I’ve been home from the family cabin on Lake Superior for five days. My mind had been like the lake when it’s filled with silt–cloudy, murky, particles swirling around, obscuring from view the rocks on the bottom. I’ve settled. The silt is gone. The rocks are all there. Waiting for me to look at them. Part of me prefers the lack of clarity.
During the years my dad was deteriorating from Alzheimer’s and since his death, I’d begun to romanticize him. As we often do with the sick and the dying and the dead. But since my trip to the cabin, the man I’d constructed over the past few years has dissolved. I’m back to seeing him as he was before. As he was always. Except when I made him someone else.
When I was up at the cabin, I spent a little time with my mother’s youngest brother (along with my aunt and cousin), who also has a cabin in the area, and my mother’s other brother and his wife, who came in from California for the Labor Day weekend. I also spent some time with the ladies who own the cabin next to us. And the handyman who came by to help me with the water. Everyone wanted to share stories about my father. It seems he’d regaled the people around him with tales 0f his life’s adventures: jumping ship in Brazil when he was with the Merchant Marine, his father’s bootlegging at the cabin during prohibition, his invention of a picture tube that he sold for far too little. He told these stories to many people. But never to me. My California aunt told me she was afraid of my dad. Her husband (my mother’s brother) seemed to feel like the chosen one because my dad liked him.
I remember feeling chosen when my dad would take me sailing. Looking back, he didn’t take me along to spend a day on the Gulf with his daughter. He took me because he needed crew. My parents dragged me to the boat every weekend during my high school years, when my friends were spending time hanging out together. I rarely took a friend out on the boat because my dad was ill-behaved, prone to fits of rage. It didn’t matter who was around; if my dad felt like throwing a temper tantrum, he threw it. I didn’t have friends over when my parents were around. And my parents didn’t socialize much. For years I felt uncomfortable around adults.
We moved a lot when I was growing up. From the time I was born to the time I was fifteen, we lived in six different states and seven different houses: Chicago, Denver, Saginaw (MI), Charlotte, Houston, Northport Long Island, and back to Houston. We stayed in Charlotte less than a year. I was the youngest, and so before I was born, my brothers and sister had endured many moves already. Mississippi and Louisiana. Other states I’ve forgotten. People always ask me if my father was in the military. Which is the only rational explanation for moving four children around the country, picking up and changing schools over and over. At the time, I didn’t realize it was so aberrant. My explanation: my dad is smart, ambitious. He gets lots of promotions and job opportunities and he takes them. And with each move we did seem to be moving up in the world. Granted, he wasn’t around much. He had so many things to attend to with work. He was doing it for the family. And when he was home, unless he was yelling at us, we were invisible. Of course, we tried to be invisible so he wouldn’t yell at us. Or worse.
My friends and colleagues always find it odd that I am estranged from my family. They wonder how a daughter can be content to see her family, including siblings, only at Thanksgiving and Christmas–three days a year, tops. (Except those Labor Day weekends I spent with my mom and dad at the cabin.) My brothers and sister and I had learned to strike out on our own to survive. We all stayed away from the house as much as we could, doing what we needed to do on our own to avoid the abuse. And then when my dad got the boat, there was no escaping for me. At least not until we got underway, and then I got as far away from him as I could, spending the day on the bow of the boat, drowning out the sound of his voice with the sound of the bow cutting through the waves.
When I was little, he liked to play this game. We’d be on the floor crawling around in front of his chair trying to get his attention. He’d trap us with his legs and it was up to us to escape. He enjoyed our struggling. And at first it was fun. But often he took it too far. I’d start to feel trapped, get scared, begin to whimper and whine. Still he wouldn’t let me go. Eventually I’d cry, and when this happened, he’d get angry and fly into a rage, telling me I was being a pathetic baby. My father took no interest in me. He didn’t know my friends. Didn’t know my boyfriends or who I went on dates with. Sometimes he helped me with my homework, which was always awful. It was a lesson in how smart my father was and rarely had anything to do with the homework assignment. I was not allowed to interrupt with questions. “Shut up and listen,” was his constant refrain. Until I went to law school, I had no idea I was smart.
Shortly after I graduated from law school, my oldest brother fell at work and hit his head. He probably was intoxicated, but that’s irrelevant to the story. My brother began having convulsions, and so was taken to the local hospital. He needed emergency brain surgery, and was life-flighted to Hermann Hospital due to their state-of-the-art trauma center. I recall standing outside the hospital with my parents as the helicopter carrying my brother flew away. My mom was crying and my dad stood there, emotionless.
“Put your arm around your wife! Comfort her!” I said.
He looked at me, not moving. “I can’t,” he said.
At the time, I thought he meant he couldn’t because if he did, he would fall apart. Now I wonder whether he couldn’t because he just couldn’t. Because he didn’t know how to comfort my mother. My brother recovered from his head injury after spending several months in TIRR. (The same rehabilitation hospital where Gabby Giffords recovered after being shot in Tucson.) He stayed sober. Met a woman. Got engaged. His fiancée, who wasn’t sober, would fall at my niece’s wedding and hit her head, go into a coma, and die months later. And then my brother would fall off the wagon, and ultimately die of cirrhosis.
I believe there is something to the trite adage, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I am the god damn Amazon Warrior Princess. With Three Black Cats. Stealthy panthers.
My father was an alcoholic. I’ve written about that before. He was the binging kind. The functional kind. Unlike his sons: non-functional. And dead from the drinking. I thought I’d done the hard work of recovering from growing up with an alcoholic father and an enabling codependent mother. When I told my therapist years ago, out loud, that my dad was an alcoholic, I felt I’d finally set myself free. I spoke of the family secret. I’d go on to tell her about how he flew into rages, physically abusing my brothers, and later, me. How my sister moved out and got married at 19 to escape him. (Turns out her husband’s a pedophile–frying pan, fire.) How, along with the rest of us, he verbally abused my mother. (All abuse is physical.) And about all the ways my upbringing manifested itself. As a part of my recovery, I moved away from my family and did minimum contact (only I didn’t know there was a name for it, at the time). And I healed. I still couldn’t get the relationship thing right. But cats are spectacular, so that’s OK.
And then everyone started dying and I was thrown back into the family soup. I’ve been swimming around in this shit for two and a half years, beginning when my oldest brother died in April 2012. It’s been a swirl of death and memorial services and ashes. Estate lawyers and assisted living arrangements and realtors. Mom’s finances. Dad’s business. Navigating my relationship with my sister and her husband. Sometimes it’s too much. Sometimes, I look forward to the day my mother is dead and I am free. Sometimes.
I’ve been home from the family cabin for five days. Twice in those five days I’ve gotten on my knees in front of the toilet and vomited. I thought I was done with that.
Here’s the thing. I’m only now realizing that my father’s drinking was the least of it. My father was a narcissistic abusive asshole. Yeah, I’m only now figuring that out. I saw it in the men in my life, but never in my father. I had a mighty fine set of blinders. I could have been a racehorse. So where are we now? My father is dead. My brothers are dead. From where I’m sitting today, my father and mother may as well have shot them in the heads. It would have been quicker. Less painful. More humane. My mother, at 78, has decided I am responsible for her finances, and whatever else strikes her fancy, until the day she dies. She goes from sweet and reasonable, to demanding and manipulative. I can’t decide whether she’s simply a codependent needy elderly woman, or whether she has coopted my father’s narcissism now that he’s dead. At this point, I’m leaning toward both.
At this point, my fantasies of spending my summers in the family cabin upon retirement aren’t quite so sparkly. It’s a beautiful place. And my father was always at his best there. But the things I see when the water is calm and the silt settles–well, the rocks aren’t quite as pretty as I’d remembered.
Warrior Princess. (Let the big cats run interference.) Find yourself a place – sailing and the cabin may be ruined for you, but find a place and go there when you can.
And find Mom an accountant/ “Visiting Angels” type home care. Friends have used them and said it’s the only way they managed.
It is good to say it out loud and walk away. Out of self preservation and as a reward for making it.
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As I write, the big cats are all snoozing and looking less than imposing. But after their naps, look out! My mom’s in assisted living and is being well looked after, although you’d think we abandoned her under a bridge. You’re right–finding my own special place is the way to go. For now, I’ll go there in meditation practice. Thanks for your support and advice. You are a true Philosopher Mouse, always.
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hear you…six months after my dad died I learned that he said one thing to me and didn’t follow through and he said another thing to ‘others’ (the 3rd family)who held the purse strings and well… his first children got screwed! Hurt doesn’t even come close to the pain of being pushed aside…again. Those people gave me a couple of boxes of junk…if I wanted them!
I don’t have and never had the circumstances that you have, to complicate my life. I walked away from many of them and those people decades ago and refuse to have them now. I can’t image what you must be feeling.
Find another place to relax that you call YOURS and only YOURS without old memories. Peace.
Walk and don’t look back! That is such a beautiful idea. I did pretty well for many years, and am working hard to get my equanimity back. Two steps up, one step back. Progress!
I agree with gertmcqueen..it’s time to make your own path, you have given the family enough of your mind space.. good, bad, indifferent the memories will always be there, just put them on the side so new, wonderful memories can take center stage 🙂
Right on, Lynne. I was doing great cutting my own path with my scythe (which I sharpened myself), and made it over 150 miles. And then I got sucked back in by my nutty family. Boundaries. I get to set them over and over. I’m getting good at this. And the better I get, the more room I’ve got for those new memories. Yes, there’s always a silver lining.
I agree. Time for you to move on, Sweetheart and live life for YOU! If you keep looking at those rocks those rocks are going to keep pulling you under. I have SO much dysfunction in my family, I opted to walk. No contact with anyone for years and lately it has been one of my sis’s (phone), my Mom (phone) who is one of my followers and has massive attitude changes towards me due to Petals (hurray for me!), and my Dad who is beginning to leave this plane (phone). I determined to have a life of my own and to fight with everything I had, to put the demons to rest. I worked through my sh8t years and years and finally after the anger and the hatred and the screaming and the tears, finally allowed healing to come in so that Peace takes root in my Heart. And it has for real. My Mom was one of my abusers, as was my Dad. Siblings learned to hate one another (I have 7) and only the one I am in contact with, and even she I see the dysfunction, but, only Peace stays in me. I help her talk things through and she thanks me. I feel SO good that I am helping her attain more healing after the nightmare we both lived through. Yes, my Sister of Brave Heart it is TIME to move on, to live LIFE for you. Walk away and don’t look back. What you are doing is just reliving the past in your present day and you are really hurting you. You deserve so much more. I encourage you and I LOVE you enough to (((HUG))) you and say LIVE for YOU. OK? With all my Love, Amy
Amy, you are so right: looking at those rocks is a big bummer. It’s odd we can get pulled back under by memories. The cabin is a beautiful place. I thought I would feel peaceful there. I think I will again. It was just so soon. And in the midst of dealing with my mom, everything came flooding back. Since I’ve returned home, I’ve taken a bit of a breather from her, and amazingly, she’s given me some room. Although not without a jab here and there designed to evoke guilt feelings. But I’m doing OK and not letting them take over. No guilt for me! It’s so wonderful how you’ve found healing with the help of your beautiful blog. Your images, I see so much peace in them. That is my goal in this life: finding peace. You set a fine example and give me hope. I’m getting closer. Just some growing pains on the way, from time to time. Peace and much love to you, Amy. And many, many thanks. Ella
Ella, healing comes with baby steps. Just remember that. And it is circular as well. By that I mean, it seems you at times come back to the same place that you thought was healed, but upon deeper inspection, you understand you have just gone one layer deeper in that healing process. When it is peeled, you move on. I hope you read feature post that is presently at Petals. And I hope it truly touches your Heart bringing you relief and Peace. ((HUGS))) Amy
I have one of those narcissistic abusive assholes in my life — still. The actions of my brother justify me cutting him out of my life; but I chose to forgive and move on. I’ve accepted he’s got issues, like he doesn’t realize he’s a narcissistic asshole who abused me. Lots of therapy allowed me to let go of the negative feelings and he no longer has power to influence me.
I don’t pretend to have the same issues as you but acceptance allows space for something new. Such as what others have said. Be true to yourself because if you don’t offer yourself a healthy love who will? Don’t even expect it from your mom. But you and your sister can try to build a healthier relationship.
I’ve said enough. And I hope it was taken in the right way. 🙂
Funny how the narcissistic assholes don’t realize what they are and how they hurt people. You are right: acceptance leaves room for good stuff. You are also right I will not get it from my mom. She’s not going to have any epiphanies at this late date. The best I can do is keep enforcing those boundaries. Over and over and over again. Sometimes I lose track of where and who I am. And then I regroup, and get back to my truth. I did some regrouping this week. Meditation helps. As does drinking hot tea instead of a glass of wine. Thank you, Fern. Your words are always welcome. And taken in the best way.
Thank you for sharing this story, and, yes, cats are awesome.
Thanks for reading, Mitzvot. Your blog is helping the blinders come off.
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My blinders are coming off, too.
Hang in there, Mistress of the Black Cats.
Hi there, been silently reading your posts for some time. You are dealing with some heavy stuff, much of which my pub can relate. I actually think it’s cathartic for you to review those “rocks,” those weights holding you down. Evaluating each gives it less weight and control and allows you to see the root of each horrible situation from the perspective of an adult years removed from the actual events. With a renewed outlook, you can set them free. These things take time but you can’t move past them without a final examination.
Have you looked at Desmond Tuto’s forgiveness challenge? http://forgivenesschallenge.com/
My Pub did the challenge in May/June and believe it or not, it really helped. It is a commitment, but you work at your own pace. We especially liked the meditations by his daughter Mphu and sometimes still listen to them on Sound cloud
Also, you are right, cats do help 🙂
Hang in there, you’re going to be in a great place emotionally, physically and spiritually once those rocks are cleared out of the way, xo LMA
Thank you, LMA. Your words are wise, to be sure. I’ve gotten some distance since I left the cabin, and understand what you mean about viewing it from the perspective of an adult. Being there sent me back to the childhood view. Several weeks removed has be back to feeling like me, all grown up.The forgiveness challenge is intriguing. It may be just what I need. What do I have to lose, other than the rocks that are weighing me down?
“I want to know what sustains you when all else falls away” Oriah Mountain Dreamer.
This is a question I find myself asking more and more. And As I read your blog post, I find it swirling around in my head. I think if we are lucky, we get to answer this question… in time.
I don’t know if things are going to be alright.
What I know is that, over time, things get better. Time heals. No, not necessarily alright…. better yes…
“Hold on loosely, but don’t let go…”
Thank you, Tahira. I love that poem. I need to spend more time in that place where all else falls away. Maybe then, I’ll find what’s left. What sustains me. Better is enough.
I missed an important part in the Oriah quote…
“I want to know what sustains you FROM THE INSIDE when all else falls away”
Yes, that’s it. From the inside. Renewed meditation practice is in order.