Stephen Rodrick's family portrait with Theresa, Bargara, Stephen and father, Peter (1972), from 'The Magical Stranger.'
Credit: Courtesy Stephen Rodrick
We lingered in Oak Harbor for just five months after Dad's crash. There was an unspoken rule for widows: Move on. So in April 1980, we moved to Flint, where my mom's sister lived.

The walls of our new home were decorated with old pictures and plaques from Dad's career, while models of his planes sat on the mantelpiece next to an American flag provided by a grateful nation. But we never talked about him. Whole calendar years could pass without a specific mention of my father.

Things at home started slipping away. Most days, Mom struggled to keep it together. I'd do puzzles with my little sister while she fixed dinner with a furious clatter, banging pots and slamming glasses. We'd eat in silence, then we'd all go our separate ways, me up to my room to work on Dad's escape.

I devised a narrative where Dad wasn't dead. No bodies were recovered after the accident, so the rest was easy. They had ejected in the Indian Ocean and were immediately picked up by an enemy spy ship, probably Soviet. They were taken to a secret prison. But, somehow, Dad led a prison break. He took his crew across a no-man's-land of mountain ranges and deserts until they staggered, barely alive, to a friendly border. We received a phone call in the middle of the night, and through the crackle we could hear Dad's voice.

"I'm alive."

The story usually ended with me sitting at a table with Dad's arm around me as he did an interview with the Today Show. The fantasy lived in my mind for years.

My first-semester grades that year were a clot of B-minuses with a single A in history. I gave them to Mom after dinner one night. She stared at the page for a full minute, as if she could make the letters change by sheer will. Then she threw the card at me, stormed upstairs, and slammed her bedroom door.

I could hear her sobbing. Terry came out of her room and took Christine down to the basement to play. I sat outside Mom's door. I could hear her talking to someone.

"Why did you do this to me? Why? I can't do this. Why did you leave me? Why? Please, please come back."

I knocked softly on the door.

"Mom, I'll do better. I promise."