Mike Maloney (one of my fathers) was in the Vietnam War. He was a veteran. He went to war at age 17, just a boy, and returned before his 21st birthday. To say that he was changed forever would be stating the obvious, turning the whole thing in to something kind of silly, because really? How could you leave the US for the first time, as a child with a gun, headed to a foreign land to hunt other humans, and return the same as before?
Mike was a veteran, and when I describe him to someone new, that's usually the word I use to describe him, identify him. It is an important word, so closely aligned with who he was to me, that it's practically impossible to separate the two. I never try to separate them. The one depends on the other.
Why do I say this? I only knew him as a veteran, I never knew him in the time before, but I truly believed that he was who he was, how he was as a husband, a father, a human, because of the things that he saw and heard and did over there. I won't pretend to know what war is like... you can't be an expert on something just because you read about it. But what I have read... Well, I understand war to be hell. Is it any wonder that several years of it would change the course of a person's life?
Mike died in 2000, and while I choose not to speak ill of the deceased, it is a fact to say that he was not the best father, and a truly lousy husband. (And this is, certainly, an understatement). I know that he loved us - I truly and deeply believe it and feel it, even today. But love doesn't buy groceries, it doesn't kiss scraped knees when you're six, and it doesn't raise a twelve year old in to a contributing, adjusted adult. I am no psychologist, but I truly believe that the course of the latter years of his life (including the type of parent and husband that he was) were influenced, and perhaps dictated, by his time in Vietnam. Thinking this way is hard - because it brings up questions that will never have answers. I wonder what his life would have amounted to had he never gone in the service. I wonder what kind of marriage my parents would have had. I wonder what he would think of me today, what kind of a relationship we would have, how he would have shaped the lives of my brothers.
These questions are hard - they hurt - because no matter how long I wonder, how much I ask, they will never be answered.
Sometimes, when I'm really dark or a song lyric speaks to me, I get jealous. If I believe that the war contributed to the course of Mike's life, to his demise (excuse the dramatics), then it leads me to wonder why Vietnam effected MY dad this way, and not the thousands of other Vietnam Vets out there - the ones that are approaching retirement age, excited to walk their daughters down the aisle and seeing their children graduate college. Sometimes it is easiest just to blame his life and death on the war, and while I truly believe it was the primary cause, I know he could have risen above, with therapy, or medication or something, and I certainly wish it. So yes, sometimes I go there.
I realize that "why me" is a very unattractive sentiment. I know that it is childish, and immature, and foolish. But this is my blog, and sometimes I am all of those things - no shame.
Here's the thing. The "why me" usually lasts only a minute or two. Because then I catch myself, and look around my apartment, look out to Lake Michigan, and am reminded of real life, MY life, and it is a good place to be. Earlier in this post I referenced the fact that I have two dads, which if you're reading this, should be obvious (since we must be friends if I gave you this link!).
And yes, most kids only get one dad, but I have two (I'm lucky like that). As my grandmother said in my mom's 50th birthday scrapbook, my mother "met and married her soulmate, Shawn Joseph Steil, teammates forever" when I was 12. He was not instantly my dad. No, he earned that title slowly, deliberately, daily over the course of years. (Only a dad knows how heavy your green leather couches are, or how to delicately tell you which wedding dress is unflattering, or why you need to change your tax withholdings).
Today would have been Mike Maloney's 62nd birthday. And I am sad, so sad, for us both. He missed out on watching my brothers and me grow up, and so many other important things. It's easy to be sad, and today especially, I am. But normally? Normally I am thankful for the silver lining of how my life has turned out, and so thankful for the way the past has shaped my present.