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.