by D. Patrick Miller
I was a momma’s boy. Determined that I would be a great novelist like Faulkner, Steinbeck, or Thomas Wolfe -- preferably, surpassing all three -- my mother started me reading at home, at age five. And we didn’t waste much time with Dick & Jane primers, moving straightaway into abridged classics. Thus it came to pass that my poor sister Karen had to listen to her smart-alecky first-grade brother read aloud from Moby Dick to her sixth-grade class.
In retrospect, this spectacle almost certainly constituted scholastic abuse.
I didn’t exactly follow my mother’s plan for my writing career. She wanted me to become a safely tenured English professor and then write the Great American Novel. Instead, I spent two years of college almost entirely sequestered in the student newspaper office before quitting school, bicycling out West, and starting a checkered career as an investigative reporter, poet, magazine feature writer, book author, and finally an independent publisher and literary agent -- all without the safety of tenure, or usually a living wage, for that matter.
While I determined my own direction as a writer, I cannot say for sure where the original impulse came from. Did my mother recognize something inborn, or school it into me? I may never know for sure, but it’s undeniable that she was an irrepressible force of nature in my creative development.
She was a force in other, more ominous ways as well. A psychiatric patient since before I was born, she was officially diagnosed as manic-depressive with borderline personality disorder -- what’s called “bipolar” in today’s lingo. She was prone to frantic shopping sprees followed by days of sunken depression, hidden away in her bedroom, while my father nervously checked the medicine cabinet, brimming with a wide array of medicine bottles, to see if anything in particular was getting emptied too fast.
My mom worked her way through college, a courageous path for a young woman in the 1940s, and became an English teacher. My dad, raised in a North Carolina mill town, had gone to work full-time after the eighth grade, and later had to complete his high-school equivalency before becoming a successful electrical contractor -- a business for which my mother kept the books and generally provided the driving energy. He would have never gotten out of the mill town but for her ambition, which led the family to an upper middle-class lifestyle near the big city of Charlotte.
When I was a kid, my father and I were not close. I was a bookworm and he was good with his hands, yanking wire and electrifying houses in the daytime while fiddling around in his immaculate toolshop at night. When I went to work for him during my high school summers, everyone was amazed that I learned to use a hammer and screwdriver without fatally wounding myself. We were all aware, however, that I was not suited to inherit the family business, which would go to my cousin while I went to California.
Nonetheless, as I approached adulthood I was idolizing my father as a strong, mostly silent hero who weathered the family storms engendered by my mother’s frequent crises. Those included delusional episodes, hospital psychiatric ward confinements, multiple electroshock treatments, and a tendency toward virulent hostility that was doled out in fairly equal portions to everyone. Through it all, my father remained stoic, handling every crisis with the attitude, “We’ll just ride it out.”
That’s why I was shocked when my parents visited California a couple years after I left home and met Pat, a 60-year-old therapist and ascetic Buddhist meditator who rented a room in the same house that I did. While I was not a paying client, we often had breakfast together, and it came as naturally to her to counsel me as it was for me to vent about my childhood. After Pat met my parents and talked to them for about an hour, I was eager to get her confirmation of the precarious psychic circumstances of my upbringing. I was especially concerned to know if she would echo my mother’s oft-stated suggestion that I was “just like her” and thus would end up clinically depressed.
“You see now, don’t you?” I challenged Pat. “You can see I wasn’t exaggerating.”
“Yes, I do,” Pat replied with a kind smile. “I always believed you. But don’t worry about becoming your mother, honey." Then her smile was replaced with a gentle frown.
"Watch out for becoming your father, though.”
Understanding the family dynamic
That wise redirection provided my first, jolting realization that I had not understood everything going on in the tumultuous family dynamic of my youth. Pat soon introduced me to the term “enabler” and pointed out that an attitude of “we’ll just ride it out” was not an adept response to a severe psychological disorder. It was, instead, the hapless response of someone who was overpowered by the circumstances in which he probably felt entrapped.
Because family therapy was not in vogue in the 50s and 60s, neither my father nor my sisters and I were included in her treatment, which amounted chiefly to the prescription of increasingly powerful mood-altering medications over several decades.
At about age twenty, before I'd left North Carolina, I and my sisters finally met my mother’s beloved psychiatrist, Dr. Wright, after her near-fatal suicide attempt. To our surprise, he confessed that she had overpowered him, resisting every form of intervention except medication. Refusing talk therapy, group therapy, and hypnosis, she stubbornly maintained that she had a “bad brain” that needed chemical correction. She steadfastly refused to look into her own childhood -- a childhood that, in the educated opinion of her shrink, was almost certainly ridden with severe emotional and sexual abuse.
“All the behavioral signs are there,” he told us. “I’ve just never been able to get her to look at it, and she essentially dictated her treatment to me.” This explained why my mother regarded Dr. Wright as a brilliant psychiatrist; he was, by his own confession, yet another enabler.
Knowing her trust of Dr. Wright was absolute, we conscientiously asked what we could do for her in the wake of her most serious crisis. His advice was succinct: “Get as far away from her as you can, as soon as you can. She will almost certainly try to destroy herself again, and next time she might take one of you with her.”
Two years later, I would be in California for good. My sisters took their chances, staying in North Carolina to raise their families.
But Dr. Wright was wrong. My mom outlived him, never seriously attempting suicide again, and died quietly in her morning sleep at age 72. This was a few years after I wrote my first solo book on forgiveness, which I dedicated to her. Although it did not resolve all our problems, it did usher in a greater understanding between us. And though I have no proof, I like to believe that it helped her pass peacefully from the troubled dark valley of her life.
Seeing my father anew
It was after my mother’s death that some long-hidden aspects of my father began to reveal themselves. The day she died at home, my father gave her wedding ring that the coroner had removed from her hand to my sisters, saying, “I don’t want this.” When they asked him if one of them should stay with him overnight, as I wasn’t arriving until the next day, he said, “Nope. I’m going out to dinner.” An almost ebullient demeanor of “good riddance” surfaced and would not diminish for some time.
I was not surprised. A few years before when I was visiting from California, my mom disappeared into a bedroom depression on my last morning there, and my father drove me to the airport for my return flight. We parked at a spot that we had frequented as a young family to watch airplanes take off and land, still a thrill in the early 60s. As we sat in silence for a moment my father suddenly announced, “Son, you don’t know how many times I’ve driven out there and watched these planes, and thought about taking off to anywhere, and never coming back.”
It was so unlike my father to reveal himself this way that I was momentarily speechless. Finally I answered, “Well, why don’t you? All us kids are on our own now. You could leave. None of us would blame you, that’s for sure.”
My father shook his head slowly and sadly responded, “No, I can’t do that. You and I both know your mother would never make it on her own.”
That was the first time I seriously questioned whether my father’s devotion had entrapped him, or whether feeling entrapped forced him to put on a show of devotion. Both my parents had always echoed in unison the idea that “marriage was forever” and “for better or worse” meant exactly what it said. But in modern psychological terms, it was a union of unhealthy co-dependency, not a noble demonstration of the sanctity of marriage. My sisters and I often wondered whether it would have been better for us to come from a “broken” home -- since the psychic cost of maintaining the chaotic yet tightly bound home we knew was so high.
After my mom’s death, my sisters reported that Dad also became more open, funny, and charming than he ever had before -- or at least more so than he had ever been allowed to express, as my mother’s mood swings and disruptive behavior had always occupied center stage.
My favorite memory of this period comes from another visit home, after my sisters had moved my dad into a fairly comfortable seniors’ home. Initially at a loss because he was not used to the suddenly social, dorm-like atmosphere populated by a couple hundred of his peers, he adjusted remarkably well after a year or so.
When I announced this visit he told me he would reserve a private dining room for us, which I took as a sign of his anti-social attitude. So I was surprised to be ushered into the room to see my father seated at a table with three elderly women -- no less than a trio of girlfriends.
Later, in his private room, I couldn’t wait to express my astonishment. “Dad!” I exclaimed. “Three girlfriends?! I mean, how do you do it?”
“Welll,” he drawled, “here’s the thing. One of ‘em can hardly hear anything, one of ‘em can’t see worth a damn, and the third one doesn’t know who she is half the time. So I can sorta put them together in my mind and have one whole girlfriend.”
Hands down, it was the funniest thing I’d ever heard my father say.
In his last few years, however, increasingly immobilized by Parkinsons’ and the medications for it, he became more irritable and cantankerous, by my sisters’ reports. He would refuse to participate in group therapy because he didn’t “want to be around all those sick people,” and in his last few months he told Karen that he was just getting too tired to keep going. He died at age 90 from complications of Parkinsons.
What my father within called for
Recently I was meditating on the Buddhist value of lovingkindness when images of my father began to surface vividly in my mind. Soon after, I felt pangs of a panicky desperation whose source was no mystery. I knew without a doubt that it was what he felt when he was nervously surveying the medicine cabinet, or driving my mother to the psychiatric ward, or waiting to see what how severe the amnesiac effect of her latest electroshock treatment would be. I realized then how deeply and silently he was still living within me, in a way that my mother does not.
That’s largely because I was forced to resolve my issues with my mom while she was alive -- first to forgive her, thence to recognize the paradoxical ways in which her anarchic strength had empowered me. A few years ago I wrote an e-book entitled The Perfect Mother, in which I acknowledged that she directly shaped my spiritual and creative life, albeit in a way she probably never imagined. I would never have taught and written about forgiveness, or even been initiated to my spiritual path, without the profound challenge she represented. For the writer, seeker, and human being I became, she was indeed the perfect mother.
But I never felt the need to forgive my father. While I now view him as a tragic hero, he remains a hero nonetheless. Because he never had a psychiatrist, nor even a kindly counselor, he grappled alone with my mother’s fiery demons, and rode out those battles as best he could. His soul, carried on within me, asks not for forgiveness, but for the kindness he seldom if ever knew from his life partner.
This is an inner offering that can be made to anyone, including ourselves, at any time, regardless of our own woundedness or suffering. Recognizing that we all have such healing resources within is, in fact, the whole point of a spiritual discipline.
For anyone whose life is haunted by the pains of their embattled parents, or perhaps the troubled ancestors who lived before them, it’s safe to assume that they all deserve no less than our lovingkindness in the here and now. And that may be the only way we can truly lay them to rest.
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