I been up and down in prison; I’ve lived inside this cell.
Surrounded by these demons and the fiery gates of hell.
I blame my Mother and my Father for the man that I’ve become.
-I was born into this family; I was born the Devil’s son.
No I ain’t gonna see my freedom … ’til the day …
… they lay me in the ground.
-Ryan Horne, Terrible Tommy
There’s this nuanced aspect of a more generalized existential despair which I would like to explore. It has to do with my inheritance from my parents, and since parts of this line of inquiry really hurt me to think about, I know that is where I must look.
In Sterquiliniis Invenitur – In filth it will be found
To be clear, I am learning to love existential despair, but every new encroachment of it on my life does take some time to get used to. And the more it encroaches the more clearly I see what has kept it at bay for so long. In fact, I realize as I write these words that there are two bulwarks which have held back the despair,-for better and worse-for most of my life: The Strength of my Father and The Dreams of my Mother.
The Dreams of My Mother
Having been estranged from my mother for almost 20 years now, you might say this bulwark has been in disrepair for some time, but it would be more accurate to say I have been chipping away at it even as I have been protected (suffocated?) by it.
Still, my mother was a big dreamer, and the magnitude of her aspirations made a deep impression on me.. There was always something, not exactly upward striving about her, but rather upward-desiring. More precisely, she wanted deeply and she had a way of externalizing responsibility for the fulfilment of her desires upon other people, including her kids (I was always meant to be a doctor after all). Still, in fairness to her, the Joneses weren’t going to keep up with themselves…
Two incidents from my childhood really stand out as perfect examples of the gulf between her life and her desires.
1) There was an affluent development we used to drive by on the way to visit my grandparents. The houses were mansions -like proper fucking mansions. My step-dad was a small business owner and he did okay for for us -we lived comfortably and had a beautiful house in the country, never wanting for anything. This one mansion though; it must have driven my mother nuts seeing it often as we did. I guess she felt entitled to that life -that of affluent Italian immigrants instead of the blue collar family she came from (hold that thought). In any event, one time we were driving as a family and she drew all of our attention to that unnecessarily, ostentatiously large house, too big even for us as a family of 7, and said something to the effect of, “We’re going to live there one day,” and while I don’t remember her actual wording beyond that, there was a way in which it was clearly indicated as a challenge to my step-father to give her the life she deserved. He, for his part, simply kept driving.
2) In March ’95 we took our first and only plane trip together as a family -two weeks in that storied paradise we’d all grown up wanting to go to, Florida! We spent the first week hitting the theme parks -a day at Magic Kingdom, a day at Universal, and (my favourite) a day at Epcot. We stayed in motels and had a very lovely time of it. But my mother, like Malory Archer, had a Trudy Beekman of her own -a rival who had to be on-upped at all costs; Cheryl D____. And so it was, when we got back to Canada we were instructed to tell everyone that we stayed at the Disney All-Star Resort.
Nothing about her life was ever good enough, and I realize that that same attitude has been a detriment in my life as well.
Now let’s come back to that thought I told you to hold -the one about my mother’s shameful, Southern-Italian, blue collar origins. See, I never saw it that way. As a kid, I always thought being Italian was the coolest thing, because that was what I was always exposed to. I guess it was overcompensation and correction for the racism my mother and grandparents had been subjected to as an immigrant family in the 60s, but there was never any question about the superiority of my Italian blood, and this delusion dovetailed nicely into the Oedipal-Messiah monoculture I was at the centre of as the first-born of the new generation. This over-correction, the aforementioned dreams of my mother, really fucked me up for many years. Her dreams and expectations, which I internalized to a degree I didn’t even realize until my early 30s, were worn around me like a protective cocoon with walls so thick I struggled to break free, suffering many years of stunted growth in the process. In my early childhood, this barrier had the effect of giving me an infallible sense of self-worth; in adolescence I lagged behind the other kids in social development; and at 17 I realized for the first time that in social situations where noone was talking to me, I might be the problem. Case in point: I remember the house party I was at in Summer 2002, sitting alone on a seat talking to no one (which was common enough), but for the first time it occurred to me that it was up to me to make something happen here (at the party and in life); I stopped assuming that other people’s priorities weren’t messed up because they weren’t talking to me. At that point I had already been estranged from my mother for two years, but in that moment I feel I truly breached and poked my arm through the cocoon -though the suffocating dreams of my mother– for the first time.
The Strength of My Father
Jordan Peterson is fond of saying that a good thing to aim for is to be the strongest person at your father’s funeral; the person everyone goes to; the person everyone can lean on. There’s nobody I love more than my dad, and his passing will wreck me, but I have nonetheless thought a lot about it and what it means for my fractured family. I know I have it in me to be the strongest person, to deal with things level-headedly, and (most importantly) not get sucked into arguments with my step-mother, Anita. But therein lies the problem: Once my father passes I can have no expectation of civility from her. When he passes and his unwavering devotion to me and my sister (his kids from his first marriage) passes with him, the centre of gravity of his family with Anita and their kids together will slip away from me entirely and I anticipate her roundly rejecting any help I try and proffer with the funeral or anything else. I will be out in the cold. Still, I can comfort my relatives and siblings, and if that is all I can do then that is enough. There has been a long cold war fought between me and her and I know how scared she must be to lose him even though to lose him would be to have me out of her life once and for all. It’s quite the Catch-22 for her and maybe for me as well.
I have really tried to put myself in my step-mother’s shoes in earnest over the last year. Though I didn’t formally articulate it at the time, I guess I started with the assumption that she hated me and had legitimate grounds for feeling that way. So, what were those grounds?
Well, best I could figure, I am a 35 year-old wastrel whose guilt-racked father was never judgmental enough. His resultant indulgent treatment of me contributed to an overall shortage of self-reliance, and I still enable this treatment from my father by asking him for help (doing my taxes & collecting my mail while I travel, etc.) because that relationship –having my dad be my dad– is the best memory I have from my childhood.
Still, I get it, it’s not charming to be a 35 year-old child and I’m working on it.
But even today, I had my dad on the phone while he was in his basement going through my boxes looking for stuff to bring up to Barrie for me. I don’t like having stuff in his basement as I feel it is a psychological provocation to Anita, but he insists its not a problem and since I’m just re-establishing myself in Canada, it stays there for the time being.
Just the same, I know he has had mobility problems over the past couple of years and that going down in the basement and looking through my boxes is not easy.
I know he’s coming up to Barrie to visit his parents whose health is failing and who are struggling much worse than I am.
I know he still works as many hours as ever, now shouldering the extra burden of paying for my little sister’s university.
And knowing all this I have the audacity to ask him for help?
It makes me feel like shit, honestly, but I do it nonetheless.
Well, the sad reality is that if he didn’t come up here and help me I simply wouldn’t see him. After all, if I went to visit him at his home it would get his wife in a mood and then he’d be left living with her which I think is overall worse, so maybe its better this way.
And that is the ultimate irony of mine and Anita’s cold war over my father: HE is the casualty and he suffers from our inability to reconcile. How much does he suffer? I don’t know but I have this image in my head of Anita and I standing across from each other at his funeral as they lower him into the ground, unable to look at each other, both full of guilt and shame for the role our mutual disdain played in depriving him of peace on this Earth.
The queen and the prince unwittingly conspiring to kill the king. It’s poetic and almost reassuring that we could work together toward a common purpose.
Looking at the ground around me, I see the sloughed-off bits of that maternal cocoon that I have been trying to shed for the latter half of my life with ever-growing consciousness and awareness. The torn, now useless bits of it, once my constrictive shell, represent the unfulfilled, unrealized dreams of my mother, and those vain aspirations seem shabby to me now where they once seemed sublimely influential -as does she.
I like the shabbiness though -she always wore humility well and in those moments where she took joy in her lot in life and appreciated what she had, she could be the best mom in the world. So there’s value in these broken bits of cocoon I’ve shed if I accept them for what they are.
As I look up ahead of me I see the wall of my father, still standing, a veritable dam holding back the despair of the world as best it can. I can see the leaks though. Every year, more of the world’s ugliness makes it past him and pools toward me like a flowing tide. Eventually he too will crumble.
Can I brace the wall before it gives way? Maybe … to an extent. But maybe I’m not meant to.
Maybe the continuity of his strength –of his kind of strength– rests with my little brother; in some ways more like my dad than I will ever be. My little brother, Zach, had the one thing I always wanted more than anything in the world -to come home every day and see my dad. I don’t begrudge him this. It’s shaped him into a man of primary importance. A man like my father who takes care of the business of survival and keeps society running.
By comparison, I suppose I am a man of secondary importance: it is my lot to make things beautiful after men like my father and my brother (my brother especially as he’s an electrician) have made it habitable. I embrace that responsibility -secondary importance is still importance- and I have fierce respect for the people who make my work possible.
If I’m honest, I don’t think my dad ever wanted me to be like him. I often attribute his lack of fatherly judgment to his feelings of guilt for splitting up mine and my sister’s childhood home, but maybe it was more than that. Perhaps he had a vague idea of something I could strive toward but which he didn’t know how to guide me toward. Instead, he did what he could while I figured it out on my own.
Looking at the crumbling wall in front of me and the broken shell below me I think maybe I’m meant to pick up some of the pieces of each and fashion them into something new. Maybe not another wall to shield me or another armour-like cocoon to protect me, but perhaps a boat to buoy me.
This idea comforts me –and that makes me immediately suspicious of it– but it also makes sense and I can’t easily disprove it, so I will entertain it.
So what are the gifts from my parents that I want to bring forward into the construction of my ark?
Well, wherever she happens to be, my mother acts as if she has a right to be there; she owns her presence in any situation (if not her actions).
My father does the things right there in from of him which need to be done. He takes responsibility.
I’ve been doing like my mother for most of my life: Confident and defiant at best; presumptuous and entitled at worst. I’m pretty good at this.
It’s only more recently that I’ve started to integrate the behaviours which have made my father the mountain of a man he is in my imagination: Staying humble, doing the thing right in front of me that needs doing, etc.
I guess if I had to put it in an easy to follow rule: “Walk around like you pay the bills in that motherfucker –but pay the bills, motherfucker!”
Thanks, Mom and Dad.