Friday, June 24, 2005


In Which Memory Is Made Safe...

(Sorry for the long post, folks. But if I don't finish this now, I probably never will.)

My heart was in my throat now. "No," I said, fingering the ring of keys in my pocket. The ring that held the key to the gun cabinet. "We're not gonna start shooting at bottles."

I paused again and said it for the first time. "You're drunk." I swallowed, then almost repeated myself. "You're a drunk," I said quietly.

My father stood there, blinking at me, his face screwing up. "You don't give me lip like that. Now up in my bag I've got something. It's quiet, won't make much noise while we practice. My roommate give it to me to pay his rent one month. A little .25. You go get it."

"Come on--" I started, trying to reason with him. But as soon as I protested, he made a disgusted face at me and started back towards the house. If I didn't get the gun, he would.

"All right! All right!" I cried, a trifle desperate now, and ran past him into the house.

I bolted up the stairs three at a time and found the suitcase. I opened it, got out the Crown Royal bag containing the pistol.

Make it safe, I thought, feeling stupid as I did. I wasn't thinking about the gun, I was thinking about this whole shitty mess. How could I possibly make this situation safe? For a second, I froze.

Then I was seized with a powerful urge to run back down the stairs and out the front door, just get the hell away. I could see myself pelting across the street to the woods, maybe even heading across the fields beyond to the little town near where we lived. I had done it plenty of times. It was my standard response when I was younger. My father would go off on some tirade: dishes hadn't been washed, firewood hadn't been stacked just so, the lawn hadn't been mowed when he thought it should. Usually, he'd yell at you and call you lazy and worthless and be done with you. But sometimes he got worse, and started chasing you around the house, whacking you in the back and kidneys and rump as you fled before him. During those times, I'd head out the back door and into the woods, staying out there til I heard my father's truck roar away, or my brother would come to find me.

This was different. Before, even during the worst of my father's erratic behavior, you could always sense that some part of him was there. But not now. Just as I had slipped into my boy-detective persona, my father had slipped--fallen, really--into nothing, a non-persona that was completely unfathomable to me. The wild leap out the window, the crazy yelling, the even crazier look in his eyes. I wanted to get away from that look, those eyes. As far away as I could. I had the baddest of bad feelings that if I stayed, something awful would happen. I didn't know what. I just knew I had to get out of there.

Except...what if a neighbor came over to see what the commotion was? What if Gina came back to see if I was all right? What if my mom came home, with no one to warn or help her, and found those eyes staring back her when she walked in the door?

I knew I shouldn't stay. I knew I couldn't run. There really was no way to make this situation safe.

But I did what I could. I carefully unloaded the magazine, stuffing the bullets in the box with the rest. I dashed into the attic, which was a ramshackle room with an old bricked up chimney in it. There were a couple loose bricks at the top and I stuffed the box of ammunition through one of the brick holes until I heard the box fall.

I checked the pistol a second time, making sure it was completely empty, then I went back downstairs.

I'm not sure what I planned to do. I think I was probably going to tell him I couldn't find any bullets. Or maybe I was stupidly hoping I'd dry-fire the gun a couple times and he'd conclude the cheap little gun was jammed.

I came back outside. My father was standing by the back porch, waiting.

"Here it is," I said, my mouth dry. "I couldn't--"

Before I could finish, my father grabbed my wrist in his viselike hand. I felt a bolt of pain as the bones ground together and the gun fell from my grip. He snatched the pistol up.

I've never written about what happened next, because I think writing about it would finally confirm once and for all that it actually happened, and I spent years trying to convince myself that it didn't. I've hinted at this moment a few times in my writing here, not to turn the incident into some kind of cheap dramatic play for attention or suspense, but more because I was trying to work up the nerve to write about it, and never quite succeeded.

Without a word, without explanation, without checking the gun to see if it was loaded, without checking to make it safe, without any apparent thought or care about what he was doing, my father snapped the pistol to my head, on the left side of my head, just above the temple.

Then he pulled the trigger.

Now, I knew the gun was unloaded. I had unloaded it myself. Had double-checked it to make sure.

But knowing that fact did nothing to blunt the impact of the moment. And despite what my head knew, in my heart I was convinced the gun would go off and my father would kill me. (after all, isn't it the unloaded gun that kills more people?)

I closed my eyes involuntarily when he pulled the trigger. The click the firing pin made when it hit the empty chamber was no louder than the sound of a lighter being flicked on, but it was a noise I would hear--with crystal clarity--for years afterwards.

My mind was completely incapable of processing the thoughts and feelings running through it then. The monumental sense of betrayal, the overwhelming urge to scream "Why?", the insane wrongness of the moment, the way it contradicted everything I knew about how it all was supposed to be. In the event, all I remembered was a single thought, trying desperately, inadequately to convey the weight of the instant. He hadn't even checked it to see if it was loaded. The thought repeated in my mind. He didn't even check it.

It happened in an instant, then it was over. He took the gun away from my head and laughed. He laughed, like he'd just played a fine joke on me.

He turned, gun in hand, and started to walk back into the house.

He didn't even check it, I kept thinking.

It was the last coherent thought I remember having before the blackout.

To be clear, I didn't pass out from the shock of my father putting a gun to my head and pulling the trigger. But shock definitely had something to do with it. I don't know why I remember the moment of not-quite-being shot. Seems to me that should be the memory my mind would choose to blank out. But it didn't. Instead, I lost everything that happened next.

I'm not sure how much time elapsed. Probably not more than 5 minutes, but I can't really say. Over the years, I have tried to make myself remember what happened, and sometimes I think I do remember snippets. But mostly it's a blank. And I guess it doesn't really matter. It's pretty obvious what happened.

The next thing I knew, I was back in the living room, standing over my father. He was sprawled partway across the couch, his head resting on a cushion, his legs dangling off. He had a great seeping gash on his forehead and he was covered with what I thought was dried blood.

Then I looked down at myself and saw that I was covered with it too.

And I was holding a pot in my hand.

It was the heavy metal pot full of gravy and macaroni and cheese and cinnamon sticks, the noxious glop my father had made while he was drunk. I had left it out on the porch. The glop was all over both of us now, and on the walls, the rug and the couch.

My wrist--the same wrist my father had grabbed and squeezed--hurt like crazy. I dropped the pot and knelt over my father. I felt his neck for a pulse, like they did on TV. It was a silly thing to do, because he was clearly and loudly breathing.

I felt panicked, disoriented. What had happened? Had I really hit him upside the head with the pot? I truly didn't--and do not--remember doing it.

In a daze, I picked up the pot and began hunting around the kitchen for some paper towels to and cleaner to wipe down walls. On the way back to the living room, I saw the gun, lying discarded on the floor. I grabbed it, ran out to the back yard and threw it into the high bushes of the yard. Later, I retrieved it, broke it apart, and buried it. It's probably still there at that house.

I went back inside and called my mom at work. I told her to come home as quickly as she could, but it was two hours before she did. I spent the time cleaning up the mess as best I could. I left my father alone, though. If it had occurred to me to call a doctor or make sure in some way that the gash on his head hadn't caused some permanent damage, I don't remember it. In fact, I don't remember having any feeling about him good or bad after that. His presence in my mind, in my life, was like an emotional dead space. Something had shut down. I didn't hate him. But I didn't love him either. He wasn't even like a stranger to me. He was nobody.

He was still out when my mom finally came home. It was near dark by then, but I found a flashlight and led her out to the car, where I showed her the bottles. Though it was dark and I couldn't see her face clearly, I could see enough and it was obvious that the curtain dropped for her just a quickly as it had for me. My mom is not an emotional woman, but she had a look I'd never seen before. She stood there for a long while, trembling angrily, hissing to herself, "I knew it," over and over. She had left home to get away from two alcoholic parents. Had run away from drunks right into the arms of another drunk. It rattled me to see her so upset. I didn't tell her about the incident with the gun (Even then, I was already trying to tell myself that maybe it hadn't actually happened). All I would tell her was that I couldn't sleep in the house if he was going to be there too. I would sleep out in a shed, or in the back of the car, or anywhere, but not here. To her credit, my mom didn't argue or press me. I have no doubt I looked pretty shaken. She knew something bad had happened and that was enough.

So there was no dramatic moment of intervention, no apologies, no professions of love and support or shame and remorse. When my father came to, my mom gave him a very simple set of instructions: he could go into detox, or he could get the hell out and never come back. She said she didn't really care either way, and frankly neither did I.

So my father left.

He gathered up his suitcase and his collection of Crown Royal sacks (including one that was bursting with Fisherman's Friend cough drops, the noxious horehound lozenges so useful for soothing sore throats and, we would come to find out, masking the smell of alcohol on one's breath). He loaded the car by himself. It was full dark, and we could hear him clinking among the empty bottles we had unloaded. Then I heard him muttering about his keys, and realized I still had them in my pocket. I fumbled with them for a moment, removing and pocketing the key to the gun cabinet and the house key. I threw the ring to the cement floor of the porch, then closed and locked the door. My mom and I stood on the other side of the door as we heard him shuffle back, pick up the keys. There was a soft knock at the door, and I heard him call my name in a quiet, sort of mournful voice. Part of me hoped he was sobering up and remembering what had happened. If it was so, I could only wish that he felt awful. I didn't say that, of course. I didn't say anything. I stood there quietly, listening to him call my name, then my mom's. Then he stopped.

After a few minutes, we heard the old Galaxie sputter to life and watched from the window as he rolled out of the driveway. For a long time, it seemed, we stood there, in the quiet darkness of the kitchen.

Finally, my mom asked, "Are you all right?"

"My wrist hurts," I said. And I began to cry.

It was that awful, chest-hitching, nose-running, chin-quivering brand of crying that you're mortified to find you haven't outgrown at 16 (and that even at 37 are a little embarrassed to admit to). At first it was just involuntary, and then I cried because I was mad at myself for crying. And then I wasn't crying anymore. I was laughing and telling my mom about my father's leap out the front window, and she started laughing too. We didn't have what you would call a good laugh about it, but it was better than crying (it always is).

My father headed east and lived with my brother for a while, then some old family friends. Finally, he ended up in some boarding house in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. A year passed. I graduated from high school (and had forbid him from coming to my graduation, although I think he came to the ceremony anyway) and started college.

That fall my father hit rock bottom. I was home for Thanksgiving when he called the house from a pay phone, begging my mom for help. She got a hold of a relative from upstate and they got him into a hospital. All I could think was, it's a good thing mom answered the phone. I would have hung up on you.

I had completely blocked off any feeling about my father, except a certain growing anger and resentment for everything he had put my family through. For a long time, I couldn't talk about him, acknowledge his existence even. After he'd been in detox for a month and started going to AA meetings, they were getting ready to release my father. My mom called me at school. She was driving to New Hampshire to see him. My brother, still at college in Rhode Island, was going to meet them. My father had been asking for me. We had almost no money at this point--I was working three jobs at college just to pay for basics. But my mom wanted to send me some money to get a bus ticket to join them. I refused.

It was just a few days before the end of the term when I got another phone call. I thought it might be my mom again.

But it was my best friend Shawn.

Shawn and I had been pals from our days together in the Midwest. We had written a lot to each other since I'd moved away, but we talked on the phone very rarely, and not at all since everything that had happened with my father. Still, it seemed fitting that he should call. He had been very much on my mind during that time, and not just because of my tendency to slip into boy-detective mode when coping with my father's mysterious behavior. Regular readers may recall that Shawn had a pretty tumultuous childhood of his own, with a single mom who expected him to be the surrogate dad to his brothers and sister. I thought if any of my friends might understand the craziness of impossible family situations, he'd be the one. So when he asked how my parents were, I found myself telling him everything. He was the first person I had told about the incident with the gun.

He let me go on for a bit, and then he was silent. "You haven't talked to him since then?"

"Not if I can help it. Would you?"

Silence again. "I don't know. I never really knew my dad."

This was the first time he had told this to me. Shawn hated talking about his family. It was a real sore spot with him.

"Well," I said, after a moment. "I envy you."

"Don't say that!" he fairly shouted at me. "He may have been drinking, but at least you had a dad to earn money and take care of things, you know. You had someone coming home at Christmas and visiting. He was sick. And now he's in the hospital getting better. And you have another chance. So don't say you envy me because you don't know!"

My face burned. "Sorry," I said lamely. "But--"

“Yeah. He put a gun to your head. That's really the worst. I mean it, it's awful. But that guy is gone." He sighed hugely. "I think I'd want to go see who's there now." In his way, my old friend was always wiser than I was, and had put his finger on something that had been bugging me, a kind of paradox I hadn't been able to articulate.

My father had tried to shoot me, an unforgivable, unconscionable act.

But he had taught me how to handle guns too.

If he hadn't, I never would have gone near the pistol, never would have known how unload it.

But if his drinking hadn't made him crazy enough to mess around with the gun, I would never have been in that position.

He loved me enough to teach me how to protect myself.

But the person I ended up protecting myself from was...him. And I hated him for that.

Except...I didn't. All of a sudden, I didn't know how to feel about him anymore. But a couple days later, I did get on a bus and began a trip that took about six hours. But which has also taken 20 years.

In that time I can't say I've learned a hell of a lot, but I have come to realize that forgiveness is not a natural talent. It's a skill that has to be taught, much like learning to handle a gun.

Forgiveness isn't about wiping away the harmful memories of things done to you. It's about learning to live with them, to handle them in such a way that you control the deadlier, damaging aspects of those memories.

It's about making them safe.

Learning that skill hasn't been an easy process, but I've kept at it.

Ever since the day I headed east to meet my Dad.

From Somewhere on the Masthead


Wow. I'm wordless.
moi aussi
Thank you for sharing your story, MM. That could not have been easy.
I'm at a loss. That is a powerful story, thank you for sharing it.

Makes you think why would someone you love so much do that to you... It is good to see that your father and yourself are close now though....
dear mm.

writing these words have never been harder. All I can say is.

Thank you.
Not being able to trust the two people who you first trusted...who brought you into this world - that is awfully difficult to come to terms with. And yet the ending is so eloquent, as if you've somehow reconciled yourself with your father.
Your story brought tears to my eyes.
I'm awed by the bravery it took to share this story. My heart breaks to know you had to survive this, but it rejoices in the fact that you broke the cycle -- as it's very clear that you adore your children.


Holy crap.

You are so right about forgiveness.

What a good guy you are.

In my mind's eye you are still typing away in the august offices of... well no I'd better change that one, it's got kind of a personal taint now huh... let's say it's the magazine with all the alien abduction stories instead... you're still looking like Jaws (can't shake that)... but now you're wearing a Superman cape. :)
These are life changing words:

"Forgiveness isn't about wiping away the harmful memories of things done to you. It's about learning to live with them, to handle them in such a way that you control the deadlier, damaging aspects of those memories."

Thanks man.
This blog entry is perhaps the most profound and moving I have ever read.
I must add too the list of speechless people. Your writing takes my breath away.
Glad to have found this place and found this writing - you are going straight into my links list and will be back to have a good rummage.

Also, I am truly jealous of your writing talent.
MM, Shane brought me here, but your words are keeping me.

Today, with London and the terrorits, and my own family drama past, reading this somehow helps. Don't know why, but it did.

Thank you. It took courage to share.

Thank you. Just...thank you.
Wow. Damn. I hope I can catalog my memories some day. Thank you for showing me a way.
Your dad was my Grandpa (not literally). My Dad was the one who answered the phone when he finally called, after he left. My Dad threatened to kill him if he ever came near my Grandma again.

That terrible gene skipped him and 2 of his kids, but not me. Dad responded to the knowledge of my problem with the intention of beating the crap out of me. My mother, now dead, stopped him. Completely different scenerio. Same disbelief that your Father intended to harm you.

I'm glad you chose to meet the person your Dad had become. I'm well on the road to becoming the person I should be. But, I don't know a single thing about my Grandpa, or the reason why my Dad is the way he is.

My son is 17 and I'm terrified of when he'll take his first drink.
I'm a firm believer that everything happens for a reason. I am relatively new here but love to read your posts - and the links back to old stories. That's what happened today. You linked to a story from June of 2006. I guess I accidently went to the archives of 2005. I was skimming through the stories and came upon this one. While the circumstances are much different, this story really hit home with me. I am an adult child of an alcoholic.

My dad has since been through rehab and drugs and alcohol are no longer his demons - about 20 years clean now. In February, he had a massive heart attack - termed the "widow maker" by the docs. Until last weekend I believed he stopped smoking cold turkey that day. And I think I really liked believing that the guy who regularly let me down as a kid and had a hard time being the responsible adult had now done something I was extremely proud of.

Since then, I've made reference to what a great job he's been doing since the heart attack and how great it is that he hasn't smoked since that day. I guess I never point blank ASKED if he stopped. I couldn't smell it on him and my mom never said he started. Last weekend my mom and I were out together and for some reason, I asked if dad has smoked at all since the heart attack. She hesitated for a minute and then said she might as well tell me he has. But not as much as before as though that would make it better.

I felt like I'd been punched in the stomach and had I not been driving, I probably would have needed to sit down for a minute and absorb what she said. I told her I wouldn't tell him I knew. She said he really didn't want me to know. She only told me because I asked directly and she refused to lie to me.

I haven't told my husband - or anyone until right now - but part of me is so conflicted. If I keep the secret - another damned family secret - everything will be fine. But it's another lie. And, I don't want him to know that I know because it will be another thing pushing us farther apart. But I am also so angry that I am in this position again. If it weren't for the issues in the past, I'd think I was just silly. But it's amazing how deep the emotions run.

And, ultimately, I'm glad I know. I'm so disappointed and angry but I know that if he has another heart attack, he's done this to himself. He has CHOSEN smoking over all else. And all of a sudden, I'm a 6 year old kid wishing I had a normal dad. I want to continue the "lie." For my daughter's sake - I want something to hang on to for her to be proud of. Grandpa got sick but he overcame it. Even if it's not true. How sick is that???

Wow - I'm sorry. I didn't even intend to post nevermind rant about my own issues. I just want to thank you for sharing your stories. Actually, later in the day that I found out, I thought of your open letter to your father about his own smoking. It's pretty wild how reading someone else's stories reopens deep wounds in your own life. Thank you for that! It's good to feel that way every once in a while to know your still alive.
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