What Imagination Can Do For You

Yeah, this is long. Hard to get all of this out in 400 words or less.

A few commonly delivered reasons for why I am an only child:
Growing up: we felt like we could only afford to have one child. My Army Dad was enlisted and my mom a SAHM– this reason has merit.

Older: “by 1976, kids were being born with Agent Orange related birth defects. We felt so lucky that you had been born healthy and whole, that we didn’t want to tempt fate. Another reason that has some meat, KWIM?

I blamed myself for a long time: “You never slept. You were 3 before you slept through the night. You’d pass out on the floor in the kitchen at 4pm, your Dad would come home, eat and go to bed, because that meant you’d be up again at 3am.” Sleep-deprivation like that? Yeah, I wouldn’t have done it again, either.

As a parent, I’m aware of what it means to have children. Children bring happiness, sure; but they also bring stress– to individuals, to marriages. They are life altering– if you’re doing it right.

And though I’m at no risk of being considered normal, I don’t have PTSD, either. I wasn’t a teenager fighting a war before I had my kids. I’ve never seen anyone get shot. Listened to them die.

PSTD. My Dad and so many others just… suffered — without a name or diagnosis for years, because men of the 70s weren’t so much into the therapy and feelings talk. Men in the military were definitely not talking about it– not sober with civilians, at least.

His experiences shaped and molded my whole world view. Just a few that I have since realized are unique to being an Army Brat:

  • House Perimeter checks. I’ve heard some families don’t check the security of their perimeter before going to bed.
  • Leaving blinds or curtains open after dark.
  • Slamming Doors– any door.
  • How a person feels about door slamming also happens to be the triggering event for the rest of… this. About 3 years ago, I sat with the husband of one of my best friends. As we talked, (he is ex-Army, with Middle East experience) we got on the subject of slamming doors. Dude is a reasonably laid back guy, but slamming doors? Rage-inducing, fuggedaboutit. Sounds like gunshots, you know?

    No, I didn’t know. All I knew was that slamming doors got my ass in serious trouble. That sort where even limit-pushing snotty kids (like myself) stop the behavior because their scary parent (Dad) has crazy face.

    JB? Door. Slammer. The sort of door slamming that makes the wall rattle. Drives me bat shit. Seriously, we’ve had screaming arguments about his door slamming problem.

    Another year or two passes, and another friend has a newborn. All babies cry, but newborn babies have an especially obnoxious version, designed by Mother Nature to get you off your ass. Around that time, NC started really pushing information about the Period of Purple Crying. It’s impressively pertinent information on how much, and for how long, one can expect an infant to be in that colicky phase. They even specifically address Dads.

    Which made me remember some things Mom had told me about my own father’s infant care skills — in an effort to make me appreciate how involved JB was, I guess.

    Your dad wouldn’t ever let you just cry at night. No crying-it-out for Stephanie. Nope. Seems sweet for such a tough guy, hunh?

    Sadly, all of this pushed my over-active imagination towards a darker theory on why I’m an only child.

    How hard do you think it was for a combat-trained, wounded-in-action vietnam veteran to listen to that colicky cry? Six years before I was born, at 18, he was living in the hell known as Firebase Ripcord.

    Now I wonder how many times a 24 year old, combat veteran might have just wanted to just make it stop. How that need to make it stop might have been tangible to him– grating to his skin, making him bleed. Dark nights when he was the only adult awake in a crappy military apartment listening.

    Maybe some of the root of that emotional distance was his own mistrust of himself. Because of having to battle the clawing, shredding need to make it stop.

    Now I know that my father battled his demons every day. It’s not such a great leap for me to consider that half of his 24 year old self stared at me– loud and demanding– and hated; while the other half stared at his daughter and loved. Fiercely. Of that I have no doubt; I was loved.

    I also know he felt shame– survivor’s guilt because he was 18 and lived, while men with wives and children did not. Can you imagine the additional shame payload of surviving, getting the chance of being a father and wanting nothing more than to make it stop?

    Who could he have gone to with those thoughts? My mother? She would have–understandably–run like hell.

    His Army-provided GP? Crazy house, with complimentary early discharge. A high school dropout turned grunt isn’t exactly rolling in the marketable skills.

    A lifetime of guilt. 18 years old; a baby. A believer in the Save-America’s-Democracy propaganda; trying to escape the boredom of a high school in Southern Louisiana.

    When I was 18, my life was all sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll. Well, not so much with the rock-n-roll. At 18, my big life accomplishment included graduating high school early, and working hard for my 0.4 (not a typo) GPA in college.

    No one was talking about PSTD in 1976. Soldiers were expected to STFU and deal, just like the men of previous generations. Parents didn’t joke about how tired they were; about how annoying and draining they sometimes found their children. There was no campaign about the purple period, no PSAs about shaken baby syndrome.

    When I consider how many times I, oh one of the privileged life, have said:
    “I’m the adult, the parent, they are children”; “I’m the adult, the parent, they are children”; “I’mtheadulttheparenttheyarechildren” to stop from exploding on my kids? It’s humbling.

    There was no help. For either of them.

    March 11, 2001. The day my dad died. Actually, the cerebral hemorrhage was the night before, but life support was removed the next morning. Acute Myelogenic Leukemia. I still can’t spell leukemia without help– brain block.

    Eleven years. A death-versary. So many different wounds to rip open. But it’s been 11 years; that pain, can burn, but is more often numbed. I usually have to reach for it with intent; very rarely am I smacked in the face with it on a random Tuesday.

    Until last week as I drove Z to preschool and E asked about his nickname. We jokingly call him Elli-mutt, because it rhymes and he likes to lick things.

    E: “Mommy, when you was a baby, what was your nickname?”
    Me: “I had two,” pause, smile. “Bird and Bozo”
    Z: “BOZO? Why?”
    Me: “Because I had curly red hair, like Bozo the Clown”
    E: “Bird? Like a woodpecker?”
    Me: “No, when I was learning to walk, I waddled like a bird.”

    Then, with silent tears I smile again, thankful for the memory, even though it hurts. No one has called me Bird in a very long time.

    71 thoughts on “What Imagination Can Do For You

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    70. Soooo… I had never done the two-and-two thing about the slamming doors before. So that explains a LOT for me, thanks. My dad is the same way – he even hates the sudden pipe-rattle if you turn off a FAUCET too suddenly (this is why I am so gentle with taps). My sister went through a very brief teenager phase where she slammed her bedroom door a couple times – and my father took it off the hinges and put it in storage for two weeks.

      I can’t speak to any of the rest of it because it made me cry.

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