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

Poems of Neglect

Between a migraine that refuses to fully depart (if the pain behind my right eye doesn’t develop into laser vision soon, I’m going to be seriously disappointed) and preoccupation with our upcoming move, I haven’t been able to focus long enough to write.  But I hate going more than a day without posting something, so here are a few original poems (which will be in my next book of poetry):

On polyamory:

I’M NOT JEALOUS, I’M ENVIOUS; THERE’S A DIFFERENCE

Honey, you know I love you
And I’m happy he makes you happy
It’s just that I’m not happy
That I’m not happy
With someone else right now
Too

I want to frubble
And comperse
But instead I curse
That your body gets to be poly
While only my mind does
Boo

On vaccines:

MOTHER OF THE YEAR

Although I am clearly
The worst
Most irresponsible mother
Ever

For injecting my child repeatedly
With autism

It is secondary to my crime
Of robbing him of the opportunity
To experience
Character-building

Via measles
Mumps
Rubella
Polio
Tetanus

Because nothing quite equals the strength of character
Gained through

Blood poisoning
Testicular pain
Brain swelling
Paralysis
And death

On religion:

AN ATHEIST BELIEVES

Meeting genuine
Caring
Altruistic
Open-minded true believers

Only serves to reinforce my belief
That the rest of them

Are doing it wrong

/rk

Tough Medicine

I get overly worked up when I defend vaccines.  Because basically, I think that you deciding not to vaccinate your children is going to result in the end of the human race.  There will be successive and inevitable waves of disease and every one of us will die horrible, nasty deaths and it will be all your fault because it was preventable.

Reality check:  Probably not.

But it’s clear how divisive the issue has become and how easily we slide into our respective extremes of position.

I find it ineffective to reason with anti-vaxxers, because reason isn’t what keeps people from getting vaccinated.  Fear and intangibles are.  I can try to tackle every objection to vaccines head-on with fact and statistic, but when it comes to fear, anecdote holds greater sway than science.  If someone tells you that their child was ‘never the same’ after receiving the shot, it’s hard to put your own child at risk with that at the forefront of your mind.

heart pillThere’s a lot at stake for parents.  Being responsible for the well-being of a tiny human is an overwhelming burden and it’s hard to knowingly and willingly put your child (potentially) in harm’s way, especially when that choice is to treat them for illnesses that they don’t have yet and may never be exposed to.  Vaccines are insurance.  You may never need them.  And in the same way that a lot of people make the decision not to buy insurance and opt to take the risk, some parents play a game of weighing the odds and forego the vaccines.

But there is a reason why vaccines, like car insurance, are mandatory.  For the very reason that the risk to self and others by not being vaccinated far outweighs the risk to the individual of negative effects.

And there are negative effects.  I am not going to sugar-coat it.  There is a potential risk for a negative reaction to each and every vaccine.

Just like there is a potential risk for a negative reaction or outcome to any treatment or medication, or in fact, any action in life.

I am not here to minimize how scary that is.

What I am asking for is perspective.

If we return to my own personal fear-based scenario above, the odds of there being a worldwide epidemic due to some parents not vaccinating their children are minimal.  What is reasonable to expect is that with increasing numbers of parents refusing to vaccinate, we will continue to see pockets of outbreaks of diseases that should have been eliminated by now.  Children (and adults) will suffer (and some will die) unnecessarily from diseases that could have been easily prevented.

For an anti-vaxxer, the greatest fear is harm to their child.  But the reality is that the risk of your child experiencing a serious negative reaction to vaccines is minimal.  You put them at greater risk when you put them in your car.  The risk of adverse reactions to penicillin is far greater, but most parents would not refuse antibiotics to treat a child’s infection.  The risk of adverse reactions to measles, mumps, whooping-cough and flu are higher (especially in children under five) still.

The problem with hot-button issues is that it quickly becomes habit to slip into rhetoric when debating either side of the issue.  Emotion is summarily dismissed as irrationality, with a focus on bolstering our arguments with facts and figures.  I’m certainly not going to suggest giving up on statistical evidence or the science supporting vaccines.  But I am willing to concede that every decision which is made in terms of  risk management ultimately involves a gut decision.  Until we acknowledge the emotion and fear surrounding the issue, there will be little positive movement in vaccination rates (and worse, they are likely to continue a steady decline).

More needs to be done to assuage the genuine and at times crippling fear that parents feel, and to do that we need to acknowledge negative outcomes.  Parents need a game plan.

There is a tendency in medical circles to downplay risk without recognizing that an essential component of risk management is the ‘Plan B’.  In evaluating any worst-case scenario, there is always a plan of treatment or course of action to continue to mitigate negative outcomes.

Parents need to know that negative outcome is not doublespeak for ‘irreversible damage’.  In the same way parents are advised that pain can be treated with anti-inflammatory medication and that allergic reactions can be treated with epinephrine, for each negative outcome there needs to be an explanation of a treatment plan.

The problem with fear is that when it is based in reality, even when it is proportionally distorted, it is impossible to entirely dismiss.  And that’s not a bad thing.  Fear is useful when it protects us, just not when it paralyzes us.  If we are to keep that fear in check, we need the tools to manage the anxiety it elicits.

The war against anti-vaxxers won’t be won with intimidation or statistics, and most importantly won’t be won if we treat it as a war at all.  Intimidation only fuels fear.

If strides are truly going to be made in vaccination compliance, it will be through the acknowledgement of fear and risk, and via a change in attitude in terms of how we manage fear-based trepidation as a cooperative effort between parents and physicians.

/rk

(originally posted at http://medium.com/tough-medicine/93e06ce374fc)

 

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

I’m Not As Think As You Sexed I Am

I once wrote my father a letter.  There must have been more of them (and there were certainly emails in later days), but interestingly I only remember this one, due in large part to his response.

In it, I shared an anecdote about a dream I’d had.  I only remembered the ending:  A man came up behind me as I was going towards my front door in the dark, grabbed me from behind with his arm pressed across my throat, and menacingly whispered “carburetor” in my ear.  It was petrifying.  I woke up in a cold sweat.  But it was also absurd.

Which is why I shared the story.  I thought he would laugh (like I did) at the absurdity of it.

Instead, he wrote back with a lengthy essay about how I was young and in bloom, and discovering my sexuality and was bound to have a lot of mixed feelings and fears about it.

I was pretty sure I hadn’t written anything about sex, so that left me mostly confused and uncomfortable.

mehThe reality of my sexual development was complicated.  Things most happened at the initiation of others.  I had played “you show me yours and I’ll show you mine” with one of my sitter’s sons (at his suggestion), and we watched each other pee.  In grade 5, a group of us at school would play kissing tag.  I ran super-fast, clearly missing that the point was to be caught, not to evade.  That progressed to other kissing games (without the running).  My kissing technique consisted of letting the boy press his lips against mine until I ran out of air.

From the outside I seemed fairly naïve and inexperienced.  And I was.  And I also was not.

Around the same time, a female friend had begun teaching me oral sex.  I had also found my mother’s Joy of Sex books, hidden away in a drawer of her desk.

But emotionally, I was barely comfortable speaking with boys.

At about 12, a friend decided I should begin dating her boyfriend’s best friend.  I barely knew him.  He got bored with me pretty quickly when he realized I wasn’t interested in much beyond a peck on the lips.

At our next visit, my father (thinking that pre-teens dating was just hilarious) smugly asked me how my boyfriend was.  When I told him we’d broken up and he wanted to know why, I told him the truth: “He got my best friend pregnant and she had an abortion.”  He was shocked.  And it satisfied me to shock (and silence) him.

I didn’t have another boyfriend until I was 18.  And in the heteronormative sense at least, I was still a virgin.  He was 21 and in university.  I was still on the fence about when (and if) I even wanted to have sex.  But once again, my father assumed he knew all about my sexuality and took it upon himself to call my mother, to tell her it was time to “get her on birth control.”

And so it was decided.  I would get on birth control.

And so I decided I should probably have sex.

I honestly don’t know to this day if I might have waited longer if they hadn’t unwittingly given me their tacit permission.  Somehow by doing so, there didn’t seem to be any reason any longer not to do it.

/rk

The Guilty Mother’s Lament

badmommyDearest children of good mothers:  One day, your otherwise loving and attentive mother will almost kill you.

I am not speaking of overt neglect or abuse, or even intentional harm.  But somewhere in the process of parenting you, your darling mother will make a poor decision or be distracted for a split second and you will be irreparably harmed.

Or at least that is how you will tell the tale, and in spite of her attempts to play down the course of events, your mother will secretly and guiltily agree with you.

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

For instance, I’m sure my son will share the story of when, at the age of 2, he stepped off the pier we were standing on at our cottage and plunged underwater while I stared at him FOR A FULL 3 SECONDS trying to figure out if I could retrieve him by reaching my arm out rather than getting fully soaked.  I did ultimately jump in after him and yank him to the surface, but I am sure for those three seconds his poor little mind questioned all he knew about the universe and it is a miracle that he survived and has not been warped for life by my hesitation.

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

My own sad story dates to my 19th year, when I was fully and pathetically in the throes of a chest cold.  Insistent that I was unable to go to school, I spent a week consisting of days on the couch in front of the television and nights where I would literally crawl on the floor to my bedroom at night.  I was dying.  Clearly I was dying.  How could she not tell I was dying?

My mother said I was not dying.  She felt I was being overly dramatic and told me to knock it off.  When I remained steadfast, she ultimately relented and took me to the doctor, if only to call my bluff.  The doctor took out his stethoscope, listened to my back, declared it to be viral pneumonia and prescribed a month of bed rest.  I tossed the diagnosis at my mother like an accusation.  It was met with silence.

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

My mother’s own near-brush with tragedy came around the age of 12, I think?  Maybe younger.  Feeling deathly ill and weak one morning, my grandmother pushed her out the door nonetheless, and forced her to walk to school.  Based the version of the story told me by my mother, I pictured a 20-mile walk across countryside in dire weather.  (My mother grew up in suburban Ottawa and the school was down the street.)  She was sent home when she developed a rash.  It turned out my mother had scarlet fever.  She did, however, live.

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

There are stories in the news every day of parents who abuse and neglect their children.  Horrific stories.  These are not them.

If this is your reality — if you have just one story that you bring out of storage with which to tease and shame your mother — a moment characterized by a split-second moment of weakness or error of judgement where you ultimately turned out ok, you probably have a pretty decent parent.

Because it’s the part we leave out of the stories that is important.

Grandma took my mother to the doctor, got her the antibiotics and took care of her.  My mother took me to the doctor, took care of me, and even collected my homework from the school (uh… thanks I guess).  And although I will replay that hesitation in my mind over and over and over, I did jump in the water to save my son.  I remind myself that it didn’t happen because I wasn’t paying attention or being neglectful.  I was there, standing beside him.  And he tripped and fell in.  And I did exactly what I was supposed to do.  I got him out.

We do a lot of things with our children as mothers which we convince ourselves will scar them for life.  And kids can be scarred, emotionally and physically.  But these aren’t those stories.  These are the stories of halfway decent, doing-their-best, pretty good mothers.

rk/