Essays

Anger, Fathers, Minefields, Incomplete Stories

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This deserves a longer exploration, but today I do not have the energy.

I may never have the energy, so I want to say some things now, incomplete as they are, random pieces of a dinner set—the saucer but no teacup, the butter knife but not the spoon, the water glass, always, and rarely the salad bowl.

So much of my father’s rage happened at the dinner table. My mother’s slow speech from the heavy medicines they gave her for epilepsy in the 1970s. My sister playing the little mother at 13, having cooked the meal for all six of us. My oldest brother glowering behind a mop of hair. My brother closest to me in age—less than two years older—full of laughter and mischief, trying to be good. And then he knocks over his water glass, and the liquid spills across the table, and suddenly it’s like oil and there’s a spark and my father’s bellowing and the table’s burning, great billowing flames we all have to sit and ignore as our faces tighten and we begin to smell singed hair. (Only now, writing this metaphor, do I recognize its truth: that laughing brother became a firefighter as an adult.)

I know a lot about anger because of my father. I have come to understand it, now that I am in my 40s. Of course for most of my life it was just evil. I thought of it as evil, I judged him for his outbursts with every hair on my child’s head. I imagined scenarios where I finally had enough and called the police and they came and took him away, out of our lives. I imagined him dying in an accident and all of us free. I imagined telling him, calmly, that I was leaving, and then running away to someplace better, opening the door in the hedge and living in a faery land forever. Now I understand much more about the causes of his anger. I understand that he felt helpless and out of control all the time, that his worries wrapped him like barbed wire, that he blamed and judged himself for feeling helpless. That he was depressed, and his depression made him think we were all against him, and then his anger made that true. I understand that he looked down every hallway of the future and saw ruin: broken limbs, ruined heirlooms, destitution. And he saw himself as responsible for each disaster unless he prevented it, and so he yelled and yelled to try to control what was and always has been outside the control of human beings: the future.

Maybe I am being too easy on him. Maybe he also had a bit of the 12-year-old bully, the kid who picks on those weaker than him as a way to pass on the pain. I see that bully in men I know now, the husbands of women I care about. These men never display their anger to other men—only to women and children. Sometimes they cut off their wives during group conversations, saying, “Can I finish now?” as if they are the victims, as if they have been silenced, and the way they say that phrase is so full of venom and condescension that it is like everyone present has been force-fed rotten citrus. The revulsion is so great that no one says anything, everyone tries to pretend it didn’t just happen, to forget as quickly as possible.

I know, now, that I am angry. I am so angry that when this happens I leave. I walk away, drive away, go away in my head. I wish I could be so angry that I could shout at them, make them stop. But anger is nearly always, at its heart, about fear.

I told you I knew too much about anger, because of my father.

I am lucky. The story of my father does not end in anger. Eventually he did something about his depression, his rage. He took medication. He went to therapy. He learned to meditate. If someone had told me when I was young that my father would learn to meditate, I would not have believed it. It took him years, and his rage still surfaced occasionally. But in the last few years of his life he was more peaceful. I no longer felt being around him was like walking through a minefield. And when I needed it most, he sent me the books that helped me find meditation, some paths towards equanimity.

I wish this story ended with my father—a complicated, artistic, angry man who eventually found peace and tried for redemption. But there are too many men—and women, though more often it is the men who have and abuse their power—who never find peace, who never try. There are too many spouses and children walking through minefields daily.

Imagine it: you know there are landmines in the field, but there is nowhere else to walk. You take a few steps; part of your mind remembers the last explosion, still feels the last time you were hurt. But you have somewhere to go—across the field, to the end of your day when you can go to bed. You stop, pause, try to remember where the mines are, examine every lump in the ground as though it might be dangerous. And then perhaps you get distracted, take five steps and are fine, no danger, and the breeze is cool and the sun is shining so you almost forget and take a few more until your foot accidentally kicks a rock and—BOOM! Explosion, almost a relief because you knew it would come eventually even if you hoped this time, this time you might cross the field safely. And afterwards, you are told to be more careful. You tell yourself to be more careful. Someone moves the mines at night, replaces the ones that have already exploded, but still you hope you might be able to learn where they are and avoid them, at least sometimes, perhaps one day, if you are careful enough, if you learn to move as lightly and quietly as a mouse.

 

 

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