Warning: This story highlights child abuse
I write a lot about my father on this blog. It’s not that I don’t love my mother or that things didn’t happen with her; there were moments. But she was more predictable. Mom worked a lot, took care of us, and then would over indulge a bit with the beer. Life with her was generally pretty straightforward and uneventful with a handful of exceptions.
My dad, on the other hand, was different. While he has NEVER been diagnosed with a mental illness, being that he exhibits certain symptoms and behaviors and has mental illness in his family (including 2 of this brothers) I’ve always speculated at his issue. The consensus between me, my therapists and genetics would all strongly suggest bipolar disorder. Some days he was gentle and some days he lived to destroy (see The Blue Apartments). You never knew which one until it was too late.
He could sit on the floor with us for hours and play, or walk in the woods with us, showing us all kinds of neat little things we would have missed on our own. He would swim in Lake Michigan with us, go on bike rides, and let us help in the garage all with a childlike amazement all his own.
Or he would come home furious and silent with a low growl building into a roar. He would scream at us and hit us for things like getting hurt, he would fight with my mother and break as many things as he could. He would pack up all of our toys and take them to Salvation Army, or slash my mom’s bike tires so she couldn’t ride with us.
I don’t mean this as any kind of smear campaign against him. Anyone who loves someone with a mental illness can tell you that it’s difficult, but you still love that person.
But sometimes, this is how it was.
My brother and I had spent the night at our grandparents’ house. We did that about maybe once a week, if that often. It didn’t seem like we were there a lot. We came home and my dad was sitting alone on the couch, watching TV. He said my mom was at work.
“That kid from next door was over here looking for you,” he said, looking away from the TV and glancing at us, “I think he’s got a new toy he wants to show you.”
“Can we go over there and look?” I asked.
“You just got home,” he said.
“We don’t want to stay long, we just want to see what he has. We’ll be back in a little bit.” My brother answered.
“Ok, fine,” he sighed, “but don’t stay too long.”
Now in our family dictionary, too long would have meant more than an hour. Normally, he would have come out and yelled for us or whistled. These things did not happen. About 20 minutes later, a furious version of our father showed up at their house.
Our friend’s mom came and asked us if we came over without asking. We looked at her as if she were crazy and told her we had permission.
She looked worried and said “you’re dad’s here and he seems very mad.”
We looked at each other puzzled and went to the front door to find my dad tensed up enough to snap, snarling at us through clenched teeth.
“Where the hell were you?” he growled.
I was so confused, I didn’t know what was going on. Something was off.
“We’ve been here the whole time. You knew we were here, we just got here,” I argued.
“I’ve been out here yelling for you and whistling for you forever!” he shouted.
I didn’t believe him for a second, I didn’t know what was going on. The neighbor defended us.
“They just got here, they were looking at toys, they’ve been here the whole time…” she pleaded.
“You just shut the hell up! I don’t tell you what to do with your damn kids! You two see what you started, now you’ve got me fighting with the neighbors, get the hell in the house!”
Now I was terrified. She had made it worse. I had no idea what was going to happen. We scurried home and went inside. He started to yell at us and there was a knock on the door. It was the husband from next door.
My father slung the door open and barked, “what do you want?”
The neighbor had his shirt off. He was wiry and cut, sinewy and obviously strong. He didn’t seem like a stable individual and definitely looked like he could throw a punch. He was in somewhat of a rage over what my dad had just said to his wife. I was wondering how this could get any worse. And then it did.
“What the hell is your problem, coming over to my house talking to my wife like that? Do you need me to help you with your attitude? I don’t like you talking to my wife that way. And your kids didn’t do anything wrong, I don’t know what your problem is.”
“These are my damn kids and that’s none of your business!” He shouted, “Why don’t you tell your fat wife to mind her damn business too!”
All I could think was “oh my God, please don’t fight him dad, he will kill you, please don’t fight him”
They screamed at each other through the screen door for a few minutes before my dad slammed the door in his face. My dad looked at us and insisted this was all our fault. Look at what we had done, we had caused so much trouble.
We had no idea what was going on. I kept asking what happened, why he was so mad, but he wouldn’t answer.
He grabbed us by our wrists, one in each hand and dragged us back to the bedrooms. I went to go in our bedroom with my brother but he snatched me away and threw me across the hall into their room.
He rushed into the room and threw me on the bed. He grabbed his belt and with one hand held me still and with the other he whipped me with the leather belt folded in half. I don’t know how many times I was hit, I just know I screamed and wailed and tried to get away.
When he felt he was done, after a few minutes, he marched out of the room and walked down the hallway. I thought I had taken the brunt of the frustration and now hopefully my brother wouldn’t get it too bad. But I was wrong.
He came back with a fiberglass tent stick, the kind that connect together to support the spine of the tent. It had a metal farrell at one end that he held like a handle. I saw it and I panicked.
I ran towards the door “what are you gonna do? No, what are you gonna do?”
He looked at me with pure rage and growled at me to get back on the bed. I didn’t know what to do. Do I go in there and save him? Do I say something? Take the beating for him? He’d be mad at me if I got hit trying to help him. We were supposed to be a team in this, but my poor little brain didn’t know what to do here.
My dad told him to lay on his stomach. The stick cut through the air and struck him with a terrifying smack. He screamed out in pain. It sounded like my father was whipping a horse, except for the sound of a young boy crying out.
I carefully called out “No, dad, daddy, don’t!” wanting to help but not wanting to get them both angry with me.
After a minute or two, my father came out of the room, looking as though he had some relief. He threw the tent stick down and told us to stay in our separate rooms and not tell our mother what had happened. My brother quietly sobbed in the other room. I couldn’t see him. I called out to him, and in a small, broken voice he said “just shut up, Jessie.”
We stayed to ourselves quietly crying in our separate rooms until my mom came home.
In that one moment, so much brokenness and pain were locked away like horrible secrets. That moment changed us and our bond forever.