Four years ago I sat at my writing table and began typing a simple story about a young girl and her first experience and exposure to her father’s symptoms of post-traumatic stress.
My intention was to shine a light on the resiliency of military families. The title and main characters had long been fleshed out. It was time to take scattered story ideas and images and commit them to electronic pages.
My prompts and props were positioned just so in my sunroom, as they had been for several months. There were a few plush stuffed animals, story ideas scrawled on Post-its, crayons, baby dolls, tiny sculptures of young children, and incense. (OK, I’ve revealed a few creative quirks!) All I had to do was get cranking.
“Ashley’s High Five For Daddy” wanted to be in the world. I’m convinced. I have accumulated many stories worth sharing — of war and its impact on military veterans, their families, and civilians over decades. It’s a lot of stored content from both my professional and personal lives. The little girl and her father would ride an emotional swell of feelings familiar to lots of dads and daughters: love, hurt, doubt, and trust. They’re all there in “Ashley’s High Five for Daddy.” While the book was being edited and illustrated, I became Facebook friends with a military combat veteran who was always sharing posts about his daughter, Lilly Rose, and his deep devotion to her.
I was drawn to John Liaudaitis and his 7-year-old daughter because the feelings they have for each other line up perfectly with the father and daughter in the book. Lilly Rose always looked so happy. John sounded so proud. I couldn’t help but smile as they enjoyed life’s simple pleasures: a day at the beach, home-cooked dinners, or snuggling together watching television. Their love is palpable and profound.
Still, it was Facebook. I wanted to know who they really were. I wanted to meet them. So, I made a few moves in that direction. I contacted John for a little chat. I explained how I was following him and Lilly Rose on Facebook. I went on to let him know how much he and his little girl remind me of the father and daughter I’d always imagined as I began writing the book. Then I asked him the question: Could I come over to his house, meet Lilly, and bring her a copy of “Ashley’s High Five For Daddy.” I heard no hesitation. John said yes.
I was on the road to his home less than a week later.
It took about 30 minutes or so to get to Four Oaks where John lives. It’s a modest home with tons of outdoor space. It’s clearly kid centric. There are bicycles, balls, toys and a nice trail for running and playing games such as hide and seek.
John’s divorced and so Lilly gets to visit every other weekend and one night during the regular school week. It’s the typical setup for divorced couples with kids.
John invited me into his home when I arrived, and I sat down on a comfy couch in the family room. Lilly sat between us with a smile as big as the moon. I handed her a personalized copy of “Ashley’s High Five For Daddy” and asked her to read the special note I’d written for her. She laughed and then she did it. The note read, ” Hi Lilly, I think you are a special girl. You have a great dad. I hope you enjoy this story.”
I felt like I knew John and his daughter because of all the highlights of their lives he was sharing on Facebook. It was really just scratching the surface. Things got deep face-to-face.
John served in both the U.S. Navy and the Army. He had multiple combat tours to Iraq between 2003 and 2009. John was a member of the 82nd Airborne Division based at Fort Bragg. He knows he can’t speak for all, but in his case John says that after combat, there was barely any debriefing to buffer the transition to civilian life. He says he was tossed back into society and prescribed medications for PTSD and depression. John said he swallowed pills for a while, but they really didn’t touch the pain and unresolved feelings about what he did and what he saw in the Iraq war.
He’s not taking the prescribed drugs right now. John told me it’s probably not the right word, but that Lilly is his medicine. He says she is his inspiration, that she gives purpose to his life and keeps him stable. I believe him. They play, cook, read and watch movies together. John and Lilly talk about school, big events making headlines, music and family matters. Whatever’s going on, John says he just wants his little girl to know that she is safe and loved.
He seems to be doing something right. Lilly took my hand and showed me around the house and in particular her bedroom. It is beautifully pink and cozy. I learned the names of all of her stuffed animals and got to hold her special blanket. Yep. There’s a harmony of rightness around the life they’re building together. We took another look at the book before I left.
“What do we always do that’s in this book, Lilly?” he asked her. Well, what do you know? They high five, too!
I’m not sure that there is empirical data that proves love is medicine. I know love heals. I also know that it’s not what families have that builds love and trust with their kids. It’s what they say and what they do.
You can follow Pam on twitter @pamsaulsby or contact at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her book “Ashley’s High Five For Daddy” can be purchased through Amazon.com or pamsaulsby.com