Reconnecting Through My Father's Ghosts

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In 1969 my father and 99 other soldiers walked into a Vietnamese jungle for the first time. By the end of the day 99 soldiers were dead. He'd survived, but not without injury. His back and arms had been gored by shrapnel. I didn’t hear this story from him. My aunt told it to me a Summer or two past. That’s been the way of it for most of my life. 44 years old. I’m still piecing together fragments. I’ve spent my life collecting scraps of personal stories that will explain my father to me. The big question: What happened in Vietnam? Who is this man, whose body came home, but whose soul seems as if it was obliterated by an explosion of blood and bone and brain?

Why did he sign-up for a second tour of duty? Why did he renounce God in a foxhole? The young man—the artist, poet, and church musician—never wrote another line of poetry after the war. He never again touched an instrument. Although, I remember once being surprised to hear him playing Christmas carols on a cheap Casio piano at the kitchen table when he thought no one was home. He never again walked into a church on Sunday morning, not by choice. Instead, he sat in a chair in the living room and watched television. That was his daily routine, interrupted by walks to the bar.

That’s the father who dominates my imagination. A man haunted by the ghosts of friends. Soldiers who were cut down, corn before the harvester. Forgotten men who pulled him out of rivers, and foxholes, and hospital beds. Friends whose names are scars that criss-cross his heart. Brothers whose ghosts fill the space where his soul once dwelt. He stayed in Vietnam for the brotherhood. Then when his time was up the United States Army sent him home to die. But old soldiers never die. They get dragged into nothingness by the ghosts who haunt them. He was always haunted that way.

When I was a boy I feared him. When I was a teenager I loathed him. When I returned from missionary service in Mexico I tried to understand him. When I held my first-born son I forgave him. When I buried another man I loved on a muddy hillside, in the church’s cemetery, I buried all my feelings for him too. I accepted him as he is, fragments of someone who once was a whole man. A dead poet. A haunted soldier. An addict waiting for death to bring him quiet.

However I come at it, there’s too many voices in his head. Too much hurt to ever be relieved. Too much between us for him to be just “Dad.”

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Still, I forced myself to call him on the phone today. Thirteen years is a long time. Too long to let withered feelings of guilt and anger hang on. I have received so many gifts. So much I don’t deserve. Husband, father, pastor, clean and sober. I receive as gift forgiveness, and life, and eternal salvation. Every Sunday morning I confess how I’ve wasted God's gifts. Ruined them. Hurt them. And our Lord's answer is always, "Go in peace. For Christ's sake, you are absolved of all guilt."

I live in that freedom, that giftedness of a life received from God’s fatherly hand. My dad never had that. Not even when he was a boy. So I called him. My dad. My gift once refused, long ignored, now received.

In the confessing and absolving we are set free. Free to receive every good and every complete gift from God. That’s what Christ accomplished on his cross for me, the sinner. Through his sacrifice, I am set free to receive God who I once called "enemy," as heavenly Father. I am named “child” by Him. And the man who is haunted by war, by fallen brethren, by God, hears the voice of his son who says, “Hey, Dad... It’s been a long time.” We are given to each other by God as gift. And as we are given to, we give the gifts to others. Always more and more. More faith. More love. All Jesus. All gift.