This Father's Day will be deeply meaningful for me as after nearly thirty years of estrangement, my own father, now my hero, is finally home.
When I was eight years old, I remember seeing the very visible scars etched across his body. There were large slashes across his arms and legs, like cracks in dried mud, and hard to miss. We were camping in Maine at the time with my father and he was teaching us survival skills. Little did I know then that it was probably those very skills, which saved his life many times during his own terrifying youth.
When my young eyes locked onto his scars, I knew they looked unusual. I wondered if someone had hurt him in a fight... and the curiosity of an eight-year-old girl could not let it go. It was then, that I finally mustered up the courage to ask my mom about it. I walked over to her and, as nonchalantly as I could, asked about the shocking sight. She was caught off guard with my question and answered me abruptly, "Your dad went through some tough times when he was growing up. We don't talk about it." The door to this subject was clearly closed. I wonder to this day if I became an inquisitive journalist, asking questions of everyone else, because I was not able to ask questions in my own house.
Years later, when I was a teenager full of excitement at Christmas time, my father stunned us all, and unexpectedly left the family. I heard him arguing in the other room with my mother, saying he was leaving. I thought he was leaving work... turns out, he was leaving us. I don't think my parents ever spoke again, and from that moment on my relationship with him was extremely disconnected and distant at best. For decades, I wondered why he left and did so without any emotion. Inside, I was at a complete loss as to why his complete separation from us did not seem to faze him at all, leaving us with emptiness, confusion and deeply hurt.
After my mother's sudden death only a few years ago, my brother and I combed through her belongings in a storage locker and finally got some answers. We made a dramatic discovery that would change our lives forever. We discovered an old tattered leather suitcase containing war mementos from another time and place: a worn Polish Resistance armband, a rusted metal tag with a prisoner number and the word, "Stalag IV B," stamped into it, plus a card with secret codenames on it, and the identity card for an ex-POW named Ryszard Kossobudzki. At that moment, I was overcome with emotion, and wept, realizing who my father really was and imagining what he had endured as a starving POW. I knew that whatever pain I had suffered, not having a father present in my life for decades, was nothing compared to the pain he must've suffered at the hands of his brutal Nazi captors in WWII.
I reached out to my father and learned a harrowing tale of sheer courage and survival. Now 85 years old, he was finally ready to talk about the horrors he witnessed as a boy thrust into war. He joined a ragtag group of freedom fighters, crawled and slogged in darkness through stench-fouled sewers, was later captured and escaped one of the biggest Nazi POW camps in Germany... all while he was a teenager. My father told me he did not want to share these stories when I was young as he felt there were too painful, if not harmful, to share with a child... and he was not ready to talk about it either. Like so many of that Greatest Generation, he was traumatized by the bloodbath he experienced firsthand, and also a Quiet Hero, saying he did "nothing extraordinary, nothing heroic, just simply doing the right thing for my country."
This Father's Day I am so proud to know of my own father's brave history and to finally have a loving dad who feels emotionally connected and most especially free after sharing his dark secrets from his past. I hope my story inspires others to reach out to disconnected loved ones or heroes in their own lives. Time is precious and I am tremendously thankful that my father and I have now reconciled and formed an unbreakable bond between us. That is the greatest Father's Day gift a daughter and father could ever share.
Read more in the bestselling book 'Quiet Hero.' Proceeds from the book go to a USO program called Operation Enduring Care to help wounded US Troops and their families.