Friday, February 25, 2011

Destiny's Cousin (or, how I learned to cry)

"It is such a secret place, the land of tears." - Antoine De Saint-Exupery

In my family, there was just no room for the children to have feelings: our tears were an unbearable accusation, and we were punished for causing pain. "Go to your room, no one wants to see you like that" was on a good day: mostly the punishment for crying was physical. I learned to cry without making any noise: and then I learned not to cry at all. It was a hard lesson to learn: the blows of his belt and his fists tattooed it into my bones. It became part of who I was. Life without tears was also life without joy: it was like living in a mausoleum. I didn't think about it, because I never imagined that it could be different.

I began to think about it after my son was born. When I was telling him that it was okay to cry, it dawned on me that he would learn more from my actions than my words: and I did not want to pass on this terrible lesson. I didn't know where to start, but I finally realized that if I didn't seek some kind of recovery from my past, then with all the best intentions in the world I would still pass on my damage. That horrified me. I became willing to wade back into the pain and seek healing. I started going to counseling.

When my son was 3, I got clean and sober for the first time. I had been addicted to prescription drugs. It took about 3 months before the shaking stopped enough that I could write my name legibly, and that's when I got my very first sober job. I had sober days here and there at other jobs, but not too many, so this was new territory. Hell, everything was new territory then, raw and terrifying and wondrous. It was like taking a hit of life every day: I never knew where it would take me, but I was beginning to believe that I would find my way.

I took a job as a cashier at a local grocery store, and to my amazement, I was good at it. I liked dealing with people: I had a facility for easing the temper of the worst customer. Even if all I could give was a smile and a moment of kindness, I was grateful to have anything to give back to life, anything at all. I was so wide open then. I had no defense any more against feelings: letting go of drugs initially left me with no walls at all. I surrounded myself with positive thoughts and positive people as a protection. But then it happened: life came calling.

There they were, the three of them: a girl of about 8, a defiantly shirtless man and an old woman with no teeth. The closer they got to the front of my line, the tenser I got: I could how they spoke to the girl, the casual cruelty, and I could not shut it out. It was finally their turn. All I could do was look at her and smile. I wanted her to know that I SAW her. She held out a plastic cup for me to ring up, and said, "It's for Destiny. She's my cousin."

The grandmother whacked the girl's arm and said, "She's nothing to you!" and immediately returned her attention to the young man as he scowled at the girl. Then they both turned their attention back to their private war with each other. I kept smiling at the girl. She stared at me, and it started: big tears rolling down her face, but no sound at all: she was crying without making any noise. I had no more power to save her than I had had to save myself, all those years ago. I remember that I started shaking: I rang them up as fast as I could, hurried through the rest of my customers, and left to go on break.

I went back to the employee bathroom and fell to my knees. I tried to pray but all I could say was, why? Why did You make me see this when I can't help her? I began to beat a slow rhythm on the wall with my closed fist, the bass line to an unbearable pain. Tears squeezed through the sides of my clenched eyes. It took a while to compose myself, but I had to go back to work, so I did. I felt sick and hollow. I could not find my way back to anything that felt like home inside of my own skin. I finished my shift quietly, and walked home.

I was halfway home when it dawned on me: she had given me back my tears. I had to stop and lean against a tree. I wept again, for joy: I knew then. I knew that she had been sent to me. And because she had taught me how to cry again, maybe my son wouldn't have to learn. There was hope of healing after all, even for me.

I have never forgotten her. I never will.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Learning His Language

(I remember once when my brother was 3, he wiped out on his Big Wheel at the end of our driveway, and ended up with gravel pushed deep into his gums. It was bad, bad enough to go to the doctor, which was only for emergencies: one of the many costs of poverty. Of course my brother started crying. And my father was furious with him for crying, spitting cussing scary-mad: he would have swung if I wasn't standing in front of him. I mention this so you can understand some of how we learned not to cry. The tears got beat and scared clean out of us: but they never go away until you can finally cry them. I know that now.)

I think my brother Charlie must have been 6 when this happened, which means I was 12. We were back in my room talking: it was after dinner, all our chores were done, and we were leaning peacefully against each other and wandering through ideas. Charlie suddenly stiffened up, and I felt him clamp down hard on his emotions, clamp down iron-hard and belly-tight. I said, what's wrong? He shook his head, still struggling to master himself. I felt a terrible fear rise in me: see, I KNEW what was happening, and I didn't want him to learn that. I don't know what I thought I could teach him, since I didn't know how to cry anymore either, but I could see the scars as they were being laid on his soul and I wanted to fight against it somehow. I tried to tell him that it was safe to cry in front of me and that no one would ever know: but he understood better than I did, that to give in at all was to risk losing control later, and losing control could lead to one of those beatings where you wondered if he would kill you, this time. I finally stopped trying to help and let him compose himself: but the mood was lost, and he went to bed then, alone with his darkness.

My father was in his bedroom, and I marched in, quivering with fury. I tried to explain, what it was doing to this brother I loved, to be poisoned by his unshed tears. My father thought about it, and he started telling me a story.

When my father was young, he was very smart, and he was moved up a few grades. Teachers loved him, which did not endear him to his fellow classmates, who were much larger than him. There he was, this smart skinny kid with the ears that stuck out,: a fierce sharp boy who knew the sting of every lash you can imagine, and who had the crazy quiet defiance that enabled him to survive his own schizophrenic father. In Texas, football is compulsory: even the girls play it. So my father's classmates took their revenge on the football field. There was a move called the nutcracker, which is what it sounds like, y'all: standing at the front of the line, facing your opponent, when that whistle blows you raise your locked hands together and smash the testicles of the boy in front of you.

How was he going to fight back against that? Tell the teacher - not fucking likely. Physically he was more than outmatched. So he came up with a plan. He learned to look them right in the eye while he was waiting for that whistle, and when they swung, he smiled. HE SMILED. I cannot imagine the effort of will that took, but it was the only way he had left to hang onto his dignity. And it worked. As  matter of fact, he scared the crap out of them, and they left him alone after the first few times. He learned that swallowing his pain, never showing any weakness, was what allowed you to retain your place in life, maybe even your soul.

When he told me that last part, he had a strange gleam in his eye, a look I had never seen. He was still lost in that horrible past, recalling a moment of victory: he was smiling to himself. He had forgotten that I was there. I finally understood that he had been trying to save us somehow, teaching us the only lessons that he knew. My stomach twisted in pity and sorrow for this man with the big ears whose only defense against pain was to fight. I knew he would never escape his past: it would haunt him every day of his life, and he would never know it. But I also knew then that he loved us, no matter how twisted it was: and that knowledge opened a new world to me. It had never once occurred to me that he loved us. It was tragic, yes, but love is beautiful for all that. I cherish that memory: I have so few clues left, to know that I was loved.

But it matters. I am glad to have these clues. Love is love. And he loved me.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Beginning

***I have already posted this elsewhere, but it belongs here, so here goes,***

My father’s mother was suspected of poisoning two of her seven husbands. I never met any of them: my grandfather, her first husband, died before I was born. Most of them did. My last grandfather was still alive when I was young, but we were not allowed to meet him because he was a convicted child molester. In the brief times that my grandmother lived with us, she would get collect calls from him: he was in jail at the time.

My grandmother was one of the most twisted people I ever knew. She mainly lived with my uncle and his family. He had married a Japanese woman, and my grandmother openly taunted their children for being “half-breeds”. My aunt came from a culture that bound her to an absolute respect for her mother-in-law, even at the expense of her children. My mother was, as my grandmother said, a crippled Catholic Yankee, and as such she had no such compunction. She was as polite as she had to be, and no more: but her nicest words were still spoken through thinned lips.

My grandmother hated me because I was named after her replacement, my step-grandma. I didn’t care that she hated me, and her comments about my lack of looks or grace or charm all missed their mark. I hated her, too, for making fun of my mother and the cousins I loved so much…but most of all, I hated her for what she did to my father. He changed so much when she was around. In real life, he was loud, charismatic, sarcastic, and you never knew what would send him over the edge to crazy angry: crazy angry was when you didn’t really know if the beating would end with your death, this time. I cannot describe the belly-deep fear of those moments. But when she was around, he was so small, so contained, so quiet: tightly polite, coiled and careful. And even though his temper remained in abeyance in her presence, it was like watching him die. I loved my father. I was too young to know or even guess the history behind his changed demeanor, but I knew deep in my stomach that she had done him a great evil. I was glad when she left and my crazy father came back. I understood even then that his demons were beyond his control, and that he was in tremendous pain. What is there to say? My heart ached with compassion and sorrow. I loved my father.

And the love is what made it all so hard.


I saw my mother cry one time. One time. She did other things: I would find her bent over, holding her stomach, eyes closed and rocking: but her eyes were dry and hard as old bone. She just couldn’t, wouldn’t, let go. She’s dead now, and I’ll never know why: maybe she couldn’t have told me anyway. Why is it so hard for me to cry? Maybe she learned it, just like me.
My sister and I were outside, playing in the snow. I was 4 or 5: I can date the memory because I remember the house. We lived there until I was 5. It was the longest we ever stayed in one place. It was also the only house we ever owned, although that didn’t matter until much later. I remember the cold of the hardwood floors on my feet in the morning, and how they looked with sunshine on them, the jeweled tones of red oak. My mother was in a wheelchair from the time she was 16, and the ramp hadn’t been shoveled, so she couldn’t go out with us: but she sent us out to play, to get some air, every day. We were good girls, obedient girls, and we lived in a rural area, so we were safe. We had a lot of space to run and scamper and wear ourselves out.

I don’t remember what we were doing: but the noise, I remember the noise. My mother howled. It stood the hair up on the back of my neck. I ran for the house, terrified, my little sister close on my heels. My mother was wheeling at top speed towards the front door: and just as I got there, she slammed it shut and locked it. I saw her face for just a moment, twisted and red and teary. I stood there listening to her animal howls of misery through the door and I could do nothing. I was in shock for a minute or so, and then I began hammering at the door, begging her to let us in. I wanted to stroke her head, to comfort her, to know that she was okay, and I didn’t know what to make of being shut out that way. She opened the door maybe 5 minutes later, tightly composed as always: she wore her habitual mask of anger over the sorrow. She would not tell me what was wrong or what had happened. We were to go on with our day and erase the moment from our memory, as she apparently had. But I could not. I still can’t. I loved her and my whole body ached to be with her in her moment of grief, but she had literally slammed the door in my face: and I stood in the fading winter light of late afternoon, and listened, stricken with my helplessness. I had never seen her cry before. And I never saw her cry again.

I asked her about that day much later, when I was grown and with a child of my own. What she said is that she didn’t want to frighten us by her lack of control. It was the first time the police had called her, to ask whether my father should be brought home or kept in jail overnight. She had been overwhelmed with fear and anger, a crippled woman with two small girls, alone in the farm country of Ohio, with only a drunk to help her and hold her up in the eyes of her family. That day, she told them to bring him home. And she began to toy with the idea of suicide.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

You Always Hit The One You Love

 Being the oldest child of an alcoholic father and a suicidal, wheelchair-bound mother left me feeling responsible for things that were well beyond my years. Most of all, I felt that I was responsible for protecting all of us from my father. No one else was going to step in, and somebody needed to, so I did what I could. I failed more than I succeeded, and I struggled for years with the guilt. The guilt is gone, but I still go batshit crazy when someone I love is being wronged. If the wrong is being done to an animal or a child, I don't have to know them to stick my nose in. Maybe I should mind my own business more: but the times that people stuck up for me are etched indelibly in my heart.

I remember the first time I swung at my dad. I know it was evening because my brother Charlie was in his pajamas. Charlie was 3 then, so I was probably 10. I don't remember exactly what Charlie said, something silly that made me laugh: it wasn't obscene or disrespectful or anything like that, but my father misheard it and it pissed him right the fuck off. Dad came out of his chair and went for Charlie as though he was a full-grown man. I sat rooted to my seat, so choked with terror that it felt like I couldn't breathe. And then, as my father drew his fist back, my brother screamed my name. MY name. In a split second my fear had vanished, to be replaced by a cold hard rage. My father punched Charlie as I grabbed a lamp off the table. I hit him with it as hard as I could, which must have been hard enough because the lamp broke. THAT got his attention. Time slowed down as my father turned towards me, and the fear returned, but it didn't paralyze me. I yelled at my brother to go to bed, and then I faced off with the old man. I can't quote what I said but among other things I told him to grow up in a hard-driven avalanche of words. When I stopped he halfheartedly growled something at me and he left. I followed him into the hall, to make sure he wasn't going to my brother's room, but to my amazement he went to bed. I stood quivering in the hall until I could catch my breath, and then I cleaned up the shards of broken lamp. I knew that I would pay for my actions soon enough, but in that moment I wasn't afraid. Lack of fear was a profound thing: in his presence I was always afraid. But not then.

I remember the last time my dad swung at me. I was 14, and quite drunk: I had discovered liquor at 13, and I used that fabulous anesthetic as often as I possibly could. I was tanked that night, I remember that much. I don't remember what started it, but he said, you may be too old to be spanked, but you aren't to old to be hit. I stood up and challenged him with drunken bravado. We went out into the attached garage. He swung. He connected. He was stronger than I realized: I hit the concrete floor and tried to remember how to get back up. I was pretty dazed. While I was struggling to stand, he walked back into the house and shut the door: and he turned off the light. I laid back down on the concrete and stared at the ceiling. No one was going to check on me. No one was going to save me. There was no mercy for me. It was after that night that I began to write the number of days I had left before I could legally leave at the age of 17, wrote that number on my hand every day for years. I will never forgot how alone I felt that night: but I survived long enough to get the hell out. I was 16 when I moved out, but in some ways I am still there, locked in sorrow and regret that I struggle to get free of daily. It is all still with me, and I wish I knew how to let go.

I remember the last time I laid hands on my father. He was in a bed in a hospice facility, dying of cancer, and he had entered the terminal agitation phase. He kept trying to get out of bed, not realizing he would collapse: his brain was telling him that he needed to go somewhere, but the journey in front of him was not physical. He was just trying to find his way out. I kept having to gently push him back down into bed. He grew more and more determined: I had to push harder and harder. I finally called the nurses, because I could not stand to push against his shrunken chest and tell him "no" when he could not understand what I was doing. He was so small in that bed, but still strong and most of all hard-headed: I could not fight this sad dying old man anymore. I called the nurses over and over to help me, and they were so kind. When he was rational, I talked to him, and I rode out the rest of it: I wanted to finally be a good daughter to him. And in the end, I was. I helped to care for him for the last month and a half of his life, and I was there sitting next to him when he died. I had never dreamed that forgiveness was possible: but the hate started to destroy me, and I wanted to get free. I no longer hate, but I'm still so sad, so sad for all of us. My life now has much love in it, and for all my mistakes, my son has never had to wonder if he was loved. The fact that I can walk in love at all, is the greatest triumph of my life. I have a long way to go, but I am on the good red road. And I thank you for sharing my journey.