I Can’t Recall a Time Without War – Casey Canright

Image by Tim Mossholder, via Unsplash

The weeks that followed exploded into a patriotic frenzy. Red, white, and blue dotted every neighborhood – even our own. Old Navy’s Fourth of July T-shirts reemerged for the last few weeks of September. Dad brought home a flag – taller than me – which I demanded be hung by the front door, just like the other families in the neighborhood. 

We lived in a trailer, scrap metal and broken-down cars taking over our property. A few homes on the block were off limits to us kids – no trick or treating or waving hello. One house in particular – a dusty orange trailer with a sagging roof and moss covering the exterior – I wouldn’t dare walk on the same side of the street as. It easily housed fifteen people. I don’t know if they were a family, but they were all thin, dirty, and up at all hours of the night. Mom and Dad called them the meth heads. My parents said they stole things from our yard, but when I asked why we didn’t call the cops, they explained they were all troubled kids. The last thing I expected them to display was an American flag.

Workers from the cement plant and Kaiser Aluminum talked of enlisting. My uncle was stationed in Turkey, close enough to Iraq to be considered a hero. My brother and his friends, twelve at the time, had graduation plans of joining the military. The whole town wanted to flee our city, a place that no longer felt safe. Spokane was hardly the next hot spot for a terrorist attack, but some people needed immediate action. The same feeling I felt at twenty-two, when I packed up all of my belongings and moved to New York – rushing to a place I hoped would save me. 

  Washington State united, momentarily, in our grief for 9/11. It was easy for all of us to see how we could have been attacked. Or, how we could be next. A plane demolishing the Space Needle, a bomb in Pike Place, or a terrorist group hiding out on a large farm. Spokane, Washington, where I grew up, is a fairly conservative community. Washington State is divided politically and geographically by the Cascade Mountains. On the western side of the mountains, you have Seattle, Olympia, Tacoma, Bellevue, and more, all known for left leaning values, living in expensive apartments, nothing but rain for three quarters of the year, and a need for nature. Those living to the east of the Cascades tend to vote Republican, Spokane is the only ‘major’ city, wide open spaces with a large agricultural industry, and you experience all four seasons. As quickly as the first plane demolished the tower, our unity crumbled.

With the light breeze of late September, and the crisp autumn air, the nation, and my town, cooled. People who had talked of joining the military continued working at the plants in town. Some people took down their flags; all of us repacked our Fourth of July memorabilia. My family left our flag up for sixteen years. I’m not sure if it was patriotism, or laziness, but we finally took down our sun-faded flag when my parents’ marriage took its last tumble and we moved out of my childhood home. 

In kindergarten, I began twirling knots into my hair, tangling strands into a giant nest that rested on the base of my skull. My parents fought about money, which Dad spent on pills and booze. They fought about my mom losing her job, about my dad not taking his medication. At the time, I never worried they would divorce, but I did worry what Dad’s anger – erratic and volatile before a sober cooldown – would do to the house, to Mom, to our lives. Biting my nails, and the inside of my cheek, held all of the worries I began to develop. What if Dad hits Mom? How will we survive without Dad’s paycheck? Will I have to change schools? People talked less and less about the Twin Towers, but I still carried the fear of invaders, both to a nation, and to a home.

On weeknights, we watched the local news, followed by ABC’s World News Tonight. By the time I entered first grade, watching the news, followed by That 70’s Show, was my favorite family activity. My parents, siblings, and I all gathered around the TV – which Dad upgraded to a fifty-inch screen – with our dinner. Dad usually had a Keystone Ice while the rest of us drank Coke.

I enjoyed the local news. Mark Peterson, our weatherman, was sweet, charming even, and his charisma dripped off the screen. In Spokane, or maybe all small communities, the news anchors are celebrities: all blonde beauties who volunteered with nonprofits and probably lived on the South Hill.

The world news bored me. The anchors had make-up caked on, with no jokes or witty banter, and they weren’t as nice seeming as Mark Peterson. I half listened to the World News while I devoured my meal. Until, on March 3rd, 2003, Terry Moran reported that we would be invading Iraq.

“Holy shit,” my mom huffed out, her dinner roll paused mid air.

“Good, those fuckers should pay,” Dad said with finality, taking another bite of his pot roast. I hung onto every word my father said. Even when I knew his words were cruel, I took utmost pride in being Daddy’s girl.

“What’s invading mean?” I asked, my words falling flat, crumbling into the stained carpet.

“Steve, they’re people too! Do you really want us to go to war?”

“We’re going to war?”

“Who knows, Casey. I’m sure Bush has a full agenda.”

I didn’t know much about Bush other than he was our president, a Texan, and that Mom hated him. Dad never said he didn’t like him, which was his way of showing respect. I felt conflicted towards Bush. If Dad liked him, I should too, but I didn’t want to go to war.

By first grade, we practiced fire drills and hiding if an active shooter stepped foot in the building. This was the norm – someone could attack my school, or my city, or my family anytime. It seemed another attack was waiting, holding its breath for the perfect moment. 

That night, I began praying for the war. Mom said I could pray anytime I felt scared or anxious instead of knotting my hair together, or biting my nails into rough nubs. I prayed often, most nights really, asking God to help Dad budget money. I prayed for Mom to be lying when she said we had no savings. I prayed one day I would be better with my money.

Hey, God… and Jesus, please look over my family. Please don’t make us go to war, or have Iraq attack us. If anything, please don’t kill anyone that lives in my house. Thank you God… and Jesus. Amen.

I prayed to God, and Jesus, for weeks. I wasn’t sure which one answered prayers, or granted wishes; sometimes I even prayed to Mary, Joseph, Noah, and all the other people I learned about in my weekly Bible class. My family and I never discussed God, the Bible, or why we existed. We just accepted the way things were, including our undying faith in Christianity. Often, the news discussed Iraq as being predominantly Muslim. When I asked what was different about being a Muslim or being a Christian, my father explained that one helped you get into Heaven, and the other helped you kill innocent Americans. Mom explained that they are two very different religions, but both help people have a community and feel connected to a world that is far too complicated to handle all on your own.    

At thirty-five, Dad had his first heart attack. My older brother was left in charge of us kids while my parents rushed to the hospital. Dad left clutching his shoulder, viciously cussing out the door. My brother told me everything would probably be fine, but we can never predict what would happen. I stopped praying for America and started praying for the war inside my father’s body. At seven, I couldn’t tell you what a heart attack did to the body, but I knew it would ruin my family. I began to think that everyone was under attack: that my brother, or my mother, or my teacher would drop dead.

After returning from the hospital, Mom started handing Dad his medication instead of yelling at him to take it. She delivered it on an outstretched palm, with a tall glass of milk in the other. Now she only yelled when he downed his pills with Captain Morgan. Mom started making chicken and vegetables most nights for dinner, halving our red meat consumption. Taco night was now every other week. We banded together: if one of us had to be healthy, we all had to be.

Dad hated our new lifestyle, so I did too. Often, he would skip Mom’s dinner and go to Panda Express. I wanted to go with him, but I couldn’t betray Mom. We stopped eating dinner as a family. Dad realized the bar around the corner wouldn’t nag him about his heart health.

Dad’s check from Husky International arrived every Friday. He’d get off around three, cash his check, stop at the store for goodies, and head to the bar. Mom strategized getting to the mail before him, so our bills could get paid. She was working as a house cleaner, and on Fridays, she would work half days to be home in time for the mail. If Dad cashed the check before her, they wouldn’t be able to discuss finances until he had a few drinks.

“What do you mean the rent’s due? We just fucking paid that!” He’d boom, his voice bouncing off the razor thin walls.

“Steve, we paid it last month. It’s due every month on the fifth. How many times do I have to tell you?”

My siblings and I would hide in our rooms watching The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, trying to drown the screams.

“Steve! Steve! Get back here!”

Dad’s footsteps – sharp and precise – carried him back to the bar. The next morning, Dad would have the rent money sitting on the kitchen counter. He’d give each of us kids a few dollars if we let him sleep in—coddling his headache. Even when we had no money, Dad always had something set aside. Tens or twenties stuffed away in drawers off limits to everyone but him, dozens of quarters and dimes crammed into a five-gallon water jug that glinted in the sun. I can’t count the fights my parents have been in surrounding money, or the times my friends went to the mall and I sat at home, while Dad had a nest egg of money hidden away.

By Wednesday, he blew through his check and had to have dinner with us. We were able to be a family again. I tried to tell him about what I was learning in school, but Dad just laid back in his reclining chair, eyes half mast, watching the news.

God, and Jesus, please don’t let Al Qaeda kill anybody, and please don’t let the boys at school kill Bin Laden. I know he’s a bad guy, but everyone deserves another chance. Also, God, and Jesus, if it isn’t too much trouble, would you help my parents stop fighting? They don’t even have to talk to each other—in fact, they shouldn’t. Just, don’t make them fight. Thank you God, and Jesus. Amen.

Sometimes the news would play while Mom made dinner, but most nights I ate alone in my room. I was in sixth grade and preferred to watch MTV. Watching TV went from being my favorite family activity to my favorite isolated activity. I began to think that I would die after seeing all of the dead bodies on the news, or talk of the war. I knew there was a new terrorist group, Al Qaeda, because the boys at school talked about wanting to murder Bin Laden. I didn’t know the difference between Al Qaeda and Bin Laden, and I felt stupid asking. Mostly, I was afraid to know the truth. 

Dad completely stopped coming home for dinner when I was twelve. He used to at least pretend to eat dinner with us, and say he had to go to NAPA for work in the evening. We all knew he meant the bar, but at least he was putting effort into something, even if it meant lying to us. When he came home, Dad kicked in the door, the thin wood crackling under the force of his work boots.

“Kids, daddy’s home!” he’d belt, causing me to grab my backpack filled with clothes and books, wondering if we would stay at a hotel or with a family member. The gruffness of his voice alone signaled we needed to leave. We darted to Mom’s car, watching him yell as we pulled away. The next day, Dad apologized. Mom forgave him, and we moved back home. My backpack stayed readily accessible, only opening it to swap out books. 

I filled, silently, with rage every time Mom forgave him. My rage wormed into my chest, which I worried may be a heart attack just like Dad’s. Once I twirled knots into my hair, or bit away all of my nail, the rage lifted. At the time, I couldn’t understand that he controlled her with his money, that she was a natural born caretaker, that she thought she could save him. He had a second heart attack, among other health complications. He didn’t seem to care, and I didn’t either. I figured he wanted to die.

 I never told my mom that she should leave him, but sometimes she asked for my opinion. We would be a thousand times better off without him, I thought, but usually said she needed to do what felt right. I don’t remember the transition from loving my father more than anything to wishing him out of the house. It was more a flip of a switch, or a flashlight zooming out, highlighting all of his flaws. Even when he controlled his drinking, it wasn’t guaranteed that he would take his medication or see the doctor. Mom began to give up on that fight. She never left him, so I drowned myself in books, wishing for a different life, in a different city, where the family ate dinner together.

When Mom forgave him, there were always a few stipulations: Dad had to pay rent on time, he couldn’t be going to the bar every night, and we needed to have dinner as a family. So, on Friday nights, after Dad cashed his check, he would give Mom the rent money, and a little extra to bring home dinner for everyone. Thus began our reverential KFC nights. We each ate a Famous Bowl which started with a heap load of mashed potatoes, followed by droplets of fried chicken, a smattering of corn, and a ridiculous amount of jiggly gravy. I both loved them and hated them. They were five dollars each, making it the most economical choice on the menu, but my God, I ate one every week for about three years. I can go my whole life without smelling another Famous Bowl.

Dad began drinking at home, just like before. Everything felt normal. Mom nagged Dad about how much he ate and drank, while handing him his heart medication. He still washed it down with liquor, although he switched out Captain Morgan for Fireball. School was good, my grades were good, my books were even better. Then, World News Tonight told us that Osama bin Laden was dead.

“No way,” Dad yelled at the screen, paying more attention to the newscaster than he had me that day. 

“I can’t believe they actually found him.”

I sat in silence, mashing corn into my potatoes. That’s the first time I didn’t finish my Famous Bowl.

God, and Jesus, why? Why would you kill him? Will you even protect my family? Or, if anything, since you didn’t answer that prayer, will you keep my family happy? I’ll never ask anything of you, just don’t make anyone die.

Four days later, on my little sister’s eighth birthday, Al Qaeda confirmed the death was indeed Bin Laden, and they would be seeking retaliation.

*****

The war that racked my father, both in his substance abuse and in his health altered him, and my family, completely. The first time I experienced shoulder pain, I thought back to that night when my father had his first heart attack. I headed to the hospital, and they suggested anxiety medication. Along with medicine, I found eating healthy foods, exercising, and moving away helped.

My father is crippled by anxiety, but masks it through pills and booze. He’s disabled now: he’s lost a toe from mismanagement of his diabetes. He may end up losing his foot or even his leg. He has no color left in his body; he’s just a pale, unhealthy fifty-one year old man. I look at him huddled up on a couch too small for him, and see the aftermath of a warzone.

*

Casey Canright is a nonfiction writer currently working on a memoir about instant gratification. She holds a BA in creative writing from The Evergreen State College and an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College.

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