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How To Watch Your Dad Go To War in 10 Simple Steps

A fictional short story about Military Brats and life on the Home Front

It’s Friday, almost 5 o’clock, and Anne Douglas can taste the weekend. After a whole week interning at the local newspaper, she wants nothing more than to get out of there. The whole office feels slow and sleepy like cough syrup. Then the boss bursts in.

“Goddamn it! It’s the fucking anniversary of the fucking Iraq war and we don’t have a fucking article about it. We can’t go to press like this!” He’s red in the face, practically popping with anger. He spins around to point a vindictive finger at Anne. “You! Intern! Your dad was there!”

It’s not a question. Anne nods anyway.

“Write me something. I don’t care what. Something sad or patriotic.” He leaves, just like that.

Anne stares at her blank computer screen, jolted out of her sleepy mood. She writes a paragraph, then deletes it. She starts a few more lines, then backspaces through everything.

Finally, she makes a list.

How to Watch Your Dad Go to War in 10 Simple Steps

1. When some kindly, middle-aged woman with a pitying smile takes your hand and says, “Thank you for your sacrifice,” “You’re not welcome,” is not an appropriate response. Even if it’s true, it’s still not polite.

2. When people pity you, don’t accept their pity. If you accept it, you’re admitting something bad could happen.

3. When no one says anything, don’t get mad. Remember, not everyone’s life is shaped by the conflicts erupting oceans away. Some people can forget that the country is still at war. It’s not their fault. They have their own lives to live.

4. At the funerals of your friends’ fathers and your father’s friends, cover your ears during the twenty-one gun. Don’t imagine that it’s your dad in the flag draped coffin. Considering the worst would be like practicing bleeding.

5. When someone says that they just couldn’t survivetheir loved one going to war, remind them that there no choice in the matter. What do they think they would do instead? Roll over and die? Life clings to you, even when you hate it.

6. When your mom puts all the patriotic ornaments on the back of the Christmas tree and starts swearing at Bush and Cheney and the entire United States government, find a bottle of wine and pour her a glass. She needs it. Your dad’s not there to do it.

7. If your mom is crying in the shower, it means she doesn’t want you to hear. Her grief is a private grief. It’s none of your business.

8. It’s okay not to be happy when your dad comes home from war. It is impossible emerge from a war unscathed. Sometimes it feels like the world is too terrible a place to let small pockets of happiness exist, that quiet reunions in darkened airports are too beautiful to be real.

9. It’s okay for those quiet reunions to be as terrible as they are beautiful. When your dad finally comes home, he will push you away. Remember, he is not just your father. He is a husband, and your mother is his wife. He is not there for you. He is there for her. Let her cling to him in the airport terminal. Let her press her hands to his face like a prayer. Look away. You aren’t supposed to see your parents in such a vulnerable moment.

10. Remember, after the war is over, he’s still your dad. This is the man that tucked you into bed, read Calvin and Hobbeswith you, once let you paint his toenails “glitter-magic pink.” Remember, too, that he’s still a soldier, an airman. He’s commanded squadrons of pilots, carried the dead and the dying in the belly of his airplane, flown home the flag covered coffins. The man that still watches Saturday morning cartoons with you is also the man awarded a Bronze Star, for “Meritorious Achievement in Operation Iraqi Freedom”. Your mother keeps it in a box in her nightstand. And that’s oaky. It’s weird, but it’s life. Your life.

Anne finishes typing. Edits a few typos. Fixes a few sentences. It’s not sad or patriotic. She turns it in anyway. Gets a cup of coffee. Meets up with friends for lunch. Calls her dad, talks about nothing. Decides to take a trip that weekend. Drive somewhere she’s never been. Sing along to the radio.

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