I wouldn’t say that we have a “military family,” but two members of my family have served in the armed forces: my father, and my mother’s brother. They served during the same time period, in the same country, yet they never knew each other until my father started dating my mother. Despite that, they shared things that the rest of us may never really understand.
I never saw my father smile, not in person. I’ve only seen his smile in pictures. I saw him cry, though. When I was young, I thought that he hated me, because he avoided me for years. I remember trying to hug him, sometime before elementary school. He pushed me away, went to another room, and began to cry.
I didn’t understand, and neither my mother nor my father could or would try to explain it to me. I made my father sad and upset just by being around him, I thought. It made me feel like I was a horrible son, like I was someone my father didn’t want to have around, and like he didn’t want me to be part of his life. Later, I would come to wonder if he’d have been happier if I wasn’t born.
My uncle has never been like that. He was always ready with a smile and a conversation. He was the sort of fellow who could make a conversation with anyone, about anything, and who never felt uncomfortable in any social situation. When I was young, I really liked my uncle. He made it easier.
As I grew older, my uncle intimidated me. He’s one of those men who’s very determined to be manly, if you know what I mean. He did all the manly things that I never much enjoyed, like hunting and roofing and camping, and even though he never said the words outright, it was pretty clear he thought himself a better man because of it.
He served in the military longer than my father. They served “together,” but my uncle continued his military career for another ten years after my father. There was something about it that drew him to the profession. I wouldn’t say he enjoyed it — I never got that impression — but he never seemed to be bothered by it like my father.
My father took his own life when I was nine years old. By that time, I’d started to realize that he didn’t hate me. He loved me. He just had a hard time showing it. It wasn’t me that drove him away when I was young, or at least, it wasn’t me specifically. He just had a very hard time being around small children. There was something there, something that he would never talk about but which my mom did, later, in bits and pieces.
The military broke my father. He saw things and did things that affected him for the rest of his life. They destroyed him. My mother knew him in high school. That’s where she’d fallen in love with him. Still, when he’d come back, with his hollow eyes and unsmiling mouth, it had taken her five years to pull him far enough out of the dark that he would even consider going on a date with her.
My uncle saw and did those same things. I know he did, because of the way my father used to look at him. My mom doesn’t talk about it. Nobody in the family does. My uncle went through the same shit my father did, and you can’t even tell by looking at him. In fact, he went back for more after his tour was complete.
I don’t like my uncle anymore. I avoid him. That he could got through what destroyed my father and come out smiling and unharmed frightens me. It feels wrong. Maybe it’s just because I’m my father’s child, and maybe it’s unfair of me, but knowing even a small part of what they must have witnessed makes me fear him.
Was he okay with what they saw and did? Did he take joy in it? Or did he just accept it as something necessary, something he’d been ordered to do, and just move on from there? Did he just move on from it easier than my father, and deal with the pain of what they had done more successfully? I don’t think I’ll ever ask him, because I’m afraid of the answer.