This is the iconic photo from my childhood. I was a Daddy’s girl, to say the least. I loved that little lunchbox I’m carrying, and clearly I loved imitating him. He worked nights, and when I would get up in the morning I’d go running to see if he had left me a treat in his lunchbox. I was barely 3 years old in this picture. Within a year, I would have a new baby brother, whom I loved. True, there might have been more complicated feelings as well, but I don’t remember those.
My mother’s shadow over my lower half turned out to be quite fitting, but that’s a story for another day. (Or, see mary’zine #3, “the autobiography of my mother.”)
My friend Nikki and I were exchanging childhood memories recently. I have the story down pat, the whole time line: my grandmother died, my brother Mike died, Daddy collapsed at work with MS… all by 7 years of age. I thought that this was what Life was going to be: catastrophe everywhere, all the time… sometimes as highly determined as a dream… barely a decent waiting period before the next catastrophe came along.
I’ve had psychosomatic symptoms and ailments my whole life, beginning with carsickness on the way to Iron Mountain to see my dad in the VA hospital. I had been on long car trips before without any trouble. My precise memory of the bitter taste of the red carsickness gum I chewed during the drive is much more vivid to me than the feelings I must have had about my dad’s being sick or, indeed, about spending the hour or so with him in a cold room, barren of decoration, with formica tables and vending machines.
Mike had died less than a year earlier; my feelings about his death had been locked away but could still be glimpsed in unexpected moments.
- My only memory of his funeral is of the other people in the church laughing at me because I was crying. No, of course they weren’t really laughing. That was my projection. I painted this once, and it was very powerful.
- The night of the funeral, my mother answered a prank phone call and cried into the phone, “I buried my son today!”
- I lay awake nights trying to imagine the eternity in which Mike would still be dead, still underground. I could imagine one year… maybe even two… but the years never stopped coming, and my imagination would give out long before the end.
- I don’t think God ever came into it. My only thought about God was that He turned on the street lights at night—a practical God, useful for some things but not exactly a comfort. He was a distant father, more distant than my own and thus barely visible and wholly unknowable.
- Maybe I just don’t remember the comprehensive grief counseling I received… oh, wait, that never happened. I don’t remember hearing any explanations or comforting words from anyone, though there must have been people who cared. My parents were too caught up in their own grief to consider how I might feel about it. In those days, children were, epigrammatically, “seen but not heard.” And often not even seen.
- My father’s cry, “Why did it have to be my son?” would not be made known to me for another 30 years or so, but I must have intuited how he felt.
- Loss seemed like the only sure thing. I felt like I was standing on the edge of life, observing but not quite believing that this was my world.
Memory is not much help to me now. I was living as in a strobe-lit room—sights and sounds highlighted for seconds and then gone. Images standing in for feelings that were too complicated to be felt directly. Feelings annotated or supplanted with pictures from the outside. My inner life went underground… where my brother now dwelled and where, as far as I knew, my father might soon join him. And my mother, of course, surely sooner rather than later. I vaguely realized that I would join him, too, not in the sense of hearts in reunion, but in the sense of being put down into the earth, an incomprehensible reality.
My dad was at the Iron Mountain VA hospital for about 6 months. He was then transferred to the Milwaukee VA, and we had to drive down there and stay overnight with some relatives in their trailer. We had been plunged into poverty and despair overnight. It was a new world of harshly lit rooms and awkward visits with people—family in name only—who were worse off than we were. We had to sell our nice house on North Shore Drive and move into a crummy half-duplex on 22nd St. while our uncle Sonny built us a utilitarian box of a house next to his. I got to pick out the linoleum for my room, a sweet moment of independence in an otherwise powerless situation.
When my father came home from the hospital, I couldn’t believe it: This man was not my Daddy! I didn’t believe that someone had actually replaced him, like a pod from outer space, but I knew my father was gone, and I never forgave him, at least not during his lifetime. My anger was a complicated substitute for the depth of feeling I had to surrender, as if the feelings for my brother and for my dad were buried together in Riverside Cemetery. Daddy wasn’t dead yet, but his abrupt change in physical condition and personality was like a death. I was beginning to think I knew death all too well: It wasn’t just inevitable, it was everywhere.
My dad—perfectly reasonably—was also angry about his new status. How could he be a cripple in a wheelchair, he was an Irish drunk who raised hell with army buddies and his six brothers. He tried to make up for losing all power in the household by yelling at me and my sisters, complete with empty threats and clichés. “I’ll knock you for a row of Sundays!” “I’ll give you something to cry about!” I thought I wasn’t affected by it, because I knew who really wore the pants in the family. My mother had had to transform herself from a shy country girl to the caretaker of a man she no longer loved and responsibilities she had never dreamed of. She was 31 years old.
I still feel the poignancy of two scenes, neither of which I was there to witness. One day my father was upset and yelling, and my mother—at the end of her rope—wheeled him out to the road, where he had to sit, staring across at the woods, until she brought him back in. The second scene, which hurts me to this day, was when she couldn’t cope anymore and took him to a nursing home to live out his life. His plea (again, not witnessed by me, but just as starkly hurtful as if I had been there), “Don’t you love me anymore?” cuts through me, disarms and tortures me, even 40+ years later. He died 2 weeks later.
I was about 10 or so, he and I spent a lot of time together, but I’m not sure if it was my idea or if I had been assigned to keep him company and watch over him. When the VA gave him a set of woodworking machinery, there was a chance he would fall and hurt himself, so I spent time in the basement with him. I mostly operated the jigsaw. We made picnic tables and lawn ornaments. I jigsawed Mickey Mouse and the Boy Scout emblem, donkey heads, anything that needed to be cut in outline. We tried to sell this stuff in the front yard to the few people who drove by. We also went around to the homes of family friends with boxes of greeting cards to sell. One year we ran the concession stand at Henes Park. My dad was irritable and frustrated a lot of the time, and I was depressed and anxious. I lived for school, because it was orderly and mostly friendly, and my teachers felt like my salvation. Daddy had become a tyrant, my jailer, and I treated him as such: no sharing, no openness, no love or trust.
But when I was telling Nikki this old story that I’ve told so often, I felt a shift in my perception. I always thought of my dad as being an anomaly in the family, just as I thought we were middle class but for lack of money. I was convinced we were a normal family who’d had something abnormal happen to us. And he was the abnormal one. It all seemed like a tragic mistake, like it shouldn’t count. I responded only to the outer, saw him only as the other. Except for the disturbances he caused, I categorized him as irrelevant. His illness was unfortunate, but if the MS hadn’t gotten him, the alcoholism could very well have. We were a family of women and girls… and this lone annoying, inconvenient man. He made no decisions, except whether to watch wrestling or cartoons on TV. He and I stayed up late and watched Jack Paar together. I don’t have a sense of how we interacted, or even if we did. All that time together and not one conversation to recount.
Around 11 years old, I was molested in my cousins’ home next door. There was no question of telling either of my parents.
Playing with a broken pop bottle in the back yard one day, I pushed down on the edge and cut my finger. I still have the scar. I rushed inside… right past my dad in his recliner… and washed off the blood, applied a band-aid. He was not someone I went to for help or sympathy.
I was constantly afraid that my mother would be the next one to die or become disabled. If she was on her way home from work when WAGN reported that there had been an auto accident in town, both my dad and I would freak out—him outwardly, me all to myself, feelings tamped down. He yelled at my mother when she got home, probably from relief and embarrassment. She didn’t have much empathy for him, she was doing her duty. He had to know that.
The MS had affected not only his motor skills but also his brain. He would laugh inappropriately, in church and even when the minister came to the house to give him communion. I was so embarrassed by this. It was a helpless kind of laughter, nothing funny about it, impossible for him to control, so that it was more like seeing him piss his pants than have a genuine chuckle.
What I realized—like a punch to the gut—when I was telling Nikki all this was that I had placed him entirely outside my immediate, circumscribed self, as if we were nothing more than inmates in the same institution. We shared outward experiences but no emotional intimacy. My lack of affect with him was rehearsal for the several years of alienation I would soon feel from my mother. We were different species swimming in the same stream. Parallel play, parallel work, parallel life. I held him at arm’s length. Cried for him at his funeral and took his Johnny Cash record back to college with me… finally safe to idealize him a little bit. Took me 40-some years to even get a hint that we were inextricably entwined, reflecting each other’s pathology and self-consciousness. There was no question of love. Too close for love, maybe, too disappointed, too far off the track of what had started out to be a tight bond. Betrayal. He felt betrayed by his body (he would pound his jerky leg into submission), I felt betrayed by him. Ruptured, disrupted, an interrupted journey, deep trust summarily severed with no warning and not enough understanding to even begin to reconnect. As a child I observed and repudiated the outer events but retreated to and fashioned my own inner world There seemed no connection, no lifeline to climb up out of the pit, only straws to grab on to, as if I were perpetually drowning in one of those dropoffs in the bay that claimed my friend Francis when I was 10. In my world, Life handed you lemons, but all you had after a while was rotten lemons. Lemonade hadn’t been invented yet, in my mind. You didn’t so much fight to survive life’s lemons-as-lessons, you simply regarded them as immutable events, come down from on high, that had little to do with your tender self, as if you existed outside the skin and fabric of the others who habited your tiny world.
But we were father and daughter under the skin. He was not so alien, we were not so different. We projected our fears, feared some of the same things, felt inadequate and unloved, fought the unfightable with hopeless attention. Mirrored each other in a way I could never acknowledge. I removed myself as far as I could, put all attention onto Mama, she who held my life in her hands. Gave up on him, clung to her. He was dead to me long since.
I had put my money on black, cuz red hadn’t paid off in so long. Made an unconscious choice, intuited that loyalty to the intrusive mother was more expedient. She treated him like a nuisance, dodged his grabby hands as she walked past him. When she wheeled him down the hall to bed, he always gazed into my room as he passed. I felt violated, but I was unclear as to who was doing the violating, and why. I don’t know what he wanted from me, if anything. I disrespected his lost manhood. Disparaged his failure to best me in any sphere of knowledge—parroted my mother’s lack of interest in his country music or in his experiences in the war. He was history, but the body remained.
My mother was active, he was passive, I was passive. He and I were in the muck together, though I tried to deny it. We liked Johnny Cash, she liked Johnny Mathis. We listened to a lot of Johnny Mathis…. and on Saturday nights, Lawrence Welk. I would be taking my weekly bath, despairing at the sound of the awful musical bubbles coming from the TV. Once I caught my molester, John, watching me from the window. It was another moment I still feel acutely. I lived in a fish bowl, with alien fish. Unwanted advances: his fingers on my thighs, creeping toward the prize whenever he could maneuver me into position. I was, again, a passive participant. There seemed no way out. So I willingly went with him to the cedar grove, where I did his bidding: climbed a tree naked, lay down with him on top of me. In the basement, holding a burbling hose up to my privates while he watched. I don’t know why no one else ever seemed to be at home. These events took place in their own bubble. They bisected my real life, of school and family time, but I kept them separate as much as I could. The final straw came when we were at a drive-in movie, Mom and Dad in the front seat, me and John in the back, his fingers traveling up my thighs. I was ashamed that I allowed it to feel good. But I got out of the car and asked if I could sit up front. No one else ever knew what was going on.
I don’t know if my changing perception will make any difference in my life today. It all happened so long ago, but—as I’ve come to believe—the past is still here, it is wrongly considered to no longer exist. The past is embedded in the heart and in the brain that has never forgotten, though the mind long ago forced the knowledge out of consciousness.
I include the following poem for Nikki, who, through her compassionate questioning, helped me become more deeply aware of one of the great mysteries of my life:
Finding What You Didn’t Lose
When someone deeply listens to you
it is like holding out a dented cup
you’ve had since childhood
and watching it fill up with
cold, fresh water.
When it balances on top of the brim,
you are understood.
When it overflows and touches your skin,
you are loved.
When someone deeply listens to you,
the room where you stay
starts a new life
and the place where you wrote
your first poem
begins to glow in your mind’s eye.
It is as if gold has been discovered!
When someone deeply listens to you,
your bare feet are on the earth
and a beloved land that seemed distant
is now at home within you.
And here is another poem by John Fox. This one is for Everyone…..
Everything Is a Surprise
Death might be a moment
where being everything you are
is met by a welcome Surprise
and by a discovery you make
that it was, or actually
is perfectly fine
to be who you are,
is more than all right,
and it is only this Surprise
and your discovery of it
that went missing for awhile
in your life, or was so long
but not entirely forgotten.
But when Surprise meets you,
you discover that it is Everything
who will open arms wide to you,
pause for just a moment, even
step back slightly to await
your arrival (to give you a moment
to see) and yes, you will run forward,
full tilt, aware you might as well
keep running hard like that
because what else is there to do now,
aware, and even more, feeling assured
you could never knock Everything over
and are, at the same moment,
about to discover Everything
will never let you fall.
(A note about two of the illustrations: I drew the cartoon on page 1—with a mouse. I bought the image on page 2 from dreamstime.com.)