“I hate God!”
I was less than an inch from my mother’s face. I could feel her breath. I spit in her eye by mistake. She was kneeling. Stare down at urban sunrise #1,201. This one? This one crossed boundaries.
Fleshy, fatty boundaries.
The tiny, crucifix attached to my underwear every morning to “keep me under God’s care,” was a four-pointed golden thorn in my side. A ritual I had grown to dread. Years of passive-aggressive defiance went ignored. I had no say in this tradition passed on from God-knows-who.
It was a worthless exercise. At least to me.
Mom never missed a day. It was her thing.
The power of an undergarment idol was fleeting. I was hesitant to bring up the topic.
Perhaps it couldn’t get good reception or a signal from the heavens buried under three layers of clothing. The thickest corduroy Korvette’s carried. Like the rabbit ears on our old black & white Panasonic television, I didn’t trust “the cross” to do the job.
Religious “underpinnings” failed to protect from constant bullying (about my husky-sized everything). A huge miss.
Although, I come to believe that “God’s care” may have spared me the fate of the yearbook’s chubby road-bump of the year when Mr. K the third-grade gym teacher, speeding in his Pontiac, just missed turning my gut into the consistency of overcooked pasta.
To this day I believe he was intentionally seeking to run me down. I was never able to prove it. But I KNOW. The best news I heard last year was that he died two years ago.
Perhaps all that pinning finally kicked in. Nah.
Who am I kidding?
From diaper to big boy briefs, this small crucifix was a huge part of my childhood. A religious layer under layers. The safety pin increased in size, too – powerful and sharp enough to pierce undershirts and thick waistbands of white Fruit Of The Looms. It was the size of a small pocket knife. Against my skin it felt heavy, like an anchor. It was my personal spear.
Until that morning in October. I remember Mom’s delicate touch was uncharacteristically heavy. Her technique was sloppy. Like her eyes were closed. She had been fighting with dad all night. Non-stop since he staggered in from Delmonico’s after midnight. Her finesse now a fumbled mess of tangled fingers. I didn’t trust her to pin me with the usual grace. I kept looking down. Sweating. I tightened against what I believed was coming.
The pin penetrated like a hot blade. Deep through fat. Blood rolled down in a series of thick, bulbous drops and pooled at my feet now sweating and sticking to a heavily varnished wood floor.
All my exaggerated fears about this moment had come true.
What’s up Jesus? A nail in a cross. Now a pin in the abdomen? What gives?
Frustration and pain compelled me to unleash frustration in mom’s face. I was possessed. Perhaps she observed my father’s anger in me as I bellowed, cried at the top of my lungs.
“I hate God! No, I hate you, too!”
I knew I was dead. Disrespecting your mother in an Italian family doesn’t happen without dire consequences. It’s a no-win for a child. The repercussions are as close to fatal as you can get within the law. Not even police got in the middle of an Italian mother and her kid in the heat of a scolding.
The next move startled me. Her strike was a lightening bolt. Then a loud click between my ears. I felt warmth release from my nose and liquid down my throat. Since mom was lean, mostly bone, it was like getting slammed by a human sledgehammer.
The stab was nothing compared to the slap. The blood released immediately as my bleached-white crew neck t-shirt saturated red. To black.
I was petrified then.
And I am now.
Another female seeks blood. Terrific.
This time it’s my 17 year-old, 85 pound daughter.
Don’t let her petite frame fool you.
She’s a killer.
All of us die a little each day as our children grow. That’s the way it’s supposed to be, right?
But that’s not what I’m talking about.
I study her profile. Separated by an aisle on a flight from New York.
The salt of blood overwhelms my nose. I can taste it. I’m pinned to the aluminum skin of the aircraft.
I’m claustrophobic. I’m now the insane guy you read about who opens an EXIT door miles above the earth and gets sucked into the afterlife.
I’m sweating. Underneath my skin is ice.
It’s panic. Out of nowhere. My right hand is firm around one of the plastic handles on the door. The word EXIT is taunting, telling me that things will be better if I just listen.
One pull and I’m free.
Crazy thoughts bounce inside my head. They are loud enough to drown out the sound of engines.
I ring for the attendant. I need a Bloody Mary.
All I think about is how small I am. Insignificant. As a parent I hold little if any control over her. Or me.
I’m driving blind. I’m scared. So is she. The thought escalates scare to hardcore terror. What roads will she travel? Alone. Together with another. With whom? I encourage her to consider a lesbian lifestyle. I tell her men don’t know how to wipe their asses good enough. Anything that gets her to switch teams. It’s not working. Yet. I give her advice that I know she can’t use. I’m not stupid enough to have a handle on most of what effects her. She’s her own person now. What did I miss? I know I missed something. What’s her greatest fear? I’m afraid to ask. Because I think it’s mine, too.
I’m headed for the handle on the EXIT door again. My grip is firm enough to white my knuckles.
I see my mother at 16. I study her delicate features. The cabin goes sepia. In her face and what’s beneath. In dark eyes. Pools of challenges thrive and collide. Nothing clear. Replete with angst.
From aisle seat to aisle seat I stare across and realize my mother has returned. The same edge separated by generations and together on this plane. Teetering between hope and hopelessness. A cutting blade. Back and forth inside me. The bleed I never wanted to experience again. A woman who shouldn’t have had children is alive again. Cast thee from my daughter, woman!
At times I’m hesitant to love her. It’s uncomfortable to be around her sometimes. I never closed the circle with the doppelganger. She’s a flesh mirror to the past. I see right through her and it’s my childhood, not hers. She clarifies and muddies everything.
I’m smashed in the nose thinking about the day in 2000 when my mother died on the other end of the phone while I was at work. I tried to give her peace, I did really. From my cubicle during a stock market crash. I cared more about what Intel stock was doing than stopping to comprehend that my mother would be dead before Ma Bell (she was a thing then), disconnected us.
I told her that grandpa was waiting. I heard her say she was sorry and then a man’s voice boomed in the receiver – “She’s gone.” I said nothing. Hung up. Went back to warm calling sales leads. Watching Intel. I didn’t leave work early. Didn’t think about it.
Until I finished the fake, expensive cocktail.
My daughter is frail. I see it. I accept and accommodate. Well, I accommodate. She’s delicate as a fine china plate with a crack in the middle. Her constitution sometimes strong, other times as light as tissue. I’m responsible. Well, my DNA is. It’s faulty. It carries the insanity gene. I was always scared of this. Now the ailments that took down a parent arise. The depression, especially. Today at least there’s medication. In the 70’s, psycho-doctors believed hooking your brain to electrodes and sending electricity through the head was a viable remedy.
I’m a marginal father at best. I’m not certain I’m wired for this parenting thing. I observe the actions of who I consider excellent dads and try to mirror them. I fail miserably. I hold back. Oh,on the surface I’m engaged but underneath I’m so nervous I can’t remain in the present long enough to enjoy the father/daughter moments.
I’m constantly slipping back 40 or so years to the time when I loved a woman so much yet she betrayed me by skipping out when I was a teen.
Maybe I’m not ready or mature enough to heal.
Until that return trip. Perhaps it was a lack of oxygen.
I realized that life-shifting changes do not need to arise from adversity. Sure, hardship ignites awareness. It happened for me in dramatic fashion on several occasions. However, I’ve learned that big decisions to alter course can be subtle. Uneventful. There’s a click in the head (I think) and a decision is made to change and never look back. And you don’t.
So I decide. Just like that.
She’s a savior. Not a killer.
Because that’s how easy it is.
I begin with gratefulness. My daughter is a connection to my past. I have been given another chance to heal by understanding through her, what my mother must have gone through at a time when depression and anxiety were ignored or denied. I know now mom must have suffered in silence. Little Italian girls were supposed to be perfect. No matter what. The impossible devil of perfection drilled into them daily. Now I get it. Finally.
All I do is try to be a better father every moment. In turn, my actions allow me to empathize and forgive a parent who battled but succumbed to the flames of inner demons.
I watched her burn. Did nothing to stop it.
I take that back.
I was ten years old. My mind was on Mad Magazine and masturbation. Not a 31 year old female with ignored mental illness in the midst of a seminal breakdown. I tried my best to understand and interpret adult situations.
I delivered cheerleader speeches. I’d stand on her bed pontificating like a midget politician – “Mom, it’s you and me against the world – We can do it! We can get through this!”
Lots of tears. They did nothing. The drugs, the men, the alcohol, the fears, the electroshock treatments, drowned out my constant pleading for a short semblance of normalcy. Topless and drunk in the courtyard of our Brooklyn apartment building on a school morning was enough to seal my fate as the freak of the neighborhood. And still I tried.
Now I know there was nothing she could do.
Through my daughter I forgive my mother for what I lost. A childhood. I came to understand how the illnesses, the fears were too much to fight. I wish I had the opportunity to tell her that internal demons are scarier than hell. I wish I could say I understand why she had pinned that stupid cross to me every day without fail.
“Please God, don’t let him inherit my weaknesses. Protect him.”
It hit me. Sitting in the exit row. Finally.
Now I know. The ritual worked.
Big changes can happen without fanfare. Just decide. Don’t make it a big deal. Stay casual. Calm. Today I’ll save more. I’ll say no to lending money to others. I’ll find another job that pays more for what I’m worth. I’ll get up and go to the gym. The less you think about it and do it, the more successful you’ll be.
When I decided. Released my grip on the exit.
Accepted the truth.
I look down and read:
“We are afraid of truth, afraid of fortune, afraid of death, and afraid of each other.”
Self Reliance – Essays First Series 1895 Ralph Waldo Emerson.
I have that cross. It’s a tarnished symbol after so many years.
Its power is gone.
Or is it?
As the plane landed, I couldn’t decide for sure.
I’m certain I never will.
And I’m at peace with that.