My father was a mystery to me. He had issues of his own that I really never understood until after his death in 2003 when I had the wisdom to see him as a person separate from his role as father. He grew up during the Great Depression — born October 5, 1929 — his birthday month ringing in the Crash; his family lost everything. He had to sleep in the enclosed porch of his Southside of Chicago home, as his parents had to have boarders to makes ends meet.
My father’s father was an alcoholic –a singer and musician who played in Chicago nightclubs. Some nights he was funny and charming, other nights cruel and mean. I think of my father as a little boy and imagine what he may have gone through.
There is a story that breaks my heart and a story only told to me by my mother, with direct instructions to never let my father know I knew. My father, 6’3, black curly hair, green hazel eyes, filled with pride of his first car, eager to share his pride with his own dad. My father must have been 16 or 17.
Instead of sharing in this proud moment, my father’s father berated him, cutting him down and assaulting him with insults about his crappy car. All my father wanted was his father to be proud of him.
My mother told me this story once to help me understand my dad. It made me sad to think my father went through that.
My mother also told me this is why he bought me a royal blue 1970 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia in mint condition when I was 16 years old. Man, that car was cool! And I will never forget the pride in my father’s smile when he showed it to me, surprising me by ushering me outside to have a look.
My mother didn’t tell me this story until I was in my late twenties. My dad was an alcoholic and quit drinking cold turkey when I was born. I imagine he drank to tame his demons from childhood and from the war.
He fought in the Korean War. He was a member of the Frozen Chosen, the Battle of Inchon, where he saw thousands of men murdered. It was so cold during this time that men’s eyeballs froze — their own tears icicles upon their own eyes.
I never was able to look at this as a reason for his own depression and anger. At times, he was down right frightening, flying off the handle in a rage I did not understand as a child nor a young adult. He did not physically abuse me, but there was mental abuse at times.
The thing is, now as a parent, I am able to forgive him and understand him. I love him and honor all the good about him. He went to work everyday to support his family and had a boss that berated him and put him down. He brought me home paper to draw on as a child from the bank where he worked as one of the mobile patrol security guards in downtown Chicago. He worked the second shift and never missed a day of work.
I think of him struggling to drown his depression and sorrow in a bottle, but he never did. He soldiered on. I imagine him discussing the horrors of war and his own childhood with his therapist, a very kind man he saw for many years.
I think of my father marching out of Inchon, knowing in his heart there was a family waiting for him on the other side of this awful war he witnessed. Somehow, he knew in his heart that our family would make him whole even though he had not met us.
It would be almost twenty years after Korea that he would meet my mom. They would go through so much. The first night my parents met, he told her everything about his past, including the sad story of his father assaulting him with insults the day he showed off his first car.
Now that I am a mother myself and understand how overwhelming it is to be a parent at times, I have so much respect for my father for not continuing the cycle he saw. He did the best he could and he was torn up from war, childhood, and a hard life.
So instead of remembering the bad things and his imperfections, I remember the kindness and courage I saw on a daily basis. He taught me so much and I just wish I had the opportunity to tell him that I am proud of him.
He died 9 years ago in the middle of the night, technically December 11 at 4 am holding my mother’s hand. December 10, 2003 was the last time I saw him and had to say goodbye to the father I loved for 29 years.
Death sucks, but it is a part of life. But you see I miss him. I miss him, and as grief has numbed the loss – a hole that death leaves, gaping in concave fragments of the heart, a sense of longing has replaced this. This sense of missing him, knowing he is gone.
I miss him.
I miss seeing the veins on his hands, crossed in a holding pattern on his lap, a cigarette always tucked puffing solo in his lips. I miss his morning silence and two cups of coffee minimum rule: “Don’t talk to me until I’ve had my coffee.”
I miss him.
I miss watching his gait, heavy to the left, limping, shifting the weight in stride to his other leg — the leg I now know had significant damage from frostbite from Korea. I miss his odd sense of humor and his incredible intelligence. I miss how he could talk to anyone. I miss his pride. I miss his pats on the back and how awkward he became when I insisted on hugging him.
I miss him.
I miss the way he could pack a car, no matter how large with flea market finds. I miss his Cuban wedding shirts. I miss his scarves which he always called mufflers and reminded me to bundle up on cold Wyoming winter nights before I left the house. I miss his anger, sometimes dark and black. I miss his garden and the flower pots he filled them with — stacked in neat rows around the brick wall around our house on Maxwell. I miss seeing him peaceful with dirt in his hands.
I miss him.
I miss the way he wrapped his shoelaces around his ankles, tying them pragmatically in double knots as an old man. I miss his grey hair comb over. I miss his kindness and Irish pride. I miss smelling Corn Beef and Cabbage every St. Patrick’s Day. I miss the strong scent of coffee in the kitchen of our home. I miss having a hell of a hard time trying to buy him the perfect Christmas gift.
I miss him.
I miss his voice and his ability to speak only when necessary in a conversation. I miss his knowledge and the statistics he could whip out on any baseball team in this century or the last. I miss that he could give the biggest compliment to me through a third person like when he told my best friend Heidi that she had to make sure I write because it is in my blood — “Make sure Megan writes; she is a writer — a journalist a poet. She is related to Percy Bysshe Shelley, you know? Make sure she writes — it is in her blood.” I miss his smile, sometimes rare and sometimes wild.
I miss him.
I miss watching him read thick books and biographies. I miss startling him if I walked up on him unexpectedly, giving me a sense he knew fear in the strongest sense of the word and I miss the sense of relief he had when he knew it was me. I miss his car — a long maroon Lincoln Continental plastered with proud Semper Fi bumper stickers.
I miss him: John Shelley Miller, my dad — the first man I ever loved.
My thoughts and prayers go out to the families and community of Newtown. There are no words, only grief.