GENERATIONAL GAPS |
June 18, 2011
Name: Matthew Mellina
Returned from: Iraq
We used to stand there counting stars. When the light would fade and fireflies began to shine, we headed to a nearby field and he assembled our telescope, my young hands not knowing what to do, and there we mapped the night sky. I am sure we were there for only an hour or two at a time, but I now remember those days as a perpetual night. I am not sure now what we talked about, or even what we saw, only that when we got home I had a book of glow-in-the-dark constellations to remember.
A snapshot of youth shared between a father and son.
A youth of H-O-R-S-E and science projects and fossils and Ditch Plains. A youth of Dirk Pitt and toy soldiers and road trips and Sundays on the soccer field. A youth far removed from bombs and bullets and the sands of a desert. Where Long Island was home and Iraq was not even a thought or consequence.
I left behind the joy of childhood and settled for adolescent views of rebellion, joining the military, just as my father did decades earlier. But never to follow in his footsteps. I knew some stories of his service. An Airman during the Vietnam era, he never deployed and never saw combat. He was tucked away in the safety of Colorado and Arizona and Germany, working on spy cameras for the Dragon Lady. Most considered him lucky for this, but I when it was my turn to sign the dotted line, I gave myself over to the romanticized heroism of Blown Away. Destined for the Army and Explosive Ordnance Disposal and a war I joined as an act of desperation.
I returned home four years ago only to have another war start. The one with self-sabotage and acronyms for diseases and a strange, creeping loneliness. Through the turmoil of return, my own son was born. I had hoped for a partner in my father who understood the military life, and maybe, just a small amount of what I’d been through. But I was still young and ignorant, and never truly understood the pain caused by my actions and the sleepless nights because of a son fighting a war 7,000 miles away. He gave his all to stand by my side as I have crumbled since my return, but still I turned away from him. The divide between us grew.
Every part of me regrets this gap. There was no similar ground we saw or felt. The military saved him and in the end it may be my downfall. Our differences aren’t just philosophical anymore, either. He watches his back and surroundings, but not as vigilantly as I do. Sounds make him alert, but the effect pales in comparison to my reaction. His world is organized, but not as obsessively. And he is comfortable. Comfortable in his own skin, and comfortable with what consists of time. I’m still searching and wandering for a similar type of comfort.
I have an urge to share my stories with him but I still hold back. Not for fear of what he would think of me but because I do not want to take away what innocence he has left, never seeing death and destruction as I have. We are generations separated by time, distance, and conflict. But as the stories slowly come out, and laughter and sadness collide, I’ve begun to formulate the path I have been on and where the beginnings of who I am began. In moments shared now, I can live and discover about who I am through who we are.
But still, I worry. Not just as a son, but as a father. I was told once, in a war thousands of miles away, that you can never be a man until you raise one. Now I know this to be true, as I raise my son.
I have created lists since his birth three years ago. Lists on how we are similar.
We become lost in the world the same way. Shoot the same looks. Eat the same way. We run like ducks. Our teeth are preferred to nail clippers. We blow bubbles with our own saliva. Our knees shake when we are spooked. We arrange our blocks in color and shape order. Our lips quiver when we cry. Our giggles are the same. We confuse baby pictures. Our eye color is just a shade off. We are each afraid to touch or look in the other's direction. Our bellies are not to be touched. We will both fart on you when prompted and are not opposed to burping at the table. Women are of an extraordinary interest to us. We feel the need to ring doorbells. Our hair cowlicks match. Climbing excites us but the descent may cause us to become petrified. We both love bouncy houses and Hershey’s Kisses. We love to read before bed and we leave the pillow with drool and creases on our face.
I am sure my father has the same experience in reflection when it comes to my youth and upbringing. That’s what bridges humanity and families. But what of this new bridge? I am afraid of my son. I’m afraid to hold. To comfort. To love. To discipline. I am afraid to disappoint. He is an undeniable part of me, and I am an undeniable part of him. Our similarities prove this. So I take in what I fail at, exceed in, and what I know I am to him. The rest will follow because it needs to, and I will not allow it any other way.
I have the example of my father to follow. The man I once resented and now am jealous of. Someone who has been through it all alongside me, regardless of who I am or what I have done, and I will always have a shoulder. An example. On how to care for a family. On how to love unconditionally. On how to learn from your mistakes and fight for what you hold dear. Yes, my father has his downfalls but he is a man or the best damn example of one that I can find. Hearts fail and generations collapse, each making room for the next and hopefully greater one. As I raise my own child, I will impart what I have learned from my father. This is what I hold dear and I pray for, the day my son will ask me about my youth so I can whisper to never make the same mistakes. To never run. To face it all. To keep the world as his own. So I can never sit as my father has with the fear of burying your own. To raise him in the image of my father and hope I can live up to both of them.
Matthew Mellina is an Iraq war veteran and served as an Explosive Ordnance Disposal Specialist and Calvary Scout with the 4th ID from 2001 to 2007. He is an active member of the NYU Veterans Writer Workshop and spokesperson for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA). His work has been featured on Newsweek.com.