By Nicole Seitz, author of The Spirit of Sweetgrass, Trouble the Water and A Hundred Years of Happiness
I have a confession: I never wanted to know about war. When reading the newspaper, I would skim over the attacks in the Middle East. I would pause only briefly to read about fallen American soldiers before tearing up and moving on to some rosier section. I found it easy to avoid watching Platoon and Black Hawk Down. “But you’re a woman,” you might say, “and war is more of a masculine interest.” And I might agree and feel better about my head being stuck in the sand for so long, except for this simple fact: I am the daughter of a war veteran. As such, my avoidance of war things has had less to do with the stereotypical traits of females and more to do with my relationship with my stepfather.
There’s an age-old question: would you rather be loved or understood? I say they go hand in hand. If you love someone, then deeper understanding leads to deeper love. I would argue that I’ve always loved my stepfather, but until I began trying to understand him, my love was limited. It fell upon the brick wall he surrounds himself with. It is this same brick wall that thousands of war veterans build brick by brick in order to protect themselves from what lies in their own heads. Their own hearts. And there must be millions of children and grandchildren and spouses who have banged their heads on these walls in an effort to love and understand the veterans in their lives.
I am a wife and mother of two. I have a close-knit family. My stepfather has been in my life for thirty years, and I thought I had him pegged. He’s loud sometimes. He’s emotional others. He’s the most giving person I’ve ever met. He sometimes speaks what he should keep in his head. My mother used to have to kick him under the table to stop him from sharing too much information. Alcohol has been both friend and foe. He takes risks. He’s a hard-worker, a road warrior, a drill sergeant—a loving grandfather. I thought I knew this man who raised me, but I didn’t. In fact, I’m only beginning to now.
Two years ago, my husband and I took my parents out for their 29th anniversary to a posh Asian-fusion restaurant in downtown Charleston, SC. We ate heartily and sipped mojitos and wine, and then my father did something I’d never seen him do before. He started talking about his time in Vietnam. He described things he never had before. He admitted things I never wanted to hear. Tears rolled down his face as he shed the burden that sat heavy on his soul. My eyes stung. I felt connected to my father in those moments. I felt convicted of my purposeful avoidance of his war. I wondered why I had never taken the time to face the images, the sounds, and the history of what he went through nearly forty years ago. In those moments, my eyes and spirit locked with my father’s, and my life changed because all of a sudden I wasn’t afraid of what I’d learn about war, about him. For the first time, I desired deeply to crawl in his head and be there for him, with him, so he wouldn’t have to suffer those memories alone.
I am a writer. I deal with things through words on paper. I came home and wrote a scene that my father had told us, something that had happened to him recently when he found himself face to face with “the enemy” again after all these years, and how the emotions, the instincts, the haunting memories rose up again from their quiet resting place. I showed my husband the scene and he loved it. I showed it to my mother next and she whispered, “Oh don’t write about this.” I knew in that moment that this was exactly what I needed to write about. It was time I faced the truth of my relationship with my stepfather, and if I was going through this with a veteran, there must be thousands more, millions even, who might relate.
Upon beginning my third novel, A Hundred Years of Happiness, I became obsessed with the Vietnam War. I watched footage that made me ill. I read books I might never have read and listened to sounds I once shunned. I spoke with veterans—never with dry eyes. I attended a gala for Medal of Honor recipients. I tried to get into the head of a war veteran in order to create my main character, John Porter, inspired by my own stepfather. But the book is not really about war. It’s about family and war’s lingering effects. Ultimately, I wrote a book that I hope shows my stepfather how much I love him. How much I desire to understand him. How I will always be here for him if he ever wants to open up…again.
You know my stepfather. He’s the life of the party. He’s unpredictable, moody. You have someone just like him in your own life. Perhaps he’s your grandfather, your crazy uncle, your father, your son, your brother. In today’s times, perhaps he’s even your sister, mother, daughter—women who are fighting valiantly overseas in Afghanistan or Iraq. If I might offer my humble advice, I would say this:
It may take years for your loved one to open up about war. In fact, most vets don’t talk about it, and you may never be as fortunate as I was to have him or her open up. But please do yourself a favor. Don’t hide your head in the sand and act as if those things never happened. Because they did. War happened. And war has lasting effects on families and next generations. Never be afraid to read the difficult news or watch the films or read the books or look at the pictures of war. Our veterans overcame their fears and fought for our country. I will honor my stepfather and all the others who fought and are still fighting today by learning about their wars, talking about their wars, and working to break down the walls that stand between me and the heroes I rub shoulders with every day. Our veterans deserve not only our unconditional love but our boundless understanding.
Nicole Seitz lives in the Charleston, SC area and is the author of Trouble the Water (chosen as one of the "Best Books of 2008" by Library Journal) and The Spirit of Sweetgrass. She also paints the covers for her books. Her latest novel, A Hundred Years of Happiness, is being called "the must-read book of the year" by best-selling author of The Sunday Wife, Cassandra King. It releases from warehouses today. Visit Nicole's website at http://www.nicoleseitz.com/ to watch a book trailer and learn more.