In an airless stateroom aboard the USS Kitty Hawk, I find my dead father.

Somewhere off the Vietnamese coast, the roar of an F/A-18 Hornet shot from the carrier's number two catapult blasts me awake. Pilots learn to sleep through the bash and rattle of launches and recoveries. But I'm not a pilot, just a reporter, a tourist by another name.

Now, my father was a pilot. When I was a boy, he chased sky and sea off this very ship. One day, his plane dipped imperceptibly – a wing tapping the ocean – and disintegrated. All that remained was black oil and a white helmet floating on a blue sea.

Still groggy, I watch my roommate – a no-nonsense pilot – run a razor over his face and slap on aftershave. A moment later, the door slams behind him. I detect a familiar scent, one that is flinty and masculine. I jump down from the bunk and open the medicine cabinet. Inside is his blue bottle of Aqua Velva aftershave.

I remove the cap and inhale. The smell takes me back. It's May 28, 1979, in Oak Harbor, Washington. Upstairs in the master bedroom, Commander Peter Rodrick wears a white undershirt and briefs. Gray creeps in at the temples. He slaps on Aqua Velva and winces. He carefully places a speck of yellow toilet paper on his chin. He always cuts himself there. In the mirror, he catches me peering around the corner. I am 12. My fingertips are black from folding copies of the Seattle Times.

"What's the matter, knucklehead?"

"I don't want you to go."

"Why?"

"I'm scared."

"You've never been scared before. Scared of what?"

"Scared something bad is going to happen."

Dad tousles my hair.

"It'll be fine. Now try and get along with your mom, and don't fight her on everything. Even if you're right."

A few minutes later, he heads downstairs and kisses my mom. She carries my baby sister, Christine, not quite two years old. Mom is trying to be brave, but it doesn't come easy.

One afternoon when I was two, Mom made peanut-butter sandwiches for my older sister, Terry, and me in our small bungalow on Meridian Naval Air Station in Mississippi. She flipped on the TV and started watching 'Days of Our Lives,' but it was interrupted by a news bulletin reporting the crash of a Navy T-2 a few hundred yards short of NAS Meridian's runway.

The T-2 was Dad's plane. She turned off the television and tried not to go to pieces. A car pulled into the driveway, either Dad or the base chaplain. The door opened and there was my father, a bandage on his forehead, his flight suit ripped and blackened from ejecting.

That was five moves and four cruises ago. Barbara Rodrick has raised three children on her own while her husband has spent 1,100 days of the last six years at sea, making hundreds of landings on the Oriskany, the Forrestal, the Nimitz, and now the Kitty Hawk.

There are more lonely days ahead. Today, he leaves for a six-month deployment in the Pacific, his third cruise flying an EA-6B Prowler, a radar-jamming plane. He swears to her that this is the last one; next will be the Pentagon or some other shore duty. He promises he will be there for her. She believes him. He does not tell her he's applying for the space-shuttle program.

Her two girls are low-maintenance. I am not. I arrive a month premature, with my dad's brains but not much else. My chart reads "slight discoordination of his right side." That's an understatement. At school, I talk and talk, gulp air, and talk more. Fill-in-the-oval tests put me in advanced classes. Actual grades remove me from advanced classes. Listening eludes me, as do the intersecting laces of my shoes. (I can't tie my shoes or ride a bike until I'm six.)

It's time for Dad to go. Everyone loads into the car for the 15-minute drive to Whidbey Island Naval Air Station. Except me. I have papers to deliver. This isn't a small thing. Delivering papers is the only structure in my ADD/Dad-always-gone life. Mom thinks it's a good idea that I stay with my regular routine even on departure days. I don't argue. Car doors slam while I stuff rubber-banded papers into my carrier bag. Dad backs the wagon out of the drive and pulls away. I give a last wave. He doesn't see me.

Dad's dream comes true on the Fourth of July. Peter Rodrick will become commanding officer of his own squadron, VAQ-135, the Black Ravens. He will be just 36, one of the youngest skippers in the Navy. He's on the fast track, maybe all the way to admiral. But that's grown-up talk. All I know is that on December 10, 1979, I'm going to fly from Seattle to Honolulu and ride back to San Diego with Dad aboard the Kitty Hawk. The voyage will take six days, longer than I've ever spent alone with him.

Finally, there will be time. I can come clean about faking sick so I could watch the Red Sox – Yankees one-game playoff last October. The Sox are Dad's team. He'll understand. Finally, I can learn what my father does. I know he flies jets off carriers, but how? Finally, I can ask him why things seem so hard all the time.

In the days leading up to the trip, time passes slowly. The other wives come over almost every night. I watch Cathy Brown cry in Mom's arms. She is pregnant and scared. The other wives smoke cigarettes, drink Riunite, and talk about their absent husbands. Are they safe? Are they faithful?

Gray settles back over Whidbey Island. The illusion of summer is gone. At last, it is fall. We are down to numbers I can understand: 23 days, 22 days.... The Kitty Hawk drops anchor in the Philippines, just two weeks away from when we will depart for Pearl Harbor. I brag about my trip to customers when I collect for the paper. They smile, back away, and close their screen doors.

But on November 4, Americans are taken hostage in the U.S. Embassy in Iran. I fold my papers and stare at pictures of blindfolded Americans. I don't connect the dots. Then, two weeks later, in the middle of a November night, Dad calls from the officers' club in Subic Bay. Mom says he wants to talk to me. I rub the sleep out of my eyes and cradle the phone. He says he's sorry. The boat is being turned around, off to the Persian Gulf, as a show of strength. I don't know what that means. I just know there will be no trip to Hawaii.

Dad's letters continue to arrive from somewhere in fits and spurts. They used to be marked on the back with the number of days until his return. Now he just circles the seal on the envelope with a question mark and an unhappy face.

Soon, it's the morning of November 28. Mom sleeps in; Chrissie has been up with the croup. By 11 am, I'm trying, unsuccessfully, to skate backward at the Roller Barn for eighth-grade gym class. I can tell you the electoral-college breakdown of the Carter-Ford presidential election and the status of Kenny Stabler's wobbly knees, but when it comes to the things that confer acceptance upon boys – hitting a baseball, building a catapult for Webelos, roller-skating backward – I'm hopeless. I need someone to show me how, someone to tell me that it really doesn't matter anyway. But that man is always 8,000 miles away.

So I fall on my ass. The cool kids snicker. My gym teacher calls me over. I'm relieved at first because it stops the laughing. But the teacher's permanently upbeat face has gone flat. She points to a man standing by the snack bar. He wears a black uniform and carries a white hat in his hand. It is Lieutenant Commander Laddie Coburn, Dad's best friend. I slowly skate over and sit down on a bench. He hesitates, sits down next to me, and puts a hand on my knee.

"Your father has been in an accident."

He says there's hope; the helos are still looking. I do not believe him. I am now 13, and I've grown up around the Navy. If they haven't found him by now, they aren't going to.

He drives me home, and the world rushes toward me hotter and faster than ever before. I choke back vomit. We arrive at the house on North Conifer Drive. This time, the chaplain's car is in the driveway. Inside, the wives have already gathered. They smoke Virginia Slims and laugh without conviction. Mom, just 37, looks different; she became old the moment the doorbell rang.

Later that day, it is confirmed that Commander Peter Rodrick and three crew members, Lieutenant Commander William Coffey, Lieutenant James Brown Jr., and Lieutenant Junior Grade John Chorey, are dead, 63 miles southeast of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. There are no bodies to recover. The men leave four widows and seven children under the age of 15.

I still deliver my papers. Almost done. An old crone who never tips steps into her weedy yard. She wraps me in a hug. She heard about Dad on the news. Her tears drop onto my last remaining newspaper. The blot grows and expands, obliterating words.

It's dark now. I put my bike back in the garage, next to Dad's shrouded MG. I slip past the grown-ups, up the stairs, and into my parents' bedroom. I breathe in deeply. Nothing. I frantically look in the medicine cabinet and then under the sink, but the bottle, and the smell, is gone.

An hour before my father's memorial service, a family friend slips me a tablet, probably Valium, leaving me with a detached, third-person feeling for the rest of the day. At the chapel, four caps sit on the altar. Three of the wives are quiet, but Cathy Brown, now the widow of Lieutenant James Brown Jr., loudly bleeds grief, holding a tiny daughter who will never know her father. There are no coffins, but much talk of a loving God. More than 400 people sing "Eternal Father," the Navy anthem to "those in peril on the sea."

Afterward, my family sits mute in our station wagon. Laddie Coburn leans through an open window and tries to console Mom.

"C'mon, Barb, you can start a whole new life." Her response is a whisper. "No."

Mom kept her word. It's three decades later and she makes coffee for one, pouring Folgers into a 30-year-old coffee mug. The cup is chipped and discolored with long-ago lipstick traces. The Black Ravens squadron logo is faint and the name "Pete" fades a little more with every wash. It is 2009, and Mom is now 67. She lives outside Flint, Michigan, where she moved our family after Dad's accident. An arthritic knee slows her down, but she still possesses the quick laugh and wide brown eyes that made my father fall in love with her 50 years ago. There's the toothy smile and the southern fake swear words: "Judas Priest" swapped for "Jesus Christ."

I have not been the greatest son, but I know what matters to her. Earlier that year, I sent an email to VAQ-135, my dad's old squadron. I was looking for new coffee mugs. The squadron's commanding officer, Commander Brent "Doogie" Breining, wrote me back. He thanked my family for our sacrifice – this happens a lot – and noted that his change-of-command ceremony would occur on July 2, 2009, two days short of the 30th anniversary of my father's taking command of the Black Ravens. Would I like to come out to Whidbey Island for the ceremony?

There would be a formal dinner the night before, and the next day, there'd be a change-of-command ceremony when Commander James Hunter "Tupper" Ware would formally relieve Doogie. Afterward, I could get a tour of the base and even sit in the cockpit of a Prowler, Dad's old plane still in service 30 years later.

Breining's invitation frightened me. Some historians trace the start of the War on Terror to November 4, 1979, the day the hostages were taken in Tehran. That would make Dad's crash one of the first American collateral casualties. Thirty years later, fathers still fly Prowlers off carriers. Their sons still skate at the Roller Barn. The war goes on and on. All that changes are the welcome home signs. But my family surrendered long ago. We fled that world, refugees never speaking of our destroyed homeland.

A colleague once nicknamed me – half mocking – the "magical stranger" because I get people to tell me things. But to me, the magical stranger has always been my father. He was brilliant and unknowable, holy but absent, a born leader who gave me little direction. Peter Rodrick was one of only around 4,000 men in the world qualified to land jets on a carrier after dark. And he was an apparition, gone 200 days of the year from when I was six until he died. He was such a ghost that I didn't fully accept he was gone for years.

Evidence of the actual man was harder to come by. His pictures hung on our walls, but Mom never talked about him. Most of my father was locked away in cruise boxes and crates in our basement: a framed picture from the Brockton Enterprise of a boy with a pole on the first day of fishing season; a long black leather sleeve holding a sword, and a small metal box containing envelopes with single dollar bills sent to him on his birthday by his father, the envelopes still coming for years after he died.

Over the years, I had made some tentative steps at connecting with Dad, but they always ended in sadness. I visited his marker at Arlington National Cemetery twice when I was in Washington as a college kid. I would climb the hill up to his section and sit down on the hard ground. I'd pick out the dirt that lodged between letters reading in memory of Peter Thomas Rodrick Cdr US Navy Jan 6 1943 – Nov 28 1979. I'd cry and flip a middle finger at tour guides droning on about Audie Murphy in passing trolleys. I never told my family.

So I left Dad in a cardboard box full of photos I kept in a room I rarely used until Commander Breining's invitation. I vacillated for weeks, staring at the ornate lettering of the official invitation. In the end, my new girlfriend Alix's curiosity about my past pushed me to buy two airline tickets just a week prior to the ceremony.

An hour after landing, we pulled on to the Mukilteo ferry, an idyllic 20-minute voyage from suburban Seattle to the southern tip of Whidbey Island. It was a trip I'd made dozens of times as a child. The afternoon was a "blue-sky day," a Navy term for endless visibility, just like the day of Dad's accident. Alix dozed while I squinted through the glare and thought of Dad's losing perspective between sea and sky – one of the many theories for his crash.

I spotted a woman struggling with two small children in the car ahead of us. Her Subaru station wagon had a fly navy bumper sticker and was packed with toys and luggage. I guessed she was returning home after visiting relatives while the children's father floated on a different ocean.

The woman looked to be about Mom's age when she became a widow. Barbara Rodrick was 37 and still beautiful when Dad's plane crashed. She has been on zero dates since "the mishap," as the Navy likes to call plane crashes. I felt this was heroic when I was younger, her terminal fidelity a fitting coda to my father's own bravery. As an adult, I began to think it was beyond sad. We approached the island. The ferry's loudspeakers instructed drivers to return to their cars. Up ahead, the woman expertly wrangled her hyperactive son into his car seat as he kicked and thrashed.

The boy jarred something in my memory. When I was five, Dad was studying for a master's degree in aeronautical engineering at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. One day, my sister and I were riding in the back of our blue Chevrolet station wagon as Mom ran errands. This was in the time before mandatory seat belts, much less car seats. I tried to crank down the window with my tiny fingers but pulled the wrong handle.

The door opened, and I tumbled onto the asphalt. Somehow, Mom didn't notice. Luckily, I landed on the curb side of the road. The passing cars looked like motorized dinosaurs from the ground. A block or two away, Mom looked in the rear window and screamed at Terry.

"Where's your brother?"

"He fell out back at the light."

Mom turned the station wagon around, squealing rubber.

She pulled up in front of me and jumped out of the car. Her hands were shaking but her bouffant hairdo was still perfect. She dusted me off, looked around to see if anyone she knew was watching, and whispered in my ear.

"Do not mention this to your father."

The next morning, Hangar 8 on NAS Whidbey filled with more than 200 people. Two gleaming Prowlers separated rows of folding chairs. Kids in blue blazers chased one another around as Alix and I took our seats.

I thought of Dad and my only memory of him in this same hangar. I was 12, and there was some paperwork he wanted to pick up after Sunday Mass on base. We walked into the hangar, and Dad spotted a young enlisted man on guard duty. His nightstick was twirling down around his waist. Dad strode directly toward him, looking as imposing as a man in a turtleneck, leather sports jacket, and flared plaid pants can look. He moved the baton back up the sailor's shoulder.

"This is how it is to be worn. Got it?" The sailor, a kid really, whispered a response. "Yes, sir." I was embarrassed and proud. Now, I looked through the crowd at the sons and wondered what would happen to them without their father. Would they remember him? Would his example carry them through? Or would they crumple under the weight of what was expected and be lost?

After the ceremony ended, Alix and I walked across the street to a mothballed Prowler. In front of the plane were bronze statues of two small children, frozen in play as if captured in a light moment at the park. But their eyes gaze on golden plaques at the base of the Prowler. Each one contained the names of the naval aviators who had been killed flying the Prowler. I found Dad's name and something dawned on me: The kids' faces are frozen in the moment before they are told that their father is dead.

When I am six or seven, Mom takes me to see a child psychiatrist at NAS Alameda, where my father is stationed. We talk about Dad and what he does for a living. We talk about school and how boring it is. We talk about me getting along with Mom. After an hour, he pats me on the head, and Mom leaves the hospital with a bottle filled with white tablets.

It's Ritalin. I take one in the morning and then one from the school nurse around lunchtime. I can't tell you if they help or not. Probably not, because my elementary school comes up with a new idea: I'll spend half the day with my regular class and half the day with special-ed kids.

This is a disaster. I spend afternoons with retarded boys and girls a half foot taller than me who outweigh me by 60 or 70 pounds. I cry, and they cry, too, but their tears come with rage. One day, a kid with a crew cut throws a Chinese checkers game at my head, marbles and all. I hide in a closet.

What does Dad say? Not much. He's gone from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. when he's not off on a carrier somewhere.

One Saturday, Mom says she needs a break. She takes Terry shopping. Dad is in the garage working on his MG. He's wearing a white T-shirt and stained khakis. We live at the top of a hill in a new subdivision; I'm a little bit up the street riding my new blue bicycle. Well, riding it is a big fat lie. I still can't exist without training wheels. A couple of neighbor kids surround me. One boy starts in.

"You can't really ride that bike."

"Yes, I can."

"No, you're a baby. You need training wheels."

"Can, too."

And then I'm off. Did I jump or was I pushed? Doesn't matter. I'm flying down the pavement, picking up speed. I've never gone this fast in my life. And I'm not tipping over! But then I start heading left. This isn't surprising. I do everything to the left. I'm heading straight for the car, actually a yellow pickup truck. I try to steer to the right, but I can't do anything to the right. I lean hard; maybe I'll miss it.

No.

How long have I been lying here? Where did the kids go? My bike's front fender is twisted in. I see a small, sharp dent in the truck's grill. Mom isn't going to be happy. There are splashes of red on the handlebars. I put my hand to my mouth and touch teeth where there should be skin.

Only then does it hit me. My face is ripped open below my lip. Still, I feel calm. I slowly walk my bike back up the hill. The bent front wheel scrapes and wheezes every time it turns. My red shirt is a darker crimson by the time I get home. I walk into the garage and put my bike where it's supposed to go. Dad is bent over with a wrench. I pull on his belt loop, and he turns around.

"Dad? Don't be mad."

"Jesus Christ."

It's the first and last time I hear Dad swear. He picks me up and carries me inside. He wraps ice in a towel and holds it to my chin. For a second, he panics. I see an opening.

"Dad, I just want to stay here and watch Sesame Street. Just one show."

That snaps him out of it. We're in his MG, and the top is down. We pull up to the base hospital, and he half carries, half walks me through the doors. Someone comes in and gives me a shot. I look up at Dad. He brushes the hair out of my eyes. I'm about to get nine stitches inside my mouth and nine more on the outside to close the wreck that is now my chin. And yet I'm smiling, so much that I can feel the crusted blood cracking on my face. I'm here with Dad, and it's just the two of us. So what if I had to lose a pint of blood for it to happen? Doesn't matter. It happened. I drift away to sleep. I am happy.

Names and faces long past swirled through my head the night I visited Whidbey. One of them was Timmy's. Timmy was my best friend when I was five. He was a curly-haired boy whose dad was also a pilot. We met in Monterey the year I fell out of the car. There were playdates with Hot Rods and whispers across blue mats during kindergarten nap time. Our friendship was typically Navy, intense and sporadic. After kindergarten, his dad was sent off somewhere and my father to NAS Alameda, outside of San Francisco. Timmy just disappeared one day. That's just how it went.

Three years later, I found myself in Mrs. Hunt's third-grade class at Clover Valley Elementary, just outside NAS Whidbey's gates. We had just arrived in town. It was the first day of school, and, as usual, I knew no one. A finger tapped me on my shoulder. I spun around. There was Timmy in a white turtleneck.

His dad was flying Prowlers, too! For little boys, our reunification was a profound miracle, too fantastic to contemplate. We became inseparable, chattering over cheese pizza, CCD, and Cub Scouts. Nothing could part us.

Then, one damp January morning, Timmy came to school late. His father's Prowler received a weak catapult off a carrier on the other side of the world. Not having enough power to maintain altitude, his dad and his crew ejected from their plane. Tim's dad survived, but a crew member drowned. Timmy told me about it while we played foursquare at recess.

We were eight.

It's funny what passed for normal. Planes crashed, and dads were gone; sometimes it was four kids to one father at our Boy Scouts campouts. Mom and me fought constantly. When I'm 11, Dad screens for command. It's almost my 12th birthday. Dad goes away for a month. There's going to be a party with my buddies Billy and Eric and Timmy. Then something terrible happens. There is a boy down the street named David Bruce. He is a year younger than me and has the only buzz cut in the neighborhood. I know he wants to be my friend, and we play one-on-one football in his front yard, one of the few games I can win since I outweigh him by 30 pounds. I meet his dad after one of our games, working in his garage. He doesn't smile.

But David and I had a falling out over something stupid, or maybe he just got tired of me being mean to him. I see him on the school bus, but we never really talk. Then, a few days before my birthday, David's father is killed in an A-6 accident off the USS Ranger. I hear the news, but it doesn't register. Dad comes into my room on the morning of my birthday.

"I want you to invite David Bruce."

"C'mon, Dad, he'll ruin it."

"I'm not asking you – I'm telling you."

I call David's house. His mother answers in a shaky voice. I ask her if David can come over later for my party. She starts crying on the phone, babbling "thank yous" through tears.

David shows up a few hours later in a too-big blue windbreaker that belonged to his dad. He gives me a hastily wrapped stapler as a present. I begin to roll my eyes, and Dad shoots me a death look. I say thank you. We have cake, and then we play football in the backyard. Dad makes sure David scores a touchdown. It is my last birthday with my father.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."

"GO AWAY."

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.