After my 27-year marriage fell apart, by late 2007 I was reduced to writing long poems for Dan* the East Coast rebound, in a bizarre attempt to figure out how his mind worked, why he kept calling me, and how to inspire him to “get it.”
My notebooks repeated one theme for two years: I was dead — but now I want to be alive. I’d been left “home alone” by my ex for so many years, I thought I was dead, as I said during my divorce. I emailed friends often in the months to follow that Dan had brought a dead woman back to life. One March 2008 poem ends: “If you someday chose to take a breath/ I’ll be there at your command/ You gave me life, I owe you life/ Call upon it if you can.” I didn’t learn until four years later that the reptilian brain stem controls a lot of these functions. Whu Nhu?
But Dan’s every “come here” ended in a “go away,” so I couldn’t stay alive. I’d been so happy to escape the marriage torture chamber and start a fabulous new life, I just couldn’t understand why I felt so lousy. “Dan ruined California for me,” I decided, and launched into a new round of kayaking, sailing, dancing and dating on the West Coast to replace him. Good luck in that mindset.
Periodically, I’d fly back and forth across North America, making money, visiting Mr. Wrong, and going nowhere at 600 MPH. Who needed meth, I was high as a kite on my own hyper-schedule.
After a late 2007 trip to visit Washington D.C. defense sector clients and Dan’s Maryland fortress, I flew back to LAX into the worst Southern California fire season of the decade. The desert from the air showed flames and plumes of black smoke rising as far as the eye could see, as if the plane were “just taking the tram into Mordor.” A descent into hell, literally and emotionally.
My California dream had become a nightmare. As 2008 wore on, Dan the Anti-Christ of Anti-bonding was eating an ever-larger hole in my soul. I spent days near LAX, writing billion dollar proposals for radar systems and nights writing Dan doggerel, trying to fathom my obsession and work it out of my system.
But no matter how I tried to fix my present, it never hit me that all this emotional pain could be from way far back in my past.
Reality finally hit when my father died and I couldn’t cry.
In spring 2008, I saw an ad for a concert of my all-time favorite, Mozart’s final ”Requiem Mass,” at a community college in Huntington Beach, and moved to take back my music. On May 15, 2008, I sang the “Requiem” with full chorus and orchestra, realizing my dream to be singing again and in sunny California with a new start.
The next morning, my brother-in-law phoned from New York to say that my Dad in Florida had just had a heart attack, please catch the next plane to Miami Beach. California? New life? A little joy? Kiss the vision goodbye for the nth time, honey.
Back in the air across the country, back to the dreary East Coast I flew, Mozart’s fearsome call of Judgment Day ringing in my ears. Back to my “family of origin” as it is technically termed, back to my parents and my younger sister. Back, back, back in time.
My father lay in the hospital dying. He had an oxygen mask over his nose and mouth and could do little more than groan and wave penciled lists of things that needed doing in the general direction of my mother. He had had a stroke and acute respiratory failure as well; his major systems had simply given out.
Dad worked long hours into the night and on Saturdays for 40 years for his family because, as the Broadway song from “Carousel” goes: “She’s gotta be sheltered, and fed, and dressed, in the best that money can buy.” Yet there was always something strange about his situation. When at age 4 or so I first noticed Dad, he was controlled-access only. He’d come home late, Mom would allow my sister and I each a quick hug, say “Daddy’s tired” (always the same words), seat him in a back room with dinner and the TV on, and close the door with us outside. She’d joke, “They never knew his name was Ralph; they thought his name was Daddy’s Tired.”
It felt as if Dad was always off into the sunset somewhere, like the movie finale of “Carousel” where the Dad returns to heaven after one day on earth. He’d say “I learned in a house full of women to keep the toilet seat down,” as if he did not belong.
A few Sundays a year, Dad would take us to the carousel in the next town, which I awaited eagerly as my only time of any duration with him. I had such longing to belong with the colored lights and pretty horses and for Dad to see me and recognize me as part of that beautiful setting. But Dad didn’t seem to notice me; he’d put me on his horse in front of him and focus on jumping for the gold ring. The big scary outside moving horses seemed to go awfully high up when I was so little and when Dad jumped it terrified me, but he just laughed. I wanted to hang onto Dad but he was jumping, so I hung onto the horse’s leather strap instead.
Billy Bigelow returns to heaven in the finale of “Carousel.”
The next memory I have of Dad was in school after the Kennedy assassination, when for no reason anyone could grasp, I began crying uncontrollably and went on sobbing in my room for weeks. Finally Dad came in and said, “That’s enough now, cut it out.” Mom and he were displeased when I cried as a kid and that was the signal to be quiet. It never occurred to either of us for him to ask what was really troubling me or to hold me while I cried.
Dad grew up in a big house with showcases of silver, plastic slipcovers on the furniture, and tennis courts. His father was a New York City merchant who commuted to Manhattan every day by Long Island Railroad. After the 1929 crash, Grandpa lost everything, but still went to the station every morning and sat there all day to keep up appearances. One day, the kids at school told my Dad where Grandpa was, and Dad had to go to the station and tell Grandpa “Come on, Dad, let’s go home.” My Dad never connected this to post-war times, but when I heard the story, it hit me that appearances had always been really important in our family.
Now I realized, watching Dad in the hospital, waving lists of things to do, that he was still trying to keep up appearances, to maintain some sense that he had control over events — in a situation where that is notoriously impossible. I was reminded of the lists later when my sister Linda and I stumbled over eerily similar boxes of objects Dad had stashed at home. Large cartons of nail clippers, endless cases of pencils, crates of bills from decades past, an empire of things he spent years trying to control. Linda was bemused, but I remember feeling scared and wondering why.
I haven’t mentioned Mom much, in order to let you continue to look over my shoulder and see events exactly as I did – or to be blind to them, as I mostly was. Let’s simply say for now that another reason it was difficult to communicate with Dad was that it always seemed I couldn’t really speak to him except through Mom. It was still pretty much controlled access.
Mom had her moments; one afternoon she held Dad’s hand and sang “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” until we all were in such tears that emails to the cousins reverberated across the internet. You could hear them singing along with Bing Crosby all 1,200 miles from Long Island, New York to Miami Beach, Florida that night.
But Mom wasn’t glad to see me, as usual. I felt sad I hadn’t visited them more in later years, but Mom never seemed to want me around and I didn’t have the courage to face her. When I arrived at the hospital, Dad was visibly upset – “Kathy?!” he cried, almost in terror. I can still hear the alarm in his voice. It hit me that my face made him realize he must be seriously ill, if I were there all the way from California, and despite Mom’s resistance.
I spent the rest of May 2008 in what felt like a giant nation-wide United Air staging of “Carousel,” jetting round and around, back and forth from the hospital in Florida to Washington DC, where I had a contract this time to work on a $2 billion proposal to restructure the national information systems at the Transportation Security Agency. I never connected the two at the time, but in retrospect, I was in such pain seeing my parents in Florida, pain so severe I couldn’t even become conscious of it, that my resolve to kick the Dan habit went right out the window.
As I said when I first left home in 2006: “I was in so much pain, I just walked out on Newport Beach and proceeded directly to medicate.” Straight from the hospital to Dan I went and for a few weeks his brand of organic chemicals numbed me up right fine.
On June 3, 2008, Dad passed away. Back to Florida I flew. My sister, the Wallstreet lawyer, seemed to have the funeral service as well ordered as a legal brief. But in fact, it was Mom who literally wrote scripts for everyone but me to read. My sister’s two sons balked at reading the scripts; they said they loved their Grandpa, and wanted to speak of him in their own words.
But finally they had to agree, since Mom was distressed and everyone had to “make Mom feel better.” (Actually, that had been everyone’s obligation since at least the 1960s, especially mine.)
Something in me rebelled as I saw this train coming down the track, and when Linda asked me to start the service, I said “No, I’m the eldest, I’ll go last.” For some reason I’ve never understood, everyone accepted that data as fact immediately.
My two nephews each got up and read their scripts, but then extemporized as teens will do, Lord bless ’em. Linda’s husband Tom spoke, then Linda read a speech she’d had me type for her the night before about the greatest Dad on earth. “Of course I can’t type,” she said. “I knew I’d never be a typist so I refused to take typing in high school.” (I type 98.6 words a minute so I wasn’t sure whether that made me chopped liver, but I let it go.) At the service, Mom didn’t want to speak; she sat impassively. No one had any idea what I was going to do, least of all me, until the last moment. I rose and said, “Everyone else has said all the wonderful things there are to say about my Dad. I’d like to do something for my family here.” And then I sang; it was “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” the finale from “Carousel,” a long-time family favorite. The hundred person audience in the luxury Miami Beach retirement home all cried and then, almost forgetting it was a funeral, applauded the long high note at the end.
Everyone cried, that is, except me. I sang that whole slow sustained song acapella, and my voice was entirely clear. “I never thought you’d make that high note,” my sister whispered later, “But you nailed it. How did you do that?” I was shocked, too; I had no answer, but it came easily, and with perfect confidence.
The emotional soprano who cries whenever music moves her, at the movies, or on so many other occasions, could not find tears for her own Dad. Actually, I had tried to cry for days. Linda and I both remarked how strange it was. I was worried, too. It did not feel right, but there it was: I somehow felt nothing.
My Dad had died, and I could not cry.
*All names, except for mine, have been changed to protect the innocent and the guilty, and any resemblance they may have to persons living or dead is entirely coincidental.
Technical writer and author of the upcoming book Don’t Try This at Home: The Silent Epidemic of Attachment Disorder – How I accidentally regressed myself back to infancy and healed it all. Raised on Long Island, New York, Kathy survived a 30-year career in the fast lanes of New York City and Washington DC. Starting on Wall Street researching South African gold stocks, she was an international economist for 18 years, using her Japanese language skills to write and consult on U.S.-Japan trade and finance. In Washington, she became a technical writer, producing complex documents for Pentagon subcontractors, her line for the last 12 years, while pursuing her hobby as an opera singer. She was busy flying around the world instead of having children and building a family. Suddenly in 2007, Kathy faced divorce from her 27-year marriage to her college sweetheart, leaving her bankrupt. A move to California was followed by the death of both her parents and then two bad rebound affairs – five life disasters in two years. Those crises started her down a path of discovery and healing that she is now able to share with others.
This is from Kathy’s forthcoming book DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME: The Silent Epidemic of Attachment Disorder – How I accidentally regressed myself back to infancy and healed it all. Watch for the continuing series of excerpts from the rest of her book each Friday, as she explores her journey of recovery by learning the hard way about Attachment Disorder in adults, adult Attachment Theory, and the Adult Attachment Interview.
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