Specific dates get sketchy, but it was December 1995 or 1996. I was visiting my mother in Delaware on Christmas break. I was in my first or second year of my doctoral program at Bowling Green State University in Ohio and had not been living at home for the last 6 years or so; spending time with mom seemed the right thing to do.
More miraculously, spending time with dad seemed the right thing to do as well. I had not seen him for about 18 years at that point. After having experienced a childhood full of his violent shenanigans, and then another four or so years in therapy trying to get on with my life as a damaged adult, I was ultra-estranged from him, actively hating him for his behavior and despising his very being. Like most victims of family abuse, up until that point I had blamed most of my own shortcomings and stuntedness on him solely. But something had happened to rotate my perspective. Maybe it was being in Ohio completely on my own for years, or maybe it was the continued therapy, or maybe it was my academic studies examining the role spirituality (writ large) might play in expanding ideas about postsecondary writing pedagogy (which became my eventual dissertation topic). For whatever reason, I had come to the mature understanding that it wasn’t all about me any longer. It wasn’t about my problems or my past or my unhappiness or my inability or my lack of willingness. The world was so much bigger than me. It was a freeing experience, a graceful place to find myself in (and one that, I’ve since discovered, is not a permanent address).
So, suddenly, visiting my father on Christmas—an act that hitherto would have been absolutely impossible—was natural, simple. I could visit Dad easily because life, at least in that precious moment, wasn’t about me or my issues. In fact, it wasn’t even about me visiting dad at all. I could visit him for him, not for me. It was all so clear. And lucky for me, he and his long-time second wife, Lorraine, had moved from Florida to Delaware, only 20 miles from my mother’s house, and I was already in town. Everything fell into place like during the last 10 seconds of a sitcom.
I found his apartment complex, ascended the stairs to his door, and rang the bell, no trepidation. The door creaked open slowly, and Lorraine poked her head out. She was, plainly put, a nightmare. Unkempt gray hair, maybe some of it in rollers, ghastly white face, glazed eyes, a faded pink housecoat. She had reached her final destination, one that had been circled on the map for a long time: Valium-zombie-ville.
[My relationship with Lorraine is another post entirely—it has to be. If I were to sidetrack here and explain the complexities of my “stepmother” Lorraine and my relationship with her, I would not do it justice. And it requires justice. For now, I leave you with this much-too-brief insane collection of words: At the tender age of 14, having recently run away from my mother and her second husband (who this day is living happily as a gay man) and into my father’s controlling embrace, I learned how to smoke Salem 100s (and sip on screwdrivers) while playing Yahtzee for hours on end with Lorraine. Lorraine and I were best friends in the most dysfunctional way possible. More forthcoming.]
Lorraine either didn’t recognize me, since I had been out of touch for almost two decades, or she wasn’t recognizing anything at all, which was more likely. I entered the apartment and what I found was darkness—both kinds. The shades were drawn against the cold midday sun; the place was draped in shadow. It was bare, except for a few sticks of flea market furniture—a card table for eating on, a sunken-in couch, and another tray table with a 13-inch black and white TV straight from 1970, rabbit ears and all. No pictures on the bare walls. I didn’t think it at the time, but only a few minutes after leaving, the reality dawned on me: Their lives—full of fragmentation, violence, transcience, minor run-ins with the law, prescribed sedatives–had led to this. They had no things. But more crucial, they had no people. They were in the dark. Lorraine, now a ghost, slowly faded into the background.
My father sat on the floor of the mostly empty living room, vigorously working away at something I couldn’t see in the darkness. He got up, quickly shook my hand and said he was glad to see me, and then kneeled back down to his task and began to explain what he was doing. He was not the strong-voiced, cold-staring, blackhaired, strong man who I remembered from 18 years ago. I mean, of course, right? But as much as you can tell yourself all of this makes sense and should be expected, it never is. He was gray, wrinkled, wore glasses with thick lenses, and he was shorter. Of course, I was taller, but you just can’t ever know how these realities will hit you. For me, I was sure I was standing in some elderly couple’s home, both of whom were strangers and had accidentally let me in. I followed dad into the living room and stood looking down on him, since there were no chairs to sit in.
What my father said next epitomized him perfectly, a man I eventually came to understand as a codependent caretaker, a violent martyr—someone who found all his self-worth and self-definition in helping the helpless. But doing so also allowed him to exercise his unquenchable need for control over others, even to the point of physical harm if his wards were uncooperative. This was the nature of his relationship with Lorraine, his relationship to my mother, and his relationship to his children:
“I found this leather jacket in the dumpster here. It’s a good coat. It’s in good shape still. I’m cleaning it with some Windex. It will fit Rick. I visited him the other day. He told me he needs a coat for when he gets out.” Ricky, my eldest brother, was in jail again for who-knows-what—as I grew older and disconnected from the drama, I lost track of it all.
There was some small talk following that, I’m sure, but that’s not what remains. What persists is the image of Dad, squatting in the middle of his empty life, furiously attempting to resurrect someone else’s garbage as a present for my imprisoned brother, while the sedated shadow of Lorraine lurked somewhere in the dark void of the apartment.