By Julie Anderson
When a new friend brought over an audio book I was intrigued. I'd never listened to one before. The audio book changed my life and I think it could change yours, which is why author Kathryn Jeffers is the first 'inspiring person' to be featured on Boom Baby Boomer.
In 'The Long Road to Arlington', Jeffers allows us inside the very personal journey she took with her dad. The journey of a World War II veteran who marries and raises a family despite the demons he carried home from the war.
Jeffers is a daughter who feared her father's rage as a child, and came to understand it as an adult. The rage, she would learn, stemmed from her father's Post Traumatic Stress Disorder with a lot of vodka thrown on top. It was a combination that easily could have destroyed this Wisconsin family. But Jeffers spent her dad's final years helping him learn about his behavior and apologize for it.
I listened to the audio book on my two hour weekly drive to care for my dad who was dying of pancreatic cancer. It helped me understand the critical need to resolve any old issues I had with my own dad and to learn as much as I could about his past. My dad and I had struggled on many fronts but in his final months we grew closer than we'd ever been. Part of that healing was inspired by Jeffers and her amazingly well written audiobook which she recorded in her own voice.
During an e-mail interview, I asked her the following questions. Some answers have been shortened.
Do you realize how impactful your memoir is?
Jeffers: People have been very generous with letting me know what the story has opened up for them in many different ways. It has made some look at their father, and family, and what needs to be understood, discussed and forgiven. For some it was a history lesson about World War II. The sense of patriotism was strong for lots of readers. For others it was learning about the signs and effects of PTSD, and how to get help. And of course there's the honesty about alcoholism and addiction. Most of the readers are baby boomers, and we are a generation hungry to understand the human condition. I am humbled that people have gotten so much out of it, and grateful that it is helping others.
I did not want the story to end.
Why do you think that is?
Jeffers: I could never have made this story up. It unfolded over seven years from the time my father nearly died from meningitis to his funeral. I was living the story with him and my family and I just happen to be a writer who was writing it in real time. Many people wrote or told me they would drive around the block, or just sit in the car wherever they were to keep listening. I think that people have a natural curiosity to want to know: "And then what happened?" One woman called me because she wanted to know what my family did for the rest of the day after the funeral was over. Another man called to tell me he has listened to the book a dozen times in the past three years. Many people have listened multiple times. The question is why? I can only think that it is because the story somehow resonates with them at a very personal level. Strangers feel like they know me, and my family. I think who they really want to know are their own family, and themselves.
Why record it in your own voice?
Jeffers: It was in the last year of my father's life that I began recording it. I knew that time was of the essence by then. He wanted to "hear our book" he told me. I did not want to have him reading it alone. I wanted us to listen to it together. Lucky for me that one of my old college friends co-owns one of the best sound production studios in the country – Audio for the Arts in Madison. He worked on the project with me and we got it done in a pretty short amount of time. My being the reader was the most expedient way to get it done fast. Additionally, I thought the story itself was dramatic enough without adding much more through the reading. I wanted it to be "told" not "performed."
What is it about this story that reaches into other little girls, now women, who had their own issues with their dad? What did you fear most about your dad's actions as a little girl?
Jeffers: I most feared my father's rage. Even though he loved me and felt very protective of me, I did not know this when I was young because of his intensity and cruelness when something triggered him and he became enraged. I think we all learn gender identity from our parents. Both my parents left me pretty confused – I thought men were frequently scary, dangerous even, and that women were kind but complacent, not only unable, but also unwilling, to take a stand in behalf of themselves. So it wasn't until I got older that I realized that these traits were not universal, nor innate. They were learned. I was determined not to repeat either way of being in my own life once I understood it. I can honestly say that I don't.
What is your favorite thing about your dad?
Jeffers: His deep integrity about truth: his willingness to face his own human mistakes, his willingness to do what his kids needed to heal, his willingness to finally listen without continually justifying everything, his brilliance as a businessman, his joy and skill at cribbage and in the wilderness. But most favorite – that once he found his way back to the love he had for us that he didn't want to leave us and go all the way to Arlington. He taught me Arlington is not only a place, it's a metaphor for healing.
What are the most important things you learned by writing this book?
Jeffers: I learned that building a relationship with my father required making a choice to stop hating him and the war and his rage, and to learn how to love him. I learned that it is true that the only way to make a man worthy of love is by loving him. Once I made that choice, I started calling him Daddy, which I never had before. I was 40 years old by then. It melted some of the ice around his heart. He began to trust that I loved him and forgave him and was not just sitting in judgment of him like I had been for years.
What can other families learn from your story?
Jeffers: I hope families can learn two things: First, to find the courage to have the caring, candid conversations. It is hard to tell people things they may not want to hear and are ashamed to face, in a way they can take it, so that something can change. It is very tempting to leave the hard things left unsaid. But the truth brings people home. Second, I hope the story teaches families to never give up on one another.
How grateful are you that you and your dad were able to heal?
Jeffers: It was the most important thing I have ever worked on in my life. It has given me family, health, my career, peace, gratitude, tenacity, faith, joy. It has given me a depth of love that I never thought possible as a child.
Alcohol abuse is also a big issue and one of the most memorable parts for me was when your dad was dying and he talked about his father and alcohol. How did that impact you?
Jeffers: I was very grateful for that insight into my family history. I have been sober for 26 years now. I think one of the most important parts of the story for my dad was his forgiving his own father.
What is your hope for this story long term?
Jeffers: Currently, it only is a self-published audio book that makes its way through the world word of mouth and gets recommended from person to person. People call or write and order it from me directly. I have carved out time in 2011 to work on getting the story out to a wider audience. All prayers accepted!