Over the years, I never thought of my father as being very emotional, and he never was, at least not in front of me. Even though he was 68 years old and only five-foot-nine, while I was six feet and 260 pounds, he seemed huge to me. I always saw him as being that staunch disciplinarian who rarely cracked a smile. My father never told me he loved me when I was a child, and I never held it against him. I think that all I really wanted was for my dad to be proud of me. In my youth, Mom always showered me with “I love you’s” every day. So I really never thought about not hearing it from my dad. I guess deep down I knew that he loved me, he just never said it. Come to think of it, I don’t think I ever told him that I loved him, either. I never really thought about it much until I faced the reality of death.
On November 9th, 1990, I received word that my National Guard unit was being activated for Operation Desert Shield. We would convoy to Fort Ben Harrison, Indiana, and then directly to Saudi Arabia. I had been in the Guard for 10 years and never dreamed that we would be activated for a war, even though I knew it was what we trained for. I went to my father and gave him the news. I could sense he was uneasy about me going. We never discussed it much more, and eight days later I was gone.
I have several close relatives who have been in the military during war time. My father and uncle were in World War II, and two brothers and a sister served in Vietnam. While I was extremely uneasy about leaving my family to serve my country in a war zone, I knew it was what I had to do. I prayed that this would make my father proud of me. My father is very involved in the Veterans of Foreign Wars organization and has always been for a strong military. I was not eligible to join the Veterans of Foreign Wars because I had not been in a war zone—a fact that always made me feel like I didn’t measure up in my father’s eyes. But now here I was, his youngest son, being shipped off to a foreign land 9,000 miles away, to fight a war in a country we had barely heard of before.
On November 17, 1990, our convoy of military vehicles rolled out of rural Greenville, Michigan. The streets were filled with families and well-wishers to see us off. As we approached the edge of town, I looked out the window of my truck and saw my wife, Kim, my children, and Mom and Dad. They were all waving and crying, except for my father. He just stood there, almost like a stone statue. He looked incredibly old at that moment. I don’t know why, he just did.
I was gone for that Thanksgiving and missed our family’s dinner. There was always a crowd, with two of my sisters, their husbands and children, plus my wife and our family. It disturbed me greatly that I couldn’t be there. A few days after Thanksgiving I was able to call my wife, and she told me something that has made me look at my father in a different way ever since.
My wife knew how my father was about his emotions, and I could hear her voice quaver as she spoke to me. She told me that my father recited his usual Thanksgiving prayer. But this time he added one last sentence. As his voice started to crack and a tear ran down his cheek, he said, “Dear Lord, please watch over and guide my son, Rick, with your hand in his time of need as he serves his country, and bring him home to us safely.” At that point he burst into tears. I had never seen my father cry, and when I heard this, I couldn’t help but start to cry myself. My wife asked me what was wrong. After regaining my composure, I said, “I guess my father really does love me.”
Eight months later, when I returned home from the war, I ran over and hugged my wife and children in a flurry of tears. When I came to my father, I embraced him and gave him a huge hug. He whispered in my ear, “I’m very proud of you, Son, and I love you.” I looked that man, my dad, straight in the eyes as I held his head between my hands and I said, “I love you too, Dad,” and we embraced again. And then together, both of us cried.
Ever since that day, my relationship with my father has never been the same. We have had many deep conversations. I learned that he’s always been proud of me, and he’s not afraid to say “I love you” anymore. Neither am I. I’m just sorry it took 29 years and a war to find it out.
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