The Forgotten Ones

FEBRUARY 2014

 

Your father is good man, they say, barely acknowledging the real issue at hand. We thank him for his service. He is a real hero. We recognize the sacrifices that he makes for our country.

No, you really don’t.

A couple weeks ago at our county fair, I sat on the bleachers as I watched my sister in her cheerleading competition. My mother sat to my right, my father to my left, my brother on the other side of Dad, and my youngest brother on my lap. We were a divided family at this competition, for every single member of our family that had graduated, graduated from a different school. Needless to say, this was more than a simple cheerleading competition to us and we weren’t hesitant on talking about how our school was superior to the others. Luckily for my sister, she was in the middle school portion of the competition, so we were able to focus all of our attention on the Norwayne Middle School cheer routine. While Dad held the video camera to record, I noticed that his hands were a lot shakier than normal. I remember thinking that he was aging, and that this was to be expected, but I felt frustrated at the idea of him leaving soon for his next work assignment. Couldn’t they find somebody younger? He is getting a little too old for this. My sister’s routine wasn’t that good, but Dad was quick to say that it wasn’t necessarily bad, either. He is always one to point out the positive. After the competition, we met up with an extended family member that I had not seen since I was a child. One look at me, and she said, “Yep. She’s a Mayo.” My dark brown hair and eyes are identical to Dad’s and I also have the same olive skin tone. My great-aunt, then, started rambling about how I looked like certain relatives of mine. Dad smiled proudly. I did, too.

My dad joined the military a few months after I was born. He didn’t do it because he was gung-ho with patriotism or because he felt called to serve the United States: he joined up so my family could have a good life. For almost twenty years, I have had to live with one prominent parent, my mother, while Dad was in and out of our lives. Even when he is with us, it sometimes feels as if he is elsewhere. Standing right next to him, we often have to repeat ourselves to him because he has a hard time concentrating. When talking as a family, it isn’t uncommon to have to elaborate on a topic for him to better understand what is going on. Nothing is physically or mentally wrong with him: he just naturally detaches himself from us on occasion. I guess he lost the ability to grow with us kids: being away during pivotal times in our lives have sort of thrown off our balance of communication. He wasn’t around when both my sister and I went from being a child to a teenager, and that makes it hard for him to understand our level of maturity.

One of the first memories that I have of dad leaving the family was when we were living in Illinois, I believe. I must have been only about three or four, and Dad had to leave for tech school in another state.  I didn’t understand what was going on. Mom tried to explain to my brother and me that he was only going to be gone for a week or two and that everything would go back to normal eventually. As days went by without seeing him, I gradually began to miss him less and less. Yes, I still remembered him, but it was easier to be without him over time. There came a point that I wouldn’t even think of him being gone, as life went on as usual, and I no longer ached to see him. Mom stepped up and became both parents for my brother and me, and we did just fine. Dad was out of sight and out of mind. He was gone for almost two months. Once he returned home, life did go back to how it was: things got easier on Mom and my brother and I grew accustomed to having him around again.

That was our first mistake, getting used to him being there, for it’s easier to cope with life if we accept the fact that dad won’t be around so much. Of course, how were we to know that as children? Now that my brother and I are older, we understand that he has to leave from time to time. However, that doesn’t make it much easier on us.

Right when dad received orders for Korea the first time around, my family obtained orders for Goldsboro, North Carolina. With three children (now including my younger sister), my mother had to move from Florida to North Carolina all by herself. Thankfully, she and dad already had a house picked out and bought, so that was one less thing for her to have to worry about. I remember trying to be on my best behavior, for I knew that mom was stressing out about everything; she had two children and a toddler to take care of. When my cat went missing upon our arrival in North Carolina, I went out looking for her. In 2004, my neighborhood was still under development and many houses were unoccupied. It was a humid evening, and I walked along the streets, trying to find landmarks to use for future references. After about an hour, I realized that everything was starting to look identical. Even the houses looked the same, with similar architectural structures and even plots of land. Almost every house had some type of tree in front of it, so looking for the large willow tree that belonged to my next door neighbor suddenly seemed like one the stupidest ideas I had ever thought of. And, then, the skies opened up. As I kept walking in the rain, I began to cry. Not only did I not have my dad around, but not having my cat, either, seemed like the end of the world. I was cold, and my heart started racing as I began picking up my pace. Oh, and I was lost. I was very lost. I suddenly felt anger towards my dad. He should have been there for me. If he was, I wouldn’t be in this situation. Dad should have been there to help mom, too. But he wasn’t. Nobody was here for us. When I finally got home, mom gave me a big hug and told me that I needed to be more careful and more aware of my surroundings from then on. Although she didn’t say it, I knew that she was scared for me. With a year ahead of us without daddy, I knew that we were going to have an interesting time adjusting to our new life. I was scared for her, too.

Mom and I have always connected more than my dad and I have. We are involved with the same organizations at home, think that politics are absolutely ridiculous, love travelling, hate petty drama amongst our friends, sound exactly alike while on the phone, and we even have similar handwriting. I guess I am her mini-me, despite my sister looking identical to her. She is my best friend. It was bound to happen that I would be more attached to her since I am the oldest and have had to step up as a third parent over the years. On the other hand, the younger kids cling to dad. Blake, the second oldest, has been the typical boy in our family and makes dad proud with his baseball skills. Danielle, our princess, was the baby of our family for a long time, and she’s always been a Daddy’s girl. Charlie was our surprise in 2010: he melted everybody’s hearts from the beginning, and he has a special connection with dad. How can a father not adore a little boy who believes that he is Spider Man?

But I feel like dad and I never had a fair chance at getting to bond while growing up. Other than being the first born, there is nothing that really sets me apart from the others. Yes, I make decent grades and I have goals, but those are things that mom has always emphasized. I know that dad is proud of me and I strive to do everything in my power to never disappoint him or my mother, but I sometimes feel robbed of the opportunity to get to know him. I think we have lost the ability to connect on the same level that the other kids connect with him, and it hurts. I seldom ever know what to talk to Dad about, and, when I do, I feel like he has little interest in what I say. It is really hard for us to connect, for I am now a woman in college, and he sometimes still views me as a child.

But, at the same time, I think that dad and I have a special kind of relationship. He often points out to me that I am a lot like Mom, but I think he fails to see that I am a lot like him as well. We are both quiet and observant. We both have a hard time adjusting to change, and we think that life should stay as constant as possible. We both have an odd fascination with history, and we both try to stay optimistic about the future. I’ve also noticed  that dad has a hard time making friends, much like myself, and that he finds it difficult to open up to people. We both like to watch classic movies and listen to old music, and we both prefer staying at home with family and close friends rather than going out. We aren’t as different as we believe we are, and it took me getting through my freshmen year of college to realize that.

Last year, during my first year away from home, Dad got deployed to Afghanistan. We both became good fans of Skype and began pen-palling each other. He sent me a card for almost every holiday, and I was always comforted to see his familiar, neat handwriting in my mailbox at school. He had to miss all of the major holidays: Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and many of our birthdays. I came home almost every weekend, and I stepped up and helped my family a lot. I drove my siblings to their extracurricular activities, babysat Charlie, assisted mom with the housecleaning, and even helped with a couple of community projects. I didn’t do it for the recognition, but because it is simply what my family does: we are here for each other. He was deployed for half a year and it was really tough on my family. It was especially hard on my younger two siblings, as they aren’t as used to him leaving. Danielle is becoming a teenager and needs a father figure around, and Charlie doesn’t yet understand why Dad has to leave so much. Due to being in college an hour away from my hometown, I felt guilty for only being home for a couple days a week. I felt like my family needed me and that I was being selfish by being in Raleigh. It was hard for me to adjust to college life while feeling like home was where both Dad and I really needed to be. I tried to stay optimistic, because I knew that’s what Dad was doing thousands of miles away, and being negative about our situation would only make matters worse. I knew that Dad’s assignments couldn’t last forever, and I was anxious to have him home so we could start to get to know each other again.

A couple weeks after returning home, Dad received news that he was to be stationed in Montgomery, Alabama, as early as the following fall. Mom told me first, knowing that I would handle the news the best. I didn’t say a word as I went up to Dad and gave him a hug around the neck. At first he stiffened, but, then, he gradually hugged me back. We didn’t have to say anything. He knew what I was thinking. He just knew. I am his daughter, after all.

My family and I were in denial about it for a couple of weeks, but we eventually had to face reality. We originally started making preparations to move the family down with him, but we soon realized that Alabama is not the best place for the family to be. The area is not the most suitable for the younger two to grow up in, and we were having issues getting our home fixed up enough to sell. My brother and I are both college students, so transferring would have been a hassle. Plus, we would only be there for about a year and a half because dad is nearing retirement. The most financially responsible option is for him to go by himself, as heartbreaking as it is.

He left for Alabama a few days ago. Driving back to school after saying my goodbyes, I knew better than to allow myself to cry. It is sad when a family has gotten used to not having their father around. It is sad when we are so close to being together, but so many obstacles stand in our way. It is sad that once I started to feel like I was finally connecting with him, he had to leave. And it is sad that nobody really understands.

So, please don’t tell me that you do understand. Please don’t tell me that you appreciate his sacrifices. Don’t act all patriotic and proud of your country one day and thank him just to turn around and take it for granted the next. Don’t tell us he is a hero. Don’t you think we know that by now? This is our life, too. My mother’s, my sister’s, my two brothers,’ and mine: this is our life. We are the ones who never get acknowledged for the pain that we have to go through in order for our country to be the way it is. We have never asked for a single thing from anybody, and we wouldn’t ever look for pity, for this is the norm. Dads, Moms, sisters, brothers – they all leave their family members when they are in the military. My family isn’t special. We aren’t different. This is the life of the typical, average, American military family: We may be the forgotten ones, but we will continue to stand strong

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