The Torrential Aftermath of War: remembering my father

> 03.04.2017

It's raining hard, and there are flood warnings for the river that runs along the edge of our farm. Rain thrums on the tin roof of our timber homestead, put up in the 1950s; the swimming pool is overflowing, though the water level was low only days ago, the pool filter was sucking air, and we couldn't top the water up because the rain tanks were way down, too. This present moment is flush with joy, if only I let it in.

Joy’s pushed aside by thoughts flooding me from the past as I sit trying to write about trauma, aftermath and the media—my reflections on Stan Grant’s story about resilience in the first episode of ABC TV’s The Link on 3 March 2017—but what wants to rise are memories of my childhood. My distracted mind is finding it hard to focus on my subject. I find myself surrounded, instead, by my parents and siblings; while the rain falls and I try to write about trauma, I am in fact mostly reliving the emotional aftermath of my train accident.

Trauma has a narrative, but unlike a story, it has no time-line. It never stops and it’s hard to reach the end of it. 

Like the rain today, trauma can be torrential.

Trauma reverberates. After the beginning is over, the effects ripple outwards, and inwards, and on and on, and often we don't recognise what we feel as the long aftermath.

Trauma takes us on tangents. And here I am off topic and onto a story about my father.

I heard stories of my father’s war years when growing up; he was in the Australian Navy during the Second World War—he told tales of fighting pirates in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Exciting stuff! Eat your heart out Jack Sparrow!

I suspected there was more Dad could tell, but he held it in. Until he was dying. In his last weeks I heard more: the difficulties he had applying for work when he left the Navy. He kept being rejected from jobs he wanted, unsuitable, he was told, because he was a bundle of nerves.

Being a bundle of nerves wasn’t recognised as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in the 1940s; back then it was combat fatigue, and it was considered shameful, it was individualised, and seen as a lack of strength.

I found out more about my father's war in the last weeks of his life than I’d learned in the six decades before. Dad ran out of time to tell me all of it. Yet, listening to what time allowed him to tell, I understood Dad’s war traumas threaded through the narrative woven into the fabric of my family’s life, like the weavings of so many other fathers, and their families, of his generation.

It’s two years since Dad’s story ended. I didn’t plan to tell it here. It just happened. That’s how trauma works. Memories pounce, triggered by thoughts, smells, sounds, sights, taste, touch, words, dates, seasons and more.

This is the season of Dad’s death. The fall is full of memories of him. And trauma won’t let me write about trauma because it is made of stories that never end. Clarity eludes me, and I’m swamped.

In Dad’s day, just as it still was in 1968 when I had a train accident, survivors of trauma were encouraged to get back to normal, to move on, forget.

People didn’t know, then, what they know now about responding to trauma; that it’s important to allow oneself or others to talk and to acknowledge the legacy left in its wake. There was a mistaken belief talking only made things worse.

Indeed, one does feel worse, at first, talking about a tragic event. So many veterans from all wars—like Dad—know that rendering ruminating thoughts and flashbacks into words can carry you back to the eye of the storm. Now, we know, with each telling the velocity of emotions slows, imperceptibly at first, until speaking is separated from pain.

In the beginning the healing process can feel unendurable. Many give up, and you can understand why. The retelling feels worse than the trauma you survived.

With the knowledge and understanding harnessed through research in the fifty years since the Vietnamese War, and studies of other traumatic events like mass shootings and disasters, conventional wisdom about healing from tragic events has shifted and we now know silence will not heal; it will only drive the trauma underground, where it dwells and grows until it erupts, over and over again, causing ongoing distress, disrupting relationships and separating survivors from themselves and others.

I love rain—it feels like a watershed—in summer it breaks heat and humidity, in my family of origin it broke tension. Rain brought my family together, in the kitchen baking scones to have with jam and cream or in the lounge-room where we played boardgames and cards. When we were young we played Memory, Old Maid and Snap and, later, we played Five Hundred, Euchre and Scrabble. And, today, rain brings grass for the cattle on our farm, full tanks for long showers, and lilies sprouting from the earth.

And, autumn rain will always bring me memories of Dad.