Sunday, July 30, 2017

Sadness Can Kill Us

I love my friends who are close enough and kind enough and who understand me enough to warn me away from potential sadnesses. ("Avoid this book/movie/person/situation.") I do work hard these days to pursue warmth and light, but occasionally I take a foray into a dark zone to honor a friend or someone I respect, or just to continue the work of soul healing that seems endless and often requires comparison for the purposes of reflection.

For the past week I've been listening to the audio version of Sherman Alexie's recently released memoir, You Don't Have to Say You Love Me. Damn. This book is hard. It's sad and brilliant and tragic and evocative and I just want to hug him, or more truthfully, I just want to hug the child that I was, the child who was so often ignored and belittled.

I always say—blithely, to people who don't know me well—"I forgive my dad" or "I forgive my mom," but the real truth is, I'm still working on that. It still hurts. My father's ridicule of me at times was epic, and I'm not talking about the playful teasing of a father who loves his child. I'm talking about the blatant you-disgust-me level of resentment and rebuff that comes from a man who is unaware that even mediocre parents work hard to disguise their disappointment in a child who is not what they wanted, not what they expected.

In 1994, when I was diagnosed with skin cancer, my brother called to tell me that I was angry and that was why I got cancer. "You're angry about your childhood and our dad, and you're holding it all in, and you need to just let it go now or you're going to keep getting cancer because this anger and sadness can kill you." Hours later in the same conversation he admitted that he was still so angry and so hurt over things our father had said and done to him that he couldn't allow himself to cry in order to heal "because once I start crying," he said, "I'm afraid I will never stop." He later got cancer... and a decade later, it killed him. True story.

By the time I matured into a true adult, I had one question regarding my father: Why? Why were you loving and kind and playful with my sister, but cruel and derisive toward me? I'll never be able to ask him. Or at least, not for a very long time. My father died when he was 43. I was 8. He died of a very rare disease, one in which the body turns on itself... kind of like cancer, but not cancer.

Was he sad? Profoundly so. He married my mother because she was pregnant and he was doing "the right thing," but this was in spite of the reservations he and his family had about this woman who was not Irish, not Catholic, and not easy to get along with. And then, after they'd had three of their four children, and she had alienated many of his family members in Illinois, she decided she needed to separate him from the brothers and fellow law enforcement officers he drank with and confided in. So she packed up and moved to California, in essence telling him, "You can come along or not."

Of course he went. And he tried to make a good life here, be a good man, a good neighbor, a good father, taking his three beautiful, blonde-haired, blue-eyed children camping and to mass on Sundays.

But then I was born. And things took a turn. I was... different... from my siblings. Oh so different. Decades later, after my second divorce, my mother would finally tell me, "That wasn't right, the way your father treated you. I knew it wasn't right, but I couldn't say anything because I was his wife and wives weren't supposed to contradict their husbands back then." These are interesting words from a woman who always boasted that she was the one who "made" my father move to California; Dad had no say in the matter.

Was my father sad? I think so. I think he was deeply sad, separated from his brothers and sisters and friends with whom he had been very, very close, now having to create a new life, new friends, in this new place, working security instead of law enforcement as he did back east, asking for the graveyard shift so he could take classes in law during the day. He finished, too, and took the bar exam and passed it. And immediately after, he was diagnosed with this illness that would kill him. "You have time," they told him, "a year or two, maybe. But this disease is terminal. There is no cure."

Did he take his sadness out on me? I think so. No, I know he did. I know he needed a scapegoat. To be honest, I would have been really pissed off, too, if I were in his shoes, having moved far from his loved ones in the days when a "long distance" phone call could take a large chunk out of a man's weekly paycheck. And then to have the wife be shrewish to live with? And on top of all that, to get sick? To be dying so far from all that is loving and familiar? Yeah, I'd be really, really pissed, too.

Anger causes cancer, my brother said. Sadness, if it is deep enough, can kill us.

Unlike my brother, I do cry. I started crying on my nineteenth birthday, the same day my first child was born. Before that day, I had not cried since I was a very little girl. ("Stop crying or I'll give you something to cry about" was the threat I grew up with.) But in some ways, I became child-like again with the birth of my daughter. And in some ways, I have been crying ever since. I wish I could have told my brother that. I did tell him, "Dan, trust me, I cry every single day." But I wish I would have said to him, "Dan, it's okay to start crying and not be able to stop. That pain is gonna hurt for a long time, so it's okay to keep crying and keep crying and keep crying. Because eventually there will be more things to not cry about than there are things to cry about."

I wish I could say that to so many people....

So yeah, sadness can definitely kill us in the most complete and permanent way. But it can also deaden us while we are still living... each time we fail to return a smile or see the humor in a joke, each time we walk past something or someone beautiful and fail to acknowledge it or them, each time we are so preoccupied with what hurts us we cannot hear or see or feel the pain of others.

That's what I worry about. I'm not in the least afraid to die. I'm afraid I will go back to being dead while I am still alive. That's why I need to remind myself, day by day, that there is light and beauty out there... if I choose to seek it out.


  1. Kay, I was fortunate enough to have two mothers-in-law who loved me so much more than my own mother, and certainly more than my father. When my father died and I flew back to NY for the funeral, I asked myself on the airplane how I felt, and I just felt like I was flying to the funeral of someone I had no feelings for and was just going through the motions. My childhood wasn't one of being constantly belittled, more just ignored, so I learned to play by myself and keep to myself. When I grew up, I decided I would not treat my kids as I was treated, and I didn't. We make decisions and, difficult as it seems at times, have to remember who we want to be and not give to someone else the hurt we experienced. I am so sorry for your pain and wish I could ease it somehow. but I think you've probably figured that out a long time ago. Hugs to you, friend I've never met.

    1. Art, never underestimate the power of your poetry to bring solace and comfort to readers like myself. I mean that sincerely; your work is more meaningful to me than you'll probably ever know. And isn't it strange... we grew up with shows like Father Knows Best and Leave it to Beaver--those parents always loved and respected their children. As a child, I really thought I must be something horrid if my own father disliked me and my mother did nothing to protect me. When I became a parent, however, I realized the issues were theirs, not mine. And yes, I too made sure my own children felt loved every single day. These experiences shape us... but I do not feel malformed. I feel stronger and more compassionate because of it.

  2. Kay, this is so profoundly moving. Now I think I have some insight into the empathy you bring to the kids in your classroom --not that you should have had to suffer this upbringing to acquire that trait. I didn't realize how lucky I was as a child; it becomes more apparent to me every year. I just want to live up to what my parents did for me. Bless you, friend. And know that your friends would take some of your sadness if possible.

    1. That is such a kindness, Jimi, to offer to carry some of the grief. I think perhaps my empathy for my students--my desire to reach out to them--came from just that; I wanted to carry some of their sadness, if I could, because when it's on-going--as mine was, since my mother married my wicked step-father after my father died and that bastard took up the torch of deriding me--a person gets so, so exhausted of carrying all that sadness, day after day. Twenty-five years ago, I briefly dated a man who ended up being a better therapist than he was a boyfriend. "You don't have to carry all that, you know," he told me. "It's a pretty heavy load. You could probably decide to just set it down now." Wow. As simple as it seems, that was a life-changing epiphany.

  3. Wow. Wonderful as always. I would comment on my own issues, but they would bore others and might kill me.

    1. Mike, I wouldn't want anything to happen to you. I can't envision my world without you and your writing in it.