This will likely be the last paper I share from my first year of college…but then, who knows what I might dig up in the future.
The following is another speech that I wrote up for a public speaking course and is 100% personal in nature. The point of the exercise was to be vulnerable in public. In front of strangers. So we were tasked to share things we don’t typically share with others right off, as well as a lesson we had learned from it.
It was, not surprisingly, difficult. No one held back. That room, that day, was very raw. It was one of the most amazing experiences I ever had in a classroom in my life – a real reminder that you’re always sitting by a fellow human being that has been through something.
A Piece of My Childhood
My father was a bosun’s mate for the U.S. Navy. He was never home a lot, which was probably for the best since my parents never really got along for prolonged periods of time as far as I can remember. One year, when I was about four or five years old, he came home from a deployment, which was usually cause for excitement because not only did I miss him when he was gone but, also, he always brought home gifts. This time was no different. He had a rose for each of us, even my sister, Caitlin, who was only a few months old at the time. It wasn’t long, though, before we noticed a change in him. My parents often argued, but all of a sudden, those arguments were escalating. They were becoming physical. He was irrational, and the littlest thing would set him up. He was bipolar, so I was used to his tempers, but after that deployment things seemed a hundred times worse. My mother was at her wit’s end, on the verge of filing for divorce. But then other things began to happen. My father became suicidal, and he’d get these awful nosebleeds. He went to a doctor and it was discovered that he had developed a brain tumor which had caused the dramatic change in his behavior. It had to be removed or he would die.
So, my mom packed up the Mustang, tossed Caitlin and me in the back, and hit the road towards Portsmouth Naval Hospital. On the way, she dropped my sister and me off with relatives in Virginia Beach. At the time I had no idea what was going on. Only that my daddy was sick. Days passed, and they didn’t come back for us. I didn’t know my uncle and aunt that well, and I was scared but had no one I felt comfortable going to for comfort. I felt abandoned because I had never been away from my mother for so long. Then, finally, she showed up. Only, she was alone. And she looked sad. She told me we’d be going back home, to South Carolina, for Christmas and that dad wasn’t coming back with us. I was so happy to see her that I almost didn’t mind that dad wasn’t with her, but as we got close to home I became increasingly anxious. Why wasn’t he with us?
When we finally pulled into our driveway, Caitlin was asleep and I was only awake out of sheer stubbornness. I always hated sleeping in cars. As I climbed out of the car and headed to the house I noticed the lights were on, but I paid no mind.
My mother did though.
She seemed uneasy but opened up the front door anyway to let me in ahead of her. I was floored by what I saw. There in the middle of the living room, surrounded by toys and with the Christmas tree up and decorated behind him, was my father. Bald, but looking well otherwise. He got up to hug me and told me that Santa had brought him home early for me along with Barbie’s Malibu Dream House.
I was ecstatic, and certain that everything would return to normal. But they didn’t.
Turns out the surgery didn’t go as planned. My father was severely brain damaged as a result and would be unable to work for the rest of his life. His mood fluctuations had not been fixed by any means. The bipolar along with the brain damage seemed to create a perfect storm, of sorts, and he developed paranoid schizophrenia. He didn’t believe he was ill in any way and refused to take his medicine. More than once I watched him attempt suicide. His fights with my mother did not cease either, and I took to hiding with my sister in the closet, covering her ears so she wouldn’t have to hear how scary her world was.
It wasn’t my family that hurt me the most though. I got used to my father. I came to understand that he didn’t want to hurt us. That he couldn’t always control himself. I eventually got used to his inability to empathize. I even learned to understand him. He had forgotten a lot of language, both English and Spanish. My mother even managed to get him to take his medication daily, and things calmed. We had a couple of good years.
But other people didn’t know he was brain damaged. He could behave normally enough in public for short amounts of time. Just a bit awkward. Maybe a touch grouchy, and unable to communicate as effectively as other people. But sometimes normally enough wasn’t enough. There were so many times where I’d watch him, and people would laugh at him, make fun of him, because of his accent or his trouble understanding things that you and I might pick up on easily. Often these people would do it right next to me in a waiting room because they didn’t realize I was his daughter. And for the longest time, I didn’t know what to do. After all, they were adults and I was a child. I felt powerless.
I agonized over it. Maybe those people were right. Maybe my dad was someone to be made fun of. He couldn’t do anything the way other people did, after all. He was weird. And there were times when I told him that out of frustration. He’d look so hurt and I’d feel ashamed. I knew then that those people who made fun of him were wrong, but I still didn’t know what I could do.
Then one day my mother came home from the Veteran Affair’s office. She had been working to get the benefits that the military owed my father but weren’t keen on handing out. I overheard her talking about how she had stood up to a chief on my father’s behalf.
That’s when I knew what I should do. Stand up for him like my mother did. Like he no longer knew how to do himself. And soon it wasn’t just my father I was standing up for. But classmates who were getting bullied because they were different for whatever reason. It was amazing what reasons kids came up with for making fun of others. If I saw, I would do what I could to put a stop to it and I had no problem going to a teacher, or speaking up, or just standing next to them and being their friend. I never got into a fight, but I did make some enemies. I made a lot more friends, though.
Now I’m out of grade school, and bullying isn’t quite as easily fixed in the grown-up world but the lessons I learned back then still apply. Sometimes all a person needs is one person to be on their side. One person to say that they’re fine the way they are.