I wrote this in Febuary 2013. It’s taken almost 2 years for me to hit the button that will force me to take just one more tiny step in processing the suffering that has coloured my blood since I was a very little girl. Dedicating it to my dad, from his youngest. I truly hope he never ever reads it.
For my entire adolescent and adult life I’ve felt sad and disappointed by my dad’s performance as my father. I felt as though he failed my sister and I. Often it was us who played parents to him as we traversed our way through his depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. His inability to happily exist within society and our family hurt me. Our adoration and love as children was never enough to make him happy. As a child of the 80’s, raised on Disney, and a teen of the 90’s and avid watcher of old romantic films, this was devastating. My sister idolized him well beyond the point where she realized he was not the man she thought he was. She moved to Sydney to live with him and my step-mum when she was 14. It didn’t work out. She was living in a half way house run by a kick ass nun (thanks for caring for my sister Sister) from her school by the age of 16.
Dad left Australia in 1997. He wanted to give back something to the region he felt he had helped to destroy. Vietnam was too much for him so he has lived in either Cambodia or Laos ever since. I was 17 when he left the country and I felt abandoned. Didn’t he know he was going to miss everything? Didn’t he care? He came to see me perform in a school production of West Side Story just days before he left. I was embarrassed for him to see that side of me. It seemed too personal for him to get a glimpse of me doing something I loved when he was about to up and leave us. It made me want to cry to think of him standing there and being proud of me. Having that moment where he saw his little girl through the eyes of hundreds of other people, but got to feel special, to enjoy the feeling of his heart swelling, because he was my dad. He didn’t deserve it. I wanted to cry at my own bitterness. I wanted to flip the bird and tell him to get fucked. I wanted to scream because I didn’t really want to tell him to get fucked. I really longed for him to show us that he was our dad who loved us more than anything, and to stay in the country to be close to us.
When I was 21, I moved to Sydney for uni. He had given a list of orders written with military precision to my mother and my ex-stepmum to sort through his things from his storage unit. My sister and I were to distribute everything amongst us women and set some things aside that dad particularly wanted. Some of these were obscure….antique silver mandarins, antique daggers, my grandfather’s war medals. We didn’t know where they were and couldn’t find them. He came home to Australia and accused my mother and stepmum of conspiring to steal his belongings. I told him he was being ridiculous. That mum had never asked him for, nor had he given her anything. He lost his shit in the middle of Oxford Street at lunch hour. Shouting that I was a nasty little bitch and that we were all against him. I turned around and walked away. A few days later he called mum to tell her that she had done a bad job in raising us, that my sister and I were not good people. Deceitful and selfish, horrible little women, a far cry from Louisa May Alcott’s cherubs. These incidents, his absence of 15 years and his tendency to flip out when he returns home have all contributed to the demise of our relationship. From that day on Oxford Street, I was no longer daddy’s little girl. He doesn’t even know the half of it.
As I type – tappy tap tap – I am in Ho Chi Minh city. The streets are overflowing with civilians buzzing with festivity for Tet, the New Year celebrations. Years ago my dad told me he had returned to Vietnam in the hope of tracking down some of the Vietnamese people who had befriended him during his time here in the American/Vietnam War. He came from a fucked up 1950’s nuclear Australian family. Standard. My grandmother was a tortured soul who needed attention more than anything else. She would walk my dad and uncle to the country bus stop and in floods of tears she would tell them that when they returned from school, she might be gone. Forever. What a gal. My grandfather had been in the navy in WWII and was a violent drunk. He busted my grandmother having an affair and thought my father was the child of another man. He picked on my dad. Dad had brown hair, sad brown eyes, and big ears. He didn’t like sports like his younger brother, he liked books and languages like some fucking faggot. My grandfather had an ill temper and once flew into a rage and knocked my 12 year old dad out cold. It wasn’t until I was born, with blonde hair and blue eyes, just like Poppa, that he believed my father was his son by blood.
I have always known that my dad treasured the bonds he made in Vietnam. The Vietnamese taught him their language and they got along great. I have the photos of his time in the War. Serious children with rifles almost as tall as they are. Him smoking ciggies and playing cards with other soldiers. I’ve always known he was damaged goods. At times as unpalatable as the 14 year old cans of tinned tomatoes we found in mum’s cupboard last Christmas.
Just before he left Australia he wrote me a letter telling me that he had had a Vietnamese lover. Dad had held him in his arms as he died. I can’t remember exactly what happened. I only ever read the letter once and then buried it in a box with all my other letters from over the years. The shock of finding out my father had had a male lover was overwhelming. The pain of knowing what he had suffered and lost was even greater. I chose not to acknowledge it. We have never spoken about the letter he wrote me and sometimes I wonder if I imagined the whole thing.
A few years ago dad told me that he came back to Vietnam in the hope of finding some of the locals who had befriended him. He went to the War Museum and there he saw the names and faces of every single person he was looking for. They had all been murdered in various horrifying ways over the course of the War. Men, women and children. Today I visited this museum and I was quickly reduced to tears. The pressure from the heat and my heart left me struggling to breathe as I floated my way up stairs and around rooms walking through the terrors that woke my dad every night that I remember with him. I looked at photographs and read captions. I saw faces contorted by suffering and also hope. With each name and face I couldn’t help wondering who my dad had been looking for? Which faces did he find on those walls? I imagined his heart racing as he wandered the exhibits, breaking over and over again with every familiar face he saw. I finally understand the weight of my father’s sorrow. And it is as heavy as fuck. I finally understand that tenor in his voice when it used to fall really low, low, low. Down to a whisper. The film of water over his eyes that was sometimes inexplicable. The heaviness of his spirit.
I’m glad I finally faced my own fears and came to Vietnam. I’ve always wanted to come, but never have. I’ve kept it at a distance, knowing that it would be a very personal experience. I have found and placed another piece in the puzzle that is my father. Dad gave me all his old albums from the storage unit and they are filled with photographs that he took of my sister and I as children. You can feel his love shining at us through the lense. He was not perfect. He often was not there, even when he was in front of us. He didn’t cope with us growing up and holding him accountable for his failings. But he loves us and deserves forgiveness and a real chance to bear witness to our lives and to be a proud father. Cause actually, my sister and I turned out alright and I know that might make him happy to know.
Except for the whole job thing. I don’t want him to see his little girl through the eyes of the thousands of other men who have gazed upon me. A lot of them have known me better than he ever will. I’ve spoken to some of them about the things that matter most to me, that make me laugh or break my heart. He’ll always be my dad. I will always love and respect him. I accept him as he is. But he will never know me as I am.