It is a rare parent who does not pass on the psychic scars of his past. My father is no exception, a discovery I made one day when he shared a few memories of his past. My dad never knew his real father, who divorced my grandmother when my dad was very young. The clearest
memory of his father was when my dad was about three years old and playing with the lights in his father’s truck. His father told him, “Don’t do that son, it will run down the batteries ... ” That was the entire childhood interaction between father and son.
I heard a number of stories about my grandfather’s womanizing and the violent alcoholic stepfather who took his place. My dad and his mother (my grandmother) would devise ways to separate the stepfather from his paycheck; otherwise, he would drink the money away at the nearest bar. Occasionally, my dad threatened to kill his stepfather to keep him from beating my grandmother. Hearing these stories, I began to realize that my dad grew up in an environment of alcoholism, abandonment and violence.
One of the strongest links my dad has to his past is the picture of a gravestone in the American Military Cemetery in Manila, Philippines. That gravestone bears my father’s name. Or should I say my grandfather’s name. My dad’s name is the same name of the father who abandoned him and was later killed in WWII. Dad chose to not put a suffix at the end of his name. So, essentially, even though my grandfather’s name is on the gravestone, it’s also my dad’s name. When I was a child, I saw a picture of that grave and remember feeling shocked and confused until dad explained it all. Looking back on that moment, I’ve come to feel that the stark black-and-white photo is probably the most powerful representation of the pain my father has carried all his life.
When the opportunity came for me to travel to the Philippines a few years ago, I discovered that in the 60-plus years since my grandfather had been buried there, no one from our family had ever visited his grave. Since this was the man whose choices indirectly forged my childhood, I wasn’t sure I wanted to go. But aside from my feelings, there were also those of my father – a son who always wished he could have had at least a 10-minute conversation with his father.
I suggested that my dad write a letter telling his father the things he wished he could have told him in person. Even though I was given permission, I chose to not read the letter – although I can tell you there was no bitterness; nothing but love from a son who looked forward to meeting his father in heaven someday.
I delivered the letter and had my picture taken with it next to the grave site. The letter was later placed in a vault at the cemetery. For me, it was a very proud moment to visit a place that resonated with so many generations in my family, yet no one had made the pilgrimage because of the distance or the pain of the past. It had been a long time, but three generations came together in Manila. And with some understanding and forgiveness, the healing now begins.