THE INTRODUCTION TO THIS BLOG ENTRY:
This piece was a journal entry that was inspired by something I found in my basement a few months ago: an old videotape labeled 1993–the year my father left for Washington, the year I started college, and the year my father announced he wanted a separation from my mother. Watching the video inspired me to write a very choppy journal entry that started off as about “back then” which ultimately led me to write about “right now”.
I reread the journal entry and tweaked it a bit. I liked how I start with the purely narrative, a voice of just relaying facts, “head voice”. I start with the safe and distant voice and then move closer to my gut, my “soul voice”. Finally, I allowed myself to “mindfully write” about my feelings. Instead of analyzing the feelings or trying to fix and change them, I accepted them and in accepting my feelings, I accept my family.
I use writing to cope with pain. I also have come to understand that the pain of my parents’ divorce is not one that can be coped with or changed or fixed. Nor can I write my through the pain, as I sometimes advise my students to do. This is a kind of pain that doesn’t have an end. It’s a pain that has an ebb and flow of intensity, and it comes and goes throughout time.
Also, I have to pause and say that this is hard for me to do, as I am very aware that my family may read this and be very upset with me. But what I will say back to them is something I advise my students to do–this is not about any of you but about me and my writing and my own acceptance of my writer’s voice.
CHAPTER ONE: “I FOUND A VIDEO TAPE THE OTHER DAY….”
By December 1993, things weren’t right at home. My father had a new job with a long, long commute to Washington from RI. He spent every other weekend at home. My parents convinced my sister and I that this was an exciting thing for them both. That it would be fun for them to travel now that they were empty-nesters.
Before Christmas break, which is when the announcement came that my father was not coming back every other weekend, not coming back at all but separating from my mother, we all went down to see my father in his new apartment for Thanksgiving. Looking back, it is so clear that he was ready to leave and was only waiting for the holidays to finish.
My father smiled only once while I was there. While sitting on the couch and reading the Weekly World news article that featured a little domestic house cat that turned into a huge cat the size of a lion– in just one year.
Later, throughout the preparations of the meal, he didn’t speak and moved through his galley kitchen silently while Mom and I alternated between holding the video camera and narrating the preparations of the meal. When it was her turn, Mom spanned the apartment and focused on the décor, narrating what kind of fabric was used to upholster the couch and ottoman and describing what kinds of curtains that was on the windows. She did zoom on my father at one point, as he wiped up the counter top, and she said something like, “There he is! The master scientist….I am so glad we are all here together….we haven’t seen him in awhile…” And then he looked up and said quietly, “But it’s quality not quantity.”
When it was my turn as the camera woman, I zoomed on my sister who reprimanded my mother, “Mom, you didn’t do the green beans…Mom you didn’t peel the potatoes….” She held her mouth in a rigid frown and tried to force it to remain there even when Mom and I switched places again and I had to wash the slippery turkey in the sink. I kept dropping it, and at one point, it fell on the floor. My sister tried to look angry with me, but she burst out laughing while I tried to haul the bird back onto the counter. Later, when I took the camera back, I zoomed in on her barking at my dad, and said, “There she is– the lawyer. Look at her, all pissed off, barking orders just like a lawyer.” That was the only other time she smiled.
My mother gave the camera to me right before we ate, and she posed in front of the set table and made a speech, which I kept interrupting because I was embarrassed. It went something like this: “I just want to say I am so happy we are here. All together on this Thanksgiving 1993…..” Her large glasses kept slipping and her hands fluttered in front of her face as she spoke.
The next day we did Thanksgiving number two at my grandmother’s condo. We video taped it as well. Again, my father was silent. My aunt, uncle, and cousins were there too. In the video my sister and I look a lot happier than the day before, gabbing with our cousins, aunt, uncle, and grandma. We made jokes about how funny it was that we were eating like pigs but drinking Diet Coke. I made an elaborate tale out of going to McDonald’s and seeing people order 20 piece McNuggets and large fries and a Diet Coke, and my grandmother, like a teenager eager to be part of the crowd, chimed in with “Oh yeah, it’s like this, Hannie, like using Sweet-in-Low in your coffee but eating a chocolate chip cookie.” We all laughed not because it was funny but because it felt so good to laugh with my grandmother, who, by the way, committed the Sweat-n-Low crime all the time.
The weekend ended uneventfully, except the lingering taste in my mouth of trouble to come.
Christmas vacation came. The night before we left, Mike (my now husband but then boyfriend) and I slept in my dorm and video taped that morning. I awoke him with the camera in his face, and he hid under the covers of my bunk. I asked him if he was going to miss anyone, and he said, “Yeah…..” and I said who and he said, “Hannah,” and it came out in his New York accent with the “a” kind of flat and hard. He looked like how his brother Steven would look a few years later at the same age. A full head of thick, dirty blond hair. His skin had the smoothness of youth. But his smile was the same as today and those eyebrows, eyebrows that made his face look like it was always saying “Awwww….”
Later, a week into vacation, over a cup of tea, my father crossed his skinny legs and stared down at me over his reading glasses and asked, “How would you feel if I left your mother?” This brief scene was not on video tape but I can see it clearly in my mind as if it were playing on a screen.
CHAPTER 2: Struggle to understand myself.
My parent’s breakup sliced my life into two halves of time that are not yet equal. But in a way, the breakup is much more shattering– like a fallen glass vase that doesn’t shatter in equal parts but messy, sharp, uneven, jagged pieces.
I thought I would never stop crying. I couldn’t imagine that my mother would sell the house I spent my pre teen and teenage years in. The house I came home to after my first kiss at a Pop Warner dance, the house where I wrote my first book at age 15, and the house that my friends would seek refuge in, like one of my friends who ran to us when her older sibling beat her up after getting drunk.
I remember sitting in the dark in my father’s apartment, not long after it became official, my parents were split up, and I asked him why why why? Why didn’t he try to make things work?
I am trying to pick up the shattered pieces of my family. I am looking back with a witness like approach and perspective. I am not judging any of us. The anger. The resentment. The betrayal. The anguish. The heart pain. I am looking at each of these people I love, and I want to understand them now…..where they are with the break up. Maybe it will help me let go and make peace more. I know where I stand in terms of boundaries and what I think and feel about each of them now. I have them each in my mind as separate people with a joint history and with a separate present and future. But I want to listen and understand them and myself.
But I am plagued with questions: To my sister: Are you in pain without a father? To my dad: How do you go on without one of your daughters, and how do you go on not knowing two of your grandchildren? And, how come you never stop judging? How do you let go of Mom, the anger and resentment you have? An anger and resentment that I don’t understand, can’t understand, when you are the one who chose to break up the family. What’s there to be angry about now? Don’t you have what you want? To myself: How do you accept that those questions don’t have answers, and how to you deal with the fragmentation of your family? How much do you say and how much do you ask and maybe you don’t…...?
I realize all of the above is irrelevant.
Weird things will trigger thoughts about my family, the way it was when we were together. Like, I will go to Mike’s parents’ house and see them, his immediate family, around the dining room table, all six of them and the grandparents even, and they will be telling childhood stories of fishing and fighting and how Steve said the word Samoli for Salami and how all his teeth rotted out from apple juice and he looked like a jack-o-latern for his toddler years. Inevitably this will somehow morph into topics of current day like money, cars, sports, TVs and computers and then my father-in-law will disagree with one of the boys and all the woman will scurry out of the room as the boys duke it out in booming voices….
They fight and laugh….together….Each night I am there, I cry in the tiny twin bed I share with my husband….He will lean on his elbow exhausted from the drive, the enormous meal, and staying up too late playing video games with his brothers, and say, “What’s a matter?” Only he knows, but he also knows to let me say it so I don’t get defensive. “It’s just so sad…..” I’ll tell him. “My family is dead, and I watch you all and I remember my own family and I feel this empty horrible gaping hole and I want to melt into the furniture and disintegrate into thin air.” Tears will fall for a bit and then he’ll say, “Come, lay on my chest.” And I will and fall asleep instantly….
My family is not dead though, it’s different. Then why do I feel like I am still mourning?
Chapter 3: The end of the struggle
Now, after the divorce, I see me in the center of the cold war between them. Dad on one side and mom and my sister on the other. I feel a level of acceptance from my mother and sister and not so much from my father, until recently. But it’s more that I finally told him he can’t discuss them at all with me.
I wonder what it feels like to be each of them who are not in the middle like me. Each of them who have a side, a position that is definite. How that feels. How does it feel? I don’t like where this is going. I feel a panic like now I have to choose a side. No. Here’s what I feel:
What my father did last year….I know that he didn’t try to hurt me. I know he didn’t set out to hurt me. But what he did made me feel so sad. What he did made me feel pain and hurt.
Okay, I feel angry at my father for destroying my family. I blame my father because at the end of the day, he left. He went to Washington. He cheated on mom. He was mean to his daughter, my sister. He did those things. I can hear his protest and rationalization of all that I just said but that’s his voice and not mine. Here’s my voice.
I am sad, angry, frustrated at him.
I am forgiving of him.
I am sad, angry, frustrated with his inability to accept what is with my sister and mom. I am frustrated by his bewilderment about why it’s not a good idea or possible or realistic or reality to think, to even think, that Mom would bring my daughter by his house. He seems to think that because he wants life to be that way, to follow this weird rationalization about what divorced families do or should do or what other divorced families do, he wants that. He wants us to follow suit, and because we all don’t, we are the “dysfunctional” ones. Writing this makes me angry all over again. Writing that makes me feel like in his behavior, his nonchalance about, “Hey, yeah why not have your mother bring Chelsea by?” or “Hey, why not just have me come to the party too?”, he’s disregarding the reality that they want nothing to do with him and, therefore, also disregarding the reality that CAN’T YOU SEE I’M IN THE MIDDLE? Can’t you give me a break, Dad? Can’t you look outside yourself and your warped sense of “what should be” and see my position and say, “Gee, yeah that must be hard.” Okay.
I don’t know what it’s called in Al-anon but I am sure there’s a term for the behavior my father exhibits about my sister, Mom, and the whole “doing things as a family”. They do not consider him family any more, and there’s nothing I can do about that, and, therefore, I accept it because I love them. And you know what, they are always there for me, in the day to day life and my father isn’t, in a consistent way, and you know what, if I had to chose, if I ever have to chose, I chose my sanity. I chose what works for me and not what doesn’t. I don’t think most people understand my position. I really don’t. I think from the outside, it’s really easy to tell me, “You shouldn’t have to chose between your dad and mom and sister. You should have them all at family events because even thought they aren’t family with each other any more, they are all connected to Chelsea.” And another one I hear in my head is, “You’re enabling your sister and mother.” But my response to that is, bullshit.
Divorce is complicated. It’s a kind of thing that results in different dynamics in each family. I accept my complicated and hypocritical feelings.
In a perfect world, they’d all come to each family event, and everyone would behave and be comfortable. This isn’t a perfect world. I have to chose for her birthday parties. I don’t think anyone understands my position except Mike. The bottom line is that whatever I do, my family should accept and still love me, and I think that Mom and sister do, but I’m not so sure about my dad.
There’s no answer. It’s a struggle and a struggle I have to accept. I don’t feel any better. I still go around and around in my head about her birthday. Invite them all…but then the grounding thought is the reality that my father doesn’t look at me as a priority. My sister and mother do. My father doesn’t. He comes and goes as is convenient. I can’t count on him. I know this. The grounding thought is this: the reality is my sister and mother will be uncomfortable with his presence, and I care about that and their comfort effects me more than my father’s comfort. It’s the truth and perhaps my wrestling and struggle and going round and round revolves around this: I wish my father were different, and if he were different he could come and/or I wouldn’t feel making the choice between them all were so easy. But in so many ways he makes it easy.
The bottom line is I chose. I chose how I want my relationships. I chose and not some sort of society-expectation or norm. The norms about divorce….HA! Divorce is a norm in society but one that we keep trying to contain into some sort of rules and advice bullshit. Nope. Divorce wreaks havoc most of the time, and so, in that case, people deal with it based on what works with them.
I need my father to be a separate entity from my sister and mother. That means, baring bas mitzvah and my daughter’s wedding and graduation, I don’t want them at the same function. This is what I want, and I need my father to accept it. It’s the reality of what I feel, and I don’t want to struggle anymore.
Acceptance of what is. What is, is this: Mom doesn’t like, love, or want to interact with Dad today, now since the divorce. My sister doesn’t want to see him, have her children around him, discuss him or what happened or why she decided to sever him from her life. Hannah is in the middle. In the middle of the spectrum of “cut off” and “have relationship with.” The middle is a place where depending on the day, mood, actions, conversation with Dad, she will talk with him and interact with him and go see him. Since having her child, this has become increasingly more uncomfortable and difficult as Dad seems so absent, not present, not capable of connection, not capable of accepting what is……
I am here in the middle. I feel guilt about being in the middle, about not taking a side. I have struggled for so long with that guilt. The guilt is in the form of a “should.” “You should cut him off because it shows loyalty to your mother and sister who have been there for you through every tough part of your life while your father hasn’t always. You should cut him off because he is difficult to be around and makes things more complicated and uncomfortable and awkward……………”
Then, slowly, since having Chelsea, since wanting to find peace in this struggle, in this guilt, in this place of yuck and murk and stuck and no win….In discussions with the one person who really understands my middleness, I realize that what is for me is this: Some days I like my dad okay and other days I don’t. Sometimes when he calls, I want to talk and other times I don’t. Sometimes I don’t mind disrupting my schedule to accommodate his last minute request to see me and Chelsea and other times I don’t. Sometimes I look back at the past and I really feel so angry with him and other times I just feel acceptance and a sense of, “That’s just what it was and cannot be judged because it just was.” Sometimes I compare him to other fathers, and I say, “well he didn’t molest, abuse, or neglect me. He showed up for school plays, graduations, and my wedding. He bought me gifts and gave me money to start my business and publish my book. He encouraged me when I felt confused about writing and making a career out of it.” But on the other hand, he judged me harshly for leaving a secure job but yet still also admitted his harshness was more about his own fears and about his inability to take the career risks he wished he had. He’s both proud of me and not at times. He’s inconsistent, and says he wants to see me but cancels dinner or visits three times in a row. He calls every week for awhile and then goes for months without a word. He says he wants to see me more and have me bring Chelsea to his house and yet disappears for weeks at a time.
He’s difficult and complicated. He’s caught in his brain and unable to connect with his emotions. Yet, he wept at the funerals of our beloved cat fatty and my paternal grandfather who I thought he hated. He sat with me through anxiety attacks, holding my hand and reassuring me. He is complicated. He is difficult. He is my dad.
I feel guilt and acceptance. Peace and unrest. I feel despair and relief. I feel glad and sad. My father betrayed my mother. My father hurt her in ways that no one should ever have to feel. My father hurt her in ways that warrant me truly feeling that if anyone did more damage to our family, it was he. When I look at the truth of what I feel, it does take two to tango but doesn’t it take one to initiate the dance?
And yet knowing all the damage he did and the hurt he caused doesn’t make me want to let go completely. As my mother reminded me, this is not rational. It’s what you feel. It’s not right or wrong. It’s a feeling. Feelings cannot be wrong.
I love my dad. I love my mom. I love my sister.
I love my fragmented family. Today. Now.