Michael Carpenter’s relationships with his parents, or lack thereof, made learning to be a man much more difficult, but despite the slow start, he found his own way to become a man.
I’ve heard that you shouldn’t take a little puppy away from the litter and its mother until it grows up some, or it’ll be damaged, not knowing how to be. It needs to roll around and play with the other pups, get licked on by the mother, pounce on her tail while she naps. That’s important stuff in a dog’s world. It teaches them all they need to know.
My grandmother was a full-blooded Native American. Three months after giving birth to my mother, she succeeded in her suicide. It was her fifth attempt. With her died the stories of our Native heritage and our definition of a family.
Back in my grandfather’s day, single men did not raise children, especially infants. My young mother began her life being passed around by any family members who could raise her, until she was 10, old enough to be a stand-in mother and housekeeper for the family of her dying aunt. A real Cinderella.
My grandfather was “a dirty man,” I was told by his third wife, whom I called Grandma. I asked her, “Why doesn’t he take a bath?” I didn’t understand her disgusted expression until many years later. I stayed with them every summer. Being with Grandma and climbing trees was the best part of my childhood, except for when Grandpa came home from the bars, drunk. They fought dreadfully those nights, and I would hide.
My Grandma once asked me if I missed my mom, after being away for two months. I paused a moment, before saying, “No, I still remember what she looks like.” I never really knew my mother, never saw her much. I guess seeds tend to grow up resembling the plants from which they came. She was a divorced, single mother, but mostly a cocktail waitress who didn’t come home ‘til dawn, waking at 2 PM and gone to work again at 4pm.
If my infant cries woke my mother, she became enraged and spanked me. I became afraid to cry, play, or make any noise at all. I never felt safe when she was home, so I learned to stay small and hide. To this day, I don’t really know if I’m hungry or thirsty. Those kinds of switches were shut down early on.
Nature was always with me, deeply. I never felt alone if I was in a tree or bush. As soon as I could, I took to the mountains and stayed up there as long as possible, sometimes from spring thaw until the snows came again in late September. There, life made sense to me: sleeping in my cave, foraging for wild onion and dandelion, drying fir tips for making tea, pulling a trout from the fish trap every other day. This remote valley was at 12,000-feet elevation without a trail going into it. There were many Native artifacts, scrappers and arrowheads. I felt the ancestors in my blood and bones, and in the rivers and stones. I was not alone.
Having my own kids was an accumulating series of unnatural disasters. Long story, none of it good. But I loved my children, they were a part of me. I took to them really well, but why was this woman, their mother, screaming at me every day? Throwing our dishes and knives at me until I ran out to hide in the bushes? I couldn’t do it, this relationship business. I didn’t know how.
I spent the next 20 years sitting in trees and caves, dodging bullets, and living on the edge of close-calls, taunting mortality. I was jolted into my life by a harrowing accident. My life became real. Funny thing about maturity, I never knew that I didn’t have it, until the day that I did.
I want to be a better man. I never knew how to be anything, other than a survivor. I succeeded in that, somehow. I’ve grown to accept my imperfections as a father, as a man, and as a partner in a relationship. Knowing my weakness allows me to be a single breath stronger than I just was. I am more determined in staying put to work things out, after holding off my first impulse to run.
It’s all still there, like the scars and gnarls of a tree, signs of experiencing severe storms and droughts. Reminders of a real life. Being humble has become the strongest force of my inner nature.
I fought off the feelings of failure all my life, denying any weaknesses, hiding so nobody could see them, so I could not see them. Once I accepted my failure as a man, I felt stronger than ever before. My life actually began to change and grow in new directions.
My two children found me last fall. I got a text. Several hours later, they were sitting on my couch, grown adults. After 17 years of being lost to each other, we sat studying each other’s faces. Mine had real tears rolling down. I was finally able to cry.
I borrowed the courage that my children brought with them that day, and I reached out to the man who fathered me, the man I never knew. I called him three months ago, on Father’s Day. Now he calls me Son, a name I never heard before.
My Father said that he and his second wife tried hard to get full custody of me a year after I was born. I would have grown up with five other siblings to roll around with, like a playful puppy.
My life was normally measured by shame, dysfunction, loss and tragedy. Other people always seemed to be more friendly, wealthy, and happy. I now attempt to live by a measure of grace and how well I act from my heart. I have failed painfully, in so many ways, yet I stand up in today’s world, middle-aged and broken, taking one deep breath at a time.