Facing the community: 'We're proud of you'
My heart pounds on the way to Honaker Community Library. The air feels heavy. I've decided the only way I can get through this reading without sobbing is to use a script. Luckily, I have the one from my book launch.
The first person I meet at the library is a friend of my parents. She tells me she's the widow of a Vietnam veteran; her husband died several years ago of complications from Agent Orange. The second person I meet introduces himself as a Vietnam veteran. He has tears in his eyes. "If you can help even one person understand what we went through, all this will be worth it," he says. "I'm buying your book for my two children."
My mother has agreed to sell books for me, so she sets up on the side of the room, and I walk to the table in front where there is a chair waiting for me. In no time the room is packed. Although I was a bundle of nerves when I walked in, I feel myself relax with each person I meet: old friends from church and from high school, neighbors, friends of my parents, people I've never met. I was worried about the mere act of being among the people of Honaker. After all, I'd lied to them for so long.
For many years, I'd imagined myself standing up in public (usually my fantasy happened in a church) and finally flinging open the doors of truth, telling all of Honaker about the way my family lived. The depression, the rage. My father hiding in his room, me hiding in my closet.
But I'd kept to myself the daily repercussions of the war that raged inside our home. Now every single person I talk to thanks me for writing this book. "We're proud of you," they say. Their words give me strength.
By 2:40, I am feeling more confident. There's standing room only. All 30-plus chairs are taken, and people keep coming in.
When I move over to the podium, I'm not terrified like I thought I'd be. I look out into the audience. Not a single person is frowning. I can feel their support, their love. It is amazing to me that these are the very people I've avoided for almost 20 years. I was afraid that if they knew the truth about my family and me, they'd ostracize us. I was so afraid our reputation in the community and the church would be ruined -- and that no one really cared about us. Yet here they all are, people who clearly care enough about my family and me to come today, and who obviously care about this story.
Before I start speaking, I think about how ironic it is that for 30 years I never gave my father a chance to tell his story. Once I did, we both found peace and healing. In truth, I've never really given my childhood community a chance either. I've assumed the worst of people because of my own fears.
I begin to speak -- not from my script, but from my heart. I tell them that I'm scared, that I didn't know how this would be, how frightened my mother and I were to tell the truth and it just about ate us alive inside. I tell them that what happened back then -- and the way my family dealt with it -- prevented me from having relationships with everyone in this room. I say I hope things will be different now.
I look into the eyes of everyone in my audience, and I know it will be so.
I move on to my script, and I read the prologue of my book. There are lots of questions afterward, and I can see people in the audience crying.
My father sings his song about Vietnam, and people gather around for me to sign their books. Most ask my father to sign, too, and I just sit back and watch and smile.
My father deserves this. Perhaps it's the welcome home from Vietnam that he never had. It feels like the welcome home I've always wanted, too.
Monday, November 19, 2012
I'm quiet on the long drive back to Atlanta, deep in self-reflection. I've reconnected with my community, and I'm happy about that. A story is nothing without an audience, and people showed up to hear mine. Mostly, though, I'm glad to be going back to Atlanta. It is a vibrant cultural epicenter, teaming with people from all backgrounds and walks of life, and I have flourished in this diversity. My mind is open now, and there's no closing it.
I may always call Honaker "home," but Atlanta has become my home, too. It's where my friends are, where I can build a quiet life in my own little house, and where I can wake up every morning to my chickens, my dogs and my garden. I have a piece of the country here with me, but I don't have to be constantly exposed to things that remind me of the war. It is such a peaceful feeling to know that in a few hours I'll be back in Georgia's capital city, a place where I have grown to feel completely safe.
As the miles tick by, I think about Grover Lambert and the many other people in Honaker who never had the opportunities I did. My parents had no money for college, but I was able to attend for free because of my father's PTSD disability. It was my ticket out of Honaker. I knew, even at a young age, that I had to leave behind the landscape and the people who triggered my PTSD. I had to start over on my own. I wanted to live.
As we leave the mountains behind and near Tennessee, I think about the old deer heads mounted on my parents' walls. They're the only décor left from when we lived in the trailer. Those deer heads have seen it all. And like my family, for years and years, they stood silent.
Writer Leroy Brownlow once said, "There are times when silence has the loudest voice." I believe that. For 30 years, silence was my default mechanism. It almost killed me. Talking to my father about the war broke a pattern my family probably would have held until the end. Publishing "Thirty Days with My Father" was a way to ensure I was never silent again, even long after I'm gone. Finally looking my community in the eyes and telling them the truth about my life was a way to make sure my family no longer has to carry our burden alone.