Thursday, February 2, 2012

An Uneasy Certainty

    My very first memory in life is that of my father, giving me a big white teddy bear, wrapped in cellophane. I don't remember what the occasion was. It's a vague shimmering recollection at best, shrouded in the greyish fog of unaccessed neurons, yet it's an image my mind has clung to for 48 years, unwilling to let go. According to my mother, I was one year old when Dad gave me the teddy bear. I've always thought I was two, possibly because somewhere in my studies of memory formation and brain plasticity, I'd read that humans aren't capable of consciously remembering events which occurred before the age of two. I've long since lost track of Teddy, and perhaps, it's for the best. Threadbare and filthy, the willing victim of many years of love, poor Teddy fell apart at the seams, his physical body entirely different from the pristine, snow white symbol of my father's affection that my mind's eye still sees so clearly.
     Dad and I had an interesting conversation about nakedness when I was about five years old. We were in our backyard in Cincinnati, and I was helping him put rocks or pine cones into a wheelbarrow. The weather was warm, the sun was shining, and neither of us had a shirt on. I loved being half-naked, just like Dad. Besides being liberating, going shirtless made practical sense: it was one less thing to make dirty. Deeply entrenched within my Jungian Electra complex, I really thought I was going to marry my father when I grew up;  my five year old mind envisioned this as a fact of life, part of a natural progression.  I was quite familiar with gender-related differences in human form because I'd seen both of my parents, without their clothes, on many occasions. I clearly understood that I would never sprout a penis, but I considered that a minor issue. Having a penis only seemed to affect the way in which you peed. Somewhere during the course of our yardwork, I must have let on that I felt sorry for Mommy, who never went outside without her shirt. At this point, I was sitting inside the wheelbarrow. As we rolled along, Dad explained to me that there would come a day where I, too, wouldn't be able to go outside without a shirt. The world temporarily ceased spinning on its axis. This couldn't be! I wasn't prepared to hear that I was indeed different from my father, that eventually I'd grow breasts for feeding babies like my mother, and when that happened, I'd no longer be able to enjoy the sun's warmth on my bare chest. There were so many advantages to being a man; why would I ever want to become a woman?
     I went off to college at the age of seventeen, tragically unprepared for the challenges I'd face as a young adult. My self-esteem was terrible. I hadn't dated much in high school. Socially awkward and still a virgin, I wondered what was so wrong with me, why didn't guys find me attractive? I'd somehow had the impression that things would drastically change once I got to college, that I'd automatically experience romance and have a love life. My first roommate had a boyfriend, and they used to "do it" in the bed next to me when he'd come to visit on the weekends. Everybody else was doing it, why wasn't I? I hated feeling so different from my peers, but I hated conformism even more. This led to a profound sense of isolation and self-loathing, casting me on the downward spiral into three interminable years of sex, drugs, and rock and roll, which not only cost me my virginity, it nearly claimed my life. I wasn't just hurting myself, I was destroying my entire family, especially my parents. I felt worthless, rebelling against everyone and everything I considered to be wholesome and pure and good and clean. I also felt terribly guilty. I was involved with dangerous people, engaged in self-destructive behaviors, and I'd begun stealing money from my parents. It was as if I'd completely separated myself into two distinct personas, the old, emotional me who desperately wanted to be accepted as I was and had always been, and the foreign, horrible me, a nightmarish shadow of my former self who defied anyone to get too close. I was emaciated, physically and spiritually worn down, tired of all the lies, and sickened from the constant worry I knew I'd imposed upon Mom and Dad. One afternoon in the spring of 1983, the earth, again, temporarily stood still. I was alone in my parents' house, taking a shower. I'd hidden a pile of money that I'd stolen from them under my mattress, with plans to blow it all on partying that night. After arriving home from work, Dad came downstairs to check on me. I had just stepped out of the shower. I'd left the bathroom door wide open, and I stood there in front of him, completely naked and dripping wet. Neither of us said a word, but the pained look of intense concern in his eyes said it all. In that instant, all of the guilt, despair, and incredible sadness I'd been suppressing surfaced together at once, spilling out into sobs and tears of profound and utter remorse. Still naked, I showed Dad where I'd hidden the money, and told him I needed help. Prostrate and defeated, I wondered aloud if he and Mom could ever forgive me, after which we embraced, both of us weeping.
     Many years later, I was rushed to the hospital with a fever of 104 degrees during my 32nd week of pregnancy with twins. I don't remember much about that night. Although I was primarily worried about what was going to happen to my babies, my husband and family were just as concerned about me: no one could figure out why I was so sick. Mom tells me they were all afraid I was going to die. I ended up having an emergency C-section, and later, we found out I'd been infected with Listeria (a food-borne pathogen). When I awoke, I was in my hospital room, with Dad sitting quietly by my side. During the next three or four days I was there, I don't think he ever left me. My illness and the subsequent premature birth of Nick and Rory had coincided with our relocation from Clarkston to Marietta to be closer to my parents, and the rest of the family was heavily involved in getting us moved. Dad waited on me hand and foot, helping me out of bed to go to the bathroom, reading me stories from magazines, and reassuring me that the boys, who I didn't get to see for 24 hours, were going to be just fine. On the day I was discharged from the hospital, I went home, empty-handed. Nick and Rory were still on ventilators, and wouldn't come home for five weeks. The new house was in complete disarray, littered with boxes, misplaced furniture, and piles of clothes, and I felt so overwhelmed. I didn't know where to begin. Oddly, my mind was set on replacing the existing master bathroom toilet seat with an oak replacement I'd purchased before the move. I set to work, unscrewing the old seat, but the bolts securing it had fused with the nuts, making it impossible to remove. This drove me to tears. I grabbed a small hacksaw from the toolbox, and knelt by the toilet, my fresh C-section incision threatening to dehisce as I frantically attempted to saw through the rusted bolts. I didn't hear my father coming into the house. He stood at the bathroom door for a moment, watching with sympathetic amusement, and then, he took the saw from me, helped me up off the floor, and finished the job himself.
     Dad died nine years ago today. He was 81 years old, and he left this world just as he'd entered it: naked. Several weeks before he died, he'd been diagnosed with new-onset atrial fibrillation, the result of a massively enlarged aortic root aneurysm, which had severely compromised and weakened his heart. He'd decided against surgery, a decision we all supported, knowing that Dad was more afraid of living as a vegetable than he was of dying. Our remaining time with him was spent together as a family, saying our individual and collective goodbyes. On the night Dad died, he'd gotten up to blow his nose, and when he came back to bed, he was ashen and clammy, the aneurysm presumably having dissected during the bout of forceful nose-blowing. I was on the phone with Mom as EMS carried him out to the ambulance. She says he was completely nude, except for a thin sheet the paramedics had carelessly thrown over him, and I could hear Dad in the background, asking, "Where are you taking me?" That was the last time I heard my father's voice.
     Since then, I've had several brief, exquisitely powerful encounters with Dad where I'm acutely aware of his presence. One of these events occurred about a year ago, while I was making the hour-and-a-half long drive home to Atlanta from my job in Rome. I was physically and mentally exhausted after a long night of call, and couldn't wait to get home. I'd been contemplating a sculpture I wanted to carve out of styrofoam, similar to the styrofoam sculptures my father used to make, and had envisioned creating a giant glottis, the aperture to the voice box. It's a structure I view routinely through a laryngoscope, mundane yet almost sexual in its symmetry, replete with graceful curves and folds. As traffic on I-75 S came to a standstill, I sensed that Dad was right next to me. The early morning sunlight poured through the passenger window, bathing me in the same familiar warmth I'd known as a bare-chested little girl. For a split second, I made contact with him. My mind scrambled for a circuit to preserve this real-time connection, searching for a channel which would grant me permanent access to Dad's suddenly palpable spirit, but all available circuits were overloaded. The last encounter I had with him was three months ago, shortly after I found out I was losing my job. I'd come home from my last night of taking call, and couldn't sleep. I was at yet another crossroad in life, another chaotic juncture, and I had no idea where to begin recovering from the sense of injustice and self-doubt which brutalized me. Without warning, a channel opened, but this time, I felt Dad inside me, radiating buoyance and inspiration too magnificent for words. It was as if a bolt of invisible lightning had invaded my mind, rearranging my synapses, unblocking my chakras, and flooding me with an uneasy certainty that yes!, I knew exactly what to do. I picked up my laptop, and I started writing. In the three months I've been writing, I've experienced catharsis and transformation, an entirely new way of seeing. In reflecting upon my life, I now see where I've gotten in my own way, obstructing the flow and creating unnecessary obstacles, just like that old toilet seat. At one point, I truly had lost my way. Had it not been for the love and forgiveness my parents demonstrated, as well as the few remaining sparks of my own naked ambition, I might not be here today. I'd like to live the remainder of my life, using the same approach I took with my teddy bear: to be present for it, to search for it when it is lost, to reciprocate its gifts of affection and intimacy, to cherish its flaws and defects, and above all, to love it until it, too, is ragged around the edges.

The Perfect Exit  (a related post, about my father)

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