Sunday, July 12, 2009

My Father, My Car and Michael Jackson

It's been over a month since my last post. During this time, my dad had a heart attack, which required a week in the hospital, then quadruple bypass surgery, which required another week, and now rehab, where he's been for seven days and will be there for seven more.

To call this a stressful period for both me and my family is an understatement. Of course, the stress caused by a parent suffering through a major health issue is a given for any adult child, but what I didn't expect was the resurfacing of major issues from my childhood, which, oddly enough, has given me great insight into the death of Michael Jackson, which also happened during this time.

In a sense, I wasn't at all surprised that my dad had the heart attack, as the week before, while visiting my parents for four days, my dad was raging. Even though I talk with my mom every day, I hadn't visited them much during the spring as I was without a car, and as I have a 17-pound cat, transport to and from the Jersey shore on mass transit was just too problematic, so I wasn't aware of how bad the rages had become.

As I was struggling one week looking through the classifieds to find a used car I could afford, my dad made the extraordinary offer of buying me a completely new car, so I purchased a $13K Hyundai Accent, which was thrilling, as this was the first time in my life to own a brand new vehicle.

Over the course of my life, the way my father has so often showed his love for me has been via my cars. Before my parents sold their suburban home and moved to a garden apartment at the beach, whenever I'd visit, my dad would lavish my vehicles with the type of attention and interest that he found too difficult to express to me personally. My visits to their home often resulted in my car getting washed and waxed, a new oil change, and a full tank of gas.

Even though conversations could be difficult, as his moods were always so unpredictable, I could frequently be assured that my car would leave the drive in fine shape, and as I got older, I realized that this was an act of love on his part, and I recognized it as such.

His behavior was often bittersweet in so many ways, as I'd always known that the guy would have taken a bullet for me, yet when it came to day to day matters during my formative years, he seemed to have a pathological need to criticize me, and it was beyond him simply wanting to live through his child, as many overly critical parents are wont to do. His criticisms often had a sadistic edge, where there was clearly a perverse type of pleasure in making me self-conscious or embarrassed concerning things I could do nothing about, like certain physical characteristics.

He would also often fly into rages over absolutely nothing at all, like me having "looked at him funny," which could mean the silent treatment for weeks at a time, or saying words that were just so hurtful that it was actually better for him to say nothing at all.

To detail all of the infractions would be just too painful to relive in this essay, and perhaps isn't even necessary, as the point is that no matter what our parents say to us while we're growing up, either good or bad, we're irrevocably shaped by these words, and if they're harsh, we can spend nearly all of our adult lives trying to unlearn the falsehoods we were taught about ourselves as kids.

This has certainly been the case for me, yet during the past ten years or so, my father had calmed down considerably due in large part to the onset of hydrocephalus, a condition whereby fluid accumulates in the brain and makes the patient very tired, forgetful and quiet. While this illness made me miss the part of my dad that could be so charming and funny (at least with others), I certainly didn't miss the verbal abuse, which could still rear its ugly head now and then, but not to the extent it once had. In a a weird way, this was a blessing, particularly for my mother, who cares for him solely.

Yet for some reason, in recent months, the rage seemed to resurface, and it was worse than ever. My mom attributes it to the election of Obama, who he hates, and his constant viewing of Fox News, which fans the flames of bigotry and hatred no matter how "fair and balanced" they say they are.

The week before his heart attack, I experienced this rage firsthand when I went to the shore to show my parents my new car. What should have been a joyous gathering to celebrate my swanky, new vehicle instead turned into a four-day diatribe against me, the likes of which I hadn't experienced since I was a girl. And just like what happened in my most innocent days, I was caught completely off guard, and felt devastated by the contempt and loathing directed at me for no reason at all.

The first day I was there was innocuous enough, but on the second, while watching television together, I asked him to hit the "info" button on the remote, and he screamed that he wasn't going to "hit every goddamn button just so that you can see the year the film was made!" He then threw the remote at me before storming off to his room for a few hours.

On day three, while Obama was making a speech, he began ranting about what a liar he was, a familiar tactic to bait me into a political conversation so that he could rail against liberals and minorities. (I now just walk away from these useless discussions, as he loathes liberals, of which I'm one.) And on day four, while my mother was visiting a sick friend in the complex and I was doing the dishes, he asked, "Why are you still here?" in the angriest of tones. The list could go on, but you get the idea.

By the time I left, I couldn't get out of there fast enough, so when I got a call from my mom the following weekend that he was in the ER with a heart attack, my knees buckled a bit (despite the abuse, I never want to hear that either of my parents is suffering), but I wasn't surprised at the news. None of us was.

As we began visiting him over the next few weeks, the old dynamic took root, and I could feel that old familiar depression set in, as he was so charming, sweet and funny with all the doctors and nurses, but absolutely vile to me and my mom. (He's somewhat calmer with my sister, my only sibling who's 16 years younger than me--the "surprise" baby of the family; he's always been closer to her as he had a much larger hand in her rearing. Still, she, too, has suffered at his hands, and bears similar scars as a result.)

The unkindest cut of all came on the day he was transferred from the hospital to rehab. After my mom and I spent four and a half hours with him this one particular morning, I suggested that she and I go home for awhile, then come back a few hours later.

In a sneer, he uttered, "Don't you want to be here?" I said, "Dad, we're just going to go home for a bit. We'll be back. Please don't be offended."

And with that, his face blew up into a tomato-red balloon, he showed his teeth, then raised both fists to my face. I don't even want to recount what he said next, but it's something no daughter should ever hear from her father. I was absolutely stunned, and on the way home with my mother, I said things I couldn't believe would ever come out of my mouth. My basic premise was that it would have been easier if he'd just died.

Not surprisingly, we didn't go back that day, and for the rest of the week, I didn't go visit him. My mom did, as did my sister, and both repeatedly said he owed me an apology. At first he growled, "I don't owe her a damn thing," and when my mom said at one point that I was still very hurt, he said, "Let her stew in it."

But as the days passed, I suppose he began to think about what he had said and done, and he begrudingly agreed that he owed me an apology. So I relented and went to visit him yesterday, and upon leaving, he said, "I'm sorry we had an argument." I had to laugh somewhat, as he didn't take responsibility at all for what he had done, but I knew that was the best I was going to get. I kissed him goodbye and said, "I just want to be friends, Dad. All I've ever wanted was a loving relationship with my father."

I could see he was uncomfortable with my comment, as his eyes darted around, and he mumbled something like, "Okay," but that was that, and I came home to my apartment, where I'm tending to my own life before I head back to the shore again in a few days.

What I'm left with now, of course, is keen insight into how I've been shaped by my father's behavior towards me all these years, and despite the decades of psychotherapy, I'm realizing that while my happiness is entirely my responsibility, the scars left from the psychological dismantling of my identity and self-esteem in childhood might never fully heal, and maybe that's okay, in a weird way. It all has made me a more compassionate, tolerant and open-minded person, and for this, I'm thankful, although I'd like to think I would have been this way anyway, without all the misery.

After Michael Jackson's death, so much information came out about his own father's treatment of him, which wasn't exactly news, of course, but the revelation of the depth of Jackson's torment was something I fully understood in a way I hadn't before. And to hear that he'd become such a pill addict was another uncomfortable identification with him, as these painkillers are still a monkey on my back, but I've developed a strange comfort with this creature, as sick a relationship as it may be.

After my surgery, I did begin to experience some pain-free days (even without the hyperbaric treatment, which Medicare declined anyway), but with all the emotion stirred by this recent debacle (and the descent back into bad habits, like smoking), I've been holding onto the pills tighter than I perhaps ever have.

The emotional trauma set the pain off again to a searing level, and during the 48 hours after my father's outburst, I literally could not stop shaking or crying. I was in such a rage myself that I swore I'd never speak to him again, but I soon realized the destructive power of holding onto anger, and upon the advice of my friend Paul, I began to pray for my dad, and slowly, the rage did begin to lift.

Instead, I began to feel compassion for him, wondering what in the world had happened to him in his own childhood that created this Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde personality. In talking with my cousin, who is close to my dad's age, family stories have begun to surface that are dark and cold, and it's clear that the cycle of abuse is a mysterious beast indeed.

Last night, after I came home from the shore, I had dinner with my dear friend Lynda, and after catching up on news about our own lives, we began to discuss the tragedy of Michael Jackson, particularly about the connection between his father, his plastic surgery and his pill addiction.

At one point, Lynda told me that upon hearing of Jackson's demise, she couldn't help but worry about me and my own painkiller abuse, as there were such parallels between Jackson's story and my own, albeit without the plastic surgery (not that I haven't considered it over the years, but I've never been able to afford it; plus, I knew there was much more to learn by not doing it).

When she said this, there was that pregnant pause between friends when an uncomfortable truth is uttered, and I did indeed feel a chill. As I've pondered Jackson's death these past weeks, I keep thinking, "Why didn't you get help? Why did you use the pills to squash your sadness and anger, and why couldn't you get off them? Why did you let your father's words destroy you?"

It's easy to ask these questions of another person, but not so easy to ask them of ourselves. I do ask them, of course, but that doesn't stop the next pill, the next cigarette, the next glass of wine or the relentless pain in my face and jaw. It's all a recipe for disaster and death, made all the more real by Jackson's untimely self-induced passing, and by the memory of my dad's fists in my face, and the outburst of words that can never be taken back.

I can't let him destroy me.