Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Life and Death

It all started with a Facebook update shortly before my forty-second birthday, and suddenly I was transported to another place and time. A time when I was a different person and life was something to survive and dread. Since seeing the update, my thoughts have been preoccupied, reviewing the past, remembering things I had intentionally forgotten, or more accurately, decided I would not think about again.

It was via a Facebook update that I learned my stepdad had suffered his fourth heart attack and would probably not make it. He was on life support with possible brain damage and multiple organ failure. I was stunned when I saw it. I read it so many times I had it memorized.

See, as cold as this may sound right now, I had been waiting for this to happen. Not willing it or wanting it, just waiting. For over half my life, I had been waiting for it. After over twenty years, the moment had arrived and I was surprised to discover I was not so prepared for it. I thought I was, but seeing that update, I realized I wasn’t. At least not as much as I thought.

When I was seven or eight, my parents were divorced and my mom remarried the day after it was finalized. My mother meeting my stepdad was an event that would change not only my life, it would change who I am and who I would become. It began well before they were married. It all started one night when I forgot to take my allergy medicine. I used to have horrific allergies that would come in extreme waves of attacks, causing me to sneeze almost to the point of suffocating. But, like any child at that age, I would sometimes forget my medicine and the most severe punishment I got would be an attack that would normally last ten to fifteen minutes. But that night, things would be different. It was the first time I ever had a busted lip. It was that night that the violence started. It was physical and emotional. In the swing of a hand, I was no longer myself. I was outside myself. I was living in a war zone. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that is the view when I look back. Like so many other families in the same situation, we looked perfect on the outside. We went to church, we were well turned out, well mannered and behaved. But in the privacy of our house, it was beyond a nightmare. Life was a minefield and I was forever stepping in the wrong place.

My sisters and I would be pulled out of our beds in the middle of the night, made to rewash all of the dishes in the kitchen at two in the morning because one glass had a spot on it, or worse, we would all be questioned about who ate one of his cookies and then made to pay the price in some way. The punishment usually fell on me. I knew I would get it anyway, so would sometimes just lie and admit guilt, just to get it over with. There would be beatings because ten cents worth of change would be missing after I went to the store. My sisters and I became servants in the house. We would clean, do laundry, wash the dishes and pick up after him. If he came home and found so much as a piece of lint on the floor, there would be hell to pay. I have been thrown across rooms and there were slaps, kicks, whippings with a horsewhip, or whatever else happened to be within close grabbing distance. Busted lips and bruises were the norm. I failed gym class because I refused to wear the uniform. What nobody knew, was that I was hiding the marks, welts, cuts and bruises all over my body. I went from being a straight A student to making Ds and Fs. I no longer dreamt, I had nightmares of being chased, stabbed, shot and burned alive. It was then I also started poking needles and pins into my skin, to see how far I could push them in without feeling.

As time went on my stepdad became more inventive. He would make up “games” that he thought would help me be a better person. A personal favorite was one where he would say a word and I would have to say the first word that came to mind. He might say “light” and I would say “dark”. There would be a sharp kick to the ribs and we would start again until I said the right answer. And these were not isolated incidents. This was daily life and anything would set him off, as though he was looking, searching for a reason to lose his temper and it could be something as trivial as the TV being on… Or off… Or the traffic. Or the neighbors. Or me knowing the answer to something he didn’t. Or being beat at a game. Or anything at all, really. Life was spent constantly on guard, on high alert, waiting for the bombs to go off. And he did all this in the name of God, always talking about sparing the rod and spoiling the child. We would go to church and I would to pray to God to let me die, all the while playing the part of the cute little boy with blond hair and big blue eyes. I knew all the right lines. I knew every possible excuse for any bruise or cut. The funny thing is, I was never taught those things. I was never told to make excuses, it all just came naturally. It was just what I did. It seemed like the right thing to do.

Sure, he would apologize every once in a while and promise to never do it again, which usually resulted in a bit of a break for a few days, maybe a week. Then he would start again, a little worse than before and it was never his fault. I “made” him do it. If only I wasn’t so stupid or smart or lazy or energetic or whatever. If it wasn’t for me, there would have been no problems in the house. Everything would be fine. I was disgusting and should not have been born.

This was before there was a word for it. Child abuse didn’t exist. There was nobody to tell. I did tell a friend once, that my step-dad hit me and his mom confronted my step-dad. I was twelve years old and after what happened, I only told one other person until I was in my twenties. It happened when I was fourteen. Things had gotten so bad, I decided to kill myself. I had it all planned out and had picked a date. I was a huge bookworm and had read a medical encyclopedia. I knew that a big enough air bubble in the bloodstream would kill me. My stepdad used to make model cars and airplanes and had some diabetic syringes he used to apply glue on the tiny pieces. I swiped one of them and learned how to find a vein. I would practice every day, making sure I could do it easy. I knew I had hit the vein when I could draw out blood.

It was just a few days before I was going to go through with it when I got arrested at FedMart for shoplifting. They were going to call my parents and for some reason it all started coming out. I started and it was like floodgates opened. The security guards at that store saved my life. They didn’t press charges under the condition I left the state until I was eighteen. It wasn’t really a legally binding agreement, but one that would get me away from my stepdad. Three days later I was on an airplane to Oregon to live with my dad and stepmom.

A few years later, when my dad was moving to Kuwait, I went back to California to live with my mom and stepdad. It started all over again. Only it was worse. After two years, I moved out and went back only when I absolutely had to.

A lot of my childhood I have blocked out. I have some memories, but there are many blanks. I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and spent years working through it. It took me a very long time to get over it. In fact, I would actively do things to numb myself so I didn’t have to feel. I was so good at it, I could go for walks in sub zero temperatures in shorts in Colorado and Ohio. I stayed out all night, standing with no coat in a rainstorm in New York in November. Just willing myself not to feel. The only thing I knew how to do was hate. I spent years hating him, wishing him dead and dreaming how I would kill him. When I first learned he had a heart condition, I used to think about meeting him someplace where we were alone and getting him angry enough to have a heart attack. And then I would watch him die.

And then I realized that even though he was not in my life, he was still controlling it and I decided to let it go. Looking back, I can’t even remember the moment, I just remember that it happened. I saw his life and everything he said would happen to me became his own prison. He always told me I was a nobody, that I would never have a life, that nobody would ever like me or love me. And that is what happened to him. He is a miserable person and I doubt there are many people that will genuinely miss him. I won’t.

So yes, I had been waiting for that moment, waiting for him to die. Not willing, not wishing, just waiting. And when that the moment seemed like it had arrived, I felt relief, like it would finally, finally over. I would never have to see him again or get the odd emails asking if we can talk, only to be subjected to more insults and misery. He was on life support and close to death, but then pulled through and from what I heard, was quickly back to his old self.

This morning, a couple of months before my forty-sixth birthday, I received a call from my sister Stephanie, telling me that he passed away. The mix of emotions that went through me are still swirling around and I am not yet sure what I really feel. Part of me feels relief. Part of me feels sad that there was never an apology. Part of me is glad that I had learned to forgive him years ago. Part of me feels that things are finally over. I also feel sad that he chose to spend his life being angry and bitter, missing out on his wonderful daughter and her amazing children.

Most people who grow up like I do fall into the same trap and repeat what they have learned. They become the very people they grew up despising and hating. But not me. For me, the cycle is broken. I have tried very hard to make my life a different place. I try to be kind, giving, compassionate and live my life to the fullest. I try to make a difference where and when I can. This is why I need to see the funny side of things. I know from experience that there is too much pain in the world, too much suffering. I don’t always succeed and I still have a long way to go, my temper can be violent and sometimes quick, surprising people around me, but I have learned to control it for the most part. I have also learned that life is only what we make it. It is not about being defined by a past, but about making a choice for now and for the future.

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