D is for Daddy Issues
It was my twelfth birthday. I decided to wait up until midnight, hoping he would call. I wanted to give him every last possible moment to remember.
As the clock struck twelve, I sobbed.
Thirty-three years later, on my 45th birthday, I waited up again.
I had just celebrated with my dear friend Paulie, his amazing wife, and their two joyful sons. They bought me a cake, ordered my favorite Pittsburgh pizza, and sang to me with a love only the healthiest and happiest of humans can evoke. After arriving home that night, I noted that my dad had forgotten my birthday again. Over the years he had missed many, so this was no surprise. The surprise was in my response.
There I was, a grown man, crying like a little boy.
Corporal Russell Paul Davies
My dad has his issues, but none so severe as the PTSD resulting from his service in Vietnam. When the draft was implemented, he was a rising senior at Augsburg University. A math major, at 6’ 3” and 235 pounds of muscle, he was also a wrestler poised to be the starting heavyweight. He had every right to dodge the draft and every reason to stay in school.
Proclaiming patriotism, my dad discarded it all and decided to enlist in the Marines.
Once in boot camp, his physicality was celebrated. He thrived and graduated first in his class. Given the opportunity to transition to officer school, he passed, choosing immediate combat instead. He was offered a rare role in Recon where his duties were dominated by sneaking behind enemy lines in small groups and calling in coordinates for napalm and mortar attacks. Although he rarely shares, the bits and pieces of the stories offered are unsettling and scary. Timelines are blurred; details are dim. But the sentiment is always the same–an inebriated invincibility coupled with a tribal sense of belonging. Trained to kill and taught to hate, my dad went into the Marines as just a boy, but emerged with a deeply internalized masculinity molded perfectly for jungle warfare but fundamentally flawed for civilian life. Interestingly, my dad doesn’t bemoan his time in boot camp or combat. In fact, his year in the Marines may have been the time in his life when he felt most alive.
It was the coming home that killed him.
Flying back from Vietnam in his dress blues, my dad believed he was a hero. His Marine masculinity was seared in his soul and manifested in his svelt body and crisp military regalia. He was proud. He had never felt like more of a man. He was waiting for his proverbial parade, not just for his service but also for the human he had become. I can see him sitting straight up proudly and innocently perceiving the other passengers’ gazes as positive. He was a winner awaiting his applause.
Then, a flight attendant chose to spit on him.
That drop of saliva on his lapel proved a bullet that pierced his soul and fissured for a lifetime his sense of self. Of all my dad experienced and endured during his tour, he talks about nothing more than that moment on his plane ride home. It set him on a path that included never graduating from college (he became a bricklayer instead), multiple marriages, a proclivity toward violence, suicide attempts, financial struggles, and strained relationships with his children. His homecoming honeymoon lasted no more than a few hours. It’s been hell for him ever since.
A theology professor of mine once said that we obviously should mourn those killed in combat. But also, for those who are required to pull the trigger. My dad may not have lost his life in Vietnam, but so much was sacrificed. Out of that jungle mud emerged a man who has regularly reached for the light, but all too often has succumbed to the darkness.
A victim of his time in the Marines, two decades ago he was diagnosed by the Veterans Administration as 75% disabled via PTSD and deemed 100% unemployable. Since then, with the help of medicine and his embrace of counseling, my dad has become a great grandfather, is soon to celebrate twenty years with Kathy, and his business ventures are thriving. In his seventies, he is becoming the best version of himself.
May we all be able to say the same.
A Christmas Miracle
Eight months after my 45th “boo-hoo” birthday, I had the opportunity to travel home to Minnesota for Christmas to surprise my siblings. It would be the first time we were all together in the same place for well over a decade at least. It was a wonderful and rare reunion of loving siblings who had been spread all around the globe. While navigating our nieces and nephews’ post-gift opening euphoria, complete with inner-ear rattling screams of delight and blood-sugar-level induced mood swings, my younger sister suggested I surprise Dad the next day.
I drove to his house with a conflicting belief system–that he didn’t deserve my love, yet that ultimately all deserve my love. I wasn’t bitter. I wasn’t excited. The visit was like a line item on my to-do list. With an unflattering sanctimoniousness, I saw it as charity. Father philanthropy. I hadn’t seen him in years. It was the right thing to do.
I knocked on the door, and when my dad opened it, he no longer towered over me. His 6’3” frame had shrunk to 6’1”. A phenom physically, he still looked healthy. (My brother believes that he has consumed so much processed food that the amount of preservatives inside of him has made him immortal.) But he appeared old, almost as a senior citizen I had not met before.
For the first time as an adult, I didn’t view my dad through a lens of criticism. I sense that I felt like such a failure at the time in my own life that I just didn’t have the energy to judge anyone else. Turns out that it’s tough to look down on others when you’re already flat on the floor yourself. I immediately viewed my dad not as a father who had fallen short, but rather as a fellow flawed human. Two imperfect people living imperfect lives, turns out we are not so dissimilar in our struggles. The judgment was gone, and a grace took its place.
That’s what I saw when my dad opened the front door to my childhood home, but what really caught my attention was what I heard.
I have grown to understand that a parent’s love for their child is unparalleled. Almost two decades ago, only days after my buddy Craiger celebrated the birth of his daughter, I asked him what it was like to hold her for the first time. “Like everything just changed. Everything. Like nothing is any longer the same,” he shared with a calm conviction. This second-to-none love proves true even if you are an epic failure at remembering birthdays.
When I heard my dad exclaim my name with joyful exuberance, I felt his powerful, unequaled love for me. My sister caught it on video, and I trust that one day down the road when we lay him to rest, I’ll pour a bourbon or three and watch it and weep. I’ll mourn it all, but because of what is captured on film, I’ll never doubt my dad’s love for me.
I am his son.
Next, he came in for a hug. If there is one thing my dad is good at, it is hugging. He squeezes hard and is never the first to let go. It was a Prodigal Father moment. I felt a peaceful resignation as I patted him on the back. My internal dialog sounded magnanimous and even lighthearted: Hey, he’s done his best. He’s still a hot mess. But so am I and here we are. So let’s hug it out and go split a frozen pizza.
And just like that, my daddy issues evaporated. Gone. I hadn’t prayed for them to go away. I hadn’t done work with my counselor about them. They had just been there in a super heavy box that I had been dragging around with me for decades and allowing to compromise every aspect of my life. But, on that frigid front porch, upon seeing an old man reduced in stature, hearing my name in an octave of joy that only a parent could deliver, and being held as a little boy by a father who refused to let go, my daddy issues disappeared.
It was a Christmas miracle.
All forgiven? Not really; but I just don’t have the interest, time, or energy for all of that.
All forgotten? Not really; but I just don’t have the interest, time, or energy for all of that either.
Still, a miracle enough for me.
All is not perfect, of course. After all, my dad remains annoying to me on a nervous-system level. He talks as he chews with his mouth full of food to the point that being at dinner with him resembles a Matrix movie. Instead of Neo dodging the sentinels’ bullets, it is my family and me avoiding barely chewed pieces of his salisbury steak TV dinner being obliviously launched across the dinner table. A man who three times has confidently proclaimed that the collapse of our banking system was imminent, his politics are unnervingly anchored in conspiracy theories. Worst of all, he recently told me that my once athletic booty has disappeared. High crimes!
But, he ain’t all bad. The man can bench press like a boss, do mental math like a savant, and with ample food and ammunition at the ready, in case of a zombie apocalypse, he’s a good guy to know. Best of all for my siblings and me, he has an uncanny ability to convince wonderful women to love him.
He’s my dad.
From Slovenia to Vietnam
Fast forward another ten months after that surprise Christmas reunion.
I’ve known two people who have served in the special forces. The first was my father. The second is my Slovenian friend, Scott.
Scott is actually from Australia and served a full career in the SAS, or the Australian army’s special forces unit. Their Navy SEALS. Their Army Rangers. My friendship with Scott is a bit awkward because I have an openly declared man crush on him.
For me, Scott is the epitome of a man, of a human. Not just because he’s taller than I am, tougher, and fitter. Nor because he is an expert backcountry trekker, an advanced surfer, and is partnered up long term with a pseudo supermodel type who boasts unbridled kindness, an irreverent wit, and who kicked off their love affair by first approaching him at a bar. (And remember: he does all of this with an Australian accent. I mean, c’mon!!!)
What is really impressive about Scott is the inner work he has done. Scott has suffered life sucker punches too, and in response, he manned up and looked inward to heal and grow. Scott is super tough and super tender–the ideal human. And, he’d authentically argue otherwise, which just further proves my point.
Like my dad in boot camp, Scott finished first in his SAS training. Between the two of them, they are the biggest badasses of the badasses.
Also like my dad, Scott experienced some significantly challenging combat situations. Decades worth of PTSD potential. After lots of intentional exploration of the impact his experiences have had on him, Scott has emerged on a plane of existence I’ve known in few others.
This is all to say, when Scott speaks, I am inclined to listen.
Considering my respect for him and the extensive combat experience he has had, over a cold beer at the top of a Slovenian mountain, I asked Scott about what my dad might have experienced in Vietnam. Scott calmly answered my questions and, in doing so, helped me better understand the complex emotions experienced during armed conflict and their long-term consequences. Scott understood my dad and was not surprised by the broad strokes of dysfunction I conveyed were present within our family. Through Scott’s eyes, I saw my dad then and my dad now with more clarity and compassion.
As our post-summit celebration drew to a close, I shared how my family and I had always dreamed of returning to Vietnam with my dad. We hoped, perhaps too idealistically, for a Hallmark moment where we could all come together in the power of place and stare in the face of that chapter of his life. We’d tell it to fuck off, and also forgive it. And then, we’d hug our dad until he let go first. We would hold both the 21-year-old little boy who went to Vietnam to die and the 75-year-old man who returned to lay that little boy to rest.
Scott took his last sip of his Slovenian Lasko and asked: So when are you going? And if not you to make it happen, then who?
And just like that, on a Slovenian mountaintop, my family’s trip to Vietnam began to become a reality.
Tomorrow we meet in Da Nang.
Da Nang’s airport code?