To My Father,
I was born to two parents; a first child. You say I was a wanted child…but you abandoned me at a restaurant because I was crying too loud. I was a few months old. You didn’t want me then. And then you did. You came back. What made you change your mind? Why did you come back?
I don’t remember how old I am, and since this is an honest account I cannot make something up. I was very young. Possibly somewhere between three and four. We are at an ice cream parlor. You tell me to keep a secret and I’ll get as much ice cream as I want. I parrot that Mom told me that “we don’t have secrets, only surprises.” You said the reason Mom thinks that is because she’s not the brightest bulb, and that you hope I am bright enough to understand. All but the extremely dumb-witted have secrets, and only attention whores tell. I, not a stupid attention whore, kept the secret and ate ice cream until I threw up in the parking lot. (That was the last ice cream reward.)
I am in preschool. I learned to read at 2 and a half, but my teachers react to that proclamation with condescending disbelief. They believe I only memorized the words from my favorite books. Imagine my ire. I read the front page of the town’s local newspaper to my preschool class. Those teachers never doubted me again.
I am in kindergarten, and you just came home from narrowly surviving 9/11. You proudly recount your heroic tale of survival-complete with how people were jumping out of the buildings from above, and how the pathetic idiots surrounding you in the smoke cloud were begging for God and their mothers to save them (you said this part with a chuckle). You to this day call that day the luckiest day of your life.
Mom lost yet another baby. How many has it been-two, three, four? I honestly don’t remember. I think that it’s a sign that I’m meant to be an only child. I could live with that. A family friend asks what happened. I calmly explain that another baby died and that I don’t know why she keeps trying when it’s obvious they will just keep dying. I’m only six, and Ican see that. (What is it that you always say? Ah, I remember…the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.) My mom heard me. She started sobbing. I don’t think she spoke to me for a week.
I forgot. I forgot the lie you told me to say. I got distracted and forgot and told the truth. I remember the look you gave me. It was positively murderous. I don’t remember exactly what happened, but I do remember that for weeks or months after (it felt like years), whenever I got in the car, the only song you would play would be Depeche Mode’s “Policy of Truth.” Your sense of humor, I guess. The lyrics were burned into my mind by the end…particularly the part about that if you tell the truth you’ll see your problems multiply.
You’re teaching me to ride a bicycle. You teach me on a concrete parking lot. I fall on the pavement every day, usually more than once. This is no father-daughter bonding activity. You’re frustrated and often screaming. I try my best but still I keep falling. I fall even with training wheels on. My knees look like miniature war zones. I get a scar on my elbow that is still visible now. Eventually I flat-out refuse to ever get on a bicycle again.
My brother needs stitches. He fell off his trike. We go to the emergency room and you order me to be like a marble statue. No tears, no emotion. No embarrassment for you. I stare at the wall, still and silent as an effigy.
I’m 9 years old and I have 3 pet chickens. We brought them back from vacation in the country. We meaning my mother, my brother, and I; you were working and I only asked Mom’s permission to get them. Your glare could freeze lava. But then you smile. I have those chickens for a year and a half. I name them. I spend every day after school playing with and feeding them stuff from the garden. Then one day my mother tells me that you want to kill them and if I don’t let you you two will get into a huge fight. You suggest it might be bad enough to cause a divorce. I am a child; I fear my parents divorcing like medieval peasants feared the plague. So you chop their heads off. You get your revenge for my impudence a year and a half ago. You have Mom cook them and serve them for dinner that night. Why waste perfectly good meat, after all? I watch you and her and my brother and your friends eating my pets. I announce that I’ve decided to become a vegetarian, walk out of the room, and slam my bedroom door. You come after me. You tell me that if I really cared about them I wouldn’t have let you do it. But since I did not there is no excuse for my behavior. You made me go back downstairs and apologize to your friends for my misbehavior. I did. You won…but you lost. Because I never took a bite of that meal, and I did become a vegetarian. It bothered Mom even more than you. Because her guilt consumes her.
My brother needs stitches again. He’s about 9 now, and he fell on the playground. You won’t let us leave the house until my brother stops crying. It’s a good thing my brother’s injuries weren’t too serious, because it took over 15 minutes.
The standardized test scores are back again. I don’t even have to look. I know what they say. 90+ percentile in every subject…except Math. Soon my brother will have 90+ percentile scores in everything. Then you and he can both laugh and call me slow. As always, you show me your own glowing report cards to compare. Maybe my brother will get the money in my college fund…you’re no longer sure if I’m smart enough to attend, let alone get a Master’s Degree like you.
There’s a girl in my class. She’s the ONE person who gets higher grades than me in the entire class. But second-highest grades in the class won’t get me an award at the end of the year. Second-highest won’t get me your praise. And besides denying me the one thing I want more than anything in the world, this pretentious little brat annoys me daily by correcting the factual errors in my FICTIONAL stories. I want her to swallow cyanide. Instead I blame her for cheating. I say I saw her doing it myself. I am a model student, very innocent-looking, and well-behaved. And I’ve been honing my skills since kindergarten (usually by making up more exciting-than-what-really-
I’m in therapy. I have no idea what age I was. I don’t like this therapist like I did the last one. Dinah was nice and fun and let me do the activities she wanted in the context of an imagined story I made up, where the brave young heroine (that’s me) had to overcome all these obstacles in order to win. This one always wants it HER way. She wants me to do a puzzle. I HATE puzzles. I politely tell her so and that I don’t want to do it. She insists. I refuse. She refuses to listen. She has the nerve to actually put her disgusting hands on me and drag my hands toward the puzzle. I oblige her and pick up the puzzle…and throw it at her head. Talking clearly doesn’t work with her. I tried. Let’s see if violence does the trick. You would never tolerate this behavior. Why should I have to? And I am not her slave. She will NOT make me be her slave. She tried to, but she will never succeed.
The moment of release was brief. Then chaos ensued. A room full of adults were asking me why I did what I did, you included. I calmly told them why. Everyone exchanged these weird looks. The therapist, obviously getting her revenge for that puzzle to the head, sends me to be evaluated for something serious. I knew it’s bad when it ends with “personality disorder.” That means your entire personality is diseased. A cancer. Something that must be cut off and thrown away to save us all. I started crying and apologizing then, but it wasn’t going to cut it. I was going to the psychiatrist.
You came to my room in the middle of that night, alone. I said I wasn’t crazy. You said I was saying the right thing now, but I had to DO the right things to get out of this. Then you spent the entire night teaching me what to say and how to say it in order to get out of that psychiatrist’s office without being diagnosed with anything. It worked. I was free. And I vowed never to do anything that utterly stupid again.
And I can’t decide whether to hate you or thank you for all you’ve taught me.
I realize I broke one of your rules writing this letter. I know you think that thinking about the past is what makes people so unhappy, and that we should always be looking forward, not backward. I realize but I did it anyway.
Because if I don’t do so at least occasionally you’ll own me.
Because I strongly suspect your piece of “wisdom” there was at least half you deflecting blame. If we don’t think about it, we can never point any fingers in your direction. But well-played. Very eloquent and philosophical, Dad.
With perpetually mixed feelings,