Stephen Rodrick's family portrait with Theresa, Bargara, Stephen and father, Peter (1972), from 'The Magical Stranger.'
Credit: Courtesy Stephen Rodrick

I called Mom in 2010 and told her I wanted to talk. By then, I'd spent nearly a month at sea on the USS Nimitz with the men and women of VAQ-135, Dad's old squadron. I'd bunked with them and gotten drunk with them. I'd even flown a low-level training mission through the Cascades in a Prowler, Dad's old plane. I'd come to an understanding of why he loved his Navy life so much, even if it left me feeling that flying was more important to him than family.

But I never was able to solve my mother. I told her I wanted to drive out to Michigan and sift through Dad's things, maybe sit with her for a formal interview. Her response was chipper, in language cadged from TV commercials.

"Bring it on. Let's do it."

Her excitement to talk confused me. We had not spoken about Dad for more than 45 minutes in the past 30 years. Is that how little it took, just asking? If so, why did we wait so long? Maybe I'd just been a bad son, giving her grief and heartache when I needed to lessen her burden. Maybe I was remembering everything exactly wrong.

Things thawed quickly between us after I left for college. I'd see her two or three times a year, and it would be fine. Mom marveled at my academic success and then my young career. She framed my first articles and hung them in my old bedroom, where I used to hide from her. The years passed, and I became her first call when she needed some instant courage.

But then I hit 36, Dad's age when he crashed. I had dabbled with my grief and loss, mostly on November 28, the anniversary of Dad's death, pushing it away the rest of the year. Denial was less of an option as I aged. Anything could set me off. I started going to Army-Navy games in Philadelphia and the Meadowlands whenever I could. The sight of the academy brigade marching onto the field filled me with pride and then sobs that I'd try and stifle in a press-box bathroom stall.

I drove out to Flint on a low-ceiling, humid summer day that reminded me of my miserable teenage years. Mom hobbled around on her bad knee. Her health wasn't great. She had endured an angioplasty a year or two earlier. I was struck by the thought that she would die, and not at some abstract point in the future but maybe before the decade was over. My battles with her, now mostly in my memory, seemed as necessary to me as oxygen. I couldn't imagine it ending.

In the morning, she made me eggs and bacon with some Pillsbury biscuits – my favorite childhood breakfast – and then she settled onto her sofa with her VAQ-135 mug.

We talked about their wedding, but she glossed over it quickly. She wanted to talk about how her fantasy life turned against her, pregnant for 18 of her first 21 months as a bride. This wasn't quite how she'd expected it to go.

"After I had Terry and you, I was on tranquilizers, because I could not sit. My whole personality changed. I was looking for the fairy-tale marriage. It got to be like, 'Is this what life is all about?'"

Mom broached her unhappiness with my father on only one occasion. It was in 1968, after he told her they would be moving from Rhode Island to NAS Meridian, Mississippi, their third stop in three years.

"I said, 'I don't know if I can handle this anymore, two kids and all this stuff.' He said, 'When you married me, you knew I was going to be a Navy pilot; you knew this was my career. If this is making you unhappy, the only thing I can say is either you learn how to live with it or maybe we should just go separate ways.' That woke me up real fast."

She never brought it up again. The thought of perfect Dad bullying Mom threatened to topple their respective roles as the American Hero and the Dragon Lady in the movie of my life. She asked me if I remembered the child psychiatrist that she took me to when I was six or seven. I did, but only vaguely. She sketched in the particulars.

"He tested you, and he came out and said he'd never met a boy so little already trying to live up to his father. He felt you were already competing with him."

We sat in silence. I could feel darkness rising in my heart. If the thought of never measuring up to Dad was ingrained in me so deeply, so early, what chance did I ever have of winning that war? But I said nothing. Mom kept talking, her voice cracking. She told me about the last time she saw Dad in Manila for his change-of-command ceremony.

"He asked me if I could stay a couple more days. I just couldn't see how I could with you kids back here. So I said, 'I just can't do it,' and then he kissed me good-bye. And I went hysterical. I watched him walk away through a window. I just knew that I wouldn't see him again."

We moved on to the Flint years. She remembered a particularly hairy moment at the dinner table. Mom was cutting a pizza when I made one of my trademark sarcastic remarks. She flung the pizza slicer in my general direction. According to Mom, this is how it went:

Me: You could have ended in prison on that one.

Mom: I'd love every minute of it.

Somehow, this made us both laugh. What grieving American family doesn't have moments of hurling cutlery? I asked her if that was the lowest moment. She said that wasn't even close. Her voice dropped to a whisper.

"I wrote notes to myself about committing suicide. I'd write, 'I love my family. But I can't see any end to this. I'm so tired.'"

There was silence. All those nights when she locked herself in her room, and I sat outside listening to her cry, that was my fear – that she would end it all and leave us with no one. I wasn't wrong. But to hear the actual words tore at my insides. I knew far too well what she meant, sorrow poisoning your blood until you feel like you just don't matter in this world. The rational part told me that it wasn't my fault; she needed professional help. But my gut told me something different – I'd let my mother down when she needed me most. I couldn't save her. But I didn't say anything like that.

"Mom, I'm glad you didn't."

She smiled her gap-tooth smile, the one Dad fell in love with, and tears ran down her lined face. I could still see the beautiful woman playing bridge while I watched from the stairs as a little boy.

"I would have never done it. There was no one left to take care of our kids." She paused and fiddled with her wedding ring. "I don't know how you turned out as well as you did. I did a terrible job with you. I didn't know anything about boys. I didn't have any brothers. You were your father's only son. I was so afraid of doing something wrong, I overreacted to everything. Stephen, I'm sorry."

And there it was. The apology I'd waited for my entire life. But I didn't feel triumphant. I just ached for my mother sitting right next to me. It wasn't that we had not understood each other for all those years. It was that we were shouting grief and loss and anger at each other so loudly we couldn't hear each other. She had done the best she could. I could finally accept that.

I casually said that I wished we'd had this conversation 25 years ago. Mom bolted up on the sofa.

"I was so angry at you and Terry about that! You never mentioned Dad, and it made me really sad. That's why his pictures were everywhere. I thought if you saw pictures of him you might talk about him. But you never did."

Her words baffled me.

"Wait a sec. I was furious at you because you never talked about him. It made me so angry."

Mom poured herself a Coke.

"Well, that's the Rodrick family. Everyone's so frickin' scared of hurting someone's feelings, nothing really ever gets said."

I didn't say anything. It was too late. The tape recorder was off.

Our time was up.

Mom went to bed early that night, and I eventually drifted down to the basement and Dad's cruise box. At some point, Mom had combined his Navy stuff with other Dad-related detritus into a treasure chest of things that make up a life. It sat apart from the rest of Mom's old furniture and clothes, a lone box on a cement altar.

I set aside letters sealed in a Tupperware container and dug in. There was his silver sword from the Naval Academy, a black cummerbund from his wedding, and a water-damaged Navy form listing all items shipped back from the Kitty Hawk after the accident.

I sorted through Dad's possessions for hours, fingering his rosary beads and trying on the Navy cap he wore at his change of command. Buried underneath a lock box was a small, red book with "Daily Diary" embossed on the cover in fading letters. I carefully opened the pages. The words were written in a blurred mixture of print and cursive that mirrored my own handwriting. It was a diary that Dad had kept when he was 13 and living in Brockton, Massachusetts, the same age I was when he was killed.

I read the pages. The boy in the diary is more responsible and worldly than I was at the same age. On January 3 and 4, Dad served as an altar boy at four masses "solemn high funeral, same as yesterday" and took an after-school job in the cafeteria "emptying barrels and sweeping floors with Joe Barbour." This was in addition to his paper route. He bought his mother a used dishwasher to ease her load. In March, he crammed for the Boston College High School entrance exam, earning a scholarship, a turning point in his young life. "Not too bad, Math EASY! I think I got close to 100! English a little harder." He even eased over minor financial issues for his dad. "Had to lend Dad 85 cents."

My heart swelled reading about Dad's wonder-boy achievements, but part of it just depressed me. Much of it was genuine sadness that a good soul was taken so early, but some of it was my same old refrain, self-loathing for not measuring up. Sure, I had a paper route at 13, but I certainly wasn't buying Mom a dishwasher. I was squandering my cash on ice-cream sandwiches and treating Mom like crap. And I'd been the world's worst altar boy.

Fortunately, there were other episodes that made me know that he was my blood. He missed a chance at a school trip to New York City because he received Bs in conduct and application. That part sounded like me. His paper route was sliced in half by his boss because he wouldn't stop cutting across his customers' lawns. That after-school job in the cafeteria? He got fired from it a month later. "Me and Joe got in a fight with A-1 Sauce. Joe got wrecked. My hair still stinks." At least once a week, he was kept after school because of mouthing off. "Sister said I was 'PUNK' today." There was a destructive streak in him. After a spring blizzard, Dad headed downtown to cause trouble.

"After church came home, changed, and went to store with Woody. On way home hit car on window with snowball. He chased me, knocked me down in A&P parking lot."

I'm pretty sure there has never been a son more elated to read about his father's getting the shit kicked out of him.

I took the diaries back to New York with me and delicately made copies of the pages. I found myself reading and rereading the passages when I should have been working on other things. I was 13 years and 59 days old the day he died. One day, I did the math and figured when Dad was the same age. It was March 4, 1956.

Served 8.15 mass. Fr Donahue celebrant. Fixed Dots bike. Fooled around in woods with Woody and John Campbell. Got equip back from mike – see Saturday – went to show – saw Battle Cry. GREAT.

I rented Battle Cry that night. The 1955 film is a Velveeta-laden adaptation of a Leon Uris novel about Marines in World War II. Calling it paint-by-numbers is charitable. The stereotypes burst onto the screen in the first five minutes. There's the damn crazy lumberjack, the bookish kid, the gruff sergeant, and a light-fingered greaser who gives a hot foot – I'm not making this up – to a Navajo, who hops around the train going "How, how, how." The boys end up at boot camp, where they bond and realize – spoiler alert – that they have much more in common than they think and there's no way they're going to make it out of this cockeyed war without each other.

But then I watched it again and tried to put myself in a different place. It is a third-run theater on a gray evening in 1956 Brockton. I'm sitting there with Woody. We're eating popcorn and talking at the screen. We watch men from towns just like Brockton fight, drink, chase skirt, and then kill the Japs. The war ends, and the boys come back to their wives and children and live happily ever after. The credits roll. We cheer. On the way home, we dodge street trolleys, tackle each other, and reenact our favorite scenes, taking turns playing the hero. And maybe, just maybe, we think that's the life we want.

I talked to Dad's sister Dot later about when she first remembered Dad talking about joining the military.

"I'd say when he was about 13 or 14. I don't know where it came from or how it started."

Could it have all been put into motion that day at the movies? A boy 13 years and 59 days old sees a movie and starts down a path that ends with a boy 13 years and 59 days old losing his father and losing his way.

Is that how it happened?

From the book 'The Magical Stranger: A Son's Journey Into His Father's Life,' by Stephen Rodrick.