I sat by my dad’s bedside holding his hand as the doctors told him that he needed to be put on a ventilator. There was a look of fear I’d never seen in my war-hardened father’s eyes. There was a moment when he grabbed my hand tightly, and I grabbed his while fighting back tears telling him I loved him and that things would be okay. He knew better than I did. This was the last time I spoke to my dad while he was conscious.
Over the next few days, sitting in the hospital, I struggled with the closeness that grew between my father and me that was being ripped away. It was a closeness I missed as a child and didn’t want to let go of as an adult. My brothers and I took shifts sleeping in his room spending what little time we had left with him. This moment was far different from my childhood when I barely saw my old man. There was a point in my life, I never thought I’d know him. Here I was, by his bedside stealing a few, precious moments.
Unlike many of the kids I grew up with, I grew up a Navy brat in a single-parent house on the coast of Georgia while my dad served tours on multiple carriers, in Iran and Cuba. To put things in perspective, I was born in 1974. A few months after my birth, on May 13th Grumman Plane News featured a picture of my dad standing on the top of his F-14 as a mechanic looked it over before his long trip from NAS Miramar to Iran. I was three months old. The next time I saw my dad was in 1979, I was five. The first time I remember spending time with him, it was brief. It stands out as a distinct memory: my brothers and I sat under the Sidney Lanier bridge with him while he set off black cat firecrackers and roman candles in the salty marsh mud of Golden Isle. I remember the smell of gunpowder and sea salt to this day. I remember getting mud on our shoes and dad’s joy in seeing us.
My parents had a divorce typical of most service men that end up in his situation. There was a lot of anger. There was a lot of regret. As an adult, I get it. The white uniform and aviator wings are a quick lure for any woman watching the romanticized service life in movies like Top Gun or an Officer and a Gentleman. In reality, service life for a mother of three wasn’t what my mom thought it would be. There was a bitterness in their divorce that kept my dad at a distance and our visits limited.
I saw dad twice more in elementary school. Mom kept tight reigns on how much time my brothers and I spent with him and deployments didn’t help his cause. I remember my first plane trip to Hannibal, MO with my brothers where I first met my uncles on my dad’s side. I met my grandparents for the first time, and was baptized by my grandfather with my little brother Greg at a small Methodist church outside Hannibal. The hills of Hannibal, the mighty Mississippi, and my grandparent’s house are etched into me like an invisible tattoo. It was the first time I realized my dad had brothers and sisters, like me. It was the first time I met my new little brother, Greg, and my cousins Emily and Shannon. It was the first time I knew I had family outside of Brunswick, Georgia.
The following summer, my brothers and I visited my dad in Corpus Christie. While my dad worked on base during the day, my brothers and I walked the sandy trail to an arcade called the Gold Mine to feed quarters into Ms. Pacman and Galaga until they were gone. We returned home each day to play with our next-door neighbors and spent time with my dad in the evenings when he returned from work. My brother Britt and I had a farting contest each night after downing my dad’s Tex-Mex until the eventual night that I farted him out of the room in a gas attack so loud, my dad came running from the other end of the house. He opened the door to the noxious fumes of two lads blowing out beans and cheese.
During the week, we visited the King Ranch, went out on my dad’s questionable boat, and convinced him to break 100 in his car. We were three boys hanging out for the week with their dad. It was awesome. We ended our trip in Houston, Texas at Astro World, a roller coaster haven for Texans wanting some adventure. I rode a small kiddie roller coaster multiple times while my older brothers and my dad took to drops and turns of the Texas Cyclone, a massive wooden roller coaster with the classic wooden feel. That night, my dad slept on the floor. His years as an aviator and an ejection over the Med made the thrills of roller coasters taxing on him. Years later, my little brother inherited the helmet he wore when he ejected. The next day, we returned east not knowing that this would be the last time I’d see my dad until high school. We left for home and my dad left for a hardship tour at Guantanamo Bay to end his Navy career.
If you haven’t figured it out by now, I didn’t see a lot of my dad for about fifteen years of my life. I was the other type of Navy brat. I got my military ID renewed at Kings Bay when it expired, I went to the PX on occasion, but I wasn’t the traveling kid trying to restabilize with every move. I was that Navy brat trying to stabilize where I was always trying to figure out why my parents divorced, and why I didn’t see a lot of my dad. I felt a missed connection, especially through middle school. On occasion, my mother reminded us how bad our father was, and how he left us for the Navy. It was bitter. As a child, it was hard to understand. In the little moments I had with my dad, he seemed like an alright guy. On the other hand, my mother spoke of him in disgust which left a feeling of abandonment when his name was spoken. She was hurt, and that hurt was projected on us whenever his name came up.
If you’re still reading, you’re probably me, that kid feeling something missing in their lives because your parents served, or you’re my dad, that divorced, deployed parent out there with regrets for time missed as a parent serving their country. There are a few parents out there, still married with a feeling of loss and detachment because of long tours with a feeling they missed watching the kids grow up. Maybe you’re that kid with a lot of anger over a missing father, missing time and that taste of a two-parent family that was stripped from you as a child because your mother or father is on constant deployment or the service claims yet another family household. To all of us, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. The same can be said for capturing memories.
That’s how it was with my dad. He took small steps with a larger journey in mind. When an opportunity presented itself, my dad took advantage of it. It wasn’t always easy. Sometimes, it was downright awkward when he would call himself Uncle Joe instead of referencing himself as “dad.” It wasn’t always easy for him. It wasn’t easy for us. Sometimes, it was two steps forward and one step back. My mom made sure it wasn’t easy. To her, he left us. He chose the Navy over his family, and any time he brushed into our lives, she reminded each of us of this.
I won’t lie, it left some resentment. It kept that emptiness creeping in, the lonely feeling that I missed something. It brutally hollowed my insides. When the time came, I finally asked my dad, “Why did you leave?” The conversation was painful and honest. I could relate to his perspective, but it conflicted at times with my mom’s. There was a lot to work out internally. There were accusations on both sides. I could tell there was also pain on both my mom’s and dad’s side.
For my dad, there was a lot of regret, especially when it came to seeing us. To my mom, there was a feeling of abandonment she extended to us. The truth is somewhere in the middle. There were other conversations, but I realized I needed to put things aside. I had to separate my mom’s feelings from the situation and determine what my feelings were. What was important? Was my dad trying now? Could I put aside regret? When I opened the door, he took the time to come through it. Internally, I enjoyed the time we had now. Don’t get me wrong there was still some pain. The more time we spent together, the more that pain went away, and the more a friendship deepened. I figure relationships happen in windows of time. People come into our lives in windows of time. You can’t affect what happened before the window. Eventually, that window will close, so enjoy the window of time while you have it.
A window of time opened for me, but there I was holding my dad’s hand feeling deep inside this was the last time we’d speak. My last words to my dad were, “I love you, dad. It’s going to be okay.” A window was closing. In the days that followed, I looked back on the phone calls after he returned from Cuba. I remember when he came to both my older brother’s weddings, our time in Mississippi, our growing bond as I got older, the birth of my children, our trips to Texas, and his trips to Georgia. I remember the phone calls of despair when my little brother made it into the University of Texas. My dad always wanted an Aggie son, poor Greg was his final hope.
I remember his move from Texas to Tennessee to be closer to his children and the nights talking through life. It was a flood of memory and emotions missing the father that I wanted more time with, and the regret I couldn’t have one more day. I thought back to some advice my dad gave my brother when he was deployed to Iraq and faced a similar divorce. Don’t give up. Be Patient. Take what you can get. Take the time you’re given. Over time, things will work out. When the door opened between my dad and me, he took his own sage advice. What kept a bridge between us were a few points in time and a few memories from my childhood. He was patient, he took the opportunities, and he didn’t give up. If you’re me, and you want that time with your mother or father, carpe diem my friend. Seize the day before the day is gone.
One last thing. Dad, I miss your calls.
This first appeared in The Havok Journal on August 23, 2021.
Matt is a Director of Product Management for a leading mobile platform enablement company. He has traveled extensively in the United States and overseas for business and travel. His travels include India, Mexico, Europe, and Japan where he was an active blogger immediately following the Kaimashi quake. Matt enjoys spending time outdoors and capturing the world through the lens of his Nikon D90. He enjoys researching the political, economic, and historical influences of the places he visits in the world, and he commonly blogs about these experiences. Matt received a Bachelor in Computer Science at Mercer University, and is a noted speaker on innovation, holding over 150 patents. His remaining time is spent with his family going from soccer game to soccer game on the weekends.