Behind the Den Door by Lizzie McIlhenney

Every family has their stories, the legends and the myths, the sad stories and the ones that everyone laughs at an annual dinner after the wine has been cracked open. But there are some that no one dares breathe a word about, and everyone wishes or is demanded that they forget. Every family has them, and they can strengthen or break the bonds between loved ones.

I’m older now, I’m a grandmother with my oldest grandchild engaged to be married this summer, but there is one memory that will forever be branded into my mind.

           My father was a World War II veteran, and my two uncles served as well. My uncle Andy survived, my uncle Thom, however, was shot down early in the war, and is honored to this day with a ribbon in my window. The war affected my father in ways that I could not possibly understand when I was a young girl in the late 40s and the early 50s. Not even the post war understood what affected and changed our soldiers, with what we now understand are extreme cases of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and a serious psychological problem. Back when the war ended, our boys were sent home and counseled to push the bad memories away, and not to talk about it to anyone, except maybe other veterans.

           The men returned home changed, not quite the same as their wives remembered from before. Each man dealt with the emotional scarring differently, ranging from looking for answers at the bottom of a whisky bottle to going insane. My father chose to completely shut his emotions out. I remember the late nights when he would sit in his chair and stare blankly into space, his eyes glazed over and wide, until I heard my mother gently pull him out of his chair and lead him to bed. I remember watching their shadows in the hall from my little twin bed, and hearing my mother whisper to my father and the shuffling of his slippers on the carpet hallway as they slowly made their way to bed.

           My father was a good man. Honest and kind, and a loving father and husband. However, there were nights when he would stay in his den, and keep the door closed, a sign that we were forbidden to enter. Sometimes we wouldn’t see him for a full day. Sometimes, when my uncle and his family would come on Sundays for dinner, after the meal, my father and my uncle would slip into the den while my mother and my aunt cleaned up and we children would play in the family room.

           Finally, one night when I was around ten years old, my curiosity got the better of me. I told my cousins I was going somewhere, probably the bathroom, and I stood and listened at the keyhole of the den door, and I got my first glimpse of my father’s experience and horrible memories.

           As I stood crouched, listening, careful of my breathing, I heard crying. A tingle ran down my spine. I had never seen or heard my father show any emotion like this, and to hear him heave for breath like so was alarming to my young ears. I strained to hear more.

           “My God, Jerry! What is it?” I heard my uncle exclaim.

           “It’s just those damn dreams again! I can’t shake the images from my mind…”

           There was silence for a moment, and I heard my uncle sigh, “I know, I know…”

           “How many years is it now? Over ten? And the memories are just as vivid as they were. The screaming rings in my ears like they did when we marched… I dreamt about Henry again last night, do you remember when I told you about him? We trained together, fought together, were captured together… Until we were a day away from O’Donnell. We were marching right next to each other, happy to be alive still, when so many were dropping around us. Then, Henry fell, and the guard who was behind us slashed his head off with a samurai before he had even completely hit the ground. I tried to stop him, but another guard bayoneted me until I was within an inch of my life. It was a miracle that I was still standing, let alone marching. But what I remember most his having to march past his dead body, and know that his family would never see him again. Sometimes, when I close my eyes, I can see the flash of the sword, hear it swishing in the air, and hear him crumple to the ground…”

           Horrified, I couldn’t listen anymore. I remember running away from the door, down the stairs, and through the kitchen doors to where my mother and my aunt were laughing and drying plates. Mother turned around and eyed me with alarm, “Are you alright, sweetie? You’re white as a sheet!”

           I blinked, and couldn’t open my mouth to reveal what I had heard, the visions in my mind playing over and over like a talkie. It took me a moment to gather my composure and smile and nod, saying that I had come in for a glass of water.

~

Years later, when my siblings and myself were going through his belongings, packing them up when we were moving Dad into a smaller condo when Mom died, I discovered an old journal in a box in the attic. It had fallen out of a musty old blanket that was bundled up in his trunk. Dumbstruck, I realized what this was as I flipped through the yellowed pages. It was my father’s diary that he kept during the war. I held in my hands piece of history that I never knew had existed. The last entry is what haunted me the most.

   We once studied this poem by Thomas Hardy, in school when I was young, and there is a line that has been running through my head ever since I started serving.

But ranged as infantry,

And staring face to face,

I shot at him as he at me,

And killed him in his place.

“I shot him dead because —

Because he was my foe,

Just so: my foe of course he was;

That’s clear enough; although

“He thought he’d ‘list, perhaps,

Off-hand like — just as I —

Was out of work — had sold his traps —

No other reason why.

  I didn’t understand it then, but it made sense to me as I entered the battlefield the first time. These men we’re being sent out to shoot and kill, we are no different. We’re both human, maybe we would have been friends if the circumstances were different. The man at the other side of my bullet may be a father to be, or he may have a young daughter or son at home, as I do. He could have a sweetheart or a wife at home, praying to God for his safety, as I do. And the possibility that the man or boy at the other end of my gun could be so similar to myself, hangs over me like a dark cloud as I harden my heart and pull the trigger.

~

           For years I would remember that night, and when I researched the details I found that my father had survived the Bataan Death March. That was the only time I had heard about my father’s experience through his own lips. I never told him what I had overheard, but when I was nearly thirty and pregnant with my first child, I asked my father if he had marched in Bataan. He was quiet, until he swallowed and confirmed that he was, not asking how I knew. After a long period of silence, he lifted himself out of his chair and lifted the back of his shirt, where I could see several nasty scars where the Japanese soldiers had bayoneted him. After a moment, he pulled his shirt back down and lowered back into his rocker. Then he changes the subject to my unborn baby, asking if we had any names in mind for the child.

           I smiled to myself and replied, “Henry.”

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