Memorial Day. A day to honor those who cared enough to protect us, some of them with their lives. My father is one of those people. John Mitchell Dudley Sr. The following is a short story I wrote about my losing my father when I needed to get some of the anger out. So many men, boys really, died for people they never knew to protect a country that forgets them except on holidays.
Thank you Daddy.
My father died when I was three. That’s not exactly true. My father was killed in Vietnam when I was three. There is a big difference between dying and being killed in a war no one wants to talk about. Dying is God’s choice.
I have no real memories of him, only memories of memories. I must have had a memory at one time of the plane that took him away, but apparently not the plane that brought him home. I remember being four, and five and six, possibly as old as seven, playing outside with my brother and sister, and when a plane flew overhead we would jump up and down, wave our arms and scream, “ Daddy, Daddy, jump down Daddy.” I also remember when doing that started making me feel stupid.
I’m sure everyone thought we were too young to be told the truth. Too young to understand, too young to grieve in a way that made sense to the adults in our world. They told each other we would forget, we were so small, only two and three. They simply stopped talking about him, as if he had never existed in the first place.
If we were too young, my parents were too young also. Too young to be married, playing house, trying to raise children when they were just kids themselves. Mostly, my father was too young to die.
I have a copy of the footage of his Marine funeral, a small yellow-orange box, containing a reel for the old reel to reel projectors. Dudley USMC Funeral written on the box in pen. I watched it once, when I was much younger, everyone is stiff and formal,
Marines are so rigid. I hope my father wasn’t like that, I hope he had fun. The only thing that ties this military funeral and these strangers to my life is that my mother is there.
She looks so frightened and alone, in her black dress. A widow’s dress. Burying her husband at twenty-one. Surrounded by men in uniform, following the casket that carried her husband, while in her womb she carried the child he would never meet.
When I was growing up, a father was a check from the government every month. They supported us, kept us fed, clothed and a roof over our heads, the bare necessities. How easy it is to replace a person with a government subsidy, where was the love? I was ashamed; to me it was no different than being on welfare. My father did this to me.
When people ask about my father I usually just say he died and hope they let it go. Sometimes I just talk about my stepfather. I’m tired of the sympathy and the questions.
“I’m so sorry.”
“How old were you when he passed away?”
“Was it sudden?”
Then I say, Vietnam, and I was three, now they really feel sorry for me, and they all want to talk about how hard it must have been to lose a parent at such a young age.
The worst thing about their questions and sympathy is that I feel like an impostor trying to answer them. I don’t know the answers, the correct thing to say, the right amount of sadness to muster up. The older I get the harder it is to believe that he existed at all, how very sad that my father made the ultimate sacrifice for his family, and we don’t honor him in any way.
I like to think the loss was too big for my father’s family, and we were too painful a reminder. They visited us once a year for a few years, but they never talked about him, if we brought him up, they changed the subject. We learned not to talk about him, not at home and not away from home. Eventually those visits stopped, we never knew why, they just stopped.
We tried to figure out why Daddy’s family didn’t love us, was he the black sheep of the family and it was just easier to walk away from his children? Or did they love him so much they couldn’t bear to see him in our faces and not be able to touch him? After all, he wasn’t drafted, he enlisted hoping it would help him grow up so he could be a better husband and father, did that make it our fault? I certainly blamed myself.
All that's left of my father are a few pictures, an obituary and his sweater. Oh, I also have the Purple Heart they gave him for being shot in the line of duty. Just like his youngest daughter, he never saw that either.
I’m older now, with a child of my own. What do I tell her about her grandfather? What can I tell her? I know absolutely nothing, not his favorite food, his favorite color, if he was a sports fan or a bird watcher. There are no amusing stories, no touching moments shared between a father and daughter, just emptiness. My fathers past, as well as his future, was erased the day he died.
I hate him. There, I said it out loud. I hate him for marrying my mother and making her a widow. I hate him for making us live on government money. I hate him for causing us to grow up without our father’s family in our lives. I hate him for abandoning me and making me a fatherless child. Most of all, I hate him for not being real to me.
Even now, when I think about my father, he seems almost like an imaginary friend I had as a child. The only things I know about him are the things I remember making up, with a little girls imagination, dreaming about the day my real father comes to get me and we all live happily ever after.
My daughter is almost an exact replica of her father; she asked me if I look like my Daddy. I tell her that I’m sure I do, I too was a miniature version of my father, but that was forty years ago, and now I am twice as old as he was when he died. I can still see my mothers face in mine, as she looked at my age. Where is my fathers’?
I have been angry for so long, toward a government that created a generation of fatherless children, and sent them a check every month. Who needs a Daddy when you have Uncle Sam? Toward my family, who all seem to live by the motto “ out of sight, out of mind”, regardless of how anyone felt, my siblings and I still needed our father, even if it was just through stories. Also angry at myself, for allowing my fathers absence to make me feel inferior.
Do I miss my father? No. You can’t miss something you never really had. I was too young to have any memory of having a father and no one ever tried to keep him alive for me. What I miss are opportunities, for both of us. We have missed so much, are still missing so much.
I am trying not to hate him, it really wasn’t his fault. He was so young, maybe he was more afraid than I can ever imagine. Married at seventeen, father of two by nineteen fighting in a strange country by twenty. But if I don’t hate him, then I have to hate the people I love for not keeping him alive for me, it’s easier to hate a dead stranger than someone you love.
Maybe he hated me, maybe he regretted everyday the teenage hormones that landed him in the backseat of that car and resulted in my existence. Maybe.
The little girl that still lives deep inside me chooses to believe differently. She believes that for one brief and shining moment she was the apple of her Daddy’s eye.