GRIEVING THE LIVING THAT ONLY LIVED IN MY IMAGINATION

There’s usually just enough time between Christmas and Easter to convince myself I have overcome my family trauma. I get to coast, just long enough for the first half of May to sneak up on me like a heard of army tanks. It rolls up like something out of a sci fi movie. An ominous hostile alien spacecraft that casts a shadow that covers an entire metropolitan city. I’ve had very minimal contact with my family over the past 5 years, out of necessity for survival for my two teenage daughters and myself.

Tomorrow is my Dad’s 73rd birthday and sometimes it lands on Mother’s Day, but not this year. The paralyzing anxiety and absolute terror usually starts to set in a few days before and lasts just as long, after Mother’s Day. This year I thought I was totally prepared for it, but I had talked to my Dad just days before. When Sunday came around totally uninvited, the tsunami of grieving living people came along with it and washed me back out to sea. My Dad’s birthday always feels a lot like seeing a big ship in the distance that never sees me and just keeps going. After the panic subsides, I revert back to what I’ve always known, “Better start swimming, Bitch, because they’re never going to come for you.”

My Dad came from extreme poverty and the 2nd oldest of seven kids. He has the same first name as his Dad, but goes by his middle name. The old man used to beat them all within inches of their lives until he got old enough to fight back. Their father abandoned them the same as he abandoned his other 2 families. The Old Man, as we all knew him as, was 24 years older than my Grandma and had picked her off the family farm in the Ozarks. Several years ago, after his Mother’s death, we opened an old trunk that had a photo album of when he was a baby. There was also a picture of his Dad. I had heard plenty of stories about him. He died a couple years after I was born from a bleeding ulcer, in a state where I’ve never been. I never met him. I’ll never forget the voice that welled up from inside my Dad that day, while looking at that picture. It was completely saturated with rage. The intensity of it created a tone I had never heard before or since and when he spoke it sounded more like a growl, “That fucker always wore that fucking hat.” As he said it to no one but himself in that moment.

My father dropped out of college to go fight the communist. He was a paratrooper during the TET offensive in the Vietnam war. When his orders home came in, he was in the jungle. He never went through any processing. It was straight from the jungle to San Francisco, where he was spat on while trying to take a nap on a bench before his next flight. When he arrived in Portland, he ripped the metals and ribbons off his uniform and tossed them in the trash before heading to my Mother’s house. She was 17 at the time and the middle of 3 girls. She would later become pregnant with my brother her senior year of high school and be kicked out of her home in 1969. Had it not been for my floozie of a Grandmother, they would have never met. His commanding officer had a fling with a married woman from our home town that he had met on a bus. He asked my Dad to give a message to this woman. That woman was my maternal Grandmother. When he went to the house to deliver the message, it was my mom that answered the door and the rest is history. As for my slutty Granny, that’s a whole other essay that might partially explain why my own mother is incapable of love.

PTSD had it’s own special place at our table and it never missed a meal. The war was like a creepy elder in our home that we had to respect and obey, making us a family of five. It has always been his free pass for his behavior, as far as my mother is concerned. With the same immunity being extended to her for her behavior, because she put up with him. Some of my earliest memories are being treated like a soldier. Singing army jodies about wanting to be an airborne ranger and live a life of sex and danger instead of my ABCs. Show no weakness! Eat the bollweevils in your cereal, because that’s what he did in Nam.

When he was drunk, which was never extremely often, he would show me pictures of mass graves and pictures of guys hanging from parachutes in mid descent. He would tell me stories of how some guys would piss their pants. I asked if the piles of people were in pain from being wrapped in the razor blade barbed wire with no clothes on. He said no, because they were already dead. He would brag about chopping up bodies after they were dead to prevent their souls from going to heaven, or so he said that was the belief in their culture. I was four and five years old at the time. I never knew any different, so I thought everyone’s lives resembled ours behind closed doors.

I’ve never wanted to believe it, but I’m pretty sure he raped plenty of the women while he was there. He never bragged about that, but there have been 3 different accusations of rape that I know of in my lifetime, most recently 2012. He still fools around on my mother and has as long as I can remember. I used to catch him in the driveway with the binoculars and all the outside lights off. My 15-year-old babysitter’s bedroom faced our drive way. He would stand out there and steady himself against the car and watch her. He would practically start salivating when my friends came around when I was in high school. He would always act so stupid around women, if it was a friend’s mom or a cute cashier, or waitress, or my brother’s girlfriend.

Last week, I used the excuse that we had belongings left at the house that I needed to get before we move, in hopes of talking to him. Give it one last chance to clear the air and forgive and be free of the anger that seems to protect me, more than it eats me alive. This time of year always hits me like a mac truck. I can’t make sense of why it bothers me or why I still care. I thought this would be the year things came to a conclusion. That things could be different. Turns out, not even a pandemic can create the possibility of reconciliation. Not. Even. The. End. Of. The. World!

When the time came to pick up our stuff, I half feared it would be left by the road and half afraid he would be there and willing to talk. And if he was there, we could maybe bury the hatchet. That he would say he was sorry for all the beatings and neglect and mental torment. That he would release us both with his remorse. I was hoping this pandemic made him finally realize people mattered more than things.

Instead, he dug in his heels and maintained that I’ve made everything up in some drug fueled hallucination. That my first two surgeries of my life weren’t due to abuse. The first being at age 5 for a herniated intestine from being used as a pack animal for things like 50 lbs bags of animal feed, bales of straw, rounds of trees for firewood. The 2nd surgery at the age of 12 to repair my nose from having the phone smashed on my face. He denied all the beatings that took place before and in between and after those events, where he used whatever object was close at hand. His favorite was the 4 inch thick cutting board or his own hands. It wasn’t just me though, they’d throw my brother and I around in the kitchen like kid beating ping pong.

For the sake of brevity, I’m not going into details about my mother. They’re still together and she’s just as caustic. We can’t be in the same room together and that’s why she wasn’t there that day. When you have parents like mine, they create a crevasse in your sense of self and self-worth from a very early age, causing a weird permanent rerouting of your developing brain. As you get older, that crevasse is given the sole purpose of being their emotional dumpster. By the time you enter the world as an adult, your identity is the sum of their self-loathing that sets a girl up for some dangerous relationships with men. For some reason I cannot explain, I have been assigned some kind of karmic contract that requires one hell of a detour towards finding any kind of peace.

I suppose I should consider myself lucky. There’s been a few things that have been heavy on my mind for the past few years. I got to ask him the things I would wonder about after he’s dead and gone. I know that’s more than what a lot of people get to have, even with parents that loved them deeply. When I asked him how he wanted to be remembered, he scoffed sarcastically, like it was a stupid question and said, “I don’t know, how do you want to be remembered?” I told him that I want to leave my girls knowing they were loved above all else. And that I was fun and resourceful and everything I did was out of love for them. As true to form, he tried to take claim to my words as his own and said that’s all he basically wants as well. We never had much of a father daughter relationship. I was more like the fat nerdy girl who did the homework for the captain of the football team and my mother was the bitchy head cheerleader girlfriend. I was only worth what tasks I could carry out and attention given was equivalent to the quality of my performance. He had the nerve to tell me he just wants the same thing and then in his next breath told me I deserved everything bad that ever happened to me. Including the attempt on my life by my ex-husband, whom he expressed sympathy for during our conversation. He also expressed affection and understanding for his father. Mentioning that his 2nd wife was very rich, as if money is some kind of attribute of character. He was also very confident that he can have a relationship with my children and not me.

I asked him more things like, “What do you need from me, Dad for us to have a relationship?” He said he needs me to just forget things and go back to the way things were and to let my narcissistic mother back into our lives. What he meant was it would require me to let down all my boundaries I’ve created to protect us. I tried to form a question that would perhaps make him see it a little from my side, I asked, “at what point during your development did I ever make you feel scared, unloved, worthless, and unsafe?” The fact that he started out with, “well….” and paused while he racked his brain for all my offenses against his development. That told me way more than anything he could have said. Now, my Dad is not a simple or uneducated man. He has a degree and had a career in executive management most of my life. When I explained the question to him again and how I was not born yet to be around during his development, he still tried to come up with how I must somehow be responsible for his behavior and the acts of violence that have been committed against me. When he came up empty handed, he acted cornered and lashed out. All he could say was, “You’re just so goddamn sophisticated” and tried to speak of my intelligence as if it was a defect. My Mother, on the other hand, is an uneducated simpleton and they have always talked about my intelligence as some kind of act of defiance against them.

It’s true, I’m the one that changed. I no longer feel like I’m looking up from my knees begging for their acceptance and validation. It’s more like looking back at a burning car after I barely escape with my life.

The conversation may not have gone as I would have liked, but I still got more than I expected to get out of it. He was willing to acknowledge a fraction of the abuse he inflicted on my brother and said they talked about it and are all good. Which was a bit of a sting at first. What makes my asshole brother more worthy than me, to be awarded the apology and acknowledgment? If in fact, it actually happened… It was sad the way he lamented for his youth and how deeply rooted his identity still is attached to his time in the army. It was sad the way he pointed around at their beautiful compound of a home as if he had reached some destination of superiority that made him exempt from taking any responsibility for his actions and words.

I still got the confirmation I was looking for in the form of his denial, or so I have decided to see it that way. Even his words of affection and empathy for his father were received as pleas for forgiveness, maybe? His way of saying he did it all, but needs me to see him in a different way? It just didn’t feel very good, because like other unspeakable things he’s done that we are never to speak of, beating me makes that list, I guess. His adamant declarations of never having laid a finger on me, because, “ that’s just not the kind of person he is”, were nothing more than using me as his emotional dumpster again. Dumping onto me the fact he still needs me to carry this burden, because he’s incapable of doing the right thing. He’s resigned to the fact he’ll never be a decent enough person, or perhaps there’s just no remorse at all and he really is convinced they’ve both been flawless parents?

Grieving living people is a long distorted good bye and it’s even more peculiar when you’re grieving a person that never existed, you just made them up in your head to survive. And so with that, I also have my answer for why we can never have a relationship. I can’t do the things he needs in order for it to happen and he can never be that person I always tried to convince myself he was… It doesn’t feel like much now, but I think I will get a lot of comfort from all this after he’s passed.

I’ve discovered an unexpected benefit to his denial. He has gone to such an extreme to denounce me that he no longer gives himself credit for anything I do, right or wrong. My whole life, the only reason I did anything of any merit or value was a direct extension of them, as far as they were concerned. I’ve been so stuck, frozen in unproductivity and minimal progress, because I didn’t want to give them any reason to pat themselves on the back for my success these past 5 years.

I think I’m ready to cut my loses and count my blessing. Every day is a struggle to be the person I needed, so that I can be the person my girls need. Maybe this will be the year I finally get their voices and judgements out of my head? Excavate years of conditioning from my long term memory and subconscious. Set myself free in some way? All this time I’ve been grieving the people I needed them to be, but those people never existed in who and what they are. There’s another person I must grieve and let go of, along with them and that’s the part of me that needed them. Wherever that dimension exists of us all together is, it’s somewhere I can never return. Maybe I haven’t been grieving all this time. Maybe the grieving can finally begin. Only time and the next holiday season will tell.