Part of me wants to run away from this place as fast as I can, but I can't leave without seeing my old bedroom. It's chilly in the trailer, but as I wrap my fingers around the doorknob, I notice my palms are soaked with sweat.
As I open the door, I am shocked the room is so small. There's a full bed and not much else. I fixate on the little closet in the back of the room. It is the place where I hid from my father. For hours a day sometimes, I read and wrote by flashlight there, hidden away from the world. It was the one place I felt safe.
I start to cry. I can't stop. I think about running over to the closet, flinging the door open and ordering my childhood self to come out. But I don't. I leave the closet door shut and stare from a distance.
The school I can't remember
I feel disconnected when we drive into the high school parking lot. It doesn't seem like I ever even went to school here. That's no surprise. I was disconnected from everyone during my teenage years. I was in countdown mode until I could leave Honaker.
I look at my watch and realize I have only two hours until I'll be speaking and signing books. I have no idea what I'm going to read or what I'm going to say. I've hardly seen anyone but family here for almost 20 years. A part of me would like to think no one in Honaker has changed; I remember most of the people here the way they looked two decades ago. Maybe I'm afraid of seeing that change.
Dad calls and says he'll play his song about Vietnam after all, but he has to set up sound equipment at the library. I'm relieved -- and nervous. I've done a lot of interviews and frequent readings of the book these days, but not in front of my parents. Not in front of my family. Not in front of people in Honaker.
We return to my parents' house. I need some time to think before the event at the library. But as soon as we walk into the house, Mom starts handing me books to sign for friends and relatives. She also shows me a T-shirt she's been wearing with "Thirty Days with My Father" ironed onto it. She's laminated a picture of the book's cover, too, and plans to put it in her car window.
Dad keeps calling my name from the other room. "Christal. Hey, Christal," he yells over and over. I finally yell back that I am talking to Mom and cannot have two conversations at once. I feel completely smothered. When my mother's leg brushes against mine at the table, I pull away. I don't want to be touched right now. I want to be alone. I start counting the hours until I can return to Atlanta.
I lock myself in the guest room and try to figure out what I'll read and say in front of my community today. Maybe no one will show up. I'm afraid they won't. I'm afraid they will.
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