Salt Lake to Provo. I remember the breeze, it was warm. The American flag flowed gently through it. She was right…it was beautiful.
I remember the way my mother’s bangs gently fluttered as she looked out into the distance. The sunglasses hid her eyes, but I knew she wouldn’t be crying. This bugged me, and then I remembered that I wasn’t either. She had had such a hard life. She had a right to be cold. This man had added to her trials. She married him looking for the comfort and security she had so badly needed, but by then it was too late for him. He had been torn apart by war, and beaten down by guilt over things nobody understood.
“Michael, isn’t this great? This is truly an honor to him.” My aunt Lynn had put her hand on my shoulder. She was a small woman, short brown hair and hazel eyes. There were wrinkles forming on her face that I suspected were more from depression and stress than simply age. All in all, she was completely average looking, down to the grey sweater and skirt she was wearing. She was my one source to my father. I resented her.
“Yeah it is amazing. The best thing is everybody here knows how much he deserves it.” What was I saying? I sounded like some friend of the family…this was my father! I was pretending to stare at the Green Beret sitting atop the casket. I was shocked at how upbeat I sounded. I felt Lynn staring into me.
“Michael I’m sorry you have been put in the center of this. I’m sorry it is so hard for you to express what you are feeling. You have a right to be angry. I know that look Michael. Your smile hides so much… but I know those eyes. Your father had the same eyes when he came home from Vietnam, but his never went away. Don’t let that be you…he would hate that.” Her voice was so soft, her words flowed into me. Her hand was still on my shoulder. I didn’t know what to say.
Lynn was still looking at me. She saw right through the façade that had so easily fooled everybody else. She was the type of woman who could read a person like a book. She was doing this to me. She had done this to my father. Just like him, I was afraid of this. I had too much to hide. For a few moments, I didn’t bother to open my mouth. I knew nothing would come out. Finally, from a place that to this day I have trouble finding, something came out.
“Why wasn’t I there Lynn? He could have answered so much for me…about me, about him…he was finally willing to. There is so much I will never know, and it is my fault.” I was waiting for the tears to form, but they never came. Every word came out with ease. The smile was gone. My face was a cold, empty slate. I had stopped pretending to focus on the Green Beret, and was now looking over the rows and rows of tombstones. “He tried. I gave him nothing in return to show that I cared. Now I’ll never know the answers. Grandma Langer has a right to her bitterness.”
“Michael, it isn’t bitterness. You and your father are so similar. Both of you were such a ray of light to so many people. Now…just like your dad, there is something else there. It is something that only she and I can see…and I’m sure your mother. It isn’t so much that you were cold to him; it was that you were actually able to be cold. It reminds her so much of him after the war, it scares her. She loves you.” She was waiting for me to respond. Quickly, she realized I wouldn’t…I couldn’t. She gave me a soft squeeze on my shoulder and then removed her hand. Before she left she stared at me one last time. I knew without looking at her, that at that moment she was seeing my future. She untangled my soul. She saw exactly what I had been trying so hard to find, and then she left. It would be up to me to find it.
I wanted to yell at her to stop. To tell me what she saw in my father and me. A million questions were pounding into each other inside of my head. I wasn’t breathing—I wasn’t even aware of being alive. All I could do was yell silent questions inside of my head. Then, the loud burst of the gun salute shot me into a lost memory. I was n a desert. I was with my father and I had a .45 caliber Colt in my 10 year-old hands.
“I’m not strong enough for this, can’t even get close, and it kicks so much…” I was whining.
“Michael you’re jerkin’ the trigger. You can’t jerk it. You have to pull it gently.” My father had his dark sunglasses on. I couldn’t see his eyes, but I knew his focus was on nothing in particular. He had always had a way of seeing everything while looking at nothing. I remember his deep tan, and his jet-black hair.
“So it really isn’t just about strength…yeah, I guess that makes sense,” I responded as I started to understand his lesson.
“Your strength plays a role, but focus on that trigger. Don’t give up on it, it’ll work.” I remember the way his eyebrows went up over the brim of his sunglasses. Despite still not being able to see his eyes, I knew he was looking at me. He was seeing me, and more importantly, teaching me. He told me a lot with those words, and it really had nothing to do with shooting a gun.
I snapped out of the memory. The gun salute had ended the ceremony. People were walking by me, still nodding their condolences. My little cousin Brooklyn gave me a hug and then walked on with her parents. The sun reflected off of her white blonde hair as she walked away.
Another memory flashed into my head. It was a recent one, about a week before. It was one of my father walking out of my yard towards Lynn’s car. He was completely dependant on Lynn to get there. I watched him walk away. He couldn’t walk. It was a hobble. He was a broken man, but…I didn’t see this. I saw a hero, a warrior, a leader, and for the first time I saw my father. “I love you guys.”
In response to my words, without help, but with extreme effort, he turned and faced me. He had virtually no control over his face at that point, but he smiled…awkwardly, painfully, longingly, but it was there.
He taught me another lesson with that smile. Not until recently have I figured it out. That day, that moment, we both knew it was our first and last goodbye. He knew that I saw through his diseased body and saw my hero. I now know that he saw through all of the anger, all of the mistakes, all of the pain I was going through at that time and saw me as a hero. I was a hero that wouldn’t fall short of my goals, our goals. He made the mistakes and fought the battles so that I could learn from them. Our path was the same path…he sacrificed so I could make it to the end.