We're All Bozos On This Bus!

Marti and I are at lunch today when she leans forward across the table and says, "Your sister said something to me in New Bern before right before your father died and it's haunted me ever since. I can't get it out of my head."

"What?" What could Becky have said to Marti that made her feel both haunted and unable to ask me about it until now?

"Remember the day your dad was out of it and he thought he was on his sailboat?" I nod. "He was annoyed with you and your sister, which I completely understand," she adds, as if I need the reassurance...which is also odd for Marti- to feel I would need to know Dad's behavior that day was not something she found to be unusual.

It was, of course, unusual. It freaked everyone but me out. Dad was mad. He wanted tools to fix his boat so he could begin his journey...so he could leave us...and we didn't, at first, know what to do. It took me aback for a moment, until I realized where he was in his head.

I work in nursing homes with elderly demented patients. I know delusions and I also know it is far better to join in with them than to try and force the person to see a reality they can no longer accept. So, I simply did as my father asked.

I walked across the room to his dresser, looked back over my shoulder at Dad sitting upright in bed and said, "I'm opening the Lazarette hatch. I'll have the tool you need in a second. Hang on."

Becky and everyone else left the room. My friend, Martha, looked scared. They didn't understand that it was all right. We were playing the same game I'd played with my children years ago when they were toddlers. We were playing Make Believe.

I am remembering this while Marti continues. "Becky and I were out in the hallway and she said, 'Now you know what we grew up with.'" Marti looks at me. "What did she mean by that? Was your father an angry man?"

My first instinct is to laugh. Dad, angry? The most patient man on earth? How could my sister think that was how we grew up- with an angry father? But at almost the same time I am seeing flashes...

I see me at age eight, a streak of motion flashing past, wearing my favorite wine-colored dress, the one with the big sash that Dad always had to tie and re-tie for me, the same dress I was wearing the day I got stuck in the toilet and called and called until he came to pull me out. He had been mad at me then. He was mad the day I ran around and around our massive, dark walnut dining room table, trying to escape the spanking he wanted to deliver.

We called the dining room table "The Bombshelter."

We hid under the table when Dad got mad, when he came home irritated by his day, or by us or by something three little kids couldn't understand but knew was somehow their fault. When you are little, all the ills of the world are your fault, the consequence for your bad behavior.

"No," I say to Marti. "He wasn't an angry guy at all!"

I hear his voice in my head. Pieces of a lost conversation come drifting back into my memory. "I was unhappy," I hear him say. "I wasn't in touch with my feelings, so I was angry a lot. That was before I went into therapy."

"He didn't know himself very well back then," I tell Marti. "He was tired. He worked all the time then had to take care of us, too. His unhappiness leaked out and he would blow up every now and then, but it wasn't often."

I scour my memories, wanting to be completely honest with my very best friend. I can't call up any violent episodes. I can't remember him losing his temper with me after elementary school. Instead I remember him telling me we create our own realities- that nothing can bother us unless we allow it to. I wonder if this was something his therapist told him.

I remember the last time I saw Dad get angry and it makes me smile. We were building my front porch when he realized he'd mis-measured. He gritted his teeth and growled. "Arrrrgh!!!" Then he tossed down the hammer and said, "Damn, damn, damn!"

And I laughed because it was so out of context there on my front stoop. I was a grown woman now. I had children inside the house. He was their grandfather and yet, here he was, having a mini-temper tantrum right outside my open doorway.

I remember him doing this exact same irritated dance whenever he was extremely agitated and vexed and I remember laughing at him as a child, a teenager and now as somebody's mother. It happened rarely and perhaps it made me uncomfortable, maybe this is why I always laughed. I was nervous.

I think hard about this for a long time after lunch and conclude that while I may have been nervous when I was very little, the laughter of my adolescence and adulthood was more about finding him vulnerable to the same emotions and foibles as me. Otherwise, he would've been too Christ-like to remain human.

His mess-ups were my reassurance that he was after all, just a person.

I remember coming home from work one night and finding him at my kitchen stove, preparing spaghetti for dinner. My boys were toddlers, running around and around the center island, in-between his legs, growing louder and louder with every pass.

As I stepped into the room I heard him. "Argggggh!!!"

My mother is sitting on the sofa at the edge of the kitchen, oblivious to the chaos swirling around Dad and his irritation. She does not see that he is worried they will get hurt if they bump up against him and cause the sauce to spill, or burn themselves on the oven door. She is out of it until he yells.

"Dick," she says. "What do you want me to do?" She sounds half-hearted and helpless, truly clueless.

"I don't give a damn what you do, just do something!"

The children are not traumatized by this. They don't stop running but they do make a wider circle. The are smiling, laughing up at him as if he has just made a joke...which, in his own way, he has.

I want to applaud. I want to say, "Well, it's about damned time you got mad!" But of course I don't. Instead I step into the room, scoop up my two frisky children and kiss their wiggly bodies, set down my bag and begin to set the table.

"Need a drink?" I ask, not waiting for the answer and instead pouring two glasses.

Our eyes meet when I hand him his tumbler, his preferred glass of choice. He sighs. "Hel-lo, Nanny Poo!" he says. The frown lines vanish from his face, his shoulders relax and he gives me an apologetic grin- as if he is sorry for not being Superman, for not being able to be both mother and father to me, grandmother and grandfather to my boys and all things to all people, single-handed and invincible...

But of course, in my eyes, he is all of those things and more.

His frustration with himself and the way he runs his universe, his willingness to share his imperfections...they are all the permission I need to be more tolerant of my own mis-steps and tarnished expectations.

Later, when I lose my temper with my own children, when I do the wrong thing, fail yet again to be the Best Mom in the Known World, I remember my role model and find it so much easier to go to my guys and say, "You know what? Mommy was wrong and I am sorry."

I have shared my father's bemused grin with my boys and had the amused glint of validation returned to me in their understanding and delighted gaze. We are sharing the insider joke that travels between the generations of my family....

Arrrrgh!!!! Damn, damn, and double damn! We are not perfect after all!!!

We are only human beings doing the very best we can...and sometimes this just pisses us the hell off!


Billy Jones said...

Nancy, thank you for this. You just brightened my day.

Sheria said...

What a wonderful remembrance and analysis of the complex relationship between parent and child. I enjoy your writing very much and will continue to visit your pages.