The Bear That Would Be Dad

0618171038I do not remember exactly how old I was when I first went in to a Build-A-Bear workshop. I was at the age where I had the ability to drag my mother around to whatever store I desired (the reverse is true now that I am older).

My brother probably just wanted a bear to play with, but I knew I wanted to make a replica of my dad. Teddy bears are a symbol of comfort or whatever feeling kids decide to imprint upon them, so my adolescent brain reasoned that creating a bear like him would always remind me of him.

I picked a bear that closely resembled his physical features; dark, bold, somewhat aggressive, but a happy bear (there are no unhappy bears in a Build-A-Bear workshop, mind you). The bear’s permanently fixed smile symbolized my dad’s personae: happy, loving, and generous, though he did not (and still does not) always express it as such.

My dad is a career military man, and for most of his young life he did not loaf around in the same level of comfort as I have. He made his own way with what little he had, often times with no one there to support him should things go wrong. I imagine his experiences in childhood and his military training contributed to his “strong-but-sensitive” personality.

At the time, my dad was in the Middle East, so in most of his photos he wore his desert BDU’s. Fortunately, the Build-A-Bear workshop had desert BDU’s as a dress option, so I went with those clothes to match.

Add a little stuffing and my dad-themed teddy bear was born. I conveniently named him after my dad (whose name I shall not reveal for the sake of his privacy), and even got him a tiny dog tag for full effect.

When I built that teddy bear my dad had been deployed to the Middle East for at least a year, but it would be six more until he finally got home.

The most difficult memory I have is July 4th, 2002 when we first learned that he was leaving for the Middle East. I remember walking into my parent’s room and seeing my mother crying, knowing he would soon be in a warzone. A sinking feeling set in my heart at the sight of my mother’s tears.

But I was too young to understand what she was crying about. She explained that he would be gone for two or three months to Afghanistan to fight. I had no realistic sense of what this meant, so I said something to the effect of “Okay, don’t worry Mom, he will be back soon. Can I go shoot fireworks with my friends?”

And so I left my crying mother to go shoot fireworks with my friends.

In the years that followed, I learned a harsh lesson: that, as Nassim Taleb puts it, there is nothing more permanent than a temporary government action. A three-month deployment turned into a seven-year absence. There were some years where my father only returned home for three weeks out of the year.

The US troop surge in Afghanistan and the following Iraq War were some of the biggest defining events of my childhood. They were events that took my dad away from me, and my interest in politics was born of a need to understand why he participated in them. I needed to know the reasons why he left, that my dad’s missing presence in my life was somehow justified. But, of course, understanding politics is the root of all heartache.

Those were difficult years. I acted out in all kinds of ridiculous ways – I suspect fatherless children do so to express their inner frustrations. I was not truly fatherless, but it did not make a difference. Absence is absence.

When it comes to emotional children, there is never a shortage of people attempting to diagnose and offer some prescription on how to “fix” them. I learned this as my mother constantly heard from other parents about how I should be on some kind of medication for my “moody” behavior. Fortunately, my mother is smart and knew that medication does not fix a child who simply wants attention.

My mother and father spoke by phone almost every day, and my brother and I loved it when he came home. One year, sometime before Christmas, he returned home from deployment and hid in the bathroom as we returned from after-school activities. My brother and I searched all over the house for a “present” my mom supposedly hid from us. Naturally, we looked everywhere but the bathroom, but it was the best feeling in the world to open the door and see his big smile. I still smile when I watch videos of soldiers returning home, waiting to greet their loved ones at the airport or surprising them in a random place. I know what that feels like.

My father returned home for good in 2009-2010. Since then, his presence is a constant reminder of how lucky I am to have a father who returned from the war. Many people were not so fortunate. I hold them close in my heart, because a father’s absence is devastating to so many.

In the time since I have learned what kind of man my dad is, and what kind of man I should aspire to be. My father is a man of great focus, determination, and strength. His willpower is unparalleled, and I would hesitate before I attempted to out-work him at anything. Well, I would have before his retirement – he is a bit lazier now. But I like to imagine that I possess a fraction of his work ethic and intense drive. Every moment he is around I remind myself how wonderful it is that he is home, that he sacrificed so much for this country and for our family. It is a blessing to have a father like him, and I am glad of the time that I get with him now.

I still have that teddy bear to remind myself how lucky I am that he is alive, well, and never failing to guide me in the right direction. When he is long gone, I will still have that bear as a reminder of the extraordinary person that he is.

Happy Father’s Day.