When I was 15, my father and I had an argument that struck like a lightening bolt, destroying all in its path. The reverberations radiated out from that day and continued on for much of my adult life, shattering our relationship.
A friend gave me a ride home from an after-school meeting. There were two details about my friend that were completely inconsequential to me: my friend was a teenage boy but more significantly to my father, he was a black, teenage boy.
The timing was perfect: we pulled into the driveway and just as I got out of the car, dad pulled up in his car and had to wait for my friend to drive off before he could pull in. Not only did he have to wait to get into his own driveway, but his daughter, his eldest daughter, had just gotten out of a car driven by a black, teenage boy – the most dangerous combination my father could imagine. A tornado was forming, ready to devour all in its path, and it was heading straight for me.
My father, only steps behind me, tore into the house and right before my eyes became a bigoted, rage-filled white man.
“HOW DARE YOU GET INTO A CAR WITH HIM? WHAT WILL THE NEIGHBORS THINK?” And then, “DON’T LET ME EVER CATCH YOU WITH HIM AGAIN! DO YOU HEAR ME?”
Our relationship had been deteriorating for years. This was the last straw. I was afraid of him, yes, but in that moment my outrage gave me strength and I stood up to him. I became as large as he, or maybe I grew in stature, momentarily finding my voice, and he shrank with my condemnation.
“HOW CAN YOU SAY THAT!? HOW CAN YOU TALK ABOUT HIM LIKE THAT? AFTER ALL YOU WENT THROUGH? HOW COULD YOU? HE’S MY FRIEND!” I looked right at him.
He took a step toward me as he raised his arm, as if to strike. I fled to my sanctuary – out into the backyard, the place that always caught me with open arms. Sitting in a crude swing that hung from a massive Chinese elm tree, a swing built by a younger, more hopeful version of my father, I wailed generations of heartbreak. I sobbed to myself, to the guardian tree that held me suspended between this world and the next – between child and adult, and wondered who that monster was? How could my father say such things? A son of immigrant Jewish parents, he’d been tormented verbally and physically for being The Other, how could he treat someone else the exact same way?
The back door opened, and then the screen door. My sobs were now murmuring hiccups, giant tears slid down my face. He stood a few feet behind me in the dark.
“I know it’s wrong – at least I didn’t teach it to you.”
He turned and went back inside. I stayed within the safety of my tree’s outstretched arms until late into the evening. I was crushed under the weight of that grief. We both were.
Thirty years later I was once again living under the same roof as my father. I moved home to help my parents out, as my father’s health was failing. Then in a stroke of irony, my mother went first and my father and I were left with each other. Recently widowed, he was trying to find his way in a foreign land: a land without my mother – his companion of fifty-six years, he was losing his sight and, dementia was tip-toeing around, peering in at him through the windows, making ready to invade his mind. The ripples of that long ago explosion still festered – it was bound to happen.
I’d been gone all day and was staring at the refrigerator thinking about dinner when he came roaring in – out of nowhere. “Where the HELL have you been all day?” He had never sworn at me before. He tore into me about how late I was and why hadn’t I come home hours earlier? Terrified, I fled to my only remaining sanctuary, my bedroom, as the tree was gone now. I fled to the same bedroom I’d lived in as a child, with the same bed, mattress, same curtains, same carpeting. There I was, fifty years old, cowering in my bedroom, terrified of my 89-year-old father who was partially blind and weighed all of 114 pounds fully dressed. I sat on my bed; chest, stomach tied in knots. What, exactly, was I afraid of? Surely I was physically stronger than him – what was it? “No,” I thought, “it’s over, we’re not doing this any more…I’M not doing this any more.”
I made myself get up and walk back toward the kitchen, toward where that monster still lurked. I walked in and said coldly, my breath tied up at the top of my chest, “It’s not alright for you to talk to me like that, dad.” “Like what?” he replied, earnestly. “Come on, dad, you know what I’m talking about…” He didn’t. He had no idea. In that moment I realized that something happened to my father with certain triggers – he went into a literal blind rage; it was like an alcoholic blackout, without the alcohol. His rage, or heartbreak or terror was so intense it obliterated all time, all words, all actions. I repeated what he’d said to me only minutes before. He was incredulous, said he would never speak to me that way.
It wasn’t better between us after that – in fact it got worse. But it was a turning point, an absolutely essential moment that miraculously led us to a place of unimaginable healing, still a ways off. Whatever happened between us all those years before, and just then in the kitchen were shoved up against each other in a kind of time warp. They had to somehow touch each other so we could experience a re-wiring within each of us, and, between us. We were beginning an approach, an approach to the question of whether or not these two wild and wildly heart broken creatures, one born out of the other, could possibly dare to have the courage to even consider that they loved each other, when it seemed all they could ever do was battle, for dear life. Return to the scene of the crime, and try again.