An hour before I am supposed to leave, I start crying. I’ve had that fluttery, controlling, rigidity-soaked fear for two days now, and underneath that there are always two forms of grief – the actual grief, which hurts, and the tender grief about being so hard on myself, that the New Age Buddhists call radical self-compassion, which feels kind. The one hundred forms of fear force me to recognize, my brain is mean to me, and it is relentless. And I still have goddamn daddy issues.
But crying is always better than meanness.
I am sort of weeping, and it occurs to me that when I have these jags, I am usually alone. Sometimes, I am on the phone. But I am not being held – there are not arms to fall into when you live by yourself, or maybe even when you live with others. I cannot fall into Jay’s the way I think I should. He looks at me like I am crazy. There are just no guarantees. Are we really as disconnected as everyone keeps saying on the internet? Is it because of our mothers and fathers? What would happen if we really told the truth about how we felt? In America, they call that over-sharing.
The tears are a relief, and I have one of those bizarre moments where I realize I am a person and that saltwater falls from my eyes, that I have limbs and toenails and a name. What a trip, just to be here, filling the sacs in our chests with air from the sky, and that is the only thing we don’t take seriously. With brains that can create visceral hells, or heavens. With identification so strong, we live our lives in squares instead of widening circles. (Was it Rilke or Rumi who said that?) We are strange creatures who do strange things.
I wipe my eyes and breathe deeply. I’ll break up with Jay soon and try to pick a nicer guy, and even though dad is dead and I never got to forgive him, I think he forgave me. I move my feet. I am doing OK.
In the meeting, Cal shares his story. He’s got one of those mouth full of marbles Brooklyn-type accents, and he’s sober over twenty years, which doesn’t always mean something, but with him you can tell he’s done the work. It’s in the eyes. He has substance. He’s warm, too and reminds me of my step-father, and I wonder if he actually thinks women half his age will sleep with him. Some of them do, think that way I mean. And some young women sleep with them, especially if they’ve got money. Is that anti-feminist, to say that? You can’t say anything, anymore, without people being offended.
I’m wearing a tight shirt and platforms, and the older men keep looking. Maybe I wore it on purpose. Daddy issues? I am trying to figure out what to do with my life, and sex appeal seems like the easiest thing. Have you noticed that literally everything is sexualized now? You take something real nice and spiritual like yoga, and you make it all about a hot woman with her legs spread. Everything eventually becomes about hot women with their legs spread.
I drift in and out, listening to Cal, noticing every other noise, too, the crinkling wrapper, the snap of gum, the woman digging in her purse for longer than is polite. I feel tired from my good cry, and the room is warm, womb-like. Cal talks about the drinking days: the way it once was and how it viciously shifted. He woke up in Denver in the back of a car. He left the woman, young and pregnant. He tried to stop and couldn’t stop. He hated himself and wanted to die. I nod. He talks of recovery, the miracles. I believe in miracles, so I lean in closer. He mentions his ex-wife without a curl of the lip and explains how he learned to behave like a gentleman, while going through the gut-wrench of a protracted divorce. He talks about being a worker among workers at shitty odd jobs and choosing love instead of fear. He says, and now I’m going to talk about my father. His throat catches.
Why is it always the fathers? Strangely, what is so lacking in one is often what I feel when I hear the term father: nurturing, cradling, comforting, kind. At least, it was lacking in mine. I picture a man in a sweater and a swelling profound heart, so committed and awake. It isn’t just about showing up – it is about actually paying attention.
Sometimes the mothers are the sick ones, they’re cruel and vain and withholding of love, and that is a different sort of hell, one in which escape is least likely. We come from inside our mothers. We cannot get free if they poison us. I don’t know that world, but I know the father one. I know that throat catch and the deep breath he takes after.
He says his dad was away at work, that he drank, gambled, ran around on the wife. That he loved baseball and smelled of an earthy cologne. That he just wasn’t there, even when he was there. I remember making bologna sandwiches for my little brother, he says, when mother was napping – she was always tired. I picture an apartment, humid, messy, with two young boys in white tees and ball caps, hanging on for dear life. I think, you’ve broken the cycle, Cal. At least, you’ve tried.
What he then says will transform my life forever. There is no other way to explain it, except that at the end, something came loose in me that had been screwed too tight, all these years. It has remained unscrewed.
I hated my father, for years, he says, a hatred I could see and taste and smell. A hatred I worked on. Then I started hearing about all this forgiveness stuff around here, and thought, I guess I could try that. But it didn’t work. I never knew how to forgive him. Every time I tried to, came close, I’d remember what he did to me. But then one day I woke up. I don’t know where it came from, or how, but I realized something. I never knew that he wasn’t OK. I just never knew, but then one day I realized it, and it shifted my entire world. All those years as a child and through adolescence and adulthood, I was sharpening my hatred for him like a machete, polishing my shield to defend against this monster, this villainous traitor. But I never knew that he wasn’t OK. I never knew that he hurt, too, that he was human, too, that his dad hit him, that he felt the need to defend himself against made-up monsters. It took me twelve years into recovery to get this and truly forgive the old man. But I got it. And then I became free.
People around the room nod and cough in recognition, but I am wondering if they have just been leveled like I have. I picture young Cal again, eight years old, slathering mustard on Wonder Bread and already planting that hatred, unaware of the storms that would gather and wreck him, unaware of the stitching that would happen to his middle-aged shredded heart. I remember me at eight, huddling my sisters while dad raged. The storms passed a while back. I suppose I have work to do.
Cal wraps up. He mentions his son and daughter, grown kids now and one with a kid of his own, and his daughter is struggling with alcoholism, too, and he says, I don’t give her advice anymore – I just listen, and I just love her. And you know he’s not lying. He loves those kids, and they know it. What a thing to know you are so loved. What a thing to love.
At dinner, Jay is chewing with his mouth open, and this is one of those traits stored in my vault of complaints. It is one, along with his refusal to say please, that sets off the cascade of wrong-doings and ignites in neon the desperate truth that I do not trust this man and that he will never make me feel loved. The last time I said something, he nearly slapped my face. I know I am going to leave him soon. I think about our last giant fight, how he attacked my entire world and implied I was a failure for simply faltering and having stops and starts. I knew in that moment, this cannot be love. We were sitting on the couch, and I was watching him scream at me, and I felt so wounded. Now, seeing him chew with his mouth open, I see a five year old boy, and I remember the stories of his father, and I remember our first kiss, and now I know I can leave him. Not from a place of hatred, but from worthiness, for us both. From knowing what we both grew up with and that love is sometimes leaving.
I call my friend Lucy, because she had a terrific father, the dream kind, whom I wanted so much to be close with growing up, but I could barely stand to watch them. When I slept over or he took us to the movies or to Dodger games I felt worse after, because I knew, this is not what I am getting. I came around less and felt triumphant surviving my home, learning to dodge the wolf at the door.
Even in the midst of her freshman fifteen (more like thirty) and sneaking out in middle school and getting laid off from a high-paying job and having an abortion when she was twenty-two, he looked at her with eyes that said only, I love you, and I am here. And you know, that doesn’t even really explain it. I heard once in college that the father sets the tone and the mother supports it. I’ve known Lucy since we were little children, and you could feel it in her home, his energy. He listened and did not yell and said tell me more, and he wasn’t sick. Committed and aware, you know. Consistent. Snake-less. Not a Playboy in sight. (We used to sneak glimpses of my dads.) He helped me once finish a project that I completely forgot was due, and I got an A. After that, I came over less. I felt like a traitor.
I ask her, what did that feel like, growing up with such a man, did you ever hate yourself or have terrible relationships with men (I already know the answer, we’ve had this conversation a thousand times) and she says no, but she reminds me that when he died her heart broke, and she is still recovering. I tell her, that doesn’t make a difference – when mine died, my heart broke, too. Death is always heartbreaking, even if it’s also a relief. She says, honey, it hurts for everyone, their relationship with their parents. If it’s healthy, the vulnerability hurts, and the loss. If it’s abusive, the hatred hurts. It just hurts, to be alive, she says, in that sultry voice of hers, and I get slightly annoyed because I want her to acknowledge that it is obviously more destructive to have a terrible father. But then again, maybe it’s a toss up. Not all of us get to wake up, when childhood is gentle. Not all of us get to have that moment of understanding, I never knew that he wasn’t OK.
It takes two more months to leave Jay and have no contact with him, and the next three guys I date are nice to me. I can’t take it. I turn into the mean one and push them far away. I feel so much like dad. Lucy says I have to find a balance, that women like me need a little edge. A sharpened butter knife, she says. I laugh and imagine putting that on my dating profile.
Dad died last year. It was a heart attack, which made sense. His heart was done. It was heavy and infected and had no room, and that was what poisoned me and my sisters, but you know, you can heal that, there’s anti-venom out there. Judy carries it the most, and she won’t talk to me since I quit drinking. That was our ritual – blacking out together and reliving the hate. It got tiring.
I think he wanted to love us, but he couldn’t bear it. He knew he wasn’t OK, and he never did anything about it, and then he taught us not to know, and so we called it normal and thought it was love. We thought it was love, enough, as children, but then I saw men like Lucy’s father, and I knew, something isn’t right here. Just like I knew the day I met Jay, this man’s heart is too broken, he will only break mine.
In a way, it was love, enough. In a way, it is always love, enough. Because I am still here, and I still love him, dad I mean. I love them all.
I see this kid in the grocery store with his mother, and you can tell he hates being there. You can tell that something is wrong. She looks exhausted and he looks miserable, and the cart is overflowing with junk food and cans of Coke. Liquor bottles. She’ll tell the cashier, we’re having a party! Every kid I see now, I want to save and pass along my story. I’m like Holden Caulfield, if he did in fact recover from his breakdown and accepted the loss of innocence but still insisted on saying, it will get better. But what can I do? I cannot speed up this child in front of me in his dirty t-shirt and scowling mouth and get him to fifteen year old rebellion and twenty-four breakdown and thirty-one repair and forty forgiveness. I can’t do a thing. I think, Jesus, to just love. How?