Losing My Father at War, One Letter at a Time
“War does not determine who is right — only who is left.” That’s what Bertrand Russell said.
I didn’t know what he meant when I was 20 and heading to war. Now, at the age of 28, it makes too much sense. A sense that I am left but that my father is gone.
My dad was a soldier once, too. He was drafted and shipped to West Germany in 1953. The worst thing that ever happened to him was that a German soldier broke his nose with the end of a rifle. It was the only war story he’d ever tell.
My father is still breathing and still talking about that jerk who shattered his nose. But Alzheimer’s eats away at his brain. He forgets my name. But he remembers our wars. Except for mine.
Throughout my deployment to Iraq in 2005, we exchanged e-mails. Tap-tap on a keyword. Words with no emotion and no context.
Jan. 4, 2005:
How are you? Mom and I ate at the Fountain last night. We showed Pat and Nancy your picture with Robin Williams. Pat said if you keep this up you’ll be in Hollywood! Oh, by the way, Mom and I got new bathrobes last night, finally! Mom got a pink one and mine’s plaid! Hope things stay quite there but with the elections coming up I doubt it. You are our “pride and joy.” Love you always and always.
Love you so very much,
A plaid bathrobe? He talked about things that I didn’t know how to care about anymore. Young Iraqi children ran around me naked with swollen feet, dusty, thirsty — everything suddenly seemed trivial, including plaid bathrobes.
These days, watching the old men with soft white hair walk around Washington in their khakis, crisp white polos and loafers — I see him. Thinking he might be coming back. I smile for a moment. And sometimes I wonder: if I had cared more about what he was going through, would he still be here, mentally? Maybe not.
March 14, 2005:
Dad is O.K. He just has a stomach virus. Needs rest. Not to worry and stay focused. He’ll be fine.
Love and miss you,
It’s funny to read this e-mail now, because my mom was such an awful liar. I tried to pull it out of her.
March 14, 2005:
Mom, if anything’s up tell me. I’m not playing games. Whatever it is, it won’t stress me out anymore then you not telling me what’s going on. Understand? So, please just let me know. O.K.?
It was a secret. My dad’s mysterious illness. My mom’s inability to communicate. My hopelessness in trying to understand the impact of my war on them. We were all misfiring. There was no connection between any of us. All we had were encoded e-mails and short phone calls.
March 24, 2005:
No stroke, no cancer. When you lose so much weight from too much drinking and not eating, your electrolytes and vitamins are all off. It affects your muscles – that’s why Dad’s walking is such a problem. Dr. B. said Dr. L. talked to Dad today. He said Dad is in a very depressive state. But that can be solved with meds. He just HAS to get a grip. I never knew this [your deployment] would affect him this way.
“Get a grip.” What a strange thought. Iraq was falling apart. My dad’s memories of us, our life were all fading away. My mom was in denial. Get a grip. What a beautiful idea.
May 3, 2005:
Dad’s O.K., just talked to him. He sounded like himself. I guess that’s how this illness goes. Was going to go see him today but the oil light came on in the car. I didn’t want to chance it. Mike’s going to check it for me and put some gas in. I still have to learn how to do that. DON’T LAUGH.
And I laughed. I laughed so hard I began to cry. At the age of 56, she didn’t know how to pump gas. I cried because of how ridiculous this was and I cried because I knew she was all alone.
May 5, 2005:
Dad is in his new room now. He’s in room 37. I talked to him a little while ago and he doesn’t like it. Nothing I can do about it.
There was nothing I could do, either.
When I boarded the C-130 to come home in 2005, I peered out the window and gave Iraq the middle finger. I’m not sure why. I wasn’t ready to go home. I could envision the hell I’d be walking into: a gasoline-soaked mother and a father who could remember his war, but possibly not my own.
I walked off the plane. I weaved through people like I was on speed. I was home. It didn’t feel right — because I knew my dad was no longer there.
Kate Hoit works in the Office of Congressional and Legislative Affairs at the Department of Veterans Affairs. She is also an M.A. candidate in nonfiction writing at Johns Hopkins University, where she is a Tillman Military Scholar. She deployed to Iraq in 2004 as a photojournalist. Follow her on Twitter.Next News story