My Father Died

My brother and sister scattered my father’s ashes over the water in Port Dalhousie, Ontario. I was not invited. I would not even have known if I hadn’t happened across a single random Facebook post that made reference to the occasion.

It was hardly a surprise, and I acknowledge that their choice to exclude me was the direct result of a situation of my own making.

If I had the opportunity to go back and change how I handled my father’s passing, I don’t know that I would. Even though I was confronted repeatedly with threats of “you’ll regret this” by other family members, I cannot see how I could have done anything differently and still maintained my sanity. (Such that it is.) The word compromise was thrown around a lot. But it’s funny how often, when people are asking you to compromise, what they mean is that they want you to change while the other person remains immoveable.

971298_10152271549526830_1794482042_nI don’t remember who told me he had cancer, that last time. I honestly don’t recall if it was my father himself, or maybe the news came via my sister or my mother. For some reason that moment was deemed inconsequential by my mental Rolodex and not filed away. I do remember the first time he lied and told us he had cancer (at my 16th birthday) very clearly. I remember crying. I remember mourning. I remember finding out that the whole thing was a fabrication, and my slow-growing resentment. But I don’t remember anything about finding out that he had cancer for real. Somehow the details were inconsequential.

To say that I felt nothing upon learning of his terminal illness would not be accurate. I just didn’t feel the right things. I didn’t feel what others needed me to feel. 

I did not rush to his side.

In the years leading up to this point, I had already become estranged from my father. I had tried, for a long while, to mend fences. I had tried to understand the rift between us. I had tried to have real conversations with him, where hopefully we could try to find some kindness between us or something real.

A few years before he died, he invited my son and I on a trip to Nassau and I accepted, uneasy to allow him to pay our way (because these sorts of gifts always had strings), but anxious to make one last try at connecting. I also hoped it would give him a chance to get to know and understand his autistic grandson a bit better.

It was a disaster. My father drank and chain-smoked and dominated all conversation. Any attempts at communication or interjection on my part were mocked or denigrated. He wanted an audience for his superficial boasting and someone to laugh at his jokes. He wasn’t capable of listening, nor was he interested in a heart-to-heart. The majority of his interaction with my son was in anger or frustration; which made the both of them sullen. I spent most of the time with a migraine from the cigarette smoke, and took to drinking and sleeping and escaping to the beach with my son when I could.

When we returned, my father told everyone we had a lovely time.

When he made a similar offer a year later (with minimal interaction in the interim), I declined and I think it hurt him deeply. I told him he didn’t have to buy us trips and I’d rather he just talk to me like a normal human being. He hung up. A month later he had throat cancer.

Chemotherapy for the throat cancer gave him leukemia. There wasn’t any coming back from that.

My stepmother, sister and brother spent a lot of time with him in the hospital, which was easier for them in terms of proximity, but physical distance wasn’t the only thing that kept me away.

My father had his difficult moments with most people, but he had genuine love for the three of them. If he had love for me (and I like to think he did), he was never able to express it in any way that did not hurt me. Somehow by my brother moving to Toronto (i.e. close to him) and me staying in Ottawa (i.e. close to my mother), we had unwittingly identified our allegiances. He treated me in a similar fashion as he did her — but of course since their divorce she was rarely in his presence, and I took the brunt of it.

My sister pleaded with me to go see him. This was a variation on the same pleas she had expressed practically since she could speak. It was almost the entirety of our long-distance relationship. “Please talk to dad.” “Please come see dad.” “Why can’t you do this for me?” “I don’t care if it hurts you — WHY CAN’T YOU DO IT FOR ME?”

It could be argued that a 17-year age gap and growing up in separate cities is why my sister and I have never properly bonded. But the truth is, I don’t know her. She doesn’t know me. Any attempt I have made to get to know her has been thwarted by her obsession with putting our father between us. And so I tried. For a long time I tried to get along with him. For her. For me. Even for him. But in the end I couldn’t handle the repeated cruelty. Not for anyone.

He broke my heart.

Not just once, but on a regular basis.

And I knew if I let him keep doing it, there would be nothing left of me. I couldn’t live my life, or be a parent, and operate in a constant defensive position.

My brother called and asked me when I was coming. I cried. Not for my father, but for my brother, who barely talks to me, and who I wanted so desperately to have a relationship with. I wanted to do this for him, too. But I couldn’t.

My mother didn’t ask me to go. But she said she would go with me, if I went.

I went to see him.

It was a very brief visit. I barely spoke to him. I didn’t want to say the wrong thing, because I didn’t want him to have any ammunition against me.

He yelled at my son for making too much noise.

We said goodbye tersely and left. It was the last time I ever saw him.

My brother and sister continued to beg me to come back and see him again, but I knew that was the end for me. I was done.

I wasn’t afraid of seeing him die. I wanted to be able to be what he needed, if he needed me to sit there and tell him I loved him.

But I was afraid he would see it was a lie. And I didn’t want to hurt him.

I hadn’t stopped loving him all at once. It started when he lied about dying the first time and I mourned him and hardened myself to his impending (or so I thought) death. And then, with each repeated hurt, I withdrew a little more, until there was nothing left. I felt nothing for the real him.

I mourned, but it was for the father and relationship I wished I’d had.

And I knew that I couldn’t bear a single cut more. If the last words he ever spoke to me were cruel, I couldn’t bear it. It would tip me over the edge. I couldn’t be haunted by the memory of that moment for the rest of my life.

And so he died. And I felt relief.

Relief that this burden of a man, who had haunted every minute of my consciousness and inspired all my feelings of inadequacy and self-loathing, was no longer my responsibility. I no longer had to waste all my energy doing mental gymnastics, trying to figure out what I did wrong and why I could never please him or earn his respect.

I was free.

Because a dead father is easier to explain to people than an estranged father.

Because him being dead means I don’t have to keep trying and failing to fix our relationship.

I finally discovered I could start living for myself, and not just in reaction to him or his actions. I was grateful to find that I could write, without feeling like it would threaten his fragile journalist’s ego or earn his mockery.

I haven’t ever stopped thinking about him. But I’ve started to heal. It’s something I tried to do for such a long time while he was alive, but his continued existence seemed to necessarily dictate his participation in that process. And because he was not forthcoming, I made no progress.

But now that he’s gone, there is only me left to heal our relationship.

I heal.

In bits and pieces, I heal. I still don’t understand why he did all the things that he did, but I’m not angry any more. Without him here to twist the knife, it is easier to feel compassion for him and accept that he can’t change any of it now. He can’t fix it, but he also can’t hurt me anymore. There is comfort in that.

I forgive him.

/rk

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Poems of Further Neglect

Well, I still can’t write.  Because reasons.  Lots of stuff stuck in my head.  But apathy.

Also, the upcoming move is kicking my ass.  Even though I’m not actually doing anything.  I kind of suspect that’s why I’m stuck in anhedonia-land.  It’s like some evil plot that mental illness likes to play: Need to get something done?  Tough!  Time to put on the brakes and completely paralyze and defeat you!  Whee!!!

Or rather: meh.

I feel like if I don’t post anything at all, I’ll completely lose momentum and also NO ONE WILL EVER READ ANYTHING I WRITE AGAIN.  Because melodrama.

So you get more poetry.  My poetry (sorry if you were hoping for something more clever).  These are from my book I Am Not These Things.  Which you can totally buy and I will be pennies richer.

~~

THE ACTRESS

There are times outside of the proscenium
When you, your tongue loosened by wine, and fire reflected in your eyes,
Become especially beautiful

Your laughter mirthful,
Alternating between throaty guffaws and the giddy giggles of guilty indulgence

You close space
And stop time

Spilling compliments and golden droplets of affection
To coat my palms And tuck into my heart’s back pocket

The waves of your hair, platinum mixed with straw
More often punished from view
Now resist constraint, twisted carelessly in a loose braid
Ready to swing away, unpartnered
Or perhaps only waiting for my fingers to cut in
And begin the dance

~~

BEAUTY

When you holler
Hey baby Hey baby
Looking good baby
Look over here, beautiful
Uh huh
Hey gorgeous

I get angry because
How do you know I’m beautiful
Just by looking at me

When you don’t even know me

~~

MOTHERS

I distinctly remember being much more mature for my age
When I was your age
And more respectful of my mother

Don’t believe your grandmother, though
Because she wasn’t nearly as understanding as I am
When she was my age
Back then

/rk

Punching Bag

I grew up as an object of ridicule and scorn to the male members of my family.  I am still not at a place of perfect understanding for the reasons behind this, and it has taken a lifetime to come to the realization that there is a good possibility that I am not, in spite of what they have led me to believe, worthless.

My brother and I are estranged.  If you asked him why (if he even admitted there was a problem), he would probably suggest it had something to do with the events surrounding the death of my father.  Which might even make a certain amount of sense if our estrangement represented a change in the status quo, and it doesn’t.  My brother seemed to have been born hating me.

reenabootsThat’s not to say there weren’t moments in our childhood where we played together or tolerated each other.  It’s hard to keep that kind of resentment going and we only had each other to play with a great deal of the time.  But there was an underlying tension for me, always.  He was prone to regular acts of cruelty for no other apparent reason than that I wanted to do something or go somewhere.  When quite young, he would bar my way to going upstairs and bite me if I tried to get past him.  He would go into my room when I was out and take things.  I remember being particularly devastated to discover he had stolen my penny collection (I had collected pennies from every year going back to the 1800s).  In our teens, he held a knife to me because I decided to eat the last mini pizzas.  In the struggle to defend myself, he nearly sliced through my finger.  The amount of blood scared the hell out of him, I think.

I was angry at him too.  But my overwhelming emotion was hurt.  I did not retaliate.  I didn’t do things to antagonize him.  If anything, I tried to avoid him because I thought maybe he would just calm down and stop resenting me so much in my absence.  I decided maybe he resented the attention I received for my accomplishments:  I was a mostly A student; whereas he struggled in school.  So I stopped over-achieving.  And it seemed to work:  He started to thrive at school.  He was now the good child.  I was the black sheep.

But even though he got more attention, he still seemed to hate me.

The stress of his constant personal attacks and his relentless anger pushed me to the breaking point not long after the knife episode.  I was severely depressed and anxious.  In a fit of nervous exhaustion I ended up at the hospital ER.  I saw a child psychologist who listened to my recounting of my mood issues and the conflicts with my brother.  They said they couldn’t do anything for me and sent me home.

As we got older and moved out on our own, he ended up moving to Toronto and spending more time with my father.  And they seemed to feed off each other in their disdain of me.  I’d hear about conversations behind my back.  I’d come across snarky references about me on Facebook.  Together or alone, neither of them could be in a room with me without ridiculing me or criticizing me and making sarcastic remarks.

I stopped talking in my father’s presence much, because he would always find some way to twist anything I’d say.  I remember visiting him once with my second husband and my son and getting caught in this dialogue:

Him:  “So are you still working for pennies at home?
Me:  “Actually I had an interview at the hospital last week.  It would be full-time, probably at the hospital, but they might let me work from home.”
“They’ll never let you do that.”
“Well actually, they do have a number of work-at-home positions.”
“It probably won’t pay much.”
“Actually it pays XX dollars.”
“Even if you do get it, you’ll probably just get pregnant and have to quit.”
“Uh… If I did get pregnant, that would be by choice, not by accident, and it would be my choice.”
“Well don’t expect your mother or I to support you.”
“Um, I didn’t ask you to.  You did just meet my husband, right?”
“It’s not like that will last.”

I got up and left the room.  We cut our visit short by a day and went back to Ottawa.  I found out later that he called my mum and told her we left early because he wouldn’t give me any money.  Since we had paid our own way the entire visit and in fact turned down his offer of cash when we were headed out to the museum one day, I have no idea what version of reality he was operating under.

It took a long time as an adult to realize that I didn’t need to accept the abuse.  It wasn’t until I had my nervous breakdown that I started speaking up for myself about it and being very clear to both of them, that it was not okay.  That they would have to treat me with respect or not speak to me at all.

My dad chose to ignore my requests, so I had to mostly stop interacting with him, because it was too painful and too destructive to my psyche.

My brother chose to stop speaking to me.  I’ve tried on many occasions to reach out to him to figure out where the resentment comes from and even to apologize for whatever it is I’ve done, to no avail.

There is loss from having to cut people out of your life.  Even toxic ones.  Because you always hold on to that part of them in your brain that is the person you wish they could have been.  But part of my coming to grips with reality and my struggle for mental health has been accepting that I cannot control what other people bring to our relationship.  I can be open and understanding, and do my best to mend fences, but ultimately I have to take a stand against forces that serve only to do me harm.

/rk

10 Reasons You Won’t Date Me

(aka Why I Won’t Date You Either)

As I read profiles on OkCupid, there are certain words and phrases that are an automatic turn-off for me.  I mean, beyond the expletives and crass references to what you want to do to various parts of my anatomy.  Some of them seem fairly innocuous, but for me they’re pretty triggering.

1.  “No drama”

      • I’m going to go ahead and assume what you mean is you don’t want me to argue with you.  Ever.  Don’t challenge you.  Don’t get emotional.  Basically have no feelings of any kind, other than routinely telling you how awesome and right you are.  I’m an actress, so right off the bat I feel compelled to be a bit insulted when you imply there’s something negative about drama.  But for the most part I’m pissed off because it sounds like what you want is a doormat.

2.  “Never stick your dick in crazy”

  • Wow.  You’re so enlightened.  Like, what a great life lesson, amirite?  Bitches be crazy.  But I bet you’re the kind of guy who writes off a girl as crazy any time she calls you on your shit or basically does anything you don’t like.  Gaslighting is not okay.  Labelling a woman crazy everytime she gets emotional or simply reacts to your manipulation is not ok.

3.  “No baggage”

  • If by baggage you mean history – then who the hell doesn’t have one?  Your point is moot.

nice guy4.  “Must be discreet”

  • Ahhhh… so you’re married.*  Or you just don’t want to introduce me to your friends?  Or want anyone to know we’re dating?  Or basically all of the above?  Remind me again why I would want to get involved with a liar?

5.  “Not too clingy”

  • Do you mean a woman who expects you to call her and want to spend time with her?  Expects you to not be afraid to show affection for her and acknowledge her in front of your friends?  That’s not being clingy.  That’s being your girlfriend.

6.  “No hoes”

  • I don’t know if I’m more bothered by the slut-shaming or the fact that you just called a women a name that’s supposed to be applied to an object.  I assume you’ve also maintained your ‘purity’.

7.  “No fat chicks”

  • You’re an ass.

8.  “No Feminazis”

  • That’s not a thing.  And the fact that you think it’s a thing says a lot about you.  You’re effectively telling me that you’re against equal rights for women and that you think any woman who speaks out in favour of that goal is a shrill harpy.  So again, you basically want a doormat.

9.  “Clean”

  • Wait, what?  Are you inspecting me for lice?  I mean, I’m all in favour of both parties disclosing their sexual history and taking steps to prevent the spread of disease, but you’re not ordering a sex toy.  Jeesh.

10.  “Friends first”

  • Clever.  Who could complain about this one?  Everyone should be friends first, right?  Except why do I get the feeling that you just want to be the one to say it first so you can be the one who decides if we become more than that.  It’s all about control, right?  If it doesn’t work out, you can say we were just friends.  You’ve already laid down the ground rules, so you get to decide when and if you want to commit.  Hell, even if we have sex and I think that means we’re dating, you can just say we were friends with benefits.

BONUS:   “Friends with benefits”

  • You want sex without strings.  You don’t want a friend.  

/rk

* I believe in ethical non-monogamy, but if you are married and it doesn’t say so on your profile, or you don’t disclose it, or your partner doesn’t know you’re dating – that’s not ethical.  ‘Nuff said.

Beware The Undertoad

There are a lot of things we hear as little kids and never question.  Or maybe I was just one of those kids who only questioned things I didn’t understand, and if a thing made sense to me – even a weird, convoluted, twisted kind of sense – I just kept my mouth shut.

Some of those things were fairly benign.  For instance, I believed for years that the train on Mr. Rogers’ Neighbourhood carried its passengers through the wall to the ‘Land of Maple Leaf’.  Yes, I acknowledge that make-believe seems far more logical now, but at the time it would have seemed completely plausible if it had been the Land of Purple Potatoes or the Land of… well anything, really.  It was a kid’s show and my mind was open to possibility.  Upon reflection, the Land of Make Believe is pretty lazy story-writing, really.

Beware the Under-Toad

Beware the Under-Toad

Which brings us to the under-toad.  As a child I spent a lot of time at our family cottage; which provided a beach with relatively easy swimming, since the current didn’t pick up until much further out than I was generally wont to swim.  I was about 4 or 5 when one day we hopped  in the boat and motored out to the sandbar down-river.  It had a great stretch of yellow-white sand perfect for beach-combing.  We were allowed to wade in the water, but always with the caveat not to go too far out and to “be careful of the under-toad!”  My mother would say this sternly, so I could tell she was serious… but it also confused me that she didn’t seem a bit more panicked.  The notion of some creature waiting in the depths to pull me under initially kept me out of the water.  I sure as hell wasn’t going to take any chances.  I think she sensed my hesitation, and she gently admonished me and ushered me in.  “You can go in, just be careful not to go out too far.  No further than your waist.”  I was beginning to wonder if my mother had my best interests at heart.  This was starting to seem more than a little reckless.  How the hell was I supposed to know what was too far?!

I started to imagine that big toad out there, watching me inch forward, eagerly plotting my demise.  The damned river water didn’t make anything better, since the current made it hard to see what was going on down there and played tricks with my imagination.  Ultimately I made a speedy retreat for the shore and declared the water too cold.  I spent the rest of the day looking for beach treasure and checking uneasily over my shoulder to double-check if anything had snatched my little brother.

I don’t remember when I was set straight, but I felt a bit better about the whole thing after reading The World According to Garp, in which Walt suffers a similar confusion.  ‘Undertow’ is sort of meaningless word, and I guess it’s just easier for a young mind to imagine the concept of a malignant being dragging you to your doom than a confluence of water catching you randomly unaware.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

When I met and fell in love with my husband, I experienced a confusing mixture of exhilaration and terror.  He was so level-headed and emotionally stable.  He was kind and loved life.  He was just so… normal.

No… that’s inaccurate.  Better than normal, which sounds so boring and vanilla.  He was engaged with life.  He actively enjoyed the world around him and was happy.  A lot.

And I became immediately convinced I would ruin him.

Even after I realized my emotional antics didn’t seem to be driving him away — that my bouts of irrational anger, paranoia, crying for no reason and separation anxiety were met with patience and an effort to talk and understand me rather than a withdrawal of affection or outright rejection — there were moments of deep depression that sunk in where I wanted to set him free from me.

Not because he couldn’t take it.  But because I didn’t want him to have to take it.  I would see him looking at me with pain in his eyes, caring for me and worrying for me as I sunk deeper and it would just add to my despair.

I was the under-toad.

horrible personHere was this sweet, kind man… and I was going to drag him under.  I didn’t want to, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to help myself.  I knew without question that the dark misery I was powerless to escape would transform me to the under-toad and drag him to his doom.  Because there was no way his sunshine-y heart could withstand my black, poisonous soul.

I finally tried to explain this to him one day and he simply said:  “That won’t happen.  You can’t drag me down.”  I tried to strenuously argue with him, but he simply stressed that he felt concern for me when he watched me suffering.  Concern and sadness.  And frustration.

I took this as confirmation of all my fears.

Once he calmed me down again, he stressed that he would not deny that he felt these emotions.  But he was not overwhelmed by them.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

That was a tricky one for me to wrap my mind around.  The problem with mental illness is that it distorts reality.  It amplifies emotion.  There is a huge difference between sadness and depression.  Depression is a whole-body experience.  Your body aches.  You sleep too much or too little.  The world is too bright.  Food tastes wrong.  Everything in the world that you could trust is no longer to be relied upon.

I forget sometimes that other people don’t experience emotion the way I do.  When you have bipolar disorder (or other mental illness), you start to assume that everyone is a slave to their emotions and anxieties the way you are.  I first toyed with suicidal ideation at the age of about 4 or 5.  I remember being a bit shocked to realize those sorts of thoughts never crossed other children’s minds.

Realizing that I wasn’t giving my partner (now husband) the credit he deserved for being his own judge of what he could and couldn’t handle was a revelation of sorts.  I stopped being afraid of sharing my dark thoughts.  As horrible as things were in my head, when I spoke them aloud and we talked about them, he became a welcome sounding board for helping me sort reality from delusion.

The experience has also helped me realize how much I have been drawn (in the past) to relationships with other people who suffer from mental illness.  And how much that fed into my inability to pull myself above water.  I felt like they would understand me.  And they did.  But when you are clinically depressed, another depressed person may be either too self-absorbed or emotionally incapable of saving you from drowning.  When you say “life isn’t worth living,” they might just agree with you.  We had a tendency to bring out the worst in each other.

Pessimistically, it never even occurred to me that a sane person might actually rub off on me.

There is no cure.  I can’t be fixed.  But having a positive influence in my life to help chase the demons away is something close to good.

/rk