skeddy_kat: (soldier)
[personal profile] skeddy_kat
This is the sequel to Mail Call. Thank you to Diluvian for the beta work. Any remaining mistakes were probably added once she was done with it.

Title: Mail Call 2
Pairing: none
Rating: G
Summary: John opens his mother's letter.



Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard sat on his bed, writing. He finished the letter, simply signing “John.” The days were long gone when he had used his rank or last name in continuing correspondence with O’Neill. The General had never used his rank, but his signature morphed in time from “O’Neill” to “Jack.”

John’s current installation in the ongoing saga of Atlantis included the fiasco of the last mission, McKay’s Hail Mary that saved their lives, little tidbits of gossip (O’Neill loved them), and some hard thought answers to O’Neill’s last batch of questions.

His first letter to O’Neill had been to thank him. John knew it was only because O’Neill added his voice to Weir’s that John had been promoted and given command. It surprised him when O’Neill wrote back with gossip, advice, and an invitation to continue the correspondence. Since then, John had come to count on O’Neill as both a sounding board and confessional. Jack called the whole thing mentoring and asked John tough questions about events and choices. John figured he couldn’t do better than the “Jack O’Neill School of Professional Development.”

Reaching into his desk drawer for an envelope, his hand caught on the large envelope from Nora McMartin. He’d stuck it in the drawer over a month ago. Despite determined attempts to ignore it, the letter accused him silently every time he opened the drawer. He owed Nora a response, even if it was just to say, “Thanks, but I don’t want to know you.”

Before he could do that, he had to read Suzanne’s letter. It was time to see what his mother had wanted to say. Reluctantly, he pulled the envelope out, sat on the bed and began to read.

My Dearest Johnny,

Perhaps you feel I have no right to use such endearments, but I assure you that you are and have always been dear to me. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of you and wonder how you are doing and who you have become.

I’m a foolish woman facing death, yet among all the mistakes accumulated over a lifetime, I have only one regret. I regret leaving you. I do not try to excuse my actions – but I do feel you are entitled to an explanation and an apology.


“It’s a little late for that, isn’t it?” John muttered. Sure, she missed him. She missed him so much she let him believe she was dead for most of his life. It’s not like she couldn’t have found him if she wanted – her daughter managed it just fine. She obviously hadn’t felt the need, hadn’t wanted to find him, hadn’t cared.

He tossed the letter carelessly on the bed beside him; wishing (not for the first time) Atlantis had a Class VI store. This would be much easier after a considerable quantity of Scotch. Unfortunately, readily available booze wasn’t on the list of priority supplies the Daedalus carried. He knew a few folks had small personal supplies and Beckett had a slightly larger one “for medicinal purposes,” but prevailing upon anyone else for a drink would involve explanations he wasn’t in the mood to give.

He rubbed his temple, feeling the beginnings of a headache. The cream colored pages of the letter spread across his blanket. There sure were a lot of them. Each was filled with the same neat script. “My mother had beautiful handwriting,” he thought. “Who writes letters by hand these days, anyway?” And yet, she had written him this letter by hand –page after page of error free script written days before she died. It must have taken hours, been of some importance to her. He pushed his anger into the background and picked the letter back up. He had no intention of forgiving her, but he thought he’d see what she had to say.

Southern women of my generation were expected to be strong: soft and demure on the outside, yet tough as titanium within. It’s supposed to be coded in our DNA. I was flawed. Perhaps, if I’d stayed in my hometown, I’d have been fine. People would call me “high strung” or “fanciful” and life would go on. But I met Lieutenant Matthew Sheppard.

Matthew attended the Military Academy with my best friend’s brother. The Christmas after graduation, they both came to visit Ed’s family. I met Matthew the first night he was at the Taylors’ house.

I fell in love with him during dinner. Matthew was devastatingly handsome and utterly charming, with the self-possessed assurance bordering on arrogance that you can find in so many West Point graduates. He was so different from my typical suitors! He was forthright, saying exactly what was on his mind, and he certainly never apologized for having an opinion. Matthew made all the other young men seem like callow boys. He was mature, responsible, and as I mentioned, handsome.

Matthew was looking for the proper wife to underpin his career. At eighteen, I was the pampered product of generations of Southern gentility, trained to be ornamental and supportive. Neither one of us stood a chance.


John stopped reading, trying to wrap his mind around the idea of his father as “devastatingly handsome” or “utterly charming.” “Forthright,” he had not trouble believing. Matthew Sheppard was decidedly forthright. He was also opinionated, arrogant, unbending and humorless. John never considered that his father might have been different once. He even wondered briefly if this woman had gotten the wrong John Sheppard.

Our courtship happened so quickly that my memories are blurred. We were inseparable during that first leave. Once he returned to Fort Benning, we wrote each other passionate letters three or four times a week. It’s funny how many words passed between us but still left us strangers in every way that counted.

On his next leave, he stayed for a week. We spent nearly every waking moment together. At the end of the week he proposed and I accepted.

Daddy was not happy. He disapproved of Matthew and his “Yankee manners and ways.” Now, I wonder if he just understood how poorly the life I was choosing suited me. When Daddy failed to change my mind using reason, he forbade me to see Matthew again and demanded I break off the engagement. In an uncharacteristic display of backbone, I held my ground. I think that shocked him; I know it hurt him. Daddy disowned me. Matthew and I drove away, leaving Daddy standing on the porch with Mama at his feet weeping. It was the last time I ever saw my parents.

After Matthew and I eloped, life was not what I expected. I’d pictured us living in officers’ quarters, perhaps a small house with a picket fence. Matthew would leave for work after breakfast and return in time for dinner at five-thirty. My days would be filled lunching with other officers’ wives and doing charitable work. Evenings would be divided between intimate dinners at home and a stream of elegant parties where Matthew would wear dress blues and I would wear brand new party frocks and charm the senior officers.

Reality was a little different. Matthew had just transferred to Fort Hood, Texas and there was no housing available on post. We rented a tiny, one room apartment in Killeen, in a part of town I would normally have avoided. The place was mildew-ridden and filthy – I spent the first two weeks scrubbing it from top to bottom. The few pieces of furniture we owned were gleaned from secondhand stores. Our curtains were sheets from the discount shop. We didn’t even have a television, just an old AM radio. Matthew worked long hours, coming home exhausted. I learned to sew my own “party frocks” for the few functions we attended. Strangely, despite our poverty and my misplaced expectations, these were some of the happiest days of our marriage.

Of course it was 1965 and everything was about to go to hell in a handbasket. Vietnam. As soon as President Johnson sent in the Marines, we knew it was only a matter of time. Matthew was thrilled at the very thought of rushing off to war, performing heroically, and securing a career ending in stars on his shoulders. My reaction was a mite bit different – I was terrified. Matthew tried his best to ease my fears, but it was obvious he found them silly and annoying.

I discovered I was pregnant three weeks after Matthew deployed to Vietnam. Please believe me when I say that I was truly happy to find out about you. So was your father. According to Matthew, when he read that I was expecting, he let out a whoop that his friend Cal swore could be heard Stateside.


John wondered if Suzanne was delusional or just trying to make him feel better. He figured she must have made that story up. He’d swear Matthew Sheppard never whooped in his life. The Colonel yelled, even growled on occasion. He might have even laughed a few times when John was young. Whooping seemed entirely improbable.

Despite what you may have heard about my later behavior, you don’t have to worry about lingering effects from substances used or abused during my pregnancy. More through accident than design, I had a lifestyle modern doctors would approve of. Luckily, I had never smoked (my Mama considered it a filthy habit) and I didn’t drink. It wasn’t because I knew drinking would hurt my unborn child, but rather my stomach couldn’t tolerate even the thought of alcohol. I didn’t take drugs, either, except the normal over the counter things for colds and headaches.

John snorted. He hadn’t heard any stories at all about his mom – it was almost as though she never existed, like she was a half remembered dream. Her “later behavior,” hmm? Substance abuse? It would explain his father’s rather extreme reaction to John’s youthful indiscretions like the time he came home drunk when he was seventeen and his father nearly sent him to military school.

Childbirth was both the most wondrous and most terrifying experience. They say every baby is beautiful. In your case it was true. You were a big baby, almost nine pounds, and you never had that pointy, squashed head some babies have. You had a thick shock of unruly dark hair and your eyes were so bright – so alert. You rarely cried. You were a perfect child. So why was I terrified? You were so perfect, so helpless and totally dependent on me, me alone. What if I did something wrong and you got hurt? What if I fell asleep with you in the bed and you fell out or I rolled over and smothered you? What if I couldn’t be a good mother and you grew up miserable? I’d lay awake nights worrying, and then wake from nightmares when I did manage to fall asleep. You counted on me for your very survival and I didn’t see how I could possibly measure up.

John reread the last line a couple of times, then firmly dismissed any sense of empathy for her and moved on.

Matthew returned from Vietnam in time for your first birthday. Nothing else in life ever made him as happy as you did. He could hardly keep his eyes off of you. After an initial period of adjustment, you seemed just as crazy about him. He’d hold you in his arms for hours talking softly, sometimes just resting his cheek on your head. And you? You would smile up at him as if your Daddy held all the secrets to the meaning life. We had it good for almost two years – then Matthew returned to Vietnam.

There she was again, talking about a Matthew Sheppard John didn’t recognize – a Matthew Sheppard who loved being a father and was in turn idolized by his son. John felt a sharp surge of jealousy for this perfect, happy family. He wanted THAT father, the one who couldn’t get enough of his son.

This time, things were different. Discontent with the war had grown and spread. Members of the Armed Forces were treated with contempt, rather than respect. So were their families. Protesters converged on Fort Hood and became increasingly confrontational. I tried to ignore them when they pestered me, but some turned their attention to you. What kind of person asks a three year old if he knows that his Daddy kills babies? I was afraid of them and sickened. I suppose that’s when I began falling apart.

That touched a memory John had dismissed as a dream. He was very little and going somewhere with a lady. People were shouting, waving signs, a man grabbed at him screaming something. He remembers being terrified and the lady was crying and holding him tight.

Images of the war were everywhere – television, newspapers, magazines. Every night horrors best left unimagined manifested on the nightly news: villages destroyed, children burning to death, so many of our boys coming home in body bags. Rumors circulated of unpopular officers and NCOs killed by their own soldiers, of indiscriminate slaughter of Vietnamese women and children. Matthew’s letters became infrequent and their tone grew colder, distant. He no longer wrote me amusing stories of absurd little things that happened. The more I tried to fill my letters with anything that might entertain him, the less he responded. The only thing he never stopped caring about was news of you.

Except for the last line, this was sounding more like the father he remembered.

At the time, I thought I was coping. First, a prescription for tranquilizers to keep the fear away during the day. When that wasn’t enough, a prescription for sleeping pills to help me get through the nights. I spent most of Matthew’s second tour wrapped in a doctor-approved haze. Oh, I functioned. I kept you fed and clothed and even entertained. But a large part of me was absent. It still haunts me terribly that if you remember me at all, you remember me as the automaton I felt myself turning into.

I was convinced things would be all right once Matthew returned. I invested everything in that belief. The expression about not putting all your eggs in one basket? Very wise. The Matthew Sheppard who returned to me was not the same man who had left eighteen months earlier. Whatever happened to him had shut him away from me. He wouldn’t talk about it. He barely talked to me. Barely touched me. He immersed himself in his work and his son.


So, apparently the Sheppard avoid and deny trait was honestly obtained. John thought about his father. He had some understanding about how war can change a man. Some shut themselves off from others, some turned to drink or drugs, some turned to women, some broke down completely, and some developed “a disregard for the chain of command and issues with authority.” He wondered what his father went through that changed him. Did he see too many men die? Did he witness the atrocities that happened in a war where you couldn’t tell who was an enemy and who was a noncombatant? Did he see stupid decisions made without regard to the cost in lives?

The Colonel wasn’t the type to escape in drink or drugs. John could see now that his father had escaped in work, shutting himself off from feelings. Funny, he thought, that now they would have so much more in common than they ever did.

One night I woke to Matthew’s fingers around my throat, choking me. I barely managed to wake him up from the nightmare. Despite his genuine remorse, he didn’t feel my necklace of bruises mandated a discussion of what was happening. Instead, he started sleeping on the couch. I started drinking bourbon because the pills alone couldn’t cushion my despair and isolation.

OK, that hit a little close to home. John had had those nightmares where he was back in a combat zone. He hadn’t strangled anyone, but once he’d grabbed Tina and dragged her to the floor upon waking from a dream of incoming artillery. His refusal to talk to her about it was the beginning of the end of their relationship. He understood his father, there is no way to talk about these things with someone who hasn’t been there – and with someone who has, there is no need. There was no way his mother could have had a clue.

One day I mixed a few too many pills with a few too many drinks. Matthew came home to find you crying beside me, trying to wake me up. Getting my stomach pumped and a harsh reprimand from the doctor on duty in the ER were nothing compared to what awaited me at home.

Your father was a good and loving man, John, but he had very little empathy. Character flaws were shameless weaknesses. Perhaps the man he was before the war would have shown some love and understanding, but the Matthew who returned from Vietnam was harder, unforgiving. He was furious at me. He yelled at me, refusing to listen to anything I had to say, threw away all my pills, cleared the house of alcohol, and decreed that we would never mention the incident again. He stopped talking to me almost altogether and his eyes were filled with disappointment.


John admired his mother’s sense of understatement. His father didn’t have little empathy for weakness; his father saw weakness as a personal affront. For the first time, John felt real sympathy for Suzanne. He remembered too well what the Colonel’s disappointment felt like. “We will never speak of this again,” he’d say, and there would be no discussion, no explanation – only cold silences and accusing looks. John spent years trying increasingly outrageous stunts, waiting for his father to ask why. By the time John realized that he never would, the distance between them was too vast to cross, even if he had wanted to.

One month later, I was institutionalized after a nervous breakdown. I was released in six months, but my homecoming was less than successful. Matthew was still cold and indifferent to me, and he didn’t trust me alone with you. I couldn’t live like that – not and keep my hard-won sanity. In order to survive, I had to leave Matthew. He made it clear that taking you with me was not an option.

I admit I didn’t fight him very hard to keep you. At that point I was barely able to care for myself, let alone a small boy. I honestly believed you were better off with Matthew. I still do. I also believe that Matthew needed you. You were the only one who could reach through the layers of emotional insulation to the human being inside.


“Yeah, well that didn’t work out so well,” John thought. “He cut himself off from me, just like he did everyone else.”

I set off on my own. Matthew divorced me and cut all ties. It took a while (and it wasn’t all smooth sailing, by any means) but I pulled myself together, found a decent job, and eventually met a man who could make me smile. I missed you terribly, though. Once I felt I could face you without falling apart, I contacted Matthew.

Silly girl that I was, I expected to make my case for seeing you and walk back into your lives on some scale. Matthew saw things differently. He informed me that you believed me dead and he had obtained a court order denying me the right to visit you. I spoke to a lawyer, but in 1976 the law had little sympathy for an unstable mother who abandoned her child.


His anger surfacing, John decided he also had little sympathy for a mother who abandoned her child, who had abandoned him . How could she have believed his father was a better choice? She could have tried harder to keep him or see him. She could have called him or shown up someplace and talked to him. She could have done something.

And so I walked away from you. I married Teddy, who continued to make me smile until the day he died. We had three children, and now I have six grandchildren. My life has been good, but it has never been complete. I’ve missed you every day. I have so many questions, from what you look like to what kind of man you are. And mostly, are you happy? I pray that you are.

I'm sorry I wasn’t stronger. I’m sorry I didn’t find a way to be part of your life. I wish I’d had the chance to know you, but even though we’re strangers now – I love you.

Your Mother,
Suzanne


John set the letter back on the bed. Part of him wondered why she bothered, it was too little too late. This letter wasn’t for him, this was for her, an easing of her conscience before she died. He asked himself if it would have made a difference if she’d contacted him when he was 18 or 21 or 30. All she left him with were questions, might-have-beens, and hazy faces that he knew would wind their way into his dreams and leave him wondering if they were memories or fabrications.

The biggest regrets the letter awakened concerned his father. John felt he understood Matthew Sheppard better than he ever had while the man was alive. They should have been able to talk, to find some common ground. They had loved each other once. Now it was too late.

On the other hand, he had a family of half-siblings who wanted to know him. He had been without a family for a long time. Atlantis had changed things for him. The people here were his family now; he had no intention of returning to Earth for more than short leaves. He wasn’t sure he wanted or needed these children his mother had loved.

He needed time to think. His mother’s letter had stirred up too many feelings. Writing to his half-sister would have to wait for the next mail run. Tonight was movie night. The Daedalus had brought a bunch of new releases, the popcorn supply had been renewed, and Rodney had scored several cans of soda he had promised to share with his teammates. John pulled out the Goobers and Raisinettes he’d had O’Neill send and went to join his team.
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