18 February 2009
My Dad's Stories, Contributed by Dani Brzozowski
My dad and I only rarely have fruitful conversations. When we do, they're frequently, morbidly, pragmatically, about his mortality, and the steps I (and my expert opinion--honed from WebMD and Reader's Digest) suggest to delay said mortality. It is out of the ordinary for us to discuss much beyond the trans fat content of a bag of pretzels. I occasionally call him out on his erratic behavior, and even more occasionally, he responds with less an explanation of the cause of his behavior and more a reminder that he loves my mother, he loves me, etc.
He knows he has PTSD and we all know, too. But none of us knows what it means for him or for any of us. It's less an elephant in the room and more the room itself, all of us living in it, unsure of ourselves, in the cavernous confines, echoing space PTSD opens up.
Dad has been a soldier ever since I can remember and, as his retirement draws near (he swears this time it's for real, this time he won't chicken out), he's turned reflective, opening up in a way that is at once fascinating and uncomfortable.
His stories are my stories, and hearing these stories is essential--it's how I build out my personal history, the sage of my family. As a writer, being denied these stories has always pained me. I (selfishly) thought it was unfair for them to be withheld, thought he was being cruel by keeping from me the secrets that I thought held the key to his identity and subsequently my own.
Working with the Vet Art Project gave me the opportunity to confront some of those secrets, to discover things about my DAd I didn't know. It gave me a chance to have a fruitful, honest conversation with him , and it forced me to be honest with myself. His stories do not belong to me. They belong to him and him alone, and I know now that this, not selfishness, not cruelty, is why he hasn't shared them before.
I know there are hundreds of secrets he clings to, dozens he'll probably never let go of, but I'm grateful to have witnessed the stories he's been willing to share, and I'll continue to keep my ears perked up, just in case he decides to share again.