I don’t seem able to remember when it finally hit me that things were different with my family. Possibly in elementary school, when the time inevitably came that Teacher would ask every student to take a moment to tell the class what he or she had done over the summer. I can, however, quite clearly remember the arched eyebrow and confused expression on each teacher’s face as I related my stock answer, “Nothing.” Every other child in the class mentioned trips to the beach or visits to grandmother’s house three states away while I sat, eyes lowered and silently begging my teacher to forget about me. Every summer before the hectic school days gave way to the quiet lethargy of summer vacation I would beg my mother to take us somewhere, anywhere, just so that I, too, would have a travel experience come August. Every time I would be met with the same answer, “You know daddy won’t go anywhere.”
My mom and dad’s relationship was in trouble since day one, but as a child I was completely oblivious. Other than the summer vacation desperation, I thought I lived an ordinary life. I didn’t realize my family was in constant jeopardy until I was ten years old and my dad decided he wanted us to leave. I remember going trick or treating on a crisp Halloween night and the next morning, it seemed, my life had unraveled around me while I was distracted in the orange and black glow of a holiday Snickers. My dad wanted to be with someone else in OUR house and he wanted us gone. Even at ten years old I was headdesking. Most men have the decency to walk out and leave their family with the house. Not my dad; my dad has never done things half-assed. I remember the torturous fights that ensued in our living room and basement, whirlwinds of screaming threats and streaming tears that swept me up and glued my ear to the door or air vent every night. I remember begging and pleading out loud in my room for my mother to stop threatening my father with his Bowie knife. I remember my father spending hours on the phone with that woman, at one point relaying something she’d said and laughing at my disgruntled comment. I remember my mother saying that she wanted to stay together for the kids, and I remember telling her that it was a grave mistake.
My mother has consistently bounced between being the shining savior of her beloved children to being an eye-rolling menace unable to see the hurt that she causes. In many ways, my mother is child-like; she is argumentative, accusatory, quick to anger, and often unable to see past her own issues or perceived insults (I would wager that she scoffed upon reading that.) My sister would say that she focuses far too much on what she wants that she ends up ignoring everyone else. I would agree with my sister, while forgiving my mother completely her transgressions; my father stole her life – how else could she cope? She needed to make everyone but her family the center of her attention because everyone in her family was causing her unbearable pain. I owe it to her to listen to all of her complaints, her fascinations, the giggly torrent of affection thrown like confetti over her school-girl crushes. My mother, despite her flaws, is a beautiful person beloved by everyone. We’ve been inseparable since I was born and I will continue to be tied to her long after she is forced to leave my side. She is the one person that I will always forgive everything, no question.
In contrast to the tsunami of love I’ve received from my mother, my father has always been a desert, dry of any sort of love or affection. I shirk away from entering into any sort of conversation with him, afraid that I am setting myself up for a session of humiliation and humor at my expense. Around him, I feel like an interloper. I wonder if, in his mind, I was never supposed to exist, therefore he does his best to ignore me. At best, I am an ugly, 1970s era, neon orange couch – cringe-worthy and in bad taste, the eyes never quite allowed to rest on it so as to avoid displeasure. At worst, I am a crash test dummy, begging for a head-on collision. I remember once having trouble getting out of the scrunchy backseat of our old Monte Carlo and my father mentioned that being overweight, I was liable to have those kinds of issues. I remember a thousand times being called an idiot or talked down to as if I had no understanding of how anything worked. I remember my father erupting into peals of laughter over my emotional distress. I remember when the laptop we’d just bought from Best Buy would not turn on; the fault was immediately mine, presumably having caused it to overheat by using it on the bed. When I was unable to understand how I might have caused this particular problem, my father smothered me with a pillow to illustrate his point. I remember when my father’s drinking finally became a problem for me and my sister; we never knew if he would be quick to anger and hurt us either physically or emotionally, or if he would get weepy and sad and give in to our requests. I remember my mother being thrown against a table, potpourri scattering onto the floor, as she attempted to defend me from my father’s wrath. I remember pouring his alcohol down the drain while his eyes smoldered anger. I remember every single Christmas painstakingly choosing a present for my father only to receive nothing in return. I remember seeing my drunken father carry up from the basement the trash bag that contained the body of my favorite kitten. I remember the few times my father has said thank you; it was the closest I felt that we’d ever get to a spoken ‘I love you.’ I remember every single time my father has extended his rage to the people I care about, simply because they’re an extension of me. My mother once told me that my father said long ago that the reason he is so mean to me is because I am too much like her.
My mother has told me the stories: the engagement ring that lost it’s meaning after it compromised his freedom, the obsessive fascinations and subsequent compulsive shopping bouts (guns, diamonds, currently, it’s supplies in preparation for the Apocalypse), the insults and smirks and apathy, the lack of intimacy, the drinking…. even the jealousy that originally consumed their initial friendship. Still, she cannot face a life without him. My mother is held back by her anxiety and is furthered crippled by her dependency on her sense of normalcy, her life with him. He’s ruined her forever from a chance at real love. I think that, most of all, is most unforgivable.
My greatest fear is that my sister is becoming a carbon copy of my father. Since she hit puberty she has been disregarding our feelings, lying to us, ensuring that every activity she takes part in is something of which we would wholeheartedly disapprove. She is rebelling in the worst possible way and I fear she will only end up the worse for it. I don’t know how to help her, but I honestly do not think that she even believes that she needs my help. She will end up an empty shell just like our father, regretting all of her past decisions, all of the people she threw by the wayside who disagreed with her, all of the people she used and left behind open, salted wounds, and she won’t know how to fix it. She will be lost and alone.
I believe that I am irrevocably tied to my family. For months, I begged my mother to move out with me before I finally had to leave without her to retain my sanity. No matter what bad things I hear about my sister, I will forever love her and want to make stupid jokes with her. And no matter how awful my father is to me or the people I love, he will always remain my father, the man with whom I unfortunately have most in common. This is a frightening and disabling fact. I do not want to be held back by my love for people. I do not want to be tied to a place that holds so many bad memories. I don’t want to feel a part of people who have done their best to hurt me.
My sister sends me pictures of rifles hidden behind the couch, text messages detailing his latest plans to turn the basement into a safehouse, laughing over his vain gun-drawing drills in front of the bathroom mirror. As my father rapidly spirals down into madness and my mother flips lightly between utter despair, buoyant optimism and depressing realism, I think of my childhood innocence and almost wish for its return; I would relish the blissful ignorance of a child’s wide, trusting eyes, just so that I would never have to face what my family has become, has always been. I would give anything to save myself from the haunting terror of a childhood so ruined.