I don’t remember when I began tending to my dad’s back, but it must have been as soon as I was tall enough. He suffered from a kind of arthritis that left him dealing with psoriasis, and even though he’d mostly conquered the arthritis part after a hardcore round of steroids, he was left dealing with the raised, flakey skin. Every time he got out of the shower, he needed to put a special cream on the red patches in order to keep them from itching and cracking. Luckily, they manifested mostly on his back and shoulders, rather than more visible areas. The problem of reaching his back was solved with a selection from five children who could assist.
“Come do my back,” he’d say, and I’d stand on the toilet seat to reach the very top of his six-feet-high self. The inexperienced might feel a certain kind of revulsion, rubbing a substance into the grooves and bumps of the silvery sores, but I didn’t. We were a big family raised in small spaces. Privacy wasn’t an option, so I’d known about his psoriasis forever. We just helped dad with his back. If it was in the morning, he might talk to me about the upcoming day. I might tell him about a field trip I was excited for. As I got older, I only needed a short footstool to reach all the way up, and soon I was rivaling him in height. Those conversations changed, to his stresses at work, or his frustration with my mother or a sibling. As for me, I found myself confiding about the boy I was desperately in love with at my school, the one who liked my friend instead, and I made him swear to secrecy from my mother.
I grew familiar with the contours of the various sores spread out across his skin. The smaller patches would shrink over time, maybe fade completely with enough care. But there were bigger sores, the size of my hand, that would wrap about the curves of his abdomen. They never went away, no matter how much care I took to be thorough. I knew it wasn’t really a treatment, it was just a placebo, but I imagined that if I tried hard enough, got around all the edges, I could shrink these large scales away. I thought I could at least keep them from spreading. But years of daily application didn’t stop the spread, and even though I knew that was the case all along, I still approached the task each time with the hope that it might help ease the painful scars that my father carried.
I was sixteen the last time he hit me. I was twelve when my mother whispered to me in the hallway that she would leave him, “if not for the kids.” I was sixteen when he went to a week of counseling with some pastors he’d never met before and came home to declare himself healed. We went on a weekend vacation to the coast, during which he ordered us all into the car and drove for hours, ignoring all of our questions about where we were going, screaming us all into silence. Turns out he was taking us to a secretive cove, where we could climb among the tide pools. By the time we got there, we were all too afraid to ask the name of the place.
I was eighteen when I leapt from a moving car he was driving erratically, to escape what I felt was his intent to kill us both. I was ten when I watched him shove my brother’s face into a fence, and listened to my brother tell everyone at church that the black eye was his own fault. When I was eight, my mother threw a fan at my father’s head during a fight. He dodged and laughed. I was seventeen when he spent months telling me I was worthless, taking up space on the earth I didn’t deserve.
Where is the beginning, if not generations ago? Did it really start the first time he lost it? Maybe it began the day that I swore to my mother “I’m leaving, and I’m never coming back.”
I was nineteen the last time I went home. He wasn’t there, away on the weekend with some church retreat. The last time I saw him had been a few months earlier, when he’d come by to drop something off in my new college apartment. I asked if he’d stay a while, see the campus, have dinner. He didn’t.
I’ve learned that things are never as simple as we’d like them to be. Narratives are constantly shifting, growing into themselves as we do. If you heard my dad tell the story of his oldest daughter’s life, my life, it would center on the time I spent leaving and how I let the door hit us all on my way out. The betrayal in my actions, the bizarre character assassination of my words, the implications it had for his life and standing in the community. He says he doesn’t understand what I meant when I said those things, why I changed my number, email, and address. For him, I am the one who went off the rails. My mother would tell you all the details of how I hurt her heart, but she’d end on the hopeful note that she prays daily for my return. She still keeps the jewelry my grandmother left for me, locked up with my passport and birth certificate. It has been three years, and she’ll tell you that one day, I’m coming back.
The story is long, and I never know where to start. Start from the beginning might work, if I knew when the beginning was. Did it start when my mother met my father in their church singles group? It could’ve been when my father’s parents married, and made a family forged of slow poison. Maybe it was when my mother left her first husband and then found the brand of Jesus that says you submit to men, no matter what. Wherever it is, the beginning certainly did not start with me, although I was my parents’ firstborn.
The stories I know about my grandparents are not happy ones. My maternal grandmother didn’t want another child, so she’d shove my mother’s mouth full of cake when she cried. The theory was that my grandma was perpetually emotionally unavailable because of the hardships she suffered during her childhood. My mother’s father suffered from PTSD after being shot down as a fighter pilot in the second World War. He died alone in a hospital bed, paralyzed. My mother took care of him for the last few years of his life, after my grandparents had divorced in the wake of his instability from the car wreck that paralyzed him, and an affair my grandma began with his best friend from their Knights of Columbus group. I don’t know details of everything, but later, my mother told me often she wished I could’ve known him.
My dad’s side of things is hazy. I only knew my grandfather didn’t want us to come visit, and that my grandmother died when my dad was eighteen. I never found out what she did to make him say he hated her, in present tense, decades later. I thought it must have been pretty bad.
A historian’s perspective would be that I am the latest in a long line of children who had contentious relationships with their parents. A therapist would say there’s a lot of inherent emotional issues we all have to work out before we can form healthy relationships. A psychiatrist would point to the obvious signs of mental illness in both sides of the family tree, and more specifically, in the manic depressive behavior my father often exhibited. A biblical scholar would solemnly intone, “He brings the sins of the fathers unto the children, unto the third and fourth generation.”
I’m pretty sure they are all right.
I was seventeen when my mother needed surgery. She’d developed carpal tunnel over the years, and it had become severe enough to require drastic intervention. The first step was to remove a large ganglion cyst that wrapped around her fingers, connected to the nerve damage in her wrists. She was lucky; it was an outpatient procedure. Just a Tuesday morning in a surgical center, a few hours of recovery time, and she’d be home. I drove her there, waited with her in the check-in room. “Don’t worry, I’ll be here when you’re out,” I reassured her, and then I drove back across town to drop my youngest brother off at school, then straight back.
They brought me back into the recovery ward, and told me I needed to get her dressed. She was always a lightweight, she’d told me, back in her drug days. The morphine made her feel great, she said. Where was my dad, she wanted to know. I said he was at work, and she told me she could float. I coaxed her arms into sleeves, hooked her bra behind her, years of nursing all of us kids gifting her with a large, unwieldy cup size. She wouldn’t cooperate with the pants, so I held the carrot of going home over her head until she did.
We drove home; I settled her into bed. She was laughing, giddy on the high, perhaps one of the few she’d felt since she’d graduated both AA and NA a few years before I was born. I wrestled her into pajamas, fed her painkillers, and waited for her to fall asleep. Then off I went, again, to pick up the rest of the kids from school. Dinner in the oven, homework out on the table, laundry in the baskets. I’d graduated early, and this was to have been my first semester at a college six hundred miles away. Instead I was here, subject to my father’s will, hiding my mother’s painkillers in her dresser drawer so he wouldn’t down them with his nightly beer.
I know that trauma fades over time; that’s what all the textbooks tell me. There are still nights when I wake up from vivid dreams and I have to turn on the light, but they come less and less often. What tempts me now is recollections of good memories, like baseball games or theme parks, or long car rides during which one parent or another confided in me like I was their equal. And then I realize I’ve edited out an upsetting moment, in order to preserve the cherished nature of remembering what it felt like to trust them.
I am the kind of person who is either a therapist’s best client or worst patient. I can tell you the things I feel and why I feel them. I will explain, as I am crying, that this is only a passing moment, and I am aware that things will feel better eventually, if not soon. I am a master of eviscerating my inner self, bringing out all the messy entrails onto the table, following each thread to where it originated. But I have never mastered the ability I covet most; there is no way for me to override the feeling with logic, not without shutting down the things that make me human. My resolve to be better, to have a more sane life, has led me to introspection and retroactive analysis of events.
That’s all fine, except it did nothing to comfort me the day that I graduated from college and my parents were not there, because I did not invite them. All the knowledge I had of how dysfunctional the situation was didn’t ease my anxiety when the next day, my parents reached out to people close to me in an attempt to punish me for this latest slight.
We play a careful game, reaching just around each other’s edges. I don’t know when we were designated different sides, but it must have been somewhere between the phase when I rushed to the driveway to greet my dad every day after his commute and the one where we would call out a warning to each other before he walked into the house. It could’ve begun the summer that I gave up on the dream of my mother ever waking up and walking out.
He would say it began the day I left the last time, but I’m not so sure.
Becca Rose writes about feminism, religion, pop culture, and sometimes, boys. Her work has appeared on HelloGiggles, xoJane, and more. She has a degree in writing and high hopes for all her student loan debt. You can find her on Twitter @bookbeaut.