By the time I was 15, my father and I had come to a “rough” place, to use one of his words when many years later dementia had stolen away most of the rest of his words. Now, I know it’s what two people who are uneasy in their own skin do, when all they see when they look at each other, is themselves. Back then I only knew how angry I was at him, constantly on guard, and I wished I had the courage to speak up – except that I would never do that. I would just disappear into my room, the one place in the house that felt safe.
Except for this one time.
A friend of mine gave me a ride home and just as he was pulling out, dad arrived home from work and had to wait for the driveway to empty out before he could pull in. This in itself was a problem…someone else’s car was in dad’s “place” – already we were off to a bad start.
As I closed the front door, my father blasted in right behind me in a rage. He roared, HOW DARE YOU GET IN A CAR WITH HIM! WHAT WILL THE NEIGHBORS THINK? DON’T YOU EVER LET ME CATCH YOU WITH HIM AGAIN! DO YOU HEAR ME?
In my father’s eyes, my friend was dangerous for two reasons: first, he was a teenage boy, second, and this made him extraordinarily more dangerous, my friend was a black, teenage boy.
By the time my father had slashed his burning tirade across my tender heart, we were both standing in the living room, precariously close to each other. Like always, my first urge was to run to my room for safety, but he had crossed a line that I didn’t know existed in me until that moment.
HOW CAN YOU TALK LIKE THAT ABOUT HIM? AFTER ALL THAT YOU WENT THROUGH?
I made a move like I was going to step toward him. He raised his arm like he was going to hit me. I fled to the place that gave me the deepest sense of sanctuary – I ran out the back door, slamming it as hard as I could, and made for the crude rope swing that hung from a branch of a grand and noble tree. By now its huge outstretched arms served as an umbrella over the entire backyard, over my entire world. I loved that swing, I loved that tree and now it held me as I sobbed my heartbreak and utter disappointment in this larger-than-life man, my father.
Even as I gently swung, sobbing, choking on my tears, it never dawned on me that he, the one that I was doing battle with, was the same one whose hands had made that simple swing. Its ropes had been tied around the branch so many years before, the tree had just taken them in as its own, and now the rugged twined rope that my hands grasped for dear life, magically emerged right from the center of the branch.
The swing carried me tenderly, and we swayed that way together, past sunset, dusk and on into darkness. I couldn’t imagine ever looking at him again. I heard the doorknob clink and then the weather stripping at the bottom of the door scraped against the linoleum squares of the den floor. The back door opened, but not the screen door. The swing, with me in it, hung only ten or fifteen feet away. My whole body tensed as I waited silently. His voice had a quality I had never heard before. Quietly he spoke through the screen into the night, “I know it’s wrong. At least I never taught you that way.” And then the door closed and he was gone.
As his words echoed I realized that was part of why his rage stung so deeply. His reaction came as a total surprise to me. I didn’t know that something burned so fiercely inside him that he would worry, “WHAT WILL THE NEIGHBORS THINK?”
Here’s what I did know about him. He grew up during the depression in Detroit, his family was Jewish and they were close to the bottom of the heap in that city. He’d told a story of what happened to him when he was stationed in Georgia before he went overseas during World War II, when, more than once, some soldiers threw him into the shower room and ripped off his clothes so they could see once and for all, the “horns and tail those devil Jews have”. How could he look at someone else with that same kind of disgust and fear? How could he? Bless the youth for their tender hearts, the ones that do not yet know of a twisted and warped fear, of a hatred of “the Other”, how it can mangle so completely.
The chasm that was burned by that river of pain continued to wedge itself between us, until mercifully, his fortress of protection began to crumble as dementia moved in, and mine, well, I consider myself lucky. My fortress began to crack wide open, as if someone had thrown ice on hot glass. We both had to shuffle around a bit to try and pick up the pieces and in the shuffling, we saw each other’s true heart.