Post 6: The first cut is the deepest

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“We disappoint,
We leave a mess,
We die but we don't...”

from “No More,” - Into the Woods - by Steven Sondheim

It’s been a tad apocalyptic lately here in Lake World-be-gone, my new home. I began the week forging bravely through a quarter inch of snow to one of our little island’s dental offices.

Ten years ago, I paid a big-city dentist in Seattle $7000 for a root canal just before leaving my big-city day-job and its benefits behind. Perhaps one must pay $9000 to get all the root out, but if so, I was not made aware of it. Two years ago, another big-city dentist in Portland explained how that first dentist’s faux pas had resulted in my dental infection, which would cost $5000 more and a year of treatment to correct. But our ‘dental insurance’ paid for not one cent of those procedures, and even if Shannon and I had possessed any such funds of our own, we were just about to leave Portland for life on an island far away. So the dentist just knocked my infection out with antibiotics, and told me that ‘someday,’ I would still have to deal with this. I’ve had no trouble to speak of since then. None that I could see, anyway. Until it started bleeding in December. We still have no such funds to spare, but we’re exploring payment plans—none of which allow us more than six months to repay the loan. My current plan is to have the problem fixed in small, less expensive bites, so to speak, each six months apart, for the next year or two.

In other news, I blithely lampooned snow-phobia in last week’s post, but my parodies may have been premature. This storm—named Maya, I am told—was doing all the laughing Saturday morning as our island huddled against the raging wind and early gloom, waiting for the power to come back. Thank heaven for wood heat! Just the night before, a lovely couple from further down our road had joined us for dinner, managing to get their chained up, front-wheel-drive station wagon down our steep, winding, snowy driveway without incident. After dinner, they lost a chain failing to get back up it again. So we left their car where it had come to rest, and I drove them home through whirlwinds of blowing snow in our all-wheel-drive Subaru—left parked above that driveway for this very reason. Leaving it up there again upon my return, I was halfway down the driveway when, through darkness and the roar of wind, there came the loud, sudden snapping crackle and thump of a tree beginning to fall—somewhere just to my right. I ran like that proverbial bat from hell, hoping not to be wherever the tree was headed, and, happily, made it inside uncrushed. When we went out yesterday morning to explore by daylight, we found a fairly small tree blown away from the driveway, not towards it, so I was in no danger after all—except perhaps from heart attack. But, yes, I hear you, Maya. No further ridicule of winter from me this week.

Fortunately, we have lots of firewood and ample supplies of food tucked safely away in refrigerators and chest freezers...which we won’t dare open if the power fails again...

I’ll tell you how that went next week. If we’re still here.

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Meanwhile, I have wondered a little what people made of last week’s post. Did any meaning start to coalesce from that apparent meander?  Or did you just scratch your head and wonder whether I was ever going to make some recognizable point here?

If it helps any, my tale does have a point. Maybe more than one. But they’re not simple points, like, “And that is why it’s a bad idea to piss into the wind.” The story I am trying to convey has taken me much of a lifetime to recognize at all, much less pull into focus. I don’t think I’ve ever tried to tell it this cogently or completely to anyone except my wife, and of course, the therapist I saw off and on for 24 years. It’s a story somewhat like those ‘magic-eye’ pictures so popular a few decades back. Did you ever see them—fields of meaningless confetti that one had to stare at through unfocused eyes—for quite a while sometimes—before their ‘3-D’ diorama of dinosaurs or space ships or city skylines suddenly popped into view? I hope some of you remember them, and figured out how to see their hidden pictures, because the ‘points’ of this story may well materialize in much same way.

Most of the small events and choices that led me to where I am seemed entirely meaningless when they were happening—if I noticed them at all. Everyone’s life is full of little frustrations and tiny betrayals; ‘routine’ shames and griefs and angers that sting briefly, and then—if you’re well-adjusted—just get tossed aside and left behind. Who wasn’t treated badly on occasion by some teacher or bureaucrat? Why would any reasonable person bother to remember such dour trivia, much less examine it? What profit could there be in that? ‘Eyes on the prize,’ right? ‘Positivity.’ Life’s little bumps and bruises mean nothing—individually.

But what if, seen together from a certain ridge top, all that ubiquitous, unremarkable clutter seemed suddenly arranged to spell out, “HERE ... THIS”? I’ve spent over sixty years learning to seem ‘well-adjusted.’ And now, just as I seem to have almost got it down, I find myself convinced that the entire effort was pointless from the start.

So, there is something else I want to show you now—much, much deeper into these woods.

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My father was an intelligent, well-educated, generous, and fiercely well-intended man. He died a couple years ago after enduring five years of profound dementia, the last three of them spent sitting in a chair, unable to speak or interact with anyone around him in virtually any way. I had no way of knowing what he thought, or felt, or even vaguely understood during those last years, much less on the day he labored—so hard for so many hours—toward death, as we stood by his bed, unsure whether he knew we were even there.  At his funeral Mass—and a host of other memorial events in his honor that year—a sea of friends and family members expressed their intense admiration for him, and their deep gratitude for the countless things he’d done to help them in ways both large and small. He’d been an unusually gifted and passionate science teacher for 40 years. Wherever we went, my family had grown used to being hailed by some former student, calling my father’s name with excitement, and rushing over to tell him how much they’d enjoyed his classes, and how his example or advice had changed the course of their lives. He was a virtual father to some of my cousins, who badly needed what he gave them. And every one of these grateful admirers was absolutely right. Everything they knew about my father was entirely true.

But one thing I have learned too well by now is that the whole truth invariably makes ample room for paradox—incompatible, yet equally real and coexistent elements. My father was also, of course, a fallible human being just like the rest of us, vulnerable to all kinds of injury and the terrible fears, shames and angers such injury can engender. His childhood was Dickensian, and he suffered all his adult life from chronic, often profound depression, which expressed itself in all sorts of odd and unexpected ways. And still, he did so much good—so frequently—all his life! My parents were both devoutly Catholic people, and my father seemed to feel a truly consuming desire to be ‘GOOD’—at everything—in everything. Ironically, I believe that very quality also proved to be his Achilles’ heal.

Genuinely good people can make tragic mistakes at least as easily as ‘bad people’ can. One of my father’s saddest mistakes occurred within months of my birth, and though I have no conscious memory of it, I am convinced it fractured the bond and rapport between us forever, and reshaped the rest of both our lives. I am aware of it only because, one afternoon a couple decades later, my father, himself, told me about it, in tears. Here—with no one’s permission to expose it—is what he explained to me—and apologized for—that day:

When I came along—first of my parents’ three sons—my father did not remotely want, or feel ready yet, to be a father. In his mind, I was the result of “the Pope’s unwillingness to allow the use of birth control.” When my mother’s pregnancy became apparent—despite their attentive use of the so-called ‘rhythm method’—my father was very, very pissed at the Pope. Sadly, the Pope was not there to take it out on. My existence was, in some compelling, sub-rational way, a terrible injustice, made all the harder to deal with by escalating sleep-deprivation. If you’ve been a parent, perhaps you understand. Awakened—night after night—by the wailing of this creature the Pope had foisted on him, my half-conscious father became unable to manage his anger as well as he’d doubtless have done mid-day, and started coming to “rough me up” in the darkness until I fell silent. He didn’t tell me whether I ever learned not to cry at night at all. But I am certain I learned very well and quickly that I was not supposed to. Yet it seems that soon I began to cry and struggled to escape whenever he tried to hold me—day or night—which made him feel rejected, and did nothing to make my existence easier for him to embrace.

My mother feels very badly too, about having failed to put a stop to this behavior at the time. But in the 1950s, women—especially religious ones—were not empowered or encouraged by much of anyone to challenge their husbands. Especially their angry husbands.

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I find myself unable to insist that they should have seen things as I might now, or been equipped to respond—to anything—as we veterans of the ‘pop-psychology’ era, and all that’s followed it, might. As I mentioned last week, wooden rulers and worse were still openly and respectably used for discipline in the best of schools then. When my father’s oldest brother was lost, and “presumed” dead, in the Pacific during WWII, my grandmother had what we would call today a ‘nervous breakdown,’ and was locked away behind wrought iron gates for weeks of electroshock therapy and other gruesome treatments, only to be sent home a murmuring, weeping zombie. This was my father’s—and many other people’s—experience of ‘psychology’ in 1956. Virtually no one then had any inkling of the many tools and permissions we take for granted today in discussing and dealing with what drives or wounds us. My parents, like most people in that world, were left to cope very much alone with all the worst about themselves and in each other.

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To be clear, nothing I’ve said is meant to suggest that my father’s behavior on those nights was not really abusive. It was. My father clearly did not excuse himself. Nor does my mother excuse him or herself. Nor do I excuse them—though I did, and do forgive them both, completely. I cannot support denial of abuse. But I am slow to pick up the stick and wield it in response.  My father injured his first-born son, and himself. AND he and my mother were/are both unusually good people who loved their children—all the way down. There is no convenient ‘either/or’ there. Only ‘and.’ In failure and in success, for better and for worse, they both did the very best they were equipped to do—going to heroic lengths on some occasions—all their lives.

If anything about my father’s unfortunate behavior was unusual for those times, it was how intensely bad he soon felt about himself because of it. I suspect few men then would have felt that way. But I’m afraid that very guilt—combined with his urgent determination to be the very best of good men—did us, and him, even more harm in the long run than the ill-advised shaking would have by itself. To a man whose whole heart was set so fiercely on being heroic in all things, I believe the threat of encountering his own shadow—in such a dark and painful tableau—did not seem survivable. And yet, the distress his terrible misstep had left us both to navigate was always present in somewhere in the mix, pointing where he dared not look. I think he started trying to lose sight of that unbearable failing by inventing ‘other explanations’ for his own distress, and for mine. If there was a specific moment when my wander in this tangled wood really began, I think it was there, that early on.

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From that point, my path just veered ever further from whatever course it might have taken. But I’ve used all the time I—and likely you—have for this tonight. So I’ll pick up the trail next week, and attempt not just to add new dots to this map, but to begin connecting some of those already collected.

As always, thanks for coming along even this far.

Have a warm and peaceful week, cyber friends. I’ll return next Sunday.

Mark FerrariComment