They stared at me in silence for a moment, the girls’ splashes and screeches in the pool punctuating the tension.
“Well, Aerin,” my father finally said, “you’ve made your feelings clear. We’ve talked about this umpteen times. I can’t help it that my marriage to your mother failed. She chose to join the military. She knew she’d be deployed. I did my best as a single parent, but I was lonely, and Dawn filled that void. I’m not going to apologize for falling in love with her, and I’m not going to apologize for building a family with her. Your mother made her choice, and I made mine.”
He sugarcoated everything so he wouldn’t look like the bad guy. What he failed to mention was that my mother was compelled to serve our country in a time of war. She put aside everything - her comfort, her security, her marriage, her child - to administer to our soldiers in a foreign land, many of them wounded in ways only imaginable. While she was altruistic and patriotic, my father thought only of himself and found another woman. When my mother came back after her first tour of duty, he greeted her with divorce papers.
“You think you’ve done nothing wrong,” I said, “but from my point of view, you cheated on Mom while she was in the middle of a combat zone, working around the clock to save lives, putting her own life at risk. I think she’s brave and unselfish, the best woman I have ever known. She may not work out four hours a day,” I looked at Dawn, “or get her nails done every week, but she’s beautiful. She didn’t deserve what you did.”
“Well,” Dawn said, finding her voice. “This conversation has gone a little off track. We hoped you’d be excited for us. I’ve done all I can to welcome you into our home. I treat you like a daughter. Yet you’ve made it quite clear you don’t want to be a part of our family.”
“Now, honey,” my father said, “that’s not what she means. She’s still angry with me, with us, for the changes in her life. But Aerin,” he said looking at me, “you’re a big girl now, and there are a few things about your mother and I that we haven’t told you. It’s time you know the whole story.
“Long before September 11th and your mother’s enlistment, our lives were about to change. Your mother is a good woman, an excellent nurse, and always puts others first, qualities I admired when we first met. I started my career as a public defender, and in that way she and I were alike - we wanted to serve others - but it was impossible to support our family in the city on a public defender’s salary. When I had the opportunity to join a corporate practice I jumped at it, but your mom was not pleased. She liked the money, but her worldview is about service, and she had a hard time justifying my job in business law.
“When September 11th happened, your mother and I were already at a standstill. She enlisted in the Reserve against my wishes. How were we supposed to save our marriage when she was on the other side of the world? I didn’t go out looking for another woman, but Dawn came into my life when I needed someone, and provided me with comfort.”
These revelations stunned me. “I don’t believe you,” I said. “I would’ve known if you were on the verge of splitting up.”
“Your mother and I made sure you didn’t know,” my father said. “It was our trouble. The last thing we wanted was to upset you. We went to counseling, but that didn’t help. Then the towers fell, and your mother became consumed with that, with the recovery effort, and then enlisting once the war started. After that, we didn’t have a chance.”
As a lawyer, he was well-trained at circumventing the truth, at making arguments to support his point of view. I wanted to close my ears to what he was saying, but had to wonder if any of it were true. From the outset, I’d blamed him and Dawn for breaking up our family, but if what he said was true, my mother had played her own part.
“I’m asking Mom,” I said. We had a visit coming up, and in her fragile condition it might not be the best time to bring up this subject, but I had to know.
“Ask her,” he said. “She’ll tell you the same thing. Our marriage was over whether Dawn entered my life or not.”
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