He Couldn’t Admit That He Was Hurt

Just that morning, before we left for school, I had woken him up and he’d jolted upright out of a nightmare, as he did nearly every morning. I grew to hate that chore, wishing his alarm would do a better job and spare me the futile task of trying to prevent his panic.

It was in the context of that daily experience that I watched my father recite his canned answer to my classmate’s question, and for the first time I thought, “You’re lying.”

Now, though, I think he wasn’t lying. He was just saying what he believed — that anyone plagued by nightmares, anxiety, a rush of anger, a sickness from the war, was defective by default.

Reading “In the Lake of the Woods” was a watershed moment for us. My father’s several visits to my high school were a means of him beginning to tell his story, and the book gave me a new language to understand the war and its resultant trauma, because — apart from the murder mystery at the novel’s center — Tim O’Brien seemed to be writing about my father. The lack of sleep, the anxiety, the anger, but also the stories from the war, the camaraderie, the nicknames. It was all there.

One day he said to me, “Yelling like I used to do — I shouldn’t have done that. That was abusive.”

I didn’t know what prompted him to say that. Later I learned he had been reading books on psychology. But in the moment, I didn’t know how to respond. I was happy to hear him apologizing for behavior I hated, but I also felt compelled to assure him that he had never hit me, never ridiculed me (which is what I thought abuse was) — just that he got really angry sometimes.

“It was wrong,” he said.

Conversations like that were hard for another reason: My father’s hearing, damaged by the cacophony of the war, had deteriorated to the point that he couldn’t understand me unless I shouted. I dreamed of him getting hearing aids, but we didn’t have much money growing up, health care came and went, and it seemed out of the question.

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