Fathers

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My Dad is dying, slowly, in a living room on an island in Maine. He dies slowly of an ebb and flow disease: diabetes. His version of the Big D is complicated by the Big A: alcoholism. It turns out that alcoholism can cause diabetes, and once your body has been hijacked by this syndrome, continuing to drink just turns the dial up on its destructiveness.

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My mother really wanted me to come to Christmas this year because, as she said, “he isn’t doing well and it won’t really get any better”. I stopped going home for Christmas three Christmases ago, when I went to Enchanted Rock with Cody, instead. I camped with lots of other families under a giant, cold full moon, and thought about what making new traditions might mean. Cody and I have spent Christmas together ever since. Christmas, to me, is a holiday fraught with expectations (mine and others), disaster (real and imaginary) and has never held the beauty of the holiday that I see displayed in films and songs.

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I think my mother really tried to create that Christmas magic, and she probably still does. I just remember the harshness of being told a plate was worth more than I was when I placed cookies on it one year. I remember one year receiving boxes and boxes and boxes of presents, including piles of strange clothes that I thought someone should know I would never wear, under an LL Bean Christmas tree that was delivered by the postman on my birthday. That same year, my mom bought a first edition of the Canterbury Tales illustrated by her favorite Arthur Rackham (she has told me the story of how she once could have bought a first edition of the Lord of the Rings from a bookstore in London for 5 pounds, but didn’t have the 5 pounds to spare), and set it on a table behind a sofa in the formal living room, specially curated by her friend Oona the interior decorator. I remember the room curved at the front, framed with beautiful, tall windows, perfect for that giant Christmas tree. The rub is that we only spent one Christmas in that house: the year after, my Dad lost his job in the oil crash of the early 1990s, had a nervous breakdown, and we had to sell the house, the cars, and that 1st edition of the Canterbury Tales. He never recovered from the fact that we had to move into a rental house: I remember him disappearing for awhile I think, and after that, never coming out of the large master bedroom in that dark 1970s house with a duck in stained glass on the door. I suppose he never really did emerge again.

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I have this memory of my dad and myself. I must have been very small: about 6 perhaps. I have a nephew-in-law now named Peter, who is 6, and it must have been when I was about his size. My dad and I were climbing on rocks on the beaches of Maine, over by The Ovens in Salisbury Cove. We climbed onto a big rock that slowly became engulfed by a rising tide; I don’t exactly know how that happened, because now, as an adult, I understand how long it takes for the water to rise. Nevertheless, the memory remains; stuck on the rock we were, and my father had to carry me to shore.

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My Dad is a big, barrel-chested man who used to be 6′-2″. He is a lone wolf and a person who doesn’t fit in: two ways that we are similar. I was chatting with a friend a while ago about how our self-identification as people who don’t belong, who are special or unique, reinforces some pretty unhealthy patterns that contribute to all sorts of ills: like codependency, seeking out bad boyfriends to “help” or “fix”, a lack of self-awareness, self-love and feeling like success is an option. My dad never spent time looking in Life’s mirror: perhaps it was too frightening. He ran away and into anger, reckless spending, and the bottoms of gin bottles.

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It took me a long time to let go of the anger I had toward him: I would ask for years: why isn’t he like other fathers? Why does he seem to love everything but his family? Why does he do these crazy things all the time? Why does he throw stuff? Why does he crash cars? Why does he spend money he doesn’t have? Doesn’t he understand how much it hurts all of us? It took me years, really until this past year, to realize that he is locked in a prison of his own making and it’s almost as if there is no one else in that prison: like a man locked in a cell on an island with nothing but his thoughts and a shovel, he just digs that cell deeper and deeper into the mountainside, when the choice to escape is his to make. Even last year, at the age of 77, he somehow managed to open a series of credit card accounts and spend $10,000. When we asked him what he had bought for that amount of money, he really didn’t know.

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I have been on holiday break from school for 2 weeks now and, honestly, haven’t done much except cooking and organizing, helping Cody clear our land for our wedding, and watch movies. It wasn’t until tonight that I realized that all the films have had one common thread: fathers. Fathers who are good, fathers who are bad: fathers who are confused and don’t know what to do. Fathers who are trying, and fathers who are useless at trying. Fathers who are drunk, and fathers who are teetotalers. None are perfect, although a few match what I would have liked to have had. But, in some ways, like I said to my brother earlier today, perhaps we are just here to listen to these two crazy people who are our parents. After all, do any of us truly actually make sense? Probably not: but I do like to think that I try to be happy, to think of others, and I am trying very hard to be a good partner to a very sweet man who, as I type this, is drilling holes in a concrete wall so that I can hang up a mirror. That sweet man lost his father almost 11 years ago to brain cancer. His father, just as imperfect as any of them, is gone and he doesn’t even have a way to talk to him and become frustrated at his inadequacies and nonsense. All he has is memories of an imperfect man: the same that I will, one day, have.

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Reflections in Memory

We took a walk on the beach one day, in the summer. It must have been late summer because I remember the slanting sunshine: the warmth of it. We walked along the beach in Salisbury Cove: the part of the cove that would later be left behind for the quieter end, off Old Bar Harbor Road. My father and I, probably five or six years old, walked the beach.

The beach in that part of the world is gray with shale and rusty with ironstone. The stone forms in thin layers and is cracked into a thousand million pieces with the roots of trees. While they crack the stone, the root hairs also hold its myriad pieces in space, braving winter’s storms and the shrinking-expanding process of freeze and thaw. The beach itself is made of tiny to large pieces of stone, too many to count. There is no sand here; the closet thing is tiny pieces of basalt that have been tumbled and thrashed for eons. Here and there are pieces of kelp, ends of rope, bottles, a jellyfish or two, sea urchin skeletons and so many mussel shells. Mussel shells are demure on top: brown, black and white, but reveal indigo or lavender pearl inside. I have always loved them and they were my brother’s favorites when he was a little boy. I have many memories of Carew carrying mussel shells by the dozen back to our cottage.

On the day of the walk, my father and I sat on the top of what seemed like a very tall rock, out on the edge of the beach. I don’t know how long we sat there, only that it was warm. Over time, the tide came in and separated us from the beach. In reality, the water was probably 2 or 3 feet deep, but I couldn’t cross, and my dad hoisted me onto his shoulders and carried me to the beach, to safety.

My father has many stories. When I was studying for the GRE, which I never used for graduate school, I learned a word, legerdemain. Meaning slight of hand, I always thought it applied very well to my father. He is a gifted storyteller who holds his own cards tight to the chest. He plays no personal hand: very little is divulged. He is like the Wizard of Oz, hidden behind a curtain.

During the process that I related to readers here, I realized that I had held guilt as my definitive characteristic for twenty years. It took hard and heavy realizations to see that I had to let that go in order to be happy and be in my present reality. It took risk and resulted in reward, but the path was frightening and new. I think that guilt such as this is ultimately useless, and a barrier between ourselves and those who would really love us. Nothing anyone has done, save very few barbarous actions, could result in someone not being worthy of love from those who choose to do so.

When I think of my father and his life, I can see a life of a world traveler, an instructor, a bridge jumper, an oil man, a golf player, a Mercedes lover, an eldest son, a highly sensitive person, a Vietnam veteran, an alcoholic, a rage-oholic, and a depressive. But despite all of that, my father is worthy of love. However, it would seem that he believed he was not, and so acted out so intensely as if to prove that fact. My mother, my brother, myself, his friends and his family are here to prove that otherwise, despite his faults.

I gave myself and was given forgiveness by those who love me. Forgiveness, like commitment, is freeing and highly emotional. It is the letting go, of staring off into a space of love and friendship, and stepping out into the mystery. As my father sits in the television room of my parents house, on the quiet side of Salisbury Cove, staring down at a coastline that we once walked, I hope to say to him: “I love you. We all love you. You have done nothing to disappoint anyone. There are no mistakes. This is the time to think about all the stories, all the adventure, all the things you have to be thankful for. Let it go. You are loved.”

No More Leaving

No More Leaving
 
At
Some point
Your relationship
With God
Will
Become like this:
 
Next time you meet Him in the forest
Or on a crowded city street
 
There won’t be anymore
 
“Leaving.”
 
That is,
 
God will climb into
Your pocket.
 
You will simply just take
 
Yourself
 
Along!
– Hafiz

 

It has been a couple of weeks since my last post and since my discovery of what had been bothering me all these years. I feel as if some dark glasses or horse blinders were torn off my eyes and thrown across the street when that discovery hit me. It is so strange to me that we can tell ourselves these stories about ourselves for so many years without actually being forced, by our minds and hearts and new experiences, to reflect upon them in an active way.

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For the last several years, I have been looking into the effects of traumatic experiences on myself and on others. I have discovered that many of us, especially as we get older, in our mid-thirties for example, have developed elaborate defense mechanisms and intimate pitfalls. So many of these are not obvious to anyone, even ourselves, until, if we are lucky enough, our eyes are opened and we can re-open the Pandora’s box of emotions to see whether what is in there is serving us, anymore.

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When I think of the delicacy of the human heart, I like to think of the Egyptian mythology of, when one dies, that one’s heart is measured against the weight of a single feather. I do think that the human heart is just that light, just that easy to shatter. But, the other side of the coin is that we, too, are remarkably resilient, like the trees that I spend so much time gazing upon. Despite the myriad fractures and sometimes breaks in the surface of the heart, we keep on keepin’ on, living from day to day, month to month, year to year. Perhaps the scarification of those fractures are what the defense mechanisms are, the fears, the caginess, the aversion to risking one’s poor, suffering heart.

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It is like crystal, like the petals of a poppy: translucent, and easy to bruise.

I think the sadness of being out of touch with one’s emotional pitfalls comes from the realization that most people are genuinely good, and want to love and care and protect and enjoy one another’s company. It’s almost as if adults live in the center of a long, winding labyrinth with doors along the way. All the doors must open, eventually, and whatever obstacle that lays beyond them must be acknowledged and explored. For if not, I would imagine, you end up rather like someone whose fears have become her/himself, and the real person inside is just lost.

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An unexamined life is not worth living” – Socrates