Stuck

I had a boyfriend who was 20 when was 17. His birthday was coming up and he wanted to celebrate it with his parents at his house and he wanted me to come. However, this involved a trip across the country in a plane. We flew from Chattanooga to Seattle, and then drove to some little town about two hours away. I was stuck at his house, in his town, with his parents. I had no way out. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it became really obvious very soon that I was in trouble.

Having never made any moves on me before then, he attempted to have sex with me that very first night. I resisted and eventually managed to survive the week still a virgin. I broke up with him immediately upon returning home and didn’t speak with him for many years afterwards. He was deeply confused as to what had gone wrong. Even after I explained it to him he didn’t really understand.

I suspected something was wrong from the very beginning of the stay with his parents, when I was greeted by his parents at their house and his father was wearing only an undershirt and tight shorts. I was clued in to more when I learned that my boyfriend’s “rebel” earring wasn’t rebellious at all – his dad had one, and his brother had one. I also figured out that something was wrong when his parents matter-of-factly put my luggage and his luggage in the same room.

The alarm bells kept going off – there was a lot of smoke, but I didn’t have an escape plan. Worse, I’d been taught to ignore these alarm bells by the very people who should have taught me better.

What were the alarm bells? My parents would have never greeted a guest wearing their underwear. They would never even be seen in front of anyone, even family, like that unless they were sick. They certainly wouldn’t have put a non-married couple in the same room together, and much less if one person was a teenager.

For his parents to treat me like that was a warning that I was not in a “normal” house – and I certainly wasn’t safe. He proceeded to try to “pick my locks” as the Pink Floyd song goes every night that week, and I was terrified.

How could I leave? I had no car. I had no spare money. He had the tickets – he’d bought them.

Perhaps I could have called home and gotten my parents to wire me money for a new plane ticket – to leave right away. Perhaps I could have gotten a taxi and just left.

I didn’t. I felt trapped, and I had no frame of reference for this kind of behavior. I had no way of knowing how to act.

But in a way I did. My brother abused me in many ways throughout my childhood, and my parents did nothing. He beat me and stole from me and when I told them they didn’t make it better. They didn’t punish him at all. He eventually became a full-blown narcissistic psychopath, and they didn’t nip this in the bud. He learned early on that he could get away with manipulating people any way he wanted. He learned early on that he could treat people like things and get away with it. Since my parents didn’t defend me, I learned to be passive. This was how I was supposed to be treated, apparently.

My trips to the dentist as a child also taught me passivity. He didn’t use anesthesia because he thought the needle would scare me. I learned that pain was to be endured, especially pain at the hands of an authority figure. My parents were paying for it, so this must be normal. Suck it up.

While I’m angry at myself for not standing up and defending myself, I also have to forgive myself. I didn’t know better. I wasn’t taught well. I learned to accept bad behavior quietly until I could find a way to remove myself safely. I’m angry at them for not teaching me how to take care of myself at all. I’m angry at them for their ineptness. But I also need to remember that they, like all parents, are amateurs.

I went to a therapist once who thought I should just hang out in the “angry” place and not forgive or excuse bad behavior, but it isn’t that simple. Emotions aren’t just one or another, but a range of them. I can be angry and forgive at the same time. I can understand and empathize, but also be sad at people’s bad choices.

While I think that boyfriend and my family “should” have known better, I’m putting my value system on them. I’m forgetting that they don’t have to do things my way. I’m forgetting that they have their own ways of doing things, and if I feel that they are wrong – for me – then I must get away from them. They don’t have to stop doing what they are doing – they just have to stop doing them to me. Their actions are their own, and the consequences of their actions are their own.

This all reminds me of how nobody told me how to use the brakes on a bike when they taught me to ride. I got very badly hurt, and it was totally avoidable.

Time travel dream

I had a dream that I travelled back in time to visit my Mom. We were together in the living room in our old house in Chattanooga. She was sitting on the couch by the windows, where later we would put the hospital bed. She died in the same place she had sat all those years.

When I traveled there in my dream, I told her that I was really 45, that essentially, I was possessing my own body. I asked her how old I was at the time, because everything always looked the same there. She told me that I was 12.

I told her that she died when I was young, but I didn’t tell her when. I told her how it affected me. I told her that she might want to stop smoking and start eating well.

We had a steady diet of junk when I was growing up – no fresh vegetables, a lot of fried food. If we ate vegetables at all they came out of a can or the freezer. A lot of food was brown. The walls of the house were stained yellow with all the tobacco smoke. It was a very unhealthy place to grow up. I had no control over my environment, and the people who should have looked out for me were killing me day by day.

For some reason I felt like I could warn her about the train wreck she was making of our lives by smoking and eating poorly. Her bad choices were my bad choices by default. I was her child and had no control over what I ate and the air I breathed when I was there. For some reason I thought I could change her ways by coming back as an adult to tell her what would happen if she didn’t change.

When I woke up, I pondered on that dream and I thought of this Bible passage. Jesus told this story about a rich man and a poor man. The Lazarus in this story isn’t the same one he raised from the dead – that was the brother of Martha and Mary.

Luke 16:19-31
19 “There was a rich man, who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate lay a poor man named Laz′arus, full of sores,21 who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table; moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried; 23 and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes, and saw Abraham far off and Laz′arus in his bosom.24 And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy upon me, and send Laz′arus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in anguish in this flame.’25 But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Laz′arus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ 27 And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house, 28 for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ 29 But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’ 30 And he said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if some one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31 He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead.’” (RSV)

So I realized that it didn’t matter. Even if I had been able to go back to tell her to change her ways, it wouldn’t have done any good. She knew that smoking was bad for her but she still did it. She knew that she should eat better but she didn’t do it. She had made her choices and she stuck to them, regardless of the warning signs and the evidence.

How many people are like this? They’d rather stick with what they know to be bad rather than make the change to what they know to be good.

Change is hard. It takes a lot of energy to break free of a bad habit. But it is worth it. And the more you push towards being healthy, the more energy you have to make other changes.

Father’s Day, 2014. Eulogy, epiphany

Here’s to all the fathers –
Those who are here, and those who aren’t.
Those who show up every day, and those who were never there.
Those who abandoned us, and those who have died.

They have made us who we are.

It doesn’t take a license to be a father. There is no training for it. Fatherhood can be done by amateurs, and often is. Even having had other children doesn’t prepare you for having more. Every time is a new time, with new challenges.

I had an uneasy relationship with my father. He was emotionally distant. He hadn’t been nurtured by his parents, and he didn’t know how to nurture his children. Is this an excuse? Is this an explanation? Or is it just the way it is?

There are plenty of guys who left when they found out they were going to be fathers. Some stayed, but only half-heartedly. Some initially wanted to be fathers, but found out they weren’t up to the task.

Let us forgive them all. Not excuse them. Forgive them.

The best thing I ever was able to do was to forgive my father. He never knew about that bit of grace that happened that day. Shortly before he unexpectedly died, I finally saw him as just a person, and not my Dad. He didn’t owe me anything. There were no expectations to be unmet. There were no promise to be broken. I saw him as broken and sad and hurting. I finally realized he had done the best he could, with what tools he had.

I’m grateful to have gotten to that point. It took a lot of work.

I’d realized years before that if I wanted to have a relationship with my father, I was going to have to find something we could both do together. He seemed unable to connect with me, so I had to make the effort. Eating out seemed to be the way. We would meet for Sunday brunch at Ruby Tuesday’s, or Bob Evan’s. Every Sunday I would go to church alone, and then come back home and we would go together out to eat.

It was his choice to not go to church, even though he was an ordained minister, even though the church I went to was the one he had gotten married in. It was kind of an awkward routine on Sundays. It would have been easier if we had gone to church together and then to brunch afterwards, but that wasn’t going to happen. I took what I could get.

He didn’t come up with the idea of us eating out together, I did. I saw it as a point of agreement, something we could both enjoy. His other interest was classical music, and that wasn’t really something we could meet on. I didn’t love it like he did, and he would always be the expert on it. We wouldn’t have been on equal ground.

When we ate out, it was our time together, just us. It wasn’t always easy. He was a sloppy eater, a bit greedy. I remember when we would eat at home he would finish his food first and then look at my plate and ask to finish it for me. I ate slowly, carefully. He ate ravenously, like a dog. He was willing to take food from his child. This pattern happened in other areas of my life too.

This is who he was. This is how he was raised. He wasn’t allowed to grow up true and strong. His parents were either overbearing (his dad) or flighty (his mom). There was no healthy role model. It was military precision and perfection, or playtime. He never had a childhood, not really. His dreams were squashed as being unreasonable and unrealistic.

One day, over a mid-day breakfast of pancakes and sausage, it clicked. I stopped seeing him as somebody who owed me a good childhood. I stopped seeing how he had failed me. I stopped expecting anything from him. I started seeing him as just a person.

He died twenty years ago. There was no more time to work on our relationship. There was no more time to rebuild it. I was grateful that I’d had that epiphany while he was still alive. I was grateful that I’d had all those Sunday brunches with him to build up to that point. I wanted more. I wanted to rediscover my Dad as a person, but there wasn’t time. He died unexpectedly, just six weeks after Mom died.

My brother never made the time to get to know Dad as a person. That is his fault. That is his loss. He’d threatened to kill Dad when he was 17, and the relationship had never gotten better. Dad’s will reflected that. My brother blamed Dad for the bad relationship, but it takes two to have a good one. And Dad didn’t threaten to kill his son.

My brother insisted on an etching as part of the estate. It was of “The Prodigal Son” by Rembrandt.

It was worth a lot of money. It was worth nothing. It was a piece of paper.

I had the “returning” in reality, because I’d worked on it. In the story, the son returns, and the father welcomes him. But my brother hadn’t worked on it, hadn’t returned. He had the image, but not what it represents. It is sad, but not tragic. Perhaps he thought he’d have more time. Perhaps he didn’t think about it at all.

When Dad died suddenly, there was no more time to work on the relationship. Tomorrow is never guaranteed. We didn’t know he was that ill. In a way, it wasn’t a surprise – he’d never taken care of himself. He smoked two packs a day. He never exercised. He ate whatever he wanted and it was never fresh.

Relationships transform after death. I’ve come to see that every time I think about him, he’s thinking about me. People who die don’t leave, so much as change state.

Death is freeing – a person is not limited to the body anymore. Your loved one is always with you.

There is a time of transition, surely. There is grief, and acceptance, and anger. There is a time of growth and deepening after that. It isn’t all pain.

Our society doesn’t teach us how to deal with death and grief. It doesn’t teach us how to transform it. It doesn’t teach us the other side of it.

Here it is –

After death, you can ask your Dad anything and he will answer. He is part of you now, just like you were always part of him. All of your ancestors are with you now – even the ones that you never met, even the ones that you don’t even know the name of. Your presence is the sum result of all their efforts. You are the end of the relay race. The baton has been handed to you. They passed on their genes, their knowledge, their fears and hopes – to you.

They are all with you, now.

Death isn’t an end. It is just a beginning.

My Dad.
Dad