One of the implicit desires in life is to be fully understood by the people we love and who love us back. Where this desire is part of the human experience, the beauty of marriage lies in exploring this desire together.
I am 54 years old and at a restaurant with my wife. We are in our nineteenth year of marriage and in deep discussion. The marriage is, on the whole, a miracle of happiness and constancy, but at the same time, like all earthbound things, it could use some refinement as the path is slightly littered with the natural resentment born from human interaction, discourse and proximity.
She says, “You don’t really have any friends other than me, Tommy (my older brother) and the guys you play hockey with and Jack. Why is that?”
I respond, deflecting with defensive humor but also with some conviction,
“Most people are assholes.”
She presses: “No really, you never pursue friendships. I don’t get it. I have several friends I depend on for support. You depend mostly on me. I’ve worked hard on those friendships, and they work for me. I feel like there are a bunch of people I can go to and they listen to me, support me and back me up. “
I know this is true. She has five friends I can quickly think of that will swoop to her side in any emergency. She’s had most of these friends for over twenty years and they are like an emotional SWAT team for one another.
When my wife had her right hip replaced there were “complications,” a euphemism for the stunning reversals of fortune that resulted in two additional hospitalizations due to a badly botched medication regime and an infection that almost required the removal of the prosthesis.
The efficiency of her friends’ response would make your head spin: Mobilization was fast and efficient. Meals were prepared and delivered, bedside shifts posted and executed, complex childcare schedules gridded-out and fulfilled without request or complaint. These women have her back and they always will.
I realize she’s pushing me with intention and purpose. I suspect where we are going and I don’t particularly like it, having been there several times before in our marriage. I swallow my frustration, which inclines me to be cynical and snappish.
I say as honestly as I can, “I don’t trust most people.”
She knows me better than anyone. I have let her get closer to me than anyone else in the course of my life. I’m convinced that this is it too. Nobody will get closer to me than she. She knows my past and knows to a certain extent how it shaped me. She knows that what I say is, in this instance, truly what I feel.
But like many spouses, when we are feeling alone and questioning our relationships, and ourselves, I wonder if she really knows what I feel, and how hard I’ve worked to achieve a modicum of functionality in my adulthood.
“I wonder if you really understand the depth of how all that shit affected me.”
Now I sense that she’s the one who’s frustrated. Her eyes narrow and her face sharpens into a pained and exasperated, yet familiar expression that communicates, without saying: that was an amazingly misguided thing to say and now you’ve pissed me off.
“Oh, I understand how it’s affected you all right! When we got married I had this fantasy that you were going to be the strong one. It sure didn’t take long to see you had plenty of your own shit to wrestle with.
I respond, “What does that mean!”
“It means I’ve seen how you deal with things, that your skin is thin you get depressed and anxious a lot. I’ve lived with this stuff and it hasn’t always been easy. I love you, but don’t tell me I don’t know how you feel. I resent it.”
I feel the sting of what she says and construe it to mean that I’ve let her down, that I am a sham. The familiar emotional cocktail of shame, sadness and self-loathing creeps from my stomach into my chest and heart and pools behind my eyes.
I say, “I never sold myself as the guy on the white horse, we were together for two years before we married. You knew who I was. It was your fantasy, not something I sold you!”
“You’re right, it was mine. Her face is more relaxed now, less sharp. She intuits my upset, takes my hand, looks into my eyes and says, “I’m just saying I think I know all about the family shit, I’ve seen it affect you and so I’ve lived with it myself.
The shame recedes from my eyes and my chest unknots. I start to breathe easier. When I think of it honestly and push past the need to defend myself, I acknowledge she’s right. I’m not an easy person to live with and this has always been true. I recognized it in myself at an early age through the reactions of others, and the realization gave me a profound sense of alienation and loneliness.
On one hand, I wanted to be with people, have friends and later lovers, yet, it seemed as I revealed myself to them (inevitably) they would reject me as “too.” Too intense, too angry, too emotional and then later to cope I drank and drugged too often and too much.
My emotions always seemed magnified. Minor annoyances could enrage me, deep days-long depressions would be triggered by the slights of people who were hardly significant and there has always been the constant pulse-quickening anxiety shooting a spurt of adrenaline, causing startle response when there is confrontation or noise; cursed unexpected noise: the ring of the phone, the slam of the door or the over-amped play of the children.
Yes, I know she’s right but I feel like I’ve been a good husband in many ways too. I feel strongly that I’ve been a faithful, loyal, supportive and a decent provider. When my wife feels attacked I defend her-staunchly. When she has had her own emotional vagaries I’ve been there for her completely.
I tell her so: “I’ve been there for you.”
She says with conviction,“I know you have.”
But as we pay the bill and leave the discussion nags at me. It hurts to accept she’s right. At times, I do feel like damaged goods. I am no stranger to depression, shame, anger and guilt. But the question is why. I know why and though others may know the historical facts, can they really know how anyone else’s past experience shapes them? Most people don’t care to. They are quick to judge and condemn. Others may take the time to find out, but can they really understand? I want my wife to completely understand and I admit that I also want to understand myself. At times, I still don’t.
The central character in my childhood and into my early twenties was my father. He is still a central figure though he died over 30 years ago.
When he was young he was very good looking: picture, a young Newman or Jack Lemmon. I have a picture of him in the early days strapped into a fishing chair, his thick offshore rod bent into a sharp arc, his biceps bulging as he wrestles in a marlin. He has shades on and his hair is jet black– a dashing figure.
He was, as the saying goes, street angel and house devil. He was a writer by trade, a natural profanity-laced- storyteller who reveled in sharply needling the objects of his ire. He had a knack for zeroing in on a person’s most vulnerable place and exposing it to the delight of the audience and the mortification of the recipient. He had a natural antipathy for authority and anyone who put on airs, which endeared him to many people in the small bohemian Cape Cod town we lived in, in the sixties and seventies.
At the same time, he was unfailingly compassionate and loyal for friends and underdogs. He often took in “strays:” people down and out separated from their spouses or needing some kind of respite. He lent out money to even our town’s most dedicated ne’er-do-wells. He bought drinks at the local bar and the booze always flowed at home whenever there were guests.
He said what he thought… without filter. Upon meeting my mother for the first time, smitten by her good looks, he blurted out:
“Who the fuck are you?”
My father was a man of extremes. The public persona and home version were polar opposites. His moods swung widely—periods of ribald story telling, hilarity and creativity alternated with black, immobilizing depression, white-hot rage and anxiety.
One evening my father came home from his rented office where he wrote away from the noise of our house. My mother was washing dishes in kitchen and he came up behind her, encircled his hands around her waist and kissed her on the neck. Without saying a word, he turned away, walked through the living room into my parents bedroom, took a hard left into their bathroom and punched out the glass shower stall with both hands, slashing them to the point requiring over a hundred stitches.
One of my earliest memories of my Dad was when I was more than five or six years old; I was peering into his room one afternoon and he was sitting on the bed’s edge with his salt and pepper head in hands, a cigarette protruding out of his fingers, snaking a trail of smoke into the slants of sunlight leaking through the drawn blinds. There was a half-gone, half-gallon jug of whiskey by his bare feet. He took no notice of me though I stood and stared for a long time.
Though my child’s mind was along way from comprehending what could make a person despair so, I still took away a sense that something was deeply wrong with my father.
In many ways I am wondering still. I never met my grandfather. He died when I was a baby. He was a self-made millionaire, selling his limestone mill to US Steel prior to World War Two. The word is he, like my father, was an alcoholic. Grandfather though, at the age of twenty-eight, felt that his drinking was negatively affecting his marriage and business, so quit cold-turkey and lost his disposition in the process.
My father and him never got along. As a child my father was sick a lot with chronic asthma and eczema requiring a lot of attention from his mother. Apparently my grandfather considered my father and his sister an intrusion on his marriage.
My father wanted nothing to do with the family business, instead opting to major in history at Princeton and follow his dream of becoming a writer. My mother, no shrinking violet, says the arguments between my father and my grandfather were so intense they made her physically ill.
Not surprisingly, my relationship with my father reflected his deep insecurity and was bedeviled by his fears and dark moods. At times, to others, and with me present, he would brag about my athleticism; in the next breath he would openly shame me for my academic difficulties. Both my brother and I would be needled mercilessly for his amusement.
Simple childhood complaints like, “I’m cold,” or “I’m hungry” or “I’m bored,” would be met with a sarcastic: “Oh Camille’s tired,“ or ‘Poor Little Lord Fauntleroy.” As we headed into adolescence and started to develop sexual identities he used the opportunity to ridicule us in new tortuous ways.
Besides his constant use of alcohol, pills and cigarettes, the other ever-present reality of existence with my father was guns. There was the German Luger he kept underneath his mattress, his double-barreled shotgun and the 22-caliber rifle.
Quite an arsenal when you consider our upper class neighborhood in relatively rural Cape Cod. There wasn’t much for us to defend ourselves against other than a stray raccoon or skunk. Lot’s of drunk drivers too.
My sensitivity to unexpected loud noises stems back to the morning my brother and I were watching cartoons in our living room one Saturday morning. Outside the main window was attached a bird feeder filled with sunflower seeds that a colorful array of New England birds fed on year-‘round: Robins, Chickadees, Sparrows, Cardinals and too many others to mention. This splashy parade of birds was interrupted by only one thing: squirrels.
At some point my father had declared war on them. This particular Saturday, the door to his bedroom flew open, and there he was shotgun in hand, disheveled, his eyes bloodshot and look of grim resolution on his face. Without a word he strode into the living room while my brother and I, unsure of his intensions, dove for cover.
He assumed a shooting position, bracing himself for the gun’s kick, and emptied both barrels into the window, through the wall and window casing, into the godforsaken squirrel,and blew it, and the birdfeeder to kingdom come. He spun on his heel, and went back into his room, slamming the door. My brother and I beat a hasty, wordless retreat to the hoped-for safety of our room.
My father’s relationship with his mother was an odd combination of dependence and mutual condemnation. My father loved his mother, but over-depended on her financially. She over-indulged him.
Early in my parents’ marriage they had gotten yellow Labrador that my father fell in love with. We named him Potato as when he curled up to sleep when a puppy, that’s exactly what he looked like. My father, at times favored him above all others in the house. When he’d managed to alienate everyone else, he would talk to Potato, whom he referred to as “Noble Beast.” One arm would be around the dog, the other holding his ever-present martini; talking to the night. Potato did not talk back or ask for anything, just gave tail-wagging unconditional Lab-love.
At some point when my brother and I were quite young, my father’s mother gave us a small ill-tempered Dachshund we named “Fitzy” for John Fitzgerald Kennedy. The dog, for my father, seemed to represent the resentment toward his mother. Fitzy was constantly underfoot, barking and snarling without provocation.
One evening my parents came home late from a cocktail party. My father, even by his liberal standards was well oiled. He disappeared briefly into his room, then returned holding something behind his back.
He called out: “Here Fitzy!”
To my mother’s absolute horror, when unsuspecting Fitzy came over to him. He pulled his Luger from behind his back and put a single shot into Fitzy’s small skull.
“Jesus Christ, Tommy,” she cried out.
Being the parent more inclined to think things all the way through, my mother immediately began to worry about two things: How could they keep this from getting out into the public where one authority or another could find out and prosecute thus forever damaging our slightly tainted reputation by several degrees, and secondly, what in God’s name was she going to tell my father’s mother?
They cleaned up the mess and took the body to a nearby harbor, rowed out to a deep part and threw the weighted-down-with rocks body into the drink.
The next morning as my brother and I were getting ready for the day in our room, our mother appeared at our door.
She told us she had bad news: “Fitzy ate a chicken bone during the night and choked on it. He died.”
Though she came clean about the whole story years later, even then, something rang hollow about the story.
A few days later, the phone rang and to my mother’s horror it was my father’s mother. My mother, having practiced with my brother and me, told her she had bad news. Before mother could parade out a word of the chicken bone story, my father’s mother said:
“He shot Fitzy, didn’t he.”
Shit happens and it defines us as much as we wish otherwise. We are left with the feelings, the memories and the dreams. We can work to get past the nasty stuff and with hard labor, sometimes we can. But only fools believe the past doesn’t affect the present. For a time, I was one of them. I tried to ignore the most painful aspects of my earlier life but this only provided a temporary and false respite. I denied and self-medicated, but eventually the bill came due and by waiting, the tab was much bigger than it needed to be.
Major trauma changes you. Permanently. Though you can learn to live with it. You can make it smaller if you’re willing to wrestle with it and knock it down to something more manageable. For better or for worse, or maybe a little of both, I’ve learn to keep my own counsel, make a tighter circle of people to trust and do what I can for my safety’s sake. Loyalty is something I need, and sadly, I find it lacking in most people
I dream. A lot. In one, it is night and I am running down an urban street full of blight with a machine gun. I know that I will die soon and so I am just trying to fight as long as I can. Suddenly, I am clipped by a bullet in the shoulder. I fall into the street and as I hit the pavement, the machine gun clatters away from my reach. Before I can go after it, a woman on a white horse rides up to me and dismounts. She is carrying a long wooden staff that is sharpened to a fine point. She pushes it up hard against my eyeball. I wake up terrified just before she plunges it in.
But the worst dream I have is recurring. I am separated from my wife and children. I have an awareness that I am back in the addicted life and all that goes along with it: the dishonesty, self-loathing and guilt. The old familiar feeling of being completely alone and unmoored overwhelms me. I am heading off to get high to medicate these feelings and lying to everybody about what I’m up to. My wife won’t talk to me and won’t give me another chance. I think she’s seeing someone else. Our marriage is over and the betrayal and gut-level loss are more than I can bear. I am powerlessness to change anything. There are no solutions.
As I awaken the feelings don’t leave at first, the dream more real than reality. Then I see her next to me. I slowly realize I’m still married and have been for twenty-one years. She’s with me. My wife: artistic, resourceful and beautiful but above all that, drop dead funny. Through the vagaries of all the years of our union, we still laugh, hard and often. We talk, all the time. The art of the conversation is something we both value and enjoy in one another. As I awaken I realize I’m not using and have not for thirty years.
Despite whatever happened when I was younger I am deeply blessed and grateful for another day. Another chance to try to get it right, another chance to be around the people I love. A chance to bring them, and myself some joy.
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