Oh, boy, sometimes we see things we don’t want to—like a stain on my pants, one that I’d prefer not to notice till after I’ve left the house. If I notice it before leaving, my conscience won’t let me keep those pants on. I have to change, once I see the truth. It’s a call to action. (A call to board the hero’s journey!) The same is true of taking a second look at the stories from my childhood that I’d accepted as true. For me, the process of examining the past goes hand-in-hand with cross-examining popular, dismissive, and inaccurate phrases like they did the best they could (or that alcoholism is best categorized as a disease). One story is the story of how my father came back to reclaim me from my grandparents’ house when I was five years old. It’s as if my eyes are being drawn to a new sightline by the hands of the healing process itself (no, not by the invisible hands of little elves, but a kind of bio-physical-spiritual action-reaction—like how exercise drives me to naturally crave healthy foods, forget sugar, and desire more exercise the next day).
I must have communicated to the universe that I was willing to do this (enormously painful) re-examination work, because I’m seeing things differently without asking for it. When I began the process of setting boundaries with my father in the past two years since I moved back “home” to California, it was because I understood that I needed to place limits for myself with him, and in the process I’ve had to let go of a very old story that I had internalized, a central story, one deeply-held and hugely cherished for all of my childhood and most of my adult life.
I had always thought of my father as my hero—the one who came back for me after everyone else had abandoned me. He is also my only “true” family (I didn’t grow up with my mother, who is now dead, and I never had a loving relationship with my stepmother, who’d always referred to me “part of the package” of marrying my dad); he’s my one blood parent. And, although I’d never said it out loud (even to a therapist), I believed without being told, without question that he needed me, needed to be able to count on me. So, imagine the task of setting boundaries!
I was three or four years old when my parents split up, probably after a good year or two of fighting. Both were alcoholics and drug users, excitement-seekers, workaholics, etc. I stayed with my mother for a summer following their divorce (back when children automatically went with the mother rather than the dad). But, before the summer was over, she brought me to her parents’ house for what was supposed to be a weekend—but was nearly two years. She went to rehab, and attempted suicide although I’m not sure in what order. I liked living with my grandparents—actually, I loved it. But living with them, no matter how nurturing they were, wasn’t ever meant to be my permanent home. I was just waiting for my mother and father to come for me, reunited. In the end, it was only my father who came for me, who got his shit together, and realized the importance of his fatherly duty. He got a good job and had even found a woman who could help him take care of me, and make a new family. One thinks, what an industrious man!
My father rang me up at my grandparent’s house one day (I was five then, attending the kindergarten where my grandfather was a janitor). I always talked to him in the kitchen, from the wall phone with a coiled cord that was so long it brushed the ground when hung up. My father had called to tell me that he’d accepted a job in Wyoming. We lived in Minnesota at the time (my mother and father both lived in Duluth, and my grandparents and I lived 30 minutes away in a town called Cloquet.) I honestly don’t know how often my father might have visited me at my grandparents during that period—I gather from photos that I spent occasional weekends with him—my memories from that time are largely black. I don’t remember our phone call—that is, I don’t remember the conversation. I only remember standing in the kitchen and the long phone cord. It’s possible that my memory isn’t of that particular conversation; rather, my memory more likelycomes from an amalgamation of conversations I had with him and my mother on that phone. No wonder I remember the phone so well; when that yellow phone rang, and it was for me, there were only two people who could be on the line, the two most important in my world.
When my father, in later years, told me the story of the Phone Call, which he did often enough, he’d remind me of my power. He’d tell the story of how I changed the course of his life—and mine—with just one little, innocent question. “I heard your little voice on the other end of the line,” he’d say with a rising intonation, dramatizing it, “Asking, ‘But when will I get to see you if you move to Wyoming?’ And I realized that I couldn’t leave, and I came to get you.” The rest, it went without saying, was history.
For most of my life I have felt special on account of this story. I mattered that much to my father. I mattered so much that I prevented him from taking a job, from moving away, and I even caused him to find a wife to make a home. The fact that he told and retold the story throughout my life underscored my power—it was also remarkable to him how life-changing me and my question had been. It was like he was saying, “You embodied a sage in that moment, and set the course for the rest of my life.” (Years later, after his divorce from my stepmother, he would say, “I suffered for thirty years with that woman for you!” Not only does such a statement discount the value of his children with “that woman,” but transfers the responsibility of his decision onto me, as if I’m that powerful.) (He married her seeking a mother figure for me; she married him despite me, my being an undesirable ”part of the package,” in her own, often-repeated words.)
What happened for me last year was one of those “it just hit me” moments. I wasn’t, like, purposefully reexamining this story; I was writing an essay about something else, and it just popped up. It was kind of like holding up a glass of water, looking through it at the trees behind, then—just ever so slightly—tilting the glass at an angle, and seeing that something new, somehow, comes into view as the water line shifts. Subtle but illuminating. And undeniable.
The truth is that the Phone Call is the saddest exchange that I can imagine happening between a father and daughter. The saddest in my life. I had already been abandoned by my parents, and then one of them was calling to tell me he was moving even farther away. To where was he going? It had been characterized for years as a magical phone call, one that had brought us together, but in fact togetherness hadn’t been the purpose of his call. The call was about greater separation. That I didn’t protest but instead asked how I would fit into his plan—when would I see him—suggests that I wasn’t surprised about his moving away, or worse, that I was beyond shock. I was accommodating, even at five years old! What’s more, there’s the added psychological layer of my father assigning to a little girl all the power in the scenario—the innocent question that changed our fates, which piles onto me the responsibility for how it all went following that day, and of course there’s also the refusal of fatherly-based decision-making.
There is no shame in having readily accepted fiction as fact. I had to. It was easy to accept the story I wanted to hear. That’s just one of the ways in which my mind comforted my heart when I needed it most.
I’m not certain as to how to swab the exposed area now that I’ve ripped off that particular band-aid. It’s pretty raw. I guess just—oxygen.