My dad is alive, for the record. But living alone with him from age fourteen to age eighteen and watching him slide into a debilitating and enigmatic mental illness scared me so thoroughly that I jumped, just now, when I thought I heard his voice outside my window. I know that he lives in Minnesota and doesn’t like going to the grocery store, let alone visiting Connecticut. There is enough fear in me left born of that relationship, however, that it can take me awhile to realize that this can’t possibly be Dad.
My father never hit me. He didn’t belittle me or act like a Big Scary Abusive Father. It’s more that I absorbed his genuine fear. Of everything. The paranoia I would only later recognize as an early sign of his illness included my mother (his ex-wife by the time I was fifteen), his co-workers (they were also my teachers at the public high school), his friends (often the parents of my friends), my friends themselves and, of course, any boy I might ever get involved with or think about for more than two seconds. Even my sister. What were they all after? It varied. My mother was plotting to kidnap me, he promised, and I should be sure to lock all doors and windows when I was alone in the house. Why? Because she was Evil, or because she wanted the child support he would have to pay if they shared custody. That one still gets me. Because it never even occurred to him that I was fourteen-years-old, heavier than my mother, not easy to kidnap and, well, that if you kidnap your child, your ex doesn’t have to pay you child support! The police find you and take the kid away from you! But what really gets me is that I didn’t think of any of those clear objections, at the time. I faithfully locked the windows and doors.
A few times a year, I will see or hear a middle-aged man who reminds me so much of my dad that I will jump, like I jumped today, and sit stunned. If I am out and about, seeing his ghost will stop me from speaking, mid-sentence. He doesn’t appear out of the fog to talk to me, or anything like that. I’m not Hamlet. And my dad’s not dead.
I finally recognize what happened to me then as trauma in part because I have these responses to reminders of my dad. I’ve never told him about this blog because I know that he would see not just this post but anything I write about the family as a dirty trick meant to ruin his reputation. He once told me that unless I shared “his history of things,” we could never be close. As much as I don’t really think it’s possible for two people in the same family to have exactly the same experience, especially when they are separated in age by thirty plus years, the point here is really that that request, and the absurdity of that request, is what finally let me break away.
There is a compartment where I keep the things from my life that my dad can share. We are planning a road trip this summer to Minnesota, in part so that my dad can see me (hopefully) pregnant. We did the same after we married. Believe it or not, he’s actually quite pleasant on the rare occasions we spend a few hours together. And he adores my husband, who gets all his jokes (mostly really obscure movie references). He will receive photographs of my family as it grows. When I call, we will continue to keep the conversation to the books we’ve read and the movie’s we’ve seen. It’s a very small compartment, sparsely populated with superficial details. And it makes me happy. Because it allows me to have some contact with my dad, the dad I have always loved so much, without letting his fear into my life.
My sister and my mother are the only two people I am still close with who know my dad at all. It would be easy to “cut him out.” To tell the story of the awful things he has said and receive the sympathy without the blame. But there was this time, when I was very small, when I came into a little room he called his office in the basement of our house to interrupt him in his work. He was going to college for the first time in his thirties and helping my mom support the family selling hand-made crafts. It must have been pretty hard to find time to study. But when I came in, about four-years-old, he was happy to see me.
I remember pointing up at a big poster on the wall that featured a black-and-white photograph of a man with a big hat and a big beard and a big smile. The background was bright pink. “Who’s that?” I asked my dad. “That’s Uncle Walt! He wrote poems!” And so, for years, I wondered where my Uncle Walt was, exactly, and why I had never met him. I love that. I love that Walt Whitman was a part of my family, in my childhood head. When my dad is crazy in a good way, it’s really great. He reads a good story. I want to see him read Winnie the Pooh to my child. That might not happen, but at least I didn’t give up on him. Even if I had, I would probably still see his ghost. But after I shake off the fear, I hear the poetry again. I remember that I love him. I remember how he cherished the art project I gave him one Christmas, a painting with the word of a poem written on it. I think of the voice in the poem that reassures the child as my own, now, reaching back to promise that, one day, there will be more starlight than fear. In fact, Whitman never makes it clear whether that narrative voice belongs to the father or to another narrator–is the father dying? Is that why the child weeps? Or is it as simple as tears for the stars being hidden by clouds? The ambiguity gives depth to the child’s grief, and this gives the poem its weight. I love it. And I’m so glad my father shared it with me.
On the Beach at NightOn the beach at night, Stands a child with her father, Watching the east, the autumn sky. Up through the darkness, While ravening clouds, the burial clouds, in black masses spreading, Lower sullen and fast athwart and down the sky, Amid a transparent clear belt of ether yet left in the east, Ascends large and calm the lord-star Jupiter, And night at hand, only a very little above, Swim the delicate sisters the Pleiades. From the beach the child holding the hand of her father, Those burial-clouds that lower victorious soon to devour all, Watching, silently weeps. Weep not, child, Weep not, my darling, With these kisses let me remove your tears, The ravening clouds shall not long be victorious, They shall not long possess the sky, they devour the stars only in apparition, Jupiter shall emerge, be patient, watch again another night, the Pleiades shall emerge, They are immortal, all those stars both silvery and golden shall shine out again, The great stars and the little ones shall shine out again, they endure, The vast immortal suns and the long-enduring pensive moons shall again shine. Then dearest child mournest thou only for Jupiter? Considerest thou alone the burial of the stars? Something there is, (With my lips soothing thee, adding I whisper, I give thee the first suggestion, the problem and indirection,) Something there is more immortal even than the stars, (Many the burials, many the days and nights, passing away,) Something that shall endure longer even than lustrous Jupiter, Longer than sun or any revolving satellite, Or the radiant sisters the Pleiades.