“Phantom” by Patrick Sippel

I stand in my living room, dressed in my naval flight suit and boots. My first-born daughter stays in the opposite corner, crying inconsolably. Her sobs and wails shake her tiny two-year-old body, her hair a mess, as she stands away from me, body facing the corner, defiant. She is angry. She is sad. She won’t turn around; she won’t meet my eyes, or even cast a glance in my direction. I stand, I listen, I watch. I edge closer, slowly, and I speak: “Michaela, it’s OK. I am here. Can I hold you?” Her small body bolts across the wood floor, shrinking into another corner, seeking solace and comfort. I stand, separated from her, aware of my place in the room and of my daughter’s cries. She is afraid. I attempt to come closer, and she lets out a shrill, anguished scream, like only a young child can.  I kneel down and reach out to her, calmly pleading. She shouts, “No! Go away! You’re not my Daddy!”

Two weeks earlier I had arrived home from a ten-month deployment from the Persian Gulf. It had been long and arduous. The return leg through the Mediterranean Sea and across the Atlantic Ocean seemed to crawl by. We received briefs covering topics from alcohol, drug, and physical abuse to financial planning, to help prevent us from making bad decisions.  A week before my return, my wife, Charlene, had come home from her own four-month deployment and had reunited with our daughter. I was eager to be with my family again and wary of the effect my absence might have on our relationship. But I still wasn’t prepared for Michaela’s reaction.

Michaela, Charlene, and I spent the two weeks after my return taking it easy and trying to re-establish a normal routine. Charlene was preparing to transition from active duty to reserves, and I had a relatively light schedule at work.

The afternoon of this incident Charlene had appointments, so I got off work early to meet our babysitter Melinda at our house.  It was the first time I would be alone with my daughter since my return. I parked my car in the driveway and walked across the grass to where Melinda was holding Michaela.  As I approached, Michaela clutched Melinda tighter. I asked Michaela if she wanted to come with me. Silence. We attempted to coax Michaela to come to me.  No success. I eventually extracted her from Melinda’s arms.  She sobbed and screamed as I held her, beating my back with her small fists.  Inside the garage, I closed the door and her wails became louder.

I set her down inside and she ran away. I followed her, pleading with her to stop crying, to listen. Every time I moved closer, she fled, afraid. She had made it clear:  she didn’t see me as her father. Her words struck deep, but I didn’t blame her. Present only for eight months in two years, I had become a shadow figure in her life, a phantom. She knew my face, but not much more. In the last two weeks I had been in and out, to work and back, never alone with her. As she stood in her corner, and I knelt several yards away, I knew. The past fifteen years had been spent pursuing my dream of flight and I had accomplished this goal. But now my life and my purpose had shifted. I had a new calling. Michaela needed me, and I her. In this moment I realized: I would separate from the Navy.

Patrick Sippel is an active duty officer in the United States Navy. He is stationed at NAS North Island in San Diego, CA and serves as a pilot and flight instructor in the MH-60R Sea Hawk helicopter for the HSM-41 Sea Hawks. Prior to this tour, he spent three and a half years at NAS Jacksonville in Jacksonville, FL with the HSM-74 Swamp Foxes. Patrick is from Beaverton, Oregon and graduated this spring with his Master of Business Administration from the Rady School of Management at UC San Diego.