Sunday, July 4, 2010

Punch and Duty

This morning I awoke early and refreshed, yet moved straight to the couch and fell back into a deep somnambulant sleep. Several times I came to the surface, and even though I have things to do, could not break free of the deadening slumber. Resolved this week to move forward, to rise from the couch, to free the passion that remains blocked in this broken body, I kept tumbling back into the murkiness of that dark unconsciousness not unlike the one I had feared so much and avoided when the surgery was postponed last month.

In the weeks before my scaffold collapsed last October, I was working very hard on a study of my childhood. My New Warrior meetings and a long drive with one man in particular were barrelling me towards an emotional confrontation with the rock steady conviction that my early days were ones of bliss and happiness, nearly perfect in the balance of love, opportunity, laughter and challenge.

“But you weren't safe!” my friend shouted at me, hands off the steering wheel and punching at me, threatening as dangerously as I had only known in ugly exchanges with an ex-wife. Then a silly game came to mind which I had played with my own little kids. On the approach to an intersection, we often chanted as if we could control the light, “Stay green, stay green, stay green…”

Although I had joked about sitting at red lights with my father, I had never connected that chant to my own children with the early memories of the few rituals I had shared with my father. This was the essay I was writing the day I set my pad aside to go back up the scaffold and landed in the hospital. I reread it several times in these months of recuperation, meaning to finish it, but now it has disappeared entirely—as if the concept itself is trying to escape back into the subconscious—and it needs to be rewritten.

My father used to hit me.

Never ever in anger, but wallops to my head and body nevertheless were regular punctuations to our times together. We could be in the lightest of moments, soaked in laughter around the dinner table, and his arm would punch affectionately at my head, stinging me to the subconscious core, bewildering me in surprise.

Saturday mornings, as the only son, I relished and dreaded his invitations to run up to the lumber store together for donuts (rarely allowed by mother) and whatever he needed for whatever project he was artfully adding to our home. A red light along the way could create an eon of awkwardness while he waited, hands on the wheel, not sure how to acknowledge our companionable quiet. Suddenly that hand would swing out and down, slapping my thigh with a force raising a welt and tears, accompanied by a cry of “how the hell are ya!” that was supposed to make it all okay.

Nothing could be better for fathers and sons than to throw a baseball back and forth in the evening’s stroll towards twilight. The sense of ease at day’s end and the silent bonds growing thicker between each toss and catch should create wonderful memories wordlessly, stretching to generations beyond in both directions. Mine include coming to my mother in tears with a palm so swollen, red and fractured, in such pain I wanted to never catch with him again.

He loves you, Sweetie,” she would console and explain, “He’s just not good with words and doesn’t know how to say it. In fact, he loves you so much, the harder he throws, the more he wants you to feel it.”

Fifty years later, I begin to understand that a near perfect childhood was regularly ripped asunder by an unspeakable violence. That we had such wonderful times of Santa Clauses and sledding, pumpkins and waffles, camping and singing made the blows that stunned me seem just passing pains like bee stings, insignificant and acceptable when living in an old apple orchard, part of the territory.

With no love less for my father, I have come to understand that this was not okay and taught myself to say to him directly "I love you". I await without expectation for him to answer me back with similar words.

The realization of this darker side of growing up explains and justifies many of the struggles I have borne to live up to the grand expectations from myself and others laid before me all these many years since. I can now comfort the little boy inside who still stoops under the agonizingly heavy load of the canvas tent he had to carry up the long, steep and narrow path. I can tease, coax and challenge the New Age man uncomfortable and shy with his spoken words and hesitantly uncomfortable to reach out softly and express his feelings.

Most importantly, I can forgive the man who tried so hard to stay so long with a woman whose own frustrations at not feeling loved were expressed with violence.

After nine months on the couch and a long, deep sleep, this Independence Day feels ripe for a parade, celebration and fire works. It begins with what has become our traditional sunday brunch with my own son and the words clearly spoken, "I love you."

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