I was six months old when my father left for Vietnam on his second tour of duty. I was two years old when he returned. I am told that the person who returned from Vietnam was very different than the man he was before. I have only ever known the man he was when he came home. He returned to our family shattered, confused, angry, and violent. He was alcohol and drug addict. His brain was destroyed. Before Vietnam, I am told, he was rather odd. After Vietnam, he was certified insane. He was in and out of mental hospitals (seven that I remember). Everyone feared him. Nightly, his hallucinations kept him from sleeping. When he was inebriated he was frightening, but you knew that it would end when he passed out. When he was sober, he could produce the type of torment and terror that even horror films cannot depict.
My eldest sister had an attic bedroom. It was large with high ceilings that sloped on either side. It had lots of nooks and crannies and little cubbie holes (great places to hide). The safest place was her closet. My sister’s closet had a false back behind where the clothes hung. If you could make it to her closet and slip through the hidden door, you could find peace and safety. She kept it stocked with pillows, blankets, food (usually stale crackers or pop-tarts), water ( in gallon jugs), books, cards, old baby dolls, coats ( in case we needed to run away), money (change she had stolen from my father’s pants pockets), weapons (knives swiped from the kitchen) and an extra set of car keys.
Everyday when my father came home from work, she would herd me and my other sisters into the closet. She would tell us to be quiet and she would greet my father at the front door and remove his Army boots, as she tried to judge what his mood might be. If he seemed normal she would come and get us. If she didn’t return for us promptly, we would silently listen for the sounds of terror. If we heard the yelling, glass breaking, or worse, we would make our plans. One of us would distract him from her, while the others got the baby and the money and the coats. We would meet at the back fence, by the apple tree. There was no street light there and the tree could hide you well enough. Distracting him was the easy part, getting my sister to leave my mother was the hard part. Mom wouldn’t leave until she knew that we had all gotten out. My sister wouldn’t leave until my mother got away. My father knew that. Many times we have dragged my mother away screaming. We would go to this little open-all-night diner and regroup. We would clean up any open wounds and wait until it was dark enough for my mother to sneak back into the house, up into the attic, to the floor of my sister’s closet where she would have found some refuge. She would be waiting.
My sister has saved us all a thousand times. She was, in her own way; harsh, disciplined, protective and very organized. She was the strongest and bravest person I have ever known. She was fearful of nothing. She protected us from not only my father, but the numerous men that came into our lives after my father. Wherever we lived, in whatever home or boarding school, with whatever step-parent; my sister was our protector. And all the best stuff could always be found, in my sister’s closet.
She now suffers from the same illness that my father has battled all these years. She is now as terrifying and as confused as he. My prayer for her is that she will find some rest from the racing thoughts and the paranoid hallucinations. I pray that she does not injure another. And I pray that one day she will accept my offer of help. I want to give to her the type of protection and refuge that I always found on the floor of her closet. I love you always, sister.