Terrible, Thanks for Asking

War Stories - Transcript

This is a transcript of a “Terrible, Thanks for Asking” episode entitled, “War Stories.” The text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future for accuracy.

Listen to the episode here.


Meghan McInerny: It's good to talk about dad sometimes and like, to feel sad about it. I don't do it enough.

Nora McInerny: Yeah.

Meghan McInerny: Also, I can't believe it's been seven years.

Nora McInerny: I know. I know. 

Meghan McInerny: I still will say to people like, "Oh, my dad died a few years ago.”

Nora McInerny: Yeah. 

Meghan McInerny: Like, it doesn't register to me as seven. It feels, still, somehow more recent than that.

Nora McInerny: Yeah.

I’ve been in a really weird place since my dad died.

And my dad died seven years ago, so … I’ve been here for a while. 

I’ve been doing what so many of us do when we lose a big, primary relationship: excavating it, examining it, trying to make sense of it, trying to make sure that it mattered, that I mattered, that I’m seeing things clearly, that I’m seeing a relationship clearly.

But it’s just so hard. Because when one person is dead, the relationship becomes a bit one-sided. Your vision is obscured by all of your own biases, by your commitment to your version of the truth, to your side of the story. 

It’s hardly fair, and a part of me also feels … a little pathetic. I’m an adult. I have my own children. I’ve been in therapy for what feels like 100 years, and yet I am still untangling not just what my dad meant to me, but what I meant to my dad. 

I’m one of four children, and one of the benefits of having siblings is having witnesses. We all experienced our childhoods and our father differently, but in all of those angles, there’s something. There’s a fact check, a gut check. Validation of some things if not others. 

Nora McInerny: You knew Dad longer than I did.

Meghan McInerny: Eight years longer. 

Nora McInerny: Eight years longer, eight years longer. You were his first child. What kind of a dad was Dad to you?

Meghan McInerny: Oooph. Um ...

That’s me and my big sister, Meghan. I know we sound a lot alike. And this is me talking with my big brother and Meghan’s little brother, Austin.

Nora McInerny: OK, so growing up for you, what kind of a dad was Dad?

Austin McInerny: Oh, man. Uhhh. Absent, I suppose, is the one-word answer that encapsulates it. He was like, there but not there, ya know? He uh ... I don't know. He just wasn't emotionally available. I remember like, you know, you’d want to be able to spend time with him, but it would not really manifest, right? And, he would ask me to play like, Catch, you know? And he would ... I don't know, it was just so demoralizing for some reason. It was like, there was never much positive reinforcement. He just got mad about everything, and it just made me feel like a piece of shit, you know? He would, like, throw the ball and make me like, do grounders or whatever, right? And the ball would get past me, and he’d be like, “Goddamnit!” You know? And like, you know, then he’d do it again and like, “Get in front of the goddamn ball!” You know? He would be throwing me the ball and it would be like, smacking into the glove pretty hard. Right? And it would ... it would hurt. And he like, would kind of mock me for it in a way.

I wrote in 2017, in our tenth episode, that I spent my childhood both adoring and despising my father. Kids are like this. I have a 4-year-old, and today he told me, “I never even wanted a mom” and also, “You are the most best mom in the entire universe.” It’s like, make up your mind, kid.

But when I was growing up, it felt like my dad couldn’t make up his mind — couldn’t decide what kind of dad he was or how he felt about me. Some days, he was warm and hilarious. He would take me in the backyard to play Catch, we would watch dumb comedies and eat pizza — green olive and mushroom — and he would read to us in bed. Not just regular kids books, but big books like Oliver Twist. I’d tuck up next to him and feel so safe and so loved and so happy.

But not always. And not for all of us.

Austin McInerny: I dunno just, to be honest, I never really quite felt adequate enough for him. And he, like, I always just felt like a disappointment.

Meghan McInerny: I feel like Dad had, like, different versions of himself. And some versions were, like, I remember he would take Austin and I to the Heights Theater. We saw “The Man from Snowy River.” And it was like, we didn't do that much as a family — like, go out to do things that cost money. And so for some reason that is seared in my memory of him taking us to see that movie and getting popcorn. And it was just… it was a good movie. He had two speeds. He was either very present and remarkably tender, or he was just kind of not there emotionally. He was physically present, but not really connected. I mean, think of the number of times like we would be at the dinner table and he would just be doing a crossword.

Nora McInerny: I'd forgotten sort of that feeling of absence, even though he was present. Like he, he was solitary. He did his laundry himself, and his laundry was separate from ours. He, like, spent a lot of time alone, which now with four children, I also understand. I’m like, I don't want to be around, like I want, I want to be alone. I want to read this book. And like, it was punctuated by this sort of like. to me at the time, like very explosive anger, like. Yes, yeah, absolutely.

Meghan McInerny: Yeah. So maybe three speeds, because the anger would come out really unexpectedly, and I remember like, always wondering, like, where did that come from? And as a child thinking, how did I cause that? How did I trigger that? How can I not do that?

I never knew when something I did or said would make my dad laugh or make him explode in anger. Normal things that kids do — like make noise, fight with each other, or even, yes, spill nail polish remover — would set him off, and I wouldn’t just feel like I had ruined a chair, but that I had ruined the world. He could be sometimes this stormcloud personified. He’d yell at me, and I’d yell at him, and then I’d go upstairs and write something in my journal like, “I HATE MY DAD!” All caps, full page of exclamation marks.

But I still loved my dad, even if he wasn’t exactly the dad I wanted. 

I wanted a TV dad. I wanted a dad like Danny Tanner, who would talk me through big feelings and big events, would sit on the edge of my bed and ask, “Hey, what’s up?” as music wells, and then he’d pull the answer out of me. 

Meghan McInerny: I remember seeing other families where, like, their dad was really interested or like really gave them a lot of attention. And that just wasn't that wasn't really the norm. But when he did give you his attention, it was like, really glorious.

As I got older, the dynamic changed, mostly because I changed. I knew my father’s limitations and what to expect from him. I knew that to connect with him, I had to go to his level. 

So I started the girls golf team in high school, because he loved golf. And in college I read James Joyce -—I HATED IT! I hate Joyce so much! I brought up politics when the issue was something we could both agree on, like, “There is certainly an election happening. That is undeniable.”

We grew up knowing that our dad was a marine in Vietnam. That he went when he was 17 years old, that he enlisted instead of waiting to be drafted. That people he had served with had died. 

Meghan McInerny: Dad never liked the kind of idolization of veterans, and I think part of the reason was that I think he was very conflicted about his own experience. Like, in some ways he was very proud of being a Marine, and in other ways I think he was really scarred by what he experienced in Vietnam. And I don't even know if he ever fully processed it. And there's the letter he wrote to Mom where what he's describing is just this extreme compartmentalization, and I think that's really how Dad survived, was by compartmentalizing different areas of his life.

And if you saw him, you’d think that Vietnam didn’t affect him at all, that he’d beaten the odds and turned out just fine. He was sober from 1978 until he died in 2014. He was married to my mom for almost 40 years, and he had a good career. He didn’t wear Vietnam externally the way so many others do or did. But it was in there, and it trickled out … the way unhealed pain tends to do. Mostly in his anger.

A year and a half after my dad’s death, it was 2016, and I was working on the first season of this show. My dad’s death wasn’t something I had taken time to process, and I wouldn’t have told you I was processing it when I took our original TTFA producer Hans down to Houston for a Marine Corps Reunion to meet with some of the men who had served with my father. But of course, that’s what I was trying to do. I was connecting with these men -- sitting them down for hours-long interviews -- because I wanted to connect with my father, and I couldn’t.

Curtis: My name is Curtis Gruetzmacher. I went by the nickname of Gritz that I carried as a young kid all the way up through Vietnam and carry to this day.

Pete: My name is Pete Martinez. I’m known as Texas Pete in San Antonio, because my license plate says I’m Texas Pete. [Nora laughs.] I have a purple heart on my plate that nobody else can have, and I’m a hell of a nice guy once you get to meet me. I might not look like one, because I never smile, but I’m a hell of a good guy, so ... you want me on your corner.

That trip became our “Semper Fi” episode. We discovered one of the biggest moments in my father’s time in Vietnam — the death of a marine named Felipe Herrera — and so much more. 

And making that episode was deeply meaningful for me, and also … very affecting for me, and for my mother, who came with us, and for Hans, who sat in hotel rooms with me and these men and heard horrible things and listened to us cry while holding a boom mic above his head for hours at a time. What a hero.

I know it’s not unusual, not unique, that my father never sat me down and said, “My daughter, here is a list of the horrible things I did at war when I was a teenager.” None of the men he served with told their kids much of anything, either. 

This is Curtis, back in 2016…

Curtis: I think the situation was that we didn't want to share our guilt and our sadness that we had through the loss of our brothers and the hardship that we went through. And we didn't want to admit to anybody that we did kill the enemy. You know, we wanted to be honorable. And we didn't want to talk about it. So we held it away from everybody. And I guess we were so proud that we didn't want to break down in front of our wife or our parents or our children. So we kept this as a secret within, within our soul and heart.

And this is Henry, in 2016...

Nora McInerny: What does your daughter know? 

Henry: Well, she just knows I was a Marine.

Nora McInerny: My dad didn't talk to me about much. 

Henry:  He wouldn't. I know we clowned around a lot over there, but I guess those times over there were sacred. Sacred to your dad.

Nora McInerny: I think ... nobody ever had to tell me not to ask about it, but there's something in me that I knew even as a little girl like that, it just wasn't like ...

Henry: It wasn't pretty.

It wasn’t pretty, even the third-hand version I got from these men who served with my father.

While we were down in Houston, I shared a hotel room with my mother, because this is public radio and we were very worried about spending too much money, which meant I had nowhere to retreat to, nowhere I could be alone to process all of this and to cry. And there was so much to cry about, because all of these men were holding and had been holding so much pain.

And this time in Houston was a huge realization for me: that for all the compartmentalization my father had done when he got back from Vietnam … that unaddressed pain had seeped out into parts of his life he never intended for it to infect. 

This is me and my mother, back in that hotel room in 2016.

Madge: Steve said, in a letter to me at one point, “Whenever someone was hurt or killed in my unit, I was the one who showed the least feelings or even thought on the subject. My whole being was dedicated to survival — personal survival, survival of the functioning…” this is so Steve … “the functioning biological unit known as Stephen McInerny — and to hatred of anyone who attempted to get near me. There are many methods and areas in which an individual can be killed, and so I closed myself to all but the most superficial relations with others. When I returned home, I was shocked by the world around me. I’d journeyed from a barbaric zone of controlled brutality to a world that functioned with no real idea or concern for others. I was a superficial man thrust back into a superficial society, and it was at that point that I met you.” He buried his heart. I mean, I think he had to do that. And, yeah, so … 

Nora: That’s like, really hard for a kid to understand …

Madge: Hard? I think it’s impossible. You know …

Nora: Like when he had Ralph, I remember he was holding Ralph when we were in his house, and I said, “Oh my God, you loved me when I was little.” He was like, “Well, no shit.” I was like, “No, dude, like … it’s more like ‘oh, shit.’” Like the only way that I could like, see that is through like old pictures or like through him, like, interacting with my child and me imagining myself.

Talking to all of these men, it was so clear, in the ways their brains and bodies were in 2016, that what happened in the late ‘60s, when they were basically boys, had destroyed some version of the men that they could have been. That the effects would be with them until they died and had already trickled through their family lives in the form of domestic abuse, addiction, divorce, PTSD…

When we made the “Semper Fi” episode, I was completely unaware of the concept of generational trauma: how the things our parents and grandparents experience affect their behaviors, and their health, which in turn affects us, and our behaviors, and even OUR health.

We talked about this in a series of episodes called “What Happened To You” … and without getting into all of the scientific background of those previous episodes, what it comes down to for me is this:

That as important as it was for me to understand WHY my dad was the way he was, I’m only now starting to understand how his own experiences affected who I became, why I am how I am. Why my siblings are the way they are.

Nora McInerny: How do you think he's impacted the way you are? 

Austin McInerny: Ah, fuck. I mean. I think it was ... it's more than I think I even fully comprehend, to be honest. I was such a reserved, introverted child. I think that was my coping mechanism of, you know, not really feeling like ... like, I was good enough for my dad, you know? And, you know, I think there's a lot of stuff that is before my memory that probably affected my development. I don't know. You know, I think the first couple of years of my life, he was still drinking, and I think there was a lot of yelling and fighting maybe then. I don't know. He was drinking. Who knows what was fucking happening? I don't know. I remember reading some things in my mom's journal of me, you know, and that kind of hinted towards that a bit, you know, like, “Austin’s terrified of the way Steve yells or something like that.” And I just, I mean, I kind of ended up doing the same thing, just collapsing inward, you know? And, I mean, you probably wouldn't say that I'm an effusive person. And I don't know how to deal with my feelings either, you know? I don't know, I just like ... I just retreated, and I feel like I'm the same way. I don't know if I ever came back. 

Nora: Oh, Austie. 

Austin: [crying] I mean, I would be perfectly happy, probably, never leaving the house, you know? Like, I don't, I don't need other people the way other people do, you know? 

Nora McInerny: Mmm hmmm. [crying] Can I tell you, though, that you are the best one of us?

Austin McInerny: Oh, I think that's going a little far.

Nora McInerny: No it’s … it’s not even that competitive. It’s true. It is true. And … like, you don't need other people, but other people really, really need you and depend on you, and I think I've always known that you would be that kind of person for me.

My brother really is the best one of us, and it’s no competition. Austin said that he collapsed in on himself, and my sister and I … we tend towards the opposite.

Meghan McInerny: As I've gotten older and reflected more on who I am as a person, I think that is part of what makes me the kind of person that is kind of constantly always monitoring the emotional energy of the room and trying to manage it. If things start to escalate, I'll often ... if I'm not the one escalating it ... I'll often be the one trying to, like, moderate everyone's emotions. And like, is everybody happy? Is everybody having a good time? And I think it comes from that — that fear of kind of not knowing, I don't know, sometimes dealing with Dad was like walking through a minefield a little bit, and you just didn't know when you were going to step on something. And then, even looking at it that way is probably wrong. It wasn't necessarily my fault, but that's how it felt.

Our father’s own father was addicted to alcohol. Our father’s own father hurt him, physically and emotionally.

Our father was an enlisted marine before he was old enough to vote; his father had signed his enlistment papers and sent his youngest child to war at age 17. By 19, our father had seen and committed nearly unspeakable acts of violence.

And when he returned, it was to a different world. A world he described to our mother as superficial, a jarring change from the world of brutality he’d served in.

Everything in life, and in this show, is an exercise in both/and.

And yes, my dad yelled a lot. And he often made me feel small and scared and lonely. And he was also the same dad who handed me notebooks and pens and told me, “write.” Who told me to write what I know, and if I didn’t think I knew anything, to write what I felt. He’s the man who told me, when I woke up screaming from a nightmare, that I was in charge of my brain, that I could tell myself no, I do not want this dream, I want another. The man whose sandpaper-dry hands would find mine and quietly squeeze three times, a silent code for the words I longed to hear: 

I. Love. You.

We’ll be right back.

I wanted so badly as a child and even as an adult to KNOW I was loved. To be loved out loud, and reassured that I was what he wanted, that I was good, that I was worthy. 

But our father loved me in his own ways: in acts of service and quality time. He loved me by working hard and sending me to school. By teaching me to throw a baseball hard enough to make his hand sting through the mitt. By his presence, which even when it was shitty … was constant. 

Meghan McInerny: And I think he was a person who took like, duty and commitment like, really, seriously. Like that was his duty: to take care of us, to make sure we were provided for. And any kind of emotional affection was like, a “nice to have.”

Memory is faulty. Even the act of recalling a memory degrades it, changes it. And for a while after his death, I became certain that my father hadn’t TOLD me that he loved me, or had done it only sparingly, only when prompted. 

Like many writers, words came best to him on the page. 

When I moved recently, I found a letter he wrote to me when I was in first grade. Dad had moved from the small town we lived in briefly back up to Minneapolis to take a better job and make enough money to move us out of that weird little town that wasn’t what it was cracked up to be. And while he was up in Minneapolis without us, he stayed on his brother’s couch. He packed a bag lunch at an ad agency where everyone else was having three-martini lunches. 

And he wrote me this letter.

Nora McInerny: February 27th, 1990. “Dear Nora Elizabeth.” Side note right off the bat. Turns out I never had a middle name. He thought he named me Nora Elizabeth. But my birth certificate says that is not the case. I had no middle name. So right off the bat, full of lies. I’m just kidding.

“Dear Nora Elizabeth. I was thinking the other day how much you like to get letters, so I decided it was time I wrote you one. Even though I come home just about every weekend, we don't often get time to just sit and talk. That is probably more my fault than yours. You seem to always want to chat about something. And when I take the time to listen, I find you always have very interesting things to say, too. 

“I thought I would tell you a bit about my day. I get up early, just like I do at home. After I take a shower and have my breakfast, I brush my teeth, comb my hair and walk to the bus stop. The bus comes right to the end of Uncle Morris's block, so I don't have very far to walk. The bus takes me to downtown Minneapolis, where I work. I arrive downtown about 6:30 AM.” Oh my god. “I have to walk about four blocks from the bus stop to my office. I like to walk downtown early in the morning. The streets are quiet and very few people are about. When I get to work, I usually take care of personal things, little tasks that have nothing to do with work. Like writing this letter. No one else is there when I arrive, and you know how I like the quiet, so this is a special time for me. 

“By 8:30 AM, everyone is at work and things get very busy. I have to write brochures and other things that go into the mail. They're supposed to sell things to people. Sometimes they do, and sometimes they don't. It's fun. I like it. And I like the people I work with. At noon, I go out to lunch. Some days I get something to eat and bring it back to my office. Other times, I just wander around and look in all the stores. But I never buy anything unless your mother says I can. 

“At the end of the day, I walk two blocks to the bus stop. In the evening, the streets are crowded with people heading home for the day. My bus is seldom crowded, though, and the ride home is very peaceful. I don't read on the bus. I like to look out the window at all the people and buildings and wonder what their lives are like and what goes on behind all those windows and doors. Do you ever do that? When I get to Uncle Morris’s, I go to my room and change, then if Diane isn't home, I feed the two cats. They don't like me very much, only when I feed them. Otherwise they run away when they see me. 

“So, Nora Elizabeth, that is what your father's day is like. Not too exciting, is it? But it's OK for me. The only thing bad about it is that I am away from you. I miss your laughter and your happy face. I even miss your face when it is crabby. I love you very much, and you always amaze me with the charming things you say and do. Be good to your mother, Nora. She loves you very much, too. But without me around every day, she needs all of you children to pitch in and help. And you do help a lot. I know that. You are a pretty special young lady.” Ohhhh. 

“Stay happy, Nora, and be kind to everyone. That is very important. God wants us to be good to one another. You were very good to your brother last weekend. He really wants to be your friend. And it is nice when you play with him. 

“Now, there are just two things I want to ask you to do for me. Don't tell anyone else about them. They'll be our little secrets. Every morning, make your bed as neat as you can, and every night, say a prayer for your father. I love you, precious lamb. You are my little blessing from God. Love forever, Steve McInerny, your father, who art in Minneapolis.”

So, yeah, he was really good with words if he just had to write them down. Shit. Man.

Meghan has a letter like this, too. It’s from the same era, written to her when her friend Cathy died at age 15. She didn’t have it when we were talking, so I made her go through her house until she found it.

Meghan McInerny: OK Nora, I found the letter from Dad. March 4th, 1990. 

“Dear Meg. I've decided to write you a letter, dear daughter, first because I can't be home this weekend. And second, because even when I do come home, we don't often have much time to talk. That's not your fault or mine. You've reached the age when it is important for you to be with friends, and that's good. I've reached the age when I prefer to spend more time by myself, and that's not so good. Anyway, I want you to know that I do love you. I know at times you feel I'm overly critical of you, which I probably am. I suppose that is because I've always been very impressed with your intelligence and your social skills. That tends to create expectations. I don't mean I depend on you to find a cure for cancer or anything, but it does mean I do want you to recognize your abilities and do something with them. 

“You are quite an amazing young woman, Meg, and I want you to know I love and appreciate you. You have always been very helpful around the house and mature beyond your years in most regards. Your mother tells me you are still troubled by Cathy's death. Few things hit harder than the first death we experience. It is like a very sudden shift in reality. Someone we know and love is not there, and the void they leave is almost overwhelming. Cathy died because of a foolish human tragedy, one of a thousand that happen every day. God didn't destroy her. Humanity did. God didn't let her down. We did.

“When my mother died, I was living a life that disappointed her. I drank a lot and wasn't doing much with myself. When she died, I realized the pain I had caused her and for a while despaired because I didn't think there was anything I could do about it. But I was wrong. I finally realized that if I at least tried to live my life as she raised me too, it would be a better memorial to her life than a tombstone a thousand feet high. So I keep trying to do that. Whenever anyone dies, we realize all we should have said and done for them. We feel guilty, we feel cheated. We feel a great injustice has occurred.”

There they are: the words of affirmation that we wanted. Not spoken aloud, but typed onto paper, signed with his fountain pen.

Meghan McInerny: Sometimes people think, like, that the most powerful form of communicating is to say something to somebody. But there's a lot that can be conveyed really beautifully in writing to somebody that just like, really gets down to, I don't know, there's something essential about it. And there was so much in that letter that I know he never could have said in words to me, and I'm glad I got to hear them. And that I can go back and I can read them any time, and I can be here. Like, if my house was on fire, that letter is like, the only thing I would save.

Those letters have always been there, somewhere. We read them as our younger selves. But there is something about the death of a parent, a loss so elemental to who we are, that turns us all back into children, aching for comfort, lost. And still, seven years after our father’s death, I’m not the only one of us feeling like this.

Meghan McInerny: You said earlier that you wondered if Dad loved you, or you wanted him to love you in a different way. And what I I think struggled with the most after dad died is: I never doubted that he loved me or loved all of us, because something in me knew that his way of showing love was the things that he did outside of when he would get, like, super mad. But just like, I just knew that the sort of like, daily actions that he took -- the sending us to private school was really meaningful to him, Catholic schools specifically. So I knew he loved us. After he died, I found myself wondering a lot if he ever liked me. I knew he loved me, because I was his daughter. But for some reason, the only unasked question I have, which I never could have asked him, I don't think if he was alive, because he would have just rolled his eyes. But like, yeah, I do. I wonder if he liked me.

Nora McInerny: Yeah. I actually read somewhere that like, one of the most fucked up things you can say to your kid, which like, people do this all the time, right? It's like, “I love you, but I don't like you right now.” And I'm like, “Oh, I think that's much worse. You can't say that to a kid,” you know? Like you can't say that to a kid. And I think like you probably just named the thing that I couldn't, which is like, of course, I knew my dad loved me, but like, I wanted him to like me. 

Meghan McInerny: Yeah.

Nora McInerny: Yeah. And there's like, all these like, just pathetic, pathetic attempts. Like all my journals, like, you know, going to college I’d be like, writing him letters about like James Joyce. Like I gave a shit about James Joyce. I hate James Joyce. But I knew Dad loved James Joyce. I was like, I'm taking a class on Joyce. I fucking hate James Joyce. [laughs]

My father himself hated the way we demonized or deified the dead. I remember standing in the back of a wake with him, after a complicated person we knew had died. Someone was eulogizing the dead in the way that we tend to do: expounding on all of their virtues. My dad — a little too loudly — said, “Oh for crying out loud, now that he’s dead he’s a saint?”

And when my own dad was dying, and I was sitting on the edge of his bed talking about his own parents, I asked him how he felt about his dad, who had been a binge-drinking alcoholic, prone to just … disappearing. Who had once come home drunk and knocked my father — who was 10 at the time — unconscious.

“What do you want me to say, that I hate the guy?” my dad said. “He did his best.”

My grandfather wasn’t a saint. And he wasn’t a terrible person, either. And neither was my father. He contained the multitudes that Whitman wrote of: contradictions upon contradictions. 

The French philosopher Jacques Maritain — I can’t speak French. I hate saying French words. Don’t criticize me. — said that every man is a universe. And we are — all of us — exactly that. And universes are not just expansive and unending and mysterious, but dark and cold. To go too deep into who we are, or why we are … it’s not only daunting but exhausting and impossible, an endless voyage through an ever-expanding cosmos. 

Sometime in 2019, my mother dropped off a box at my house. It was a box of my father’s, 

filled with his files of his own writing from over the years. If I’d been told about this box before it arrived, I would have imagined myself tearing open the lid and sorting through it all immediately, cancelling my plans and reading every bit of it.

But I didn’t. I placed it in the basement, on a shelf in case of flooding. And when we moved, I put it on the floor of my closet/office where I record this podcast, and it stayed there. And it stayed on a to-do list of one thing: “Go through dad’s things.” 

And one day, I finally did.

{Audio of Nora opening the box}

And the first thing I picked up when I did open the box was a worn blue composition notebook, with a faded cardboard cover and numbered pages. In it were notes for short stories and journal entries. The notebook starts in 1978.

Nora McInerny: So September 1978, you would have been how old?

Meghan McInerny: Three, three.

My parents had just moved from Minneapolis, Minnesota to La Crosse, Wisconsin. My dad was about to go to rehab, get sober, and change his life. This is the first page of the notebook.

Hawthorne was correct in seeing that the most cleansing confession of our sins would be to be like Dimmsdale, to publicly denounce ourselves. To totally reverse people’s perception of us. I often think of how little anyone knows of my most painful memories. To commit them to the page for others to see after I am dead is tempting but hardly satisfying.

I can see in this notebook the attempts to commit them to the page — little scraps for “fictional” stories about a young man on leave from the Marine Corps in Australia, or returning home to a girlfriend who has moved on, or unexpected visits from men he’d served with, threatening to reveal a secret.

That much is obvious to me from my time talking to my siblings, from paging through this notebook … there is nothing my father could have committed to the page, nothing he could have left behind, that could ever make me understand what happened, or how it affected him.

But I can imagine. I can imagine what it would do to a 19-year-old to do the kinds of things his faith had told him never to do. He was raised Catholic. And any kind of Christian knows that one of the top 10 rules is do not kill. Don’t do it. There is not an asterisk in the Bible that says “unless you’re in a war and someone tells you to.” My father was a person who valued life, and he took lives. And yeah, that happened in the context of taking orders as a 19-year-old in a foreign war, but still … still.

I had never confronted that thought before 2016. Not with any seriousness, not with anything more than a passing thought.

Nora: Like, I never had to think about, like, whether or not my dad was a good person. I still wouldn’t doubt it. I never had to think about any of those stories as if there were any complication to them. You know what I mean?

Madge: Oh, yes. I do know what you mean. Like that there was any question about who did what, or any blame about someone …

Nora: Yeah.

Madge: Like, it’s war. Guys get shot. Guys die. Steve said that many times, like, “What the fuck, people get all upset about this …”

Nora: You always want something to be somebody’s fault, or something’s fault, because that’s what makes sense.  But I don’t know, so I just think that Dad didn’t want to do any of this.

I do know that our father loved us. And I do think he liked us, though I don’t think he knew how to show that. 

But more than anything, I wonder if he loved himself. Or if he liked himself.

Meghan McInerny: I do remember, when Dad was dying, being envious of your ability to talk to him in what felt like a meaningful way. Both when Dad died and when Aaron died, I found it so difficult to speak without breaking down. And I knew that, like, for Dad in particular, I knew that was not what he needed in that moment, was for me to lose it. And so I just was sort of present but very quiet. But I remember at one point you saying to him that he was a good dad. And I just remember seeing or feeling this sense of gratitude from him. And he was like, “Really? Was I?”

Nora McInerny: I know. He looked up like a literal child. And he said, “Really?!”

Meghan McInerny: And as I think about that moment now, it's like I think the thing that we're expressing that we wanted to know if he liked us, like, I wonder if he felt that way, too? If he just wanted to know if we liked him. And I think that meant a lot to him that you said that, and I remember, you know, feeling that sibling jealousy, like, “Goddamnit, Nora, that was really good. You son of a bitch.”

Nora McInerny: “I also think that, Dad. I also … and you knew me eight years longer, so …” [laughs]

Meghan McInerny: “Yeah. I was gonna say that, Dad, but she was closer.” [laughs]

Nora McInerny: “To build on that point. Um, I would like to revisit what was just said. I would like to pop in.” [laughs] But yeah, that moment when he was dying and he said, “Really,” I think that always has really affected me because I hope he believed it.

Meghan McInerny: I don't know if he did. In the same way that I think you really beat yourself up for the moments in your own parenting, when you wish you wouldn't have done or said something. Like, there is a lot of stuff Dad didn't know how to forgive himself for. I think you need to hear it. And I'm glad he heard it, because it's true. I think he was a good dad. I mean, he was the best dad he knew how to be.

Nora McInerny: Yeah.

There’s another part to his letter to Meghan, a part that makes me even more grateful to have given him that assurance as he was dying. 

Meghan McInerny: “I know that someday you will decide on achieving a goal. I have no idea what that might be. But whatever it is, it will require a good education. And I know you have the intelligence and stamina to achieve any goal you set for yourself, no matter how high. You are growing up very quickly. You are a young woman now, and it won't be very long before you are off on your own. I wish we could spend more time together once we get settled up here. I hope we can. I realize now how precious you are to me, and I don't want you to grow up without understanding that I know I'm difficult to be around. My temper is short and my patience is nonexistent. I have to have everything the way I want it or I fly into a rage and I'm your father. What a bummer. But all my bluster and noise is all a big front. I'm just as confused by it all as you. You, on the other hand, Meg, have wonderful qualities, qualities that people love, you have an honest heart, you are free with a smile and a kind word, and you seldom lower yourself to pettiness. Those are the qualities of a truly great person, a person others look up to. That's why I believe you can do anything you set your mind to, and that's why I'm so proud of you, and maybe that's why I sometimes get on your back about not setting your goals high enough. Be that as it may. Whatever you do, I will always love you. You are my firstborn and the one that taught me how wonderful it is to be a father. And I'll always be grateful to you for that. Pray for your father. He needs it. Love forever, Dad.”

There is more in that notebook, and in this box, written in my father’s beautiful cursive. More that seems to reflect so much of what I heard in those interviews in 2016. 

There is more to this relationship -- to my father as a person, and as a dad -- that could ever be contained in one podcast episode.

He was so, so SMART. He read constantly, and everything he could.

He was witty, and funny, and when you made him laugh, you knew that it counted.

He was handsome, and because I’m shallow, this is important to me.

He was loyal. Down to his bones. He taught my siblings and I that the most important things we had were each other. That we could not, under any circumstances, ever argue about money. That we had to be on each other’s team, no matter what. He wasn’t just married to my mom for almost 40 years, he loved her. He taught me that marriage is more about love than romance. He taught me that marriage is more about love than romance, and that love is really not that sexy! It’s just showing up for each other over and over and over again, even when your wife sells your Ford Astro Van without telling you (which is a real thing that happened).

He was a man with his own hurts and disappointments, more than I can ever fully understand.

To pretend that anyone is just one thing is to deny the fullness of our humanity, that we are sometimes the victim and sometimes the villain, that we can do the unforgivable and still be worthy of love, of compassion, of forgiveness. That we can hurt people unintentionally and heal others without even knowing it. That we are all more than our best days or our worst ones.

This box has folder upon folder of my father’s thoughts and memories, things he was proud of and ashamed of. And reading them felt so hot — every page like touching a stove — that I had to close it back up, push it once again to the back of my closet. 

Someday, I will commit myself to going through all of these scraps and notes and short stories, to putting it all together and turning it into something more than an episode.

Or maybe I won’t.

My mother asked me, as I worked on this episode, how much do kids NEED to know about their parents? And I had no answer, except that I didn’t get enough.

My own kids will have to try NOT to know me. And good luck to them. I am a FEELINGS PARENT. I want to know how they feel, to help them understand their own universe as best they can. Nearly every opinion or thought I’ve had is written in a notebook OR — regrettably — on the internet. They can know — like it or not — who I’ve slept with, who disappointed me or hurt me, who I myself hurt or disappointed. 

And I have no control over what that means to them, or what it means for their relationship to me while I’m here, or when I’m gone. 

My father wrote earlier that to commit it to the page is tempting and risky … and he also wrote this:

“A man’s sins and guilts cannot be passed on. Events, dates, cannot tell how profoundly a thing affected a person. I learned that when, nine years ago, I returned from Vietnam. I was half insane, but when I tried to explain to someone what I truly felt about what I’d been through I was merely telling war stories. 

I fell asleep this afternoon and had a dream … I was in a room with several mirrors. In one mirror my hair was short and I was clean shaven. In the second mirror my hair was longer and I had a thick black beard. I kept alternating from one mirror to another in an attempt to learn what I really looked like. 

All the time I was saying to myself, ‘This is what it’s like to go mad.’”

This has been Terrible, Thanks for Asking. I’m Nora McInerny. Our production team is Marcel Malekebu, Jeyca Maldonado-Medina, Jordan Turgeon and Megan Palmer. Our theme music is by Geoffrey Lamar Wilson, and we are a production of APM Studios at American Public Media. Executive producer and editor Beth Pearlman, executives in charge Lily Kim, Alex Shaffert, Joanne Griffith.

While we were finishing up this episode, my brother found a letter, too. It was typed on a typewriter and tucked into a folder somewhere.

Austin McInerny: April 13th, 1982. Dear Austin. I am sorry I've been so long in writing you. After all, you have been my son for almost six years, and this is the time that I've really taken the time to sit down and written you a letter. As you can undoubtedly see, my typing skills leave a lot to be desired, regardless of my abilities. I hope you see that a good deal of affection for you is behind this letter. When you get a little older and wander out of my house, I hope that you remember how much your ancient potter loves to get and to send letters. So when you march off to the Marine Corps like your father before you, or when you go off to Oxford like your older sister, please take the time once in a while to sit down in the barracks or in the college library and send off a few words to your aging parent. I, in turn, will promptly answer any correspondence you may send my way. Your affectionate father, Stephen J. McInerny.