On Saturday, September 19, we laid my father, Brian Ahearn, Sr., to rest. In case you missed it, he was the focus on my post last week, Fathers and Sons – It’s Complicated. As you might expect, the last seven days have been unlike any before them. It’s been a whirlwind and suddenly it’s Monday, time to post again. I woke up at 5 am, looked at old photos and decided to write one more time about this experience. It’s cathartic for me to do so and I was overwhelmed by the responses to my last post. Perhaps sharing a little more will help me, you and some others.
What you’ll read below is my final remembrance of my father, which I shared at his memorial service. It tied up many loose ends for me. Reflecting on my dad’s passing and all we went through finally helped me see him clearly and gave me clarity about myself. I think he would be pleased to know that and I believe he would have been proud to hear what I learned about the two of us.
Brian F.X. Ahearn, Captain, USMC 1962-1969
I woke up Wednesday morning wondering what I’d say today about my father, Brian Ahearn, Sr. There were tears in my eyes as I got out of bed. I sat down with a cup of coffee and immediately started to write in order to capture my unfiltered thoughts and emotions.
I speak for a living but this will be the hardest message I’ve ever had to deliver. I ask that you be patient with me as I work through some raw emotions. I want to share a picture of my father, what we wrestled with and the good place where we ultimately landed.
I wrote something recently and called it Fathers and Sons – It’s Complicated. That summarizes my relationship with my dad.
As a boy and young man, I admired my dad. When I was 10 or 11, I remember thinking, “Why doesn’t he run for president?” I thought he was the smartest, toughest man in the world. As I reflect on that now, I know he was pretty darn close on both accounts. If you spent any time with him then you knew he was really smart, a sort of renaissance man because he seemed to know something about everything. However, I don’t think you really knew the depth of his toughness.
My relationship went from admiration to extremely difficult when I turned 30. I was married, had a child, was growing and changing a lot. I wanted to understand my dad more – the good and the bad – because I was becoming aware that his history shaped me. To say that he didn’t want to go there would be an understatement. When I pressed him on matters of faith during a phone call he blew up, told me, “I don’t care what you or anyone else says, I’m not a bad person,” and hung up on me.
It was never my intention for him to feel that way but everything changed in an instant and we started down a really rough road for a number of years. I was so angry I wanted to drive to his place and tear him limb from limb. If I’m honest, at 54 he would have kicked my butt up, down and sideways because he was still that tough.
Sometime later we met at a restaurant to talk. He just couldn’t understand why I wanted to delve into the past. I felt there were things that needed to be addressed so I could understand him better and myself. Things were said during dinner that didn’t go away quickly.
You know my father served in the Marines during Vietnam but you may not have known he wasn’t drafted, he volunteered. He said the greatest experience of his life was being a Marine and leading men in combat. He was a warrior and I never saw him back down from anyone. I always felt like perhaps I didn’t fully measure up to him because I didn’t serve. That’s part of the father son dynamic. Sons want to show their fathers they’re better and ready to take the mantle. Most of all we want our fathers to be proud of us. Now that I’m older I realize fathers don’t want to admit to themselves that they’re no longer the biggest, the strongest or most capable. That’s the natural tension between fathers and sons.
As I reflect on this, if my dad were here right now I’d tell him, “Dad, like you, I’m a warrior. I didn’t fight for our country, I fought for something more important…I fought for you and me. I was willing to put up with the intensity of your anger and unwillingness to talk at times in order to have a closer, deeper relationship with you. I wanted to learn things that would help me understand you and help me be a better son, a better husband and a better father.”
The more I’ve learned about the trauma of war the more I understand why my dad didn’t want to rehash any of the past. He wanted to put everything behind him and just enjoy the moment.
He instilled such a strong sense of right and wrong in me that my wife called me a Boy Scout when we started dating. Although my dad knew the difference between right and wrong, having been raised Catholic, he struggled. He knew his Bible and I have no doubt he understood what Paul meant when he wrote, “The good that I want to do I don’t do and the bad that I don’t want to do, I do. What’s wrong with me?” My dad wrestled with certain parts of his past so much so that he once asked a friend, “Do you think I’m going to go to hell for what I’ve done?”
I know what was wrong with him and it’s the same thing that’s wrong with me, you and every other person who ever walked this planet; it’s the sin within us that causes the broken relationship with God.
Fortunately, our broken nature and bad choices are not the defining factor in God’s eyes. In the Bible, King David is called a man with a heart after God’s own. David wrestled with his sin and so did my dad. But, I think God looked at my father and said in his deepest place, his heart is after mine. I want to share a story that illustrates this.
When my dad finally started to open up he told me when he was in Vietnam they’d captured a Viet Cong soldier. He was wounded and it was clear he was going to die. The South Vietnamese commanding officer kept kicking the dying man trying to get information out of him. My dad told me he couldn’t take it any longer so he pulled out his revolver, put it to the CO’s head and said, “If you kick him again I’ll blow your head off.” Then he sat with the man under a tree until he died. Nobody wants to relive moments like that but those are the moments that define us because God is so clearly with us. I know He was with my dad at that very moment.
God’s word says, while we were enemies He sent Jesus to us and He died for us. My dad put his military career and life on the line when it mattered most…for a man who was his enemy. That’s the heart of God, no greater love, and I believe it was the core of my father. If you really knew my dad then you knew it wouldn’t matter who needed help, he would jump into the fray because it was the right thing to do. As hard as it was for him to share that experience with me, that’s the man I needed to know in order to understand him and myself better. That’s the man I’m proud to call my father.
If he were here today this is what I’d want him to know – that whether or not he realized it, he had a heart after God’s own. In the same way he volunteered to fight and endured unspeakable things in Vietnam, his willingness to fight again and endure emotional pain later in life helped me, my family and countless others. I hope by sharing this each of you got a glimpse of my dad that you didn’t have before. I’m sure God’s already told him, “Well done, you were Semper Fi, enter into the joy of your master.”
God rest his soul.
Brian Ahearn, CMCT®, is the Chief Influence Officer at Influence PEOPLE, LLC. An author, TEDx speaker, international trainer, coach and consultant, he’s one of only 20 people in the world personally trained by Robert Cialdini, Ph.D., the most cited living social psychologist on the planet on the science of ethical influence.
Brian’s book, Influence PEOPLE: Powerful Everyday Opportunities to Persuade that are Lasting and Ethical, was name one of the 100 Best Influence Books of All Time by Book Authority. His LinkedIn Learning courses on sales and coaching have been viewed by more than 100,000 people around the world.