Before the war, my Daddy was always a good, kind man. According to Nana, he never said a crossword to anyone, not even the nasty neighbors who spit in his face when he returned from ‘Nam the first time, his new wife. Mississippi was never a hotbed for cultural diversity but bringing home a war-bride, some people seemed to take personal offense to that. Luckily my nana and grandpa never did. If their son loved my mother, enough to save her from that hell, there must be something worth loving.
That was why Nana was the only person Mama told when she fell pregnant with me. My mother wore baggy clothes when she went to work as a maid at the local hotel. If she lost me, she didn’t want Daddy to know.
Then he went back. My nana told me it was something about being under a contract; he made a deal with the devil to be able to fast-track Mama’s citizenship. That was how much he loved her and wanted to protect her.
I don’t remember much, only what I was told.
Nana sent him a letter. She never knew if he received it because later that month, my father was reported missing in action, presumed dead. He wasn’t.
Just after my third birthday, a car came to Nana and Grandpa’s house. Daddy’s unit had been captured. He was stuck in a bad place because the bad people wanted information, to use him as a bargaining chip- I don’t know. Nana just cried.
I don’t know what happened next. I just know I was five-years-old when my dad finally made it home. I had been shown photos, told sweets stories, so I wouldn’t be shy around him. My daddy had blonde hair, the color of the sunlight and blue eyes the color of the sky. He was a high school athlete, tall and strong, with gentle eyes and a kind smile.
But the man who came out of the taxi that day didn’t look much like the man in the photos. This man was weak, frail. Although young, he walked painfully slow, with the use of a cane. He had a terrible cough, like nothing I had ever heard.
I have to admit I was a little scared, cowering behind my Mama. There were so many people; reporters, people in military uniforms. “That’s not my Daddy.”
I remember Nana pulling me aside before I had a chance to cry. She told me that Daddy was very sick, that was why he was allowed to come home.
Daddy slept most of the day. Strangers were coming in and out of the room with all manner of blankets, bandages, and medicine. I didn’t want to get in the way, and I was too scared to visit him on my own. I waited until nightfall when Mama and I were finally alone with him.
Mama brought him some miso broth and warm rice. I snuck in with her, and stayed by her side, as I got my first look at my father.
There were bandages on his face and he could barely lift his head. But somehow his gaze met mine. “Hey, little one. Your name’s Annabelle, right?”
I nodded. I thought I knew my own name, but Annabelle was pretty.
“My name’s Kent.” The man in the bed seemed so scared. I was genuinely confused, why he would be so afraid of me.
“I know. You’re my Papa.”
My words seemed to bring him a level of comfort. “Can I call you Annie?”
“If I can call you Daddy,” replied with a giggle. I always called Grandpa, ‘Papa’ but I never had a daddy. I reached out for the hug, for no other reason than because I wanted to.
“Be gentle,” my mother warned.
For a moment I wondered why. I nearly jumped back in fear for what I saw. There was a mass of scar tissue where his right eye should’ve been. The cut extended down his jaw, telling the story of a truly heinous act of torture. Somehow, among all the drama of earlier in the day, I had not noticed the extent of his injuries.
His chest was heaving as he sobbed. “Please stay, Annie.” He reached out his hand. He was missing two fingers. His middle finger had been cut with a sharp blade, but his pinky had been burned off or broken in a way that left him horrifically mutilated.
“It’s ok, Daddy. I’ll stay,” my answer seemed to calm his breathing. I reached out and touched his hand. He felt soft, warm, human.
“You probably don’t remember me, but I met you before, a long time ago.”
“Really?” I wanted to keep him talking because when he spoke, he seemed more human. Even though he spoke in a hoarse whisper, there was something about his voice that resonated.
“I wasn’t there for your birth, but I made it home for your christening. You were one month old when I first held you in my arms.”
Although not scientifically possible, I could remember exactly what he was talking about. Perhaps I had seen a picture of the day, but as he spoke, I could perfectly visualize his face. He’d been in uniform, the same clothes he wore on his wedding day. He had the most beautiful smile. That was the moment I truly recognized the man in the bed as my father.
He had the same look of love and compassion. “I should have run. I could have taken you and your ma to Mexico. I would have done anything to stay with you.”
My mother held his hand, speaking in her broken English. “We will be ok.” She bowed her head the way she always did. Nana always said it made Mama look like a little doll. “We are together now, that is all that matters.” Mama kissed his forehead, brushing away a lock of his hair.
I flinched at the sight of his massive scar. I could picture what happened. Someone tore out his eye using a large knife or cleaver. I could picture a bad man chopping into my daddy’s head the way Nana cut open a chicken.
“Annie,” my mother said gently, “stay with your father while I clean up the kitchen.”
When Mama left, Daddy reached for me. I could tell he wanted me to lay on his opposite side, with his good eye. I was about to walk around the long way when he scooped me up in arms. Daddy might have been sick but he wasn’t weak.
We stayed up all night just talking. He asked me and about hobbies; if grandpa ever took me fishing, or if Nana baked with me. He told me about his childhood, his time overseas and how much he missed home.
“Did you miss me, Daddy?”
“I didn’t know enough about you to really miss you. So, I made up stories in my head; dreaming about the person you would be,” Daddy told me I was the one who kept him strong. Knowing I was out there, waiting, it kept him alive.
The bad people, they’d hurt him for a very long time. They only agreed to let him go as part of a trade. But to save face, the army wanted to make it look like he came home a hero.
He couldn’t see very well, even out of his good eye and the lower part of his leg was so mangled, it didn’t look human. But he was human. I knew he was.
Every night I could hear him crying. Mama stayed with him, except for when she had work. Then he’d cry even harder. To see him in so much pain truly broke my heart. But I was just a kid, not much I could do. Nana would come over to check on him and bring some supper. She always told me to leave my daddy alone, leave him be. And for the most part, I did.
Except when he was just sleeping. I liked to watch him sleep, it was the only time he didn’t look like he was suffering.
My dad cried a lot. So, I stayed with him as much as I could. He never hurt me. He never laid a hand on me. He even took me to my first day of school, with Nana and Grandpa.
That was when he said the words I would never forget. “When I found I had a little girl, I was so happy. Most guys want a boy, someone they can mold into a little version of themselves. But the world has too many boys like me. The world needs more brave, compassionate little girls like you. You’re going to grow up to be a very special person, Annie. You’re going to change the world.”
Daddy was good, but then he started taking medicine; a lot of medicine from bottles and pills. I could never get close enough to see all of what he had, but there were so many. Nana told me it broke her heart.
I know it broke Mama’s heart too. But he would get so upset at her. When he was in pain, he would get angry. Mama came home late one night; I don’t remember when. She had been working extra hours but this time she came home too late to cook supper.
Nana brought me over some roast chicken and lemonade. She made a plate for Daddy, but Daddy stayed in his room with his medicine.
It was past my bedtime when Mama came home. I opened the door, greeting her with a hug. I didn’t even notice Daddy until he placed his hand upon my back. “Go to your room,” he sounded angry, like a volcano ready to burn the world.
“Ok, Daddy,” I went to my room and shut my door. There was shouting, so much shouting.
He seemed to think she was seeing other men. He accused her of not loving him, for thinking he wasn’t good enough of a husband and father, that he wasn’t enough of a man.
But my mother didn’t respond.
“You’re a f*****g w***e! I was never enough for you! I gave you everything and you betrayed me, I know you did! Who was it? Simon at the grocery store? Or Dave from down the road? Or Carl, is that who you’re f*****g?” A loud bang followed by crashing. “Worthless b***h!”
I covered my head with my pillow, rocking back and forth as I cried myself to sleep.
I awoke to silence. That day was a school day so I got dressed and waited for Mama to come and get me. But she never did.
Time passed. I was getting hungry, so I went to the kitchen. Sometimes there would be applesauce, maybe even some old crackers.
That was when I saw my parents’ bedroom door open just a crack, just enough to see a ray of light. “Mama?”
I heard my Daddy breathing, sobbing.
Daddy was sitting on the bed. He was staring out the window, into the bright sunlight. Looking down from his eyes, to his neck, down his chest, I could see he was covered in blood. There was something shiny on the floor. I thought it was a knife but with how big it was it could have been a chunk of a mirror.
In the reflection, I could see my mother’s leg. She wasn’t moving. I took one step closer, then two, causing the floor to creak.
“Annie?” My father’s voice was so calm, I could practically feel his stare.
“I need you to go to Nana’s house,” he said, his voice trembling. “You run and never look back, you hear me?”
“Yes Daddy, ok Daddy.” I did as he asked. If nothing else, Nana and Grandpa would know what to do. Wearing my nightgown and no shoes, I ran down the road in the direction of my Nana’s house. I was quiet until I ran into the mailman. I started to cry.
I cried so hard I couldn’t form thoughts much less sentences. He carried me to Nana’s house and knocked on the door. He was able to knock louder than I would have been.
Nana sent grandpa to check on my house while she carried me to her bedroom. She called the police from her room, she already knew something was wrong.
Both Mommy and Daddy were already gone. They went to live with God and his angels.
I slept in the old bedroom/office space that used to be Daddy’s childhood room. Nana took down his photos and baseball trophies. She didn’t talk about him, even when I asked.
I didn’t hate him. But I knew the full story, I knew my mother never cried out for help. She loved him too much. She just wanted to give him what he needed. My mother had survived a war zone. She probably thought she could live through whatever he did to her.
My parents were cremated, their ashes spread together over Nana’s garden. Nana never planted any seeds or anything over their grave. But for the entire time I lived there, every year there I saw the most beautiful flowers. Some were yellow and gold like my father’s hair and blue like his eyes. They would interlace with small white flowers that grew on a vine, reaching up to my window. The vine reminded me, so much, of Mama’s clothesline, the place in the backyard where she always found peace.
I would greet those flowers every spring, and cry every winter when they had to leave. It was like Daddy’s deployment all over again. Except at least now they were together.
On the day of my high school graduation, my Grandparents gave me a suitcase with my father’s belongings. I was dressed in my cap and gown, just hours away from getting the little piece of paper that would finally allow me to put Mississippi in my rearview window. But I quickly tore into the dusty case while my grandparents watched on.
“We kept some things,” Nana said nervously. “They’re things that I know your folks would have wanted you to have.”
I found my father’s military medals, just to touch them brought tears to my eyes. He had so many and I only knew what a few were for. “He was given a purple heart,” I said, holding the medal in my palm.
My grandpa nodded. “Your father did so many wonderful things.”
His words turned my attention to the photos. I had seen them all before but I was glad to have copies of my own. I saw my father when he was a little body, with eyes filled with light and happiness. My parents on their wedding day, where he looked just as happy. But my mother looked even happier. The way she looked at him, even in the photo, I could feel the warmth of her emotion. I flipped through the small pile of pictures, desperate to find more images of my mother. I knew every image would be of when she was in the United States, with him or my grandparents. At the bottom of the case was a thin black folder: a police report. I looked up at my nana. “Is this part of my gift?”
Nana was twiddling her fingers, unable to look me in the eye. “There’s something in there that was always meant for you.”
I quickly flipped past photos that I never wanted to see. I glanced over reports; sketches, diagrams, and then finally a copy of the suicide note. I could tell by the stains that the original had been caked in blood. The handwriting was shaky, barely readable over the font on the paper. “He wrote this on a bible?” I asked.
“The police copy was a little easier to read,” my grandpa pointed out, “I think there’s a summary somewhere in the paperwork.”
I flipped through the copies; each more graphic than the last. But I forced myself to read. My father had beat her, r***d her, strangled her, all while she did nothing to fight back. Her neck was broken as were her ribs. In fact, he seemed to have crushed her chest in with a blunt object of some kind. Then he went to sleep.
Somehow, he had awoken with a sense of clarity. The report mentions how he sent me to Nana’s house. My grandpa found my father’s body. Daddy had taken a pocket knife, one that my mother had given him, on their anniversary and cut his own throat. He didn’t die right away. Grandpa told the police that Daddy was alive, reciting the Lord’s prayer. He bled out on the way to the hospital but not before asking if I was ok. It was as if he was waiting on that information before passing on.
The police arrive on the scene at nine. They took my mother’s body. She’d been dead for over ten hours but her cause of death was pretty obvious. My father’s death was not so cut and dry. An autopsy was performed. The conclusion was reached; my father had been high on a s**t-ton of drugs. I assumed it was booze and painkillers but the paperwork listed heroin, cocaine and a few others that I had no idea even existed in Mississippi.
Finally, I found the transcript of his suicide note.
“Dear Annie,” I read aloud, “I’m so sorry. You of all people don’t deserve this. I tried so hard to come back to you and your ma, to be the man God meant to me to be. I just never made it. I hope you can forgive me.” I flipped back to the copy of the bible page. The last line was smeared as if he wrote it in his own blood as an afterthought. I turned to my grandparents. “Is this why you took away all his things, why you wanted to make me forget him?”
Nana cupped her hand over her mouth. “For that, I’m truly ashamed.”
Grandpa held her close. “It was what he wanted. I told the police that your father was praying, asking the Lord for forgiveness, but that wasn’t the truth. He was so ashamed for taking those drugs, for letting his mind slip away. But he was in so much pain. He’d been diagnosed with bone cancer but the military didn’t want to foot the bill for any chemo. They wouldn’t even prescribe anything for the pain. So, your daddy had to do what a lot of soldiers did, he found support groups where people imported and exchanged drugs from as far as Florida.”
Nana wiped tears from her eyes. “Your daddy never wanted you to know how shamefully he died, so he made us promise to make you forget him. We figured, if you never had any reason to think about him, you’d never feel the need to dig up the past. And with cancer in his brain. It’s a miracle he lived as long as he did.”
I looked at their sobbing faces with confusion and contempt. “Can I have a moment alone?”
Nana nodded, taking Grandpa by the hand.
I walked to my window, overlooking the garden. For my sweet sixteen, all I asked for was a headstone, something I could talk to, or just a place to pray. Instead, they bought me a car and told me about my dad’s life insurance policy. I would get a little bit of money when I turned eighteen, enough to go to college.
I needed to do what Daddy said; I needed to run and never look back. But as I closed my eyes, I saw him. A little boy with blonde hair and blue eyes. He ran up to me, throwing his arms around me for a tender hug.
I fell to my knees and held him. I closed my eyes, burying my head in his shoulder. That was when I noticed, he was growing. The little boy grew into a teenager, a high school athlete full of promise. He looked at me and smiled. But then his smile started to fade, transforming to a look of sadness.
My eyes stayed locked with his. I watched the winkles appear around his sad blue eyes. Bruises formed, then cuts. I jumped back as his eyeball started to fall from his socket. It fell in chunks as if being torn out by an invisible blade.
He fell to his knees and then to the floor. Only then did I notice his clothing. He wore a blood-soaked military uniform. Gripping his bloody face, he cried in pain. His clothing transformed into the ragged jumpsuit of a prisoner of war. The man’s body started to seize.
I sat on the floor by his side. As I held his hand he transformed into the undershirt and boxers that he wore the day he died. His arms and legs were covered in needle marks, that tore open into sores. I held him close, closing my eyes as I cried uncontrollably.
Only then did I realize I was holding the folder in a loving embrace. With trembling hands, I closed the folder.
My mother didn’t fight him, because she already forgave him. She loved him with everything she was, everything she could ever be.
Sitting on the bed I’d slept on for my entire childhood, my father’s boyhood bed, I thought about burning the folder and all its contents. But enough of my past had been burnt.
“I love you Daddy and I always will,” I said through tears, as I took out my father’s purple heart medal and gave it a kiss.
I’m going to heal the world.