A strong character should be flawed. Think about it: Gibbs on NCIS, Sherlock Holmes on Elementary, John Reese on Person of Interest (can you tell I’m catching up on half a season’s worth of DVRed shows), Miles Flint from Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s Retrieval Artist series, the list goes on.
The flaws are necessary to create a dynamic, realistic character. Because in real life, our heroes are often flawed. And sometimes, those flaws can mask the hero at the person’s core.
So it is—was—with my grandfather, who died Friday, May 31, at the age of 89. Henry F. O’Shaughnessy was an honest-to-goodness hero. A highly decorated war hero. But I never knew that man. And I wish I had.
I knew the man he became later in life. An alcoholic who left a lot to be desired when it came to parenting (and grandparenting). A man who allowed his drinking to topple him and his family from their place of prestige in East Coast high society to struggling to make ends meet. A man whose witty sense of humor became biting and mean when he drank too much.
I wish I had known the soldier who earned two purple hearts, a silver star, and a host of other commendations for his actions in Germany in World War II. The man who served under Gen. Patton, fought in the Battle of the Bulge, helped storm Berlin, and was a member of Fox Company.
I wish I had known the athlete who has been honored by Columbia University for his accomplishments in football and wrestling and his place in history because of those accomplishments.
I never even knew he wrestled. I knew he played football after the war, but I had no idea that he was even more successful as a wrestler. I knew he’d been wounded in the war, but I had no idea his service was so distinguished. I have great respect and gratitude for all of our veterans, and I had the same for him, but my interactions with him were so tarnished by the drinking that I didn’t really see him. I know, too late, that I never really knew him at all.
And I should have. I am a journalist for goodness sake. I’ve written countless stories about people like my grandfather. People whose stories should be told. Imperfect heroes. People who deserve more for their obituary than simply:
“Henry F. O’Shaughnessy, 89, died May 31 at the Kent Specialty Care Center in Kent. He was the widower of Barbara Eve (Tomi) Thompson O’Shaughnessy.
“Burial was June 5, with military honors at St. Anthony Cemetery in Litchfield.”
A whole life reduced to two sparse sentences.
Don’t get me wrong. I have regrets but not remorse. There’s a lot of backstory here I’m leaving out for brevity. But I do know this: My grandfather’s life should get at least as much backstory as the main character in a good novel. Any veteran’s life should.
So, my sister and I will make sure that happens. We will make sure history remembers him. We will write his life story, flaws and all.
And I will pay more attention to the narratives in my own life, my own family. Because, in truth, how can we see where we’re going if we don’t acknowledge the path, no matter how bumpy, already paved before us?
Allyson Longueira is publisher of WMG Publishing. She is an award-winning writer, editor and designer.