My father lived the majority of his life in a constant state of terror.
I didn’t realize this as a little girl because he was very good at keeping it hidden. He hid his pain and put on a solid front of strength and intelligence and power.
But his buried fear never stayed buried for long: it needed to express itself and it became anger. And the anger wanted to express itself and it festered and stewed and then it woke up in the evenings when fueled by the six o’clock news and doused with whiskey and it burst forth as rage.
Not every night. But I was always ready.
And when that front door opened and he skulked into the house after work each evening and I heard his briefcase drop to the tiled entranceway floor, I kept my mouth shut and stayed small until I was able to gauge his mood.
Some nights it was just simple irritation to accompany his always-present anxiety. He would yell at the news anchor; or should I say that he yelled with the anchor, because he wouldn’t even entertain the thought that the white men on ABC or NBC or CBS might be speaking anything other than the truth—nothing but the truth—and what they were saying terrified him and he would consume those fearful words with every bite of meat and potatoes, and he would regurgitate the same words of hatred from the news like gospel, horrific stuff like:
‘Goddamned welfare mothers are sucking up my hard earned tax dollars!’ or
‘Goddamn niggers, always causing problems! Look at them, destroying all that property!’
He seemed to have so much hatred for people he’d never even met. And such a reverence for material things.
We religiously watched the evening news in silence on our black and white TV. The females were silent that is; dad yelled and seethed as the television blasted sounds from Viet Nam and from violent protests brought on by injustice and inequality in places like Compton and Watts; and of the warnings of gas shortages and layoffs at Boeing which really stressed dad out because that’s where he worked.
He was reminded every single day how close he was to losing his income. As was I reminded that I could, at any time, lose everything.
And it seemed like the news men were forever talking about the shrinking economy and the gas crisis and always of war . . . and of those horrible, lazy welfare moms, sucking greedily from the teat of society; and dad didn’t want to shell out his hard earned money to people who were ‘taking advantage.’
And the news brought back my father’s terrifying memories of spending his nights in the bomb shelter in Helsinki and the other bomb shelter in northern Finland, and he clearly remembered never having enough to eat because he talked about it often. He’d say,
“Chris, clean your plate! You should feel lucky! You never know when you might go without . . .”
He loved to reminisce about starving as a child; and of trying to run in the deep deep snow at five years old with the Russian planes dropping bombs and the blood and guts and body parts all around him . . . and the very real images coming from Vietnam fueled his fear which called for even more alcohol and increased rage.
And when I was younger, it never occurred to me that when my father emigrated from Finland in 1947, at twelve years old, he had moved from a literal war zone to a country which was about to start building bomb shelters and talked incessantly about war and worried non-stop about the Big One.
It must have seemed to him that the Russian army had followed him from his little country of Finland and had somehow found him in the United States of America.
I used to ask my father about what it was like to go to a new country and have to learn a new language at twelve years old with no help, no ESL courses or tutoring or assistance from any adult. He was tossed, sink or swim, into the Berkeley public school system without understanding a word of English. His studies lagged seriously behind his American counterparts’ since all of his subjects were taught in one of the most difficult languages to learn. And knowing my father, he felt shame and embarrassment beyond containment. And knowing my father, he would hold onto his shame and plan revenge; he would show them, he would get ahead somehow.
But in front of me, he always acted like it was just a big old cake walk.
‘I don’t know why all these Spanish people need special help! I never had any and I did just fine!’ He was enraged whenever he learned about someone getting something without “working for it.” Or getting something that he didn’t get.
But he always maintained that he assimilated into his new culture without any problems. It was easy as apple pie for him, by golly!
But, he never mentioned this little factoid, which I learned of when I was a teenager: My father cut off his own foreskin with a razor blade because all the other boys in his new school were circumcised. He nearly bled to death.
I’m no expert, but I’d say that he had some issues.
Talk about self-mutilation.
I’ve always marveled at human beings’ ability to rewrite history by holding onto certain memories and ignoring others. I guess a person would become an expert at keeping his head in the sand if his entire childhood had only provided him hunger and terror and abandonment, as far back as his earliest memories.
But sometimes, when I was young, before my father and I stopped talking altogether, before all dialogue between us was hateful and cruel, before my thirteenth birthday, he would wake me up at four or five in the morning by whispering loudly,
‘Chris, wake up ! Let’s go fishing!’
I’d pull the sheets over my head and complain. ‘Daaaaaad, it’s too early! Let me go back to
sleeeeeep. . . .’
‘Aw, come on. Get dressed and bring your waders. I’ll be in the kitchen packing our lunch. . . .’
I never got a say in the matter. Nor in what scary thing he put together for lunch. And neither can I say that I enjoyed standing in the bone-chilling Tolt river while it was still so dark I could barely see; me, a vampire like my mom who stayed up until the wee hours every night, watching the Tonight Show or reading until we could no longer keep our eyes open.
And I didn’t always love night skiing and I froze my ass off in my blue jeans and wool mittens because dad was too frugal to buy me waterproof gear. But afterward we’d sit in the lodge and dad would have a hot toddy or whiskey and something and I’d sip on a hot chocolate while the feeling came back to my fingers and toes and we changed into our after-ski boots (which humorously became some kind of odd fashion statement in the 2000s and beyond).
Some weekends I’d lay awake for hours in the tent, listening to my dad and his German buddy laugh and cry and tell jokes while they drank by the campfire by a pristine, deserted mountain lake or stream. I think they passed out once outside until morning, fire still smoldering, beer cans everywhere.
Those dug-up memories with dad are important to me now because looking back, maybe he didn’t hate me like I had always believed. He probably just didn’t want to go alone, and if there had been a boy in the vicinity, or if my younger, blonder sister had been older, I would have been dropped like a hot potato. But still, he did do his best to bond with me, before he realized that my mind was not as pliable to his wishes as he expected it to be.
For a while, I was his token boy. I was taken fishing and camping and skiing and to Seattle International Raceway, especially whenever any Formula cars came through town. He’d fry up chicken livers for the two of us since mom wouldn’t eat them, and we’d share jars of pickled herring with boiled potatoes and beer.
He told me stories, but I don’t remember any conversations. I doubt we ever had a real one. And he didn’t talk to me like I had a brain because after all, it was 1960s America and I was just a stupid girl. He talked down to me. He certainly didn’t listen to anything I had to say. In fact, he argued with me on every single comment I ever made, all of my life.
And his disgust for me was palpable, once he realized that I had a mind and a vagina of my own and I was going to use both organs as I wished, not what his stupid religion told him to tell me to do with them.
The man was an emotional child; severely emotionally disturbed; and he honestly had no idea what being a parent was supposed to look like. Or that girls aren’t lesser than boys, or that children need to be tended to emotionally or that they might actually have something to say. His ideas about child rearing, and of life, came from either what he witnessed on the farm or from the bible. Human beings, in his narrow point of view, especially female human beings, are filled with sin from the moment they enter the world and need to be tamed and assimilated and controlled.
My father’s mother had never married and had to work around the clock to support herself and her son and she was as cold as Finland. She was a furrier: she made fur coats and stoles and wraps on her sewing machine in their little apartment in Helsinki, and working seemed to be pretty much all she ever knew.
Dad spent summers with his grandfather and great aunt north of Helsinki on a farm, where he was pretty much on his own at five years old because his aunt didn’t like him and didn’t feed him and beat him with wet dishrags. He had to learn to defend himself soon after he learned to walk.
And he held onto his hatred for his spinster aunt all the way to his deathbed. And he always made sure I remembered that I was a spinster, too.
He got drunk for the first time on mead at age seven. And he started me drinking at the age of ten, when he gave me a boiler-maker. I nearly puked. He laughed, and I vowed to practice so he wouldn’t be able to laugh at me again.
Boy, did I practice.
From what I know of my father’s childhood and from what he was able to reveal in his writing, he was always highly resourceful and creative. But he was also oppressed; put to work in the fields in Sweden at age seven, having his life dictated by war and misogyny. His mother, being deathly ashamed of being an unmarried mother, lied to her young son, telling him that his father had died. It wasn’t until dad was up for a promotion at Boeing sometime in the 1980s to work in the military division, designing weapons of “defense,” that there was no death certificate for his dad because the old man was still alive and living in Helsinki.
Dad nearly had a breakdown. He cried and yelled and ranted about being a bastard. I can still see him clearly, pacing back and forth throughout our rambler, crying and yelling and pacing around the dining room table like a hamster on a wheel.
I had already been knocked up twice when my father began his rantings about unmarried mothers, bastards, tramps, sluts, and whores.
And I asked him just that one time how he could even think of designing military weaponry; he of all people, who had experienced the effects of war first-hand. He flatly told me that they’d be built with or without him, and the money was very good.
I was speechless. And my respect for my father took a nosedive that day. And I agreed with him that yes, he was indeed a bastard.
My father traveled to Helsinki to meet his father, who was in his 80s. The two men went to a pub and had a beer or two.
And that’s all I know of my grandfather. I don’t even know his name.
Neither of my parents knew how to parent. My father raised himself and my mother was spoiled rotten. She never learned how to share. I know because I became very close with my mother’s mother, who was incapable of saying “no.” Mom moved directly from her daddy’s house to her husband’s house at 18 years old (and now lives about fifty meters from her son-in-law).
She didn’t know a thing about the world, but acted as though she did. And all of my questions were answered exactly the same way:
‘Just have faith in God and everything will be okay!’
But I did not believe in God and it frightened me since mommy and daddy told me I’d go to hell if I didn’t and it scared me nearly to death; and I had a gazillion questions about boys and friendship and love and hate and heaven and what the hell was going on with my body . . . and all the other things that I couldn’t figure out on my own but neither dad nor mom had the answers so they would brush me off with,
‘You ask too many questions. Just have faith and believe.’ Or,
‘Just be happy! That’s what I do!’
And they’d pour themselves another “stiff one.”
My parents withheld information from me, critical information about my body and about the world that affected my life, it made me make decisions that were against my own best interest because of my narrow, skewed perspective. I had no idea how incredibly cruel people could be or how to protect myself from predators.
And if I ever complained to my father about anything, I’d get a sermon of hellfire and brimstone and about how bad it was when he was a boy and I should feel lucky. He loved to remind me how quickly my life could go from ‘carefree’ to horrifying and I needed to be appreciative for everything I had. I didn’t turn to my father for much.
He passed his fear and anger down to me and I became frozen stiff, afraid to talk or question anybody. It kept me in line because it that’s what fear is designed to do. It kept me from believing in my own power. I learned my place. I learned that men have the all the answers and the money and the power and that women are to be quiet and submissive and are to always keep our legs crossed; we are to be polite and not argue with anyone ever, especially men; we are to get married and wait until then and only then to uncross our legs . . . and if we don’t, we’re dirty and disgusting whores and tramps and sluts.
Which my father thought of me, because I didn’t believe in ‘waiting’ until marriage, in fact I had no plan to ever marry anyone and become his slave and I was never ever going to bring children into this fucked-up, uncaring world.
My mother was too embarrassed to talk about sex or anything to do with body parts or emotions or those pesky things called thoughts; she was unable to utter words like vagina or penis and she probably had never even heard of a clitoris. So dad gave me The Talk.
When I was eleven (I think), he called me into the ‘den,’ the tiniest of the four bedrooms on the dark side of the house. It was cold and dank and crammed full of furniture. I sat on the bed while dad stood over me. He could just as well have been talking to a coworker about a blueprint:
‘ . . . then the man inserts his engorged penis into the woman’s vagina. He thrusts and thrusts until he ejaculates his load . . . and his sperm swim up the woman’s vagina and fertilize the egg and that’s how babies are born. Just don’t ever do it yourself, not until after marriage.’
I had no idea that boys had a completely different dialogue with their parents (if parents ever talk to boys at all), and no one explained the double standard to me. I still don’t understand it, except of course, for the reason it was created: to keep control of women’s bodies, especially the baby-making and baby-feeding parts.
It felt like about a hundred and three degrees in that stuffy little cave because I was sweating and felt like I was going to hurl.
And before, during, and after his scientifically detailed explanation of the sexual act, told from his black-and-white engineer’s perspective and learned by watching mares on the farm in Sweden get ‘serviced’ by studs with massive erections and from farm-hands fornicating with dairy cows, dad stressed several times that I was expected to wait to even think about sex until after I was married.
Otherwise I’d be a tramp and no one would ever want me.
But I already knew that I was never, ever going to get married. So, in reality, I supposed that I decided to become a ‘slut.’ I always instinctively knew that sex is natural. It was around before marriage and other man-made laws. Animals do it. Didn’t make me feel less dirty, though because my father made sure he displayed his loathing for both sluts as well as spinsters.
Who was the asshole that said ‘words can never hurt me?’
My lack of access to information about what sex should be and how to have it responsibly made me vulnerable and I became pregnant twice with a cheating, irresponsible, boy. My only rational option was to abort. And I had to make those decisions in a vacuum because I had no one to talk to about it except for girls my own age who were getting the same non-information.
And I have never regretted those decisions. Not one moment of my life. Yes, I sometimes wonder what my nearly forty year old children would be like now. Sometimes I talk to them, but I never allowed myself to get emotionally attached. I was unable to care for a child, and I knew it. They would have been as emotionally fucked up as I was, we’d be forever linked to their father, and most likely, we’d all be living on welfare.
And the first time I had sexual intercourse was not exactly special because my spirit and my voice held no power and my protests were not taken seriously by the man who raped me that time and stole that gift from me. I wasn’t ready to give it away, not to the creep who took it; not yards away from my ‘best friend’ Dawn who had laughed at me because I had cried.
I was literally powerless and speechless. I was obedient and frozen with fear. And I didn’t even know what I was so scared about; I had no one to talk to about it.
I just knew I didn’t understand anything about life; that other kids seemed to ‘get it,’ so I went with the flow and I let things happen to me that I didn’t want to happen.
I should have spoken my thoughts. When you don’t express yourself, people assume things about you that are very wrong, and if you don’t speak your mind you become a person who is easily manipulated, used, lied to and cheated and you don’t even realized they are doing it.
I was frightened of everything and didn’t know what to say to anyone. I had very few friends and some that I picked were not the best of people. And I was terrified on my first day of school; at every new school I attended all the way through college, well into my thirties. And the times that I attempted to return to school in my twenties, I felt worthless and stupid because I was daring to act like I was smart, and after one five credit class and many painful hours of staring at blank pages, I’d give up and break down into tears and feel like I was just a waste of oxygen.
It’s hard to believe you are capable of anything worthwhile when your father asks you when you don’t understand his confusing ‘help’ with homework:
‘Are you just acting stupid right now?’
I watched my parents’ marriage and the marriages of the other fifty or sixty young, white, middle-class cookie-cutter neighbors in our cookie-cutter neighborhood in Redmond, Washington, and knew that marriage was nothing I wanted to be involved in: key parties, fights and divorces oh my! and all the stay-at-home housewives so bored with their empty lives that they began drinking at noon, marinating their malnourished brains because after all, women were not meant for the workplace or anywhere else in the world, not in the 60s.
They spent their days alone in their cookie-cutter cages.
And I saw the way that children and teens were treated, especially youth of the female variety. We were looked upon as possessions, not as conscious beings with ideas and fears and souls of our own.
And it makes me crazy watching my sisters do the same shit to their own kids because they did not escape mom & dad’s dysfunctional upbringing unscathed, with
my children this, and my children that . . .
As a female, my playing field was limited to a kitchen or secretarial desk while the rest of the world was wide open to boys; they got all the contacts and attention from teachers, and doors swung wide open for them while those same doors slammed in my face and I was tossed a mini skirt and a cocktail tray.
Even in the restaurant world, the best paying jobs ALWAYS went to the man and still do. I had years of experience but was passed over time and time again by untrained men for bartending jobs at damn near every joint I ever worked, while I worked the floor in my crotch-length mini-skirt and four-inch come-fuck-me pumps, getting pinched and grabbed
Dad showed me what life was like for a boy, but reminded me that I am not a boy and that I had no right to act like one. I was taught to appreciate the good things in life, but I was never given a single tool as to how to acquire them, not unless I gave myself over to a man.
I saw that men could do whatever they wanted, that they controlled the money and made all the decisions and had fun and went out to bars at night and drank and drove and did whatever they wanted to do; while mothers did the shopping and cooking and laundry and all the cleaning up, and they never complained because it might upset their King of the castle, who was working so very hard at his 40/hour a week office job.
Women were to be seen and not heard. We were to take up the least space as possible, and never ever get involved in things we didn’t understand.
I still hear women say “I’m sorry!” over every little thing.
When it became clear to me that I wouldn’t have any guidance in ballet or dating or school or life from anyone anywhere; and that my mother was never going to defend me against my father or any other man, I just gave up trying. I settled into a life of mediocrity, the bare minimum; plus empty sex and alcohol, not understanding that it wasn’t because I was just too stupid or too lazy to do anything else.
I just had no idea that there were options.
I honestly believed that all my ‘bad luck’ came to me because I was fundamentally bad or broken; that I was fucked up and should have never been born. That’s a hard way to spend your days.
My soul had been starved for understanding and affection and knowledge; I was screaming out to be listened to and understood, but neither mom nor dad had time for my nonsense. I was just a ‘moody,’ ‘overly sensitive’ female who needed to “buckle down” and work and believe in god and wait for marriage and do what I was told in the meantime.
Because: They Said So.
My father didn’t see that what he was doing to me was wrong or not working. And he took the sides of adults who called and blamed me for broken lamps or spilled paint and he didn’t believe me when I told him that I hadn’t done anything wrong, that my friends were passing the blame, but he didn’t listen to my pleas for reason and he laid me and my bare ass across his lap and he slapped me so many times as hard has he could and my ass turned red and I hated him for the injustice; I hated him for taking a random adult’s word, a virtual stranger’s word over mine.
And he didn’t understand that it is not normal, it is not okay for a father and his daughter to hate each other, to scream at each other like enemies. He didn’t understand that I was intelligent and creative and curious and that if he had only talked to me as a human being and not as merely a walking vagina that had to be guarded and controlled, he could have been a real father to me and he could have helped me through life instead of always challenging me, making me feel worthless and dirty and wrong.
I was not to be trusted with my body or anything else and my father ran off the few boys who were interested in me by intercepting phone calls and knocks at the door. He threatened those testosterone-filled boys by glaring down at them through his steamed-up glasses as they cowered outside the front door.
And once he drove me to a secluded, wooded drive behind the elementary school after hours and stopped the car and he scared me more than he ever had before because he shut off the engine and he turned to me on the huge station wagon bench seat and stared at me through those glasses. And he threatened to kick me out of the house at sixteen years old because he found out that I was dating an eighteen-year-old black man.
‘If you go out with that nigger again, you may as well pack your bags, because you’ll be out in the street. You will never again be welcome in my home.’
My already thin sense of security was ripped away from me in that instant. I don’t think I’ve ever truly felt safe ever since that warm sunny summer day in the Audubon Elementary School parking lot.
And he drove me right into the backseat of the car of the type of boy he thought he hated even though he had never even seen the guy.
And true to my father’s immature behavior, he used to go out to bars and get drunk with that boyfriend just two years later, when I was away, living in New York. I got an earful from my emotionally damaged boyfriend about their discussions about cunnilingus and fellatio and how my father had tried and tried different things, but he couldn’t get any interest from my mother. He had to take her to Europe in order to “get lucky.” And those two had been the ones acting like they had all the answers!
Unfortunately, I know a lot about all of my family’s sex lives. Both of my sisters are as emotionally immature as my parents when it comes to intimacy and sex. They got even less “education” than I did. And they got less guidance as well, which in my parents’ naïve minds meant being scolded whenever we made too much noise or bothered them too much.
I began to rebel in any way I could think of and my quick wit became acerbic.
When I went back home for holidays, my father and I barely looked at each other and walked out of rooms when the other walked in. It wasn’t until dad made the deathly serious, bible-thumping lecture which he referred to as Grace that he glared at me over those glasses while he droned on with his platitudes about God and Jesus and how we were all his adoring children; or at least he hoped that we were all devoted to Father and Son, and his disgust for me was clear. The others dutifully kept their heads bowed while I shot daggers back at him and wished I could punch him in his hateful, judgmental hypocritical face.
Our ‘style’ of communication was toxic and mutual and you could feel the hatred in the room.
What joyous memories.
Dad (therefore mom) never realized that people are people, whether rich or poor, black or white, Christian or not. He became brainwashed through his blind religion and fear to be untrusting and suspicious of people based solely on how they look or how much they own; and if you are poor, you are certainly suspicious by nature.
He refused to have garage sales because ‘that only encourages thieves to come and case the joint.’ He never lent anyone anything or gave anyone a loan to get a career or business started, anyone like me, for example, or my boyfriend with a good business idea, or his old ‘friend’ Gus, who needed backing for a restaurant. Dad wrote us off as some kind of lazy, devious takers, just for daring to ask him for a loan. Hell, he did it on his own, therefore anyone can. He didn’t believe in “hand-outs.”
And he thought everyone was out to take advantage of him, and his suspicion and fear mixed with a heavy dose of ignorance made him a target. When he traveled abroad, he wore the typical Ignorant American uniform: alligator shirt, khaki shorts, black socks, tennis shoes, fanny pack and a baseball cap.
He may as well have worn a giant bulls-eye and the message:
COME AND GET IT!
I’M AN IGNORANT AMERICAN!
He was jumped on the subway in Mexico City and he never forgave the entire country. Dressed in his Ignorant White Man uniform, he took cash out of an ATM on the street in a busy tourist zone and walked directly into the subway where four or five men attacked him and tried pulling him off the car as they dug through his pockets, taking cash, traveler’s checks . . .
And he forever hated all of Mexico and vowed never to return to that horrible, disgusting place of thieves and dirt and crime. After all, it couldn’t possibly be his own fault. It never is.
And he would NEVER understand, no matter how many ways I tried to explain it to him, that his perfect United States of America is a huge reason that Mexico is and remains poor, not to mention that the exclusive resorts that line Mexican beaches are owned by and rented to People With Money. Mexicans can’t afford to go to their own beaches anymore, unless it’s through the back door of a hotel, straight into the kitchen or maids’ quarters.
Dad refused to understand that inequality and oppression create crime, not poor people. That he, as a white American male has directly contributed to inequality with his tax dollars and his apathy. I hated his attitude about other people and other cultures because it was the same judgmental ignorance that made him hate his own daughter.
One of his favorite mottos was,
‘There can’t be rich people without poor people: we need poor people.’
He actually believed that. As long as he wasn’t on the poor side, anyway.
He paid for a security service on his house on Whidbey Island overlooking the Puget Sound:
His house with clashing, tacky wall colors picked from random sample cards at the hardware store; his house filled with mounds of newspapers and pens and stacks of computer paper everywhere; the unimaginative furnishings of those who need experts to tell them how to decorate, professionals to tell them what looks good and what doesn’t . . . but who are too cheap to pay for it, so they end up settling for shit that resembles what the rich people buy.
Mom always wanted only the best for herself, but she had to wrestle dad over his purse strings. After he died, she went fucking berserk.
Dad bought the very cheapest brand of everything. I had never even heard of the company that made his shitty computer.
My father would have shot himself before he took a word of advice from his daughter. It would have made him weak, lesser, in his mind. He had to beat me in everything or he would have felt inferior as a man.
If I pointed out that the world is round, he would firmly argue that it’s flat, merely to ‘play Devil’s advocate.’ He loved ‘debating,’ but he always won. Often just by declaring:
‘You can’t possibly understand; you’re too young, you’re not an expert, you don’t know what you’re talking about. . . .’ and between the lines, I clearly heard his words from times before: ‘Are you just acting stupid right now?’ and ‘What the hell do you know? You’re just a dumb girl.’
He wouldn’t even consider hearing me out when I told him that Excel would be better than Word for his purpose of listing every book and video cassette that he owned so that he could track them if one of his daughters ‘rented’ one; I tried to show him and explain the functions of a spreadsheet, but he knew exactly what he was doing and made it crystal clear that I should keep my know-it-all-ness to myself.
And I tried to explain that one of the main purposes of computers is not having to print everything, or have a gazillion books and notebooks full of paper, but dad and mom both printed out every ‘interesting looking’ recipe and advertisement for resorts and cruises and filled dozens of huge notebooks which added to the clutter and chaos of their “library.”
Which is now taking up space in some landfill.
I tried talking to my father about nutrition, but he only listened to his White Male Doctor, who doesn’t know the first thing about food. I know this tidbit first-hand from my 14 years experience watching doctors eat lunch, and from a lifetime of getting bad advice from them.
Dad did cut out fat and salt but ate meat and white bread and plenty of fake cheese and margarine and highly processed wheat, corn, and soy products; he drank non-fat milk and liquor and coffee and he never entertained the thought of wasting his precious money on ‘that organic shit.’ His standard salad ingredients consisted of conventional iceberg lettuce, cucumbers and conventional plum tomatoes picked hard and stored in the fridge and completely void of both taste and nutrients.
Plus, dad had been mixing his heart medications with Viagra. I’m not a medical doctor, and I don’t even play one on TV, but even I know that that’s not a good combo. Even I know that penile dysfunction is a warning sign of heart disease, and if he had actually taken care of his heart by eating real food and ditching the chemicals instead of trusting the Medical Industrial Complex and the white, male heads of Big Pharm, he might still be alive today.
Fuck you, Pharm, and those who push your wares.
I also blame the billions of patients that never question
what they are being told to ingest for the sake of our broken, unjust medical system.
I educate myself about my health; how can a person who sees me for an hour a year understand my body better than me?
Dad had just finished his own memoir while I was taking an English as a Second Language Teaching course, and I used a paragraph from his childhood as the basis for a children’s story, an assignment for my class. I had to create a fictional story in English that described a child from a different culture.
I enjoyed the process and created a wonderful little story with dialogue and illustrations of my six-year-old dad. It was about the time my father and his little Swedish friend nearly burned down an entire forest in Sweden by lighting fires with their magnifying glasses. I couldn’t wait to show it to dad. I was hoping to do more stories based on his life.
But he didn’t see it the way I did. When he finished reading my story he stood silent for a moment. Then he said,
‘So, you’ve plagiarized my book.’ He was visibly pissed when he stormed out of the room.
I never brought it up again. And I destroyed my artwork, per usual.
I think that the process of writing his memoir helped clear out my father’s mind; he examined his childhood fear and terror and made it inert; he began to volunteer his time to Habitat for Humanity and the Rotary; he helped design and build the skate park and the salmon hatchery, and he took in exchange students (which even as an adult, made me green with envy because they seemed to like those kids so much better than me).
For the first time in my father’s life, he started to do something for other people. And his heart was exposed to the joy of giving to others instead of just worrying about them taking his things.
Dad and I were standing at the still-raging bonfire at my sister’s house sometime during the wee hours of the morning in either late fall of 2004, or early spring of 2005. It was cold and dark and the others, my sister and her hubby and their wife-swappin friends and neighbor, were off on one of their drunken stumbles through woods, or maybe they were busy groping each other in the hot tub again.
Dad was wasted. For some reason, I was sober. I usually drank as much as possible around my family to numb myself, so I don’t know how I was still upright, but I remember this ‘conversation’ very clearly.
Dad was slurring and it took me a few times to hear what he was trying to say,
‘You’re so strong! I’m sorry. I’m soooooo sorry . . . you’re so strong, I’m so sorry . . .”
He was trying to hug me and slobber on me, but it was much too little much too late and I couldn’t tap into my sentimentality so I just said ‘thanks’ and walked away. I don’t know if he even knew what he was trying to say exactly, but I imagine that he was apologizing for basically fucking up my shot at a happy life.
He had just begun to see that I am actually pretty savvy, and he was beginning to appreciate my self-trained mind instead of feeling threatened by it.
On one of the few road trips we took together in his later years, from Palm Springs to San Diego in the 911, he watched me think fast on my feet after I lost all my cash, credit cards, and passport (or so I had thought). At a branch of my bank in San Diego, he saw me solve problems that the bank officials told us couldn’t be solved. He saw that the bank manager was respectful of me; that he was impressed with my logic. He was beginning to see that I was creative and intelligent, and he relaxed and looked like he might even stop competing with me on every single thing I thought or said.
And we did have one real conversation. After I got my DUI in the spring of 2005, I called him and confided in him about it, and luckily for me, he had also gotten a dee-wee when he was probably around the same age, so he was unable to treat me like a criminal because it had also happened to him.
He offered me advice: to plea guilty. And I did it, because my court date came after he died and I figured I would do it even though it cost a lot more money and counseling and AA meetings; but I would do it in honor of doing just one thing for my father.
Oh how my duty is Done.
Now I see how my father and I were a lot alike, as my mother liked to remind me with disgust: but not just because we’re both hot tempered and ‘overly’ emotional (aka we don’t hide all our real thoughts), but because we are both problem solvers; we are resourceful survivors and we are strong; even though our mothers didn’t have the tools to give us the nurturing that every child requires, we managed to hold onto our souls and our strong sense of justice, misplaced as it may have been; even if we had to hide for most of our lives; hide our true selves because what we are was not enough for those around us; not even to the people that supposedly loved us.
And as a man, he was able to succeed in the world, in 1950s America, which still had seemingly endless opportunities for white men to take advantage of.
But for me, a woman, not so much. I was never expected to succeed at anything except office work, or marrying, breeding, cleaning and cooking,. But since I was not planning to use my womb, I was basically, in my parents’ eyes, a throw-away. The Bad Seed. That’s probably why mom wanted more than one; in case one was rotten.
My father was beginning to soften in his older years, after he got away from the disease that is corporate America. The pressure and fear of losing his job was eliminated and he was able to breathe.
He had amassed a small fortune over the course of his life, coming from such poverty and horror.
And my mother was able to blow it on herself in less than ten years.
My father had just begun to learn who he was before he died from severe heart failure. He was just learning how to sit still without having a drink or a blow-out (which were most likely panic attacks). But he began facing his fears much too late in life; the decades of PTSD from a war-zone childhood, mixed with the stress of having a mortgage and money in the stock market and of maintaining two cars and a family, combined with a toxic American diet and a lifetime of alcohol was just too much for him.
I’m sure that his medical doctor prescribing Viagra didn’t help much, either.
I’m sorry that I couldn’t be emotionally present at your memorial, dad, but it was just too fucking phony. That’s why I took my chair and I pulled it outside onto the patio and I listened to the Praises of your Goodness from the comfort of pine trees and away from my emotionally absent family members. The spectacle made me physically sick.
You were a great man to many, and you did have a lot of amazing qualities, but to me, you were always just a reminder of what a Fuckup I am.
You were the only one who knows what you really did to me, and now I am the only one who knows; now that my family has made you into a fabulous legend, some god-like super-human who was kind and generous to everyone . . .
Just not to me.
What makes me the saddest these days is the fact that I was talented and could have been a successful dancer or singer or photographer or actor or choreographer or director, and maybe my work could have made a difference in the world somehow.
And maybe my father and I could have worked together to make beautiful furniture or cabinetry, we could have taken road trips in the Porsche and discovered new places, we could have come up with some outrageous ideas between the two of our untethered minds. What a dream.
I’ve gotten past my anger for my father. Especially when I see that I’ve acted a lot like him. I lacked intimacy and nurturing, but more importantly, I finally understand why we were like we were.
How can you communicate your thoughts effectively to others when you don’t understand them yourself?
I’m done being angry with dad, but my sensitivity to xenophobia and apathy is finely tuned and when I hear a thoughtless, programmed comment, no matter how ‘benign,’ I no longer keep my comments to myself.
Because I have experienced enough to know that what I believe is correct, that mom and dad were children of depression and war and they reacted to life instead of taking its reigns and fully living it and they just didn’t have any information to offer me.
It wasn’t personal after all.
Unfortunately, I never took the reigns of my own life either, until now.