Stairway to (not) heaven

My parent’s house is beautiful. It is very large- around 4,000+ square feet. I was very lucky to grow up in such a nice house. I had my own bedroom with a huge walk in closet. My younger sister and I shared a big bathroom and had our own separate living room, furnished with couches, a computer desk, a closet full of games, and a TV for us to watch MTV and play Nintendo. I had a very privileged upbringing and am grateful for that.

However, as my ex-husband used to sarcastically say about my family: “big house, no problems”. I have often jokingly referred to my childhood home as The House of Horrors (The Simpsons reference!). Hidden behind the three car garage and perfect landscaping were secrets. My dad was successful at a very well-paying job. My mom was able to stay home with us and was a volunteer at our school. Our McMansion gave the world the appearance of a perfect family. This was far from the truth.

My sister and I were talking about our childhood memories last night, which we seldom do. I wonder why we don’t talk about it more. My sister said something about just how truly traumatic it was for us. We talked about our nightly family dinners, without a doubt the worst part of every day. Our mother would make dinner and call my sister and me to to the kitchen. Then she would either get my dad or ask/force one of us to call him to the table. He always was drunk and he always was nasty. I feel like I have blocked a lot of this out, but my sister remembers it all so clearly. She said that I would eat as fast as possible, like I barely chewed my food. I did this so I could be excused from the table. I still eat so fast to this day. My parents would inevitably end up screaming at each other (mostly my dad yelling at my mom) and my father would throw things and leave the kitchen and before long my sister would be sitting alone at the table. She is admittedly an emotional overeater and she thinks it stemmed from this.

Where my sister vividly remembers these dinners, what I recall the most is the stairs in my parents house. There are actually two sets of stairs- the front and the back. The first is more grand, it starts in the entryway of the house and you see it as you walk in the front door. My sister and I were not allowed to use the front stairs because my parents wanted to keep them clean. We used the back stairs (I know this makes us sound like hired help lol). They were located on the side of the house and led from the garage door up to our playroom (which is the living room that belonged to us). Basically, you could walk in the front door, go up the front stairs, go down the hallways where the bedrooms were, end up at the playroom, go down the back stairs, go down the hallway into the kitchen and then turn down another hallway into the front foyer where the front staircase was. It was a giant loop. I’m explaining this in detail because completing this loop became part of my survival mode. When my father was drunk, he often chased us. That sounds really peculiar to write, but I am not sure how else to explain it. He would literally run after me and I 100% believed that if he caught me, I was going to be hurt. So if I talked back or ignored him or didn’t do exactly what I said I was going to do, he would quickly stand up from his spot on the couch in their living room, which was attached to the kitchen. That was my cue to run. I would take off towards one of the staircases, which provided a nice escape route through the house. He usually gave up very quickly, his point simply being made by the threat itself. He just wanted to instill fear and he was successful.

A lot of other memories involve the stairs. I remember my sister and me sitting at the top of the front stairs, listening to my parents fight. There were times the red and blue lights of a police car would illuminate the front foyer and we would “spy” on my mom answering the front door to convince the officers everything was fine.

One time we were all in the main family room and I told my dad I was going to go upstairs to get something from my bedroom and would be back in five minutes. Like a typical teenager, I must have gotten distracted by something and stayed in my room longer. When I returned, my father was angry and determined to teach me what “five minutes was”. He made me follow him to the back staircase, where I stood on the landing and faced the blank wall. He set a timer for five minutes.

There was the time my mother came home and found him lying on the tile floor at the bottom of the front stairs. He was very drunk and fell. I have always wondered if for one, terrible moment she believed he was dead and if she felt a fleeting sense of overwhelming relief. He was very alive, though.

Sometimes when my sister and I talk about these things or I write about them, I feel guilty. My dad has been sober for over two years and seems like a different person. His role as my niece’s “Papa” could not be more different than my experiences of him as a father. I have been struggling a lot about the past vs now. I am obviously glad that he is not drinking and is not the monster he used to be, but it is still hard to reconcile who he was when he did these terrible things to the gentle-ish giant he is now.

My sister and I talk a lot about my parents selling their house and how it is simply too large for them to live in alone, especially since they are in their 70s now. My sister said they need to find a home that is just one floor and my gut reaction was to think “how will mom get away from him without the staircases?!?!?” It is just so crazy how it has been so long since I lived in my childhood home and yet these memories feel so vivid in my mind.

Oh Deer

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This might be the hardest month yet to write a blog post for me.  I have never missed a month without writing at least one entry.  It has been hard to find a topic during this horrible time…with the coronavirus and people being ill and losing family members and being unemployed.  I don’t want to complain because I am healthy and getting a paycheck.  I have racked my brain to find something to write about that is not negative or offensive or insensitive and I finally thought of a topic…deer skulls.

In the northeast region of our country, it is very common to see deer everywhere.  Just on my two mile drive home from my sister’s house last night I think I counted 8 of them.  Some people think of deer as a nuisance because they cause car accidents, while others appreciate their beauty.  When I think of deer, I think of a specific memory with my father.  It was a singular moment so insignificant in my life, I am surprised I even remember it at all.

One day, we were exploring some trails in the woods behind my childhood house.  My father and I were walking ahead of my mother and my sister and my dad was pointing out various wildlife and plants.  A squirrel would skitter along the path and he would shout “squirrel!”.  He warned me not to touch poison ivy and explained how to identify it (a skill I still find useful as I am VERY allergic).

“Whoa! Check that out!” My dad pointed to something round and whitish on the ground a few feet in front of us.  As we got closer, I realized that it was a skull of unknown origin.  A dead person! was the first thought I had until I realized the shape and size of it could not be a human.  My father, in true dad fashion, leaned down and plucked it off the ground with his bare hands.  He turned to me with a sly smile and then reached his arm out to try to touch me with it.  I jumped a mile and screamed, “groooooosssss!”.

My father carried the skull all the way home and by the time we arrived, he had determined it was from a deer, even though there were no antlers attached.  By this point, my initial shock faded and I was pretty interested in the skull, with its gaping eye sockets and teeth still attached to the jaw bone.  He soaked the skull in soapy water and cleaned it, while my mother disapprovingly kept asking, “what are you going to DO with that thing?” After the skull was clean, I was so fascinated with it that my father gave it to me.  This is most likely the strangest “gift” I have received. I sat for a half hour just wiggling the teeth, until one popped out into my hand.  I was able to put it back into place with much satisfaction.

I kept that deer skull on my bookshelf for many years.  Once I got my own apartment, I decided that it did not really fit with my decor scheme and that it was weird to have to explain to people why I had a deer skull in my home.  I gave it to a science teacher at the high school where I teach English and he gladly displayed it in a case in his classroom.  Over the years, once in a while, I would pop into his room to look at the deer skull, the memory of that day running through my mind.

Children remember the strangest and most random things.  My niece is only three years old and probably won’t remember anything from this time in her life.  Or maybe she will? My sister and brother-in-law are both unemployed and home with her all day now.  Maybe she will remember making tents out of all the couch pillows, baking cookies with my sister, or helping her dad rake sticks in the backyard?  I have a very poor memory and cannot recall much from my childhood.  And unfortunately, by the time I turned twelve years old, my father was a full blown abusive alcoholic, so there were not many happy memories made during my teenage years. Yet, there are these random moments, burned into my memory, that I fondly remember.  My dad was fun (and cool!) at one point during my childhood and now that he is sober, I hope that my niece will make memories with him that she can look back on someday to remember her grandfather.

My deer skull still is on display in the science lab classroom.  I am sure over the years, many students have seen it and assumed it came from a school supply magazine or they really do not think much of it at all.  Some of them are my students as well and they have NO idea that they are looking at a piece of my childhood…a tangible, albeit very odd, reminder of a happy memory with my father.

Through my eyes

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One of my early childhood memories from before my dad started drinking was standing with my feet on top of his.  I was seven or eight years old, he would hold my hands and I would stand on his feet and hold on as he walked around the room.  We were not really dancing, but it was fun and my sister and I would take turns.  I think a lot of little girls do this with their daddies and it is a sweet memory I have of him.

When I was in college studying literature, I was very drawn to a particular poem:

My Papa’s Waltz 

by Theodore Roethke

 

The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.

We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother’s countenance
Could not unfrown itself.

The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.

You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.

 

There are a lot of different opinions and interpretations about what this poem is describing.  Some readers interpret it as the happy childhood memory of a young boy playfully dancing with his father in their kitchen, while his mother gazes on.  Other readers believe that the dance is a metaphor for physical abuse by a drunk father.  The first time I ever read this poem, I instantly believed it depicted abuse.  However, I wonder if that is because my father became an abusive alcoholic (while my mother helplessly watched on).  I always tell my students that this is the beauty of literature- the reader is able to interpret what they read in their own personal way.  We all (sometimes subconsciously) are influenced by our own life experiences and as a child of an alcoholic, that was the lens I saw the world through.  Yet, I got a feeling that this boy still loved his father, which was another part of the poem I could relate to, because I still love mine.

I know without a doubt that if my father was not an alcoholic, he would have been an awesome dad.  Just like I know that if my exboyfriend did not suffer from the same addiction, he would have been a wonderful life partner.  When I went to an Al-Anon meeting recently, someone used the phrase “detachment with love”.  I realized that I unknowingly started doing this with my father years ago.  I have his nasty emails blocked, his ringtone on my phone is “silent”, I immediately erase his toxic voicemails and I speak to him as minimally as possible, especially if I know he is drunk.  When I see him, if he is sober, I chat with him, but I stopped letting him “in”…I try to no longer let his behavior negatively affect me.  I accepted that I was not going to be able to change him, so I stopped trying to.

I am currently detaching with love from my exboyfriend.  While I never felt responsible for my father, I did feel VERY responsible for my ex.  By protecting him and enabling him, I was actually hurting us both, which I am able to see now that I have some space from the situation.  I cannot protect him from the consequences of his choices and I do not want to continue to suffer because of his actions.  By releasing those feelings of responsibility for him, I was able to start focusing on myself and my needs.

I love my father and I love my exboyfriend, but I hate their alcoholism.  My father, the man who should be the one to protect me, physically hurt me and still verbally abuses me. My exboyfriend, the man I thought I was going to spend the rest of my life with, lied to my face and cheated on me, violating my trust.

I think I will always see the world as the child of an alcoholic and as someone who deeply loved and was in an eight year long romantic relationship with an alcoholic.  It is just a part of who I am, woven into the essence of my being.  However, I know that they both made their own choices, but that I also had the ability to make a choice for myself.

And my choice was to detach (with love) from both of them.

Time flies…

When my sister was pregnant, so many people gave her the advice to enjoy every minute of the experience of motherhood. She heard the quote over and over, “the days are long, but the days are short.” Even being an aunt, I can see the truth behind this- in the blink of an eye, my niece is already one!

I can apply this to so many other parts of my life, too. Teaching, for one. This is the end of my 18th year being a teacher and it is hard to believe it! It seems like yesterday that I was finishing up my very first year. There are SO many days that feel endless, especially ones spent reading a novel with five classes filled with 28 teenagers, yet at the end of the year it always feels like it went so quickly. Here we are in June already- another graduation, another summer…

When I was a teenager myself I used to wish I was 30. In my mind, being a real grown up would mean having the ability to make my own choices. I would lie in bed at night listening to my parents argue and fantasize about having my own (very quiet) house and being “old”. And now I am almost 40…which is hard to wrap my head around. Of course the irony is that young people want to be older and older people miss being young.

When I was getting divorced, I lived minute my minute. The pain I felt seemed unending. I never thought I would get through it. Yet now, so many years later, it is like a distant memory. I guess time heals all wounds?

I already miss my niece being a little baby, but it is fun seeing her turn into a funny, happy (and sometimes stubborn!) toddler. I see her almost every day and marvel at all of the new things she learns. I wish it wouldn’t go so fast, but I remind myself it is better than it not happening at all!

Lucky

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By the time I was 12 years old, I had lived in four states.  The first two moves I do not really remember that much because I was too young.  The final move was to a new town 1,500 miles away and I was in middle school, so I do remember it pretty clearly.  I can recall a farewell party from my Girl Scout troop where everyone signed a white tshirt for me as a keepsake.  I remember saying goodbye to my best friend who lived across the street from me.  She walked me home and we hugged and cried in the driveway, but then I wanted to walk her home, where we hugged again, but then she wanted to make sure I got home…we ended up saying goodbye about 40 times.  One funny memory from that last move was that my family was upgraded to first class, but they only had three available seats for the four of us.  My mom volunteered to sit by herself, while my sister, my father and me enjoyed the luxury of mini travel pillows and ice cream sundaes.  At one point my dad gave me some snacks to sneak back to my mom and I found her crying.  Naively, I thought she was upset about having to sit by herself (only later did I realize she was mourning the loss of her old life).  Strangely, I do not remember being overly upset, I think mostly because my parents explained the move to my sister and me as an exciting, big adventure…brand new house, great bedrooms, new friends, etc.  Overall, I have a lot of memories of that move, down to what the moving truck looked like (I remember being so in awe of the fact that they fit all our boxes and furniture AND our minivan inside the truck!)

I actually do have one vivid memory of the previous move.  We were moving from Colorado to Texas and I was only about 7 or 8 years old.  All I remember is sitting on the front steps of the house with one of the movers.  My mom had made sandwiches for all the workers from the moving company and I sat outside eating mine with him.  His name was Lucky and while I do not recall what we talked about, I remember him being really, really nice and very encouraging about starting over in a new state.  He must have made a lasting impression on me because from that point forward, I named every pet and animal I saw after him…there have been Lucky bunnies, Lucky birds, Lucky hamsters, Lucky goldfish, etc.

I think moving several times and experiencing different states had a big influence on my childhood.  I don’t know if I would consider myself “lucky” to have moved around the country, but I do think it makes me more empathetic to my students who are new to our school.

 

Celebrate good times…come on!

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This past Sunday was my father’s birthday.  He had been in the hospital for the four days prior, so I was fairly confident that he would be sober (he had just been released the evening before).  I was very pleasantly surprised that we had SUCH a nice time.  It was just my sister, her 10 month old daughter, my parents and me.  It is rare these days that our whole family is together (all five of us lol).  It was really cute to see my dad with the baby- she’s their only grandchild.  My sister kept telling me to take videos and pictures of our father holding the baby and singing to her.  I think we always have the thought in the back of our minds that each time we see him could be the last.  I realize that is very morbid, but he is in bad health and still makes really bad choices.  Each time we have a day like this, we relish the new memories we made with him and the feeling of having a “normal family”. I know from lots and lots and lots of prior experiences not to take days like this for granted because my dad can easily erase the good feelings with one nasty email.

We have a lot of fun, celebratory events coming up, mostly all revolving around my niece…her Christening, her first birthday, her first birthday party.  My dad has always been able to keep it together for big events like this, which is always a relief.  However, he also has a tendency to cancel coming at the last minute. I never thought I would say this, but I really hope he comes to everything, because I am pretty sure they will be more good memories for our family, and we definitely could use more of those!

‘Til death do us part

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I recently read an article online and came across a quote that struck me.  It was written by a recovering alcoholic who stated, “All of us stop drinking at some point. It’s just that for some people, that point is death.”

I kept going back and reading those two sentences over and over.  It is such a simple statement, but it is really powerful and concise.  I never really thought about alcoholism in that way.  My father has never attempted to stop drinking and I have accepted the fact that he will most likely die an alcoholic (he may even be drunk when he dies).  My father’s alcoholism will not end until his life does.

Today, my dad wrote one of his obnoxious, embarrassing emails and copied various people on it- my sister and my mother, my aunt and uncle (his own brother from whom he is pretty much estranged), my other aunt (my mom’s sister who is an alcoholic herself), my cousin and about seven friends of our family (two couples and a few guys who have loyally remained friends with my parents from when they were first married).  Even though I am accustomed to the lunacy of his emails and can usually ignore them completely, sometimes I have to look at it from the perspective of one of these unsuspecting recipients.  They must literally think he is insane.  It is hard not to feel that it is a reflection on our family (or that at the very least there are several people who probably open his email and can’t help but pity us).  Most of what he writes is utter nonsense and this email was very tame compared to the majority that he sends, but it still makes me feel weird.  The other day when my sister and I were with my mom we were talking about hobbies and one of us mentioned that it was unfortunate that my dad doesn’t have any interests to keep himself busy.  My mom quickly replied, “he does have a hobby- writing his emails.”  It’s darkly funny and ironic…my paternal grandfather used to write in a journal every day when he was alive.  He had an easy chair in the corner of their living room, right next to a small bookshelf filled with little leather bound journals.  His journals seemed sacred when I was growing up and during my visits to their house, I was never tempted to read one of them.  After he died, my grandmother packed them all up in a big box and put them in the attic.  Many years later when she passed away, my sister was helping to clean out their house and found them.  She brought one to me as a keepsake (she and I are both VERY sentimental, especially regarding our grandparents).  I was shocked to discover that his journals were not filled with philosophical ideas and deep reflections, but rather the minutiae of everyday life.  He noted the weather, how he was feeling, what he did that day (“went to the dump”), etc.  If my sister and I were visiting, he would write about how much we had grown and about what we did at the beach that day.  I have to admit I was almost disappointed when I read it, because I was hoping for…more.  Now that I know he was an alcoholic, too, I wonder if this was his pre-technological way of doing exactly what my father does.  My dad treats his emails as a daily journal, although instead of keeping his inner most thoughts private, he copies various people on them.

When my dad does die, I wonder who will care.  I mean, I know people will care, but will they really care?  He has burned so many bridges with so many people.  During his brief two year sabbatical from drinking, he changed in so many positive ways.  If he had passed away during that time, it would have seemed more tragic…like he had so much to live for…that my sister and I had lost our dear father.  Now, he just seems pathetic.  His death will be a big deal for my mother, sister and me, but will be a tragic blip on most other people’s radars.  They will feel sorry for us, they will feel sad for losing the man they remember- the brother he was growing up, the friend he was in his 20s.  But when people think about him, he will always be thought of first and foremost as an alcoholic- a sad label that defined him for the past 25 years.

 

#aunt

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My sister had her baby in the middle of May and I. am. in. love!  My niece is only 6 weeks old and I think I have taken like 800 pictures and videos of her.  I am clearly biased, but she is the sweetest, most beautiful baby ever.  Luckily, my sister only lives 2 miles from me, so I have seen her almost every day since she was born.

My boyfriend has been very stressed out lately with work and has also been struggling with bad depression.  I am so happy that he is very taken with the baby too and is a great uncle to her.  Last week, after a particularly crazy work day for him, he saw the baby at night and was holding her and made a comment that he felt so much less stressed out just watching her sleep in his arms.  It was such a sweet thing to say, but it made me think about the effect that having her around has had on all of us.  I look at this little baby and I just want her to have the best life possible.  I teach The Great Gatsby to my 11th graders and in one scene Daisy says about her young daughter, “I hope she’ll be a fool- that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.”  I always thought this was a cruel wish for a mother to make, but now I sort of understand more what Daisy meant.  I certainly want my niece to be very smart and very well-educated, but what Daisy really meant is that she wanted her daughter’s life to be EASY.  I know things will not always be “easy” for my niece, that is unrealistic, but I want things to be better for her than they were for my sister and me growing up.  We suffered through so much trauma and I want my niece to have a wonderful, happy childhood.

A super embarrassing thing about me is that I still suck my thumb.  I am 38 years old.  It is my one true vice and I have done it all my life.  I saw my baby niece put her thumb in her mouth the other day and I was like, “noooooo!”  I know babies do that when they are hungry or for self-soothing, but I don’t want her to have that- or any- bad habit.

It will be amazing to watch her grow and learn and see the person she becomes and I hope to be a very positive influence in her life.  I don’t want her to be afraid of things the way I am.  I want her to be confident and strong…and maybe someday be a teacher (lol!).

Call in case of emergency

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Twice in the past couple of months, my father has been in the hospital.  The first time, he was unable to breathe and was rushed in an ambulance and the second time, my mother drove him.  Both times, he was admitted and stayed for several nights.  Each time, it seems they find more things wrong with him, yet there has not been an “official diagnosis”.  During these two visits, doctors found symptoms indicating that he has congestive heart failure and diabetes, in addition to his breathing problems.  My father has not only been an alcoholic for over 20 years, but he has also been a heavy smoker since he was a teenager and this is what is causing the majority of his recent health problems.

My boyfriend said something to me the other day that caught me off guard, but made me think.  He said, “you know, your dad is going to be in and out of the hospital from now until he dies.”  I know that is most likely true and it is a sad reality.  It is obviously difficult to think about losing a parent in any context.  It sounds silly to say this, but it just upsets me that my father is most likely going to die due to his bad habits.  He is not the victim of a genetic disease or a horrible accident…at one point in his life, he chose to smoke and chose to drink and then they became lifelong habits.

Not so coincidentally, my anxiety has been peaked lately.  I talk to my mother every day, sometimes multiple times a day, usually just about everyday life like her gardening club, funny things my students said, our cats, etc.  It is so hard to describe, even to people who know her well, how different her voice sounds on the phone when she calls to tell me that she called 911 for my dad.  There is such a seriousness, yet I can tell that she is trying to stay calm, for both herself and for me.  And now, I worry about her calling me every day and telling me that he is being rushed to the hospital again- or worse.

You can lead a horse to water…

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When I started this blog, I promised myself that I would write once a month, no matter what, and I have kept that promise.  That really doesn’t seem like a huge commitment, yet there are times (like now), where I feel very reluctant to write.  I kind of almost feel like a kid rebelling against something I don’t want to do.Sometimes it is that I don’t have a topic easily on hand or sometimes I am not ready to address something that is bothering me. Usually when I make myself sit down and start typing, an idea will form or a memory will pop into my head.  I teach a college-level composition course, so I try to practice what I preach about being consistent in the area of writing…and, of course, what do you do most is what you do best.  I even have a reminder on my phone to go off on the 26th of every month…just in case writing slips my mind.  I found this month that I hit “snooze” for another day and then another day…until alas, I am on the last day of the month, which also happens to be Halloween.

I don’t have a huge preference for or against Halloween.  Unlike many other holidays, I do not have any negative childhood experiences associated with Halloween.  When I was little, my mom made creative and fun costumes.  When I was a teenager, I loved hanging out with my friends, staying out late and gorging myself on candy.  In my 20s and early 30s, there were fun costume parties. Now in my late 30s, it is just kind of another day.  I enjoy decorating my house and I somewhat begrudgingly hand out candy (and most of the kids are pretty cute).  I guess because I don’t have children, there really isn’t anything that awesome about it.

So, I think this is my shortest post to date…but the holidays are around the corner, so I am sure my family will give me some new material to write about- they are always good for that 🙂