Her memory starts when they are in the car, in the bright dawn of a summer morning. The world is crisp, and the car is filled with a sense of the unexpected. She has been included in an adventure, and though she doesn’t really understand what it is, she is buoyed by his anticipation, his joy. The way he points to a hawk on the horizon and she looks for what he sees with her little four year old eyes, widened to receive its majesty. She has been given her own kid sized fishing rod, and kids sized things are things of magic. What is it about the tiny furniture for her playroom that delights her so? That it is both secretly and specially for her, and that it unites her world with the giant, incomprehensible grown up world, which it is every child’s secret wish to enter. Kid’s sized makes us instantly big, and wizardly, when we are four. An unexpected adventure. An unexpected gift. And a magic door into a grown up world.
The light is early, and whiter than the gold of midday, the bronze of evening. They arrive at a dock of some sort, in a land that is seared into her memory now. A land without a name, or a place on a map. She has never asked about it. The rod is handed to her, and it is time for her lesson. The instruction itself involves some ‘how things work’ and some ‘do’s and do not’s’. But what she is actually learning does not. It involves the interception of her father’s joy, her secret access to it on a heavenly morning, by the deadly realization that she might ruin it. She understands him, his words. Hold it just so. Put your hand on the reel. Crank it this way to send your hook into the depths. She is a bright girl. She has learned to read earlier than the others, on account of her physical limitations. But the basic math of the words is swallowed by his urgency. The importance to him of her getting this right. He is free and smiling and warm; something has lifted in him this day, and now he is placing it in her small fingers and asking her to capture it, using this simple apparatus. And if you get a bite, she can feel his thrill quicken her heart beat, then you crank it like this.
The rest unfolds rather quickly. She is the first to get a bite. It seems to happen after only a moment of quiet stillness. A single cricket singing. She reacts and is reeling her line toward her with all of her tiny might, when it strikes. The jolt of abject terror. The one that will visit her every decision, for years and years to come. What if she has it wrong? What if she has it wrong, and the fish swims away with her heavenly morning full of a happy father, and it’s all her big little fault? She switches directions, reeling away from herself, then with a hot lick of shame she switches back. Neither feel right. Neither give her any answers as to whether the fish is getting closer, or farther. There is just a flurry of spinning and recoiling. Of despair and horror unravelling her impending loss.
A large hand drops from the sky. The rod is yanked from her white knuckles. He delivers one clean punch with his words. What have you done? She knows. She can see it as he packs up the box with the clever little hooks and their sprigs of feathers in rainbows of colours. As their picnic is chucked into the trunk, dirt sprayed into the peanut butter and jelly. An angry jerk of the wrist lands the kid sized rod on the floor in a crumpled heap of disdain. The sinews of his clenched jaw twitch beneath his hot read skin; a half dead animal wrestling out of its ruined carcass. She has failed to save him from an angry man. She has failed to dip her rod into the sea and slip her hook into the throat of his father’s love.
He wakes up in the dewy dawn, lit from within. There is no work for him today, no office, no out- performing. No outsmarting. No standing up to scrutiny. No staying late, or later than late. No driving home at 6 to find her waiting at the window with her little nose pressed to the glass. Today he is going to sit on the dock as the sun turns the morning shrill. And he’s going to teach her how to fish. He’s going to toughen her up a little. She is made of softness, cookie dough and little lambs. A runt. And it scares him. The world is going to beat her up, and that is on him. He’s almost lost her once. He remembers her eyes on the way to the hospital. He had seen it on the farm growing up, that minnowing away of the life force. Inanimation. She had pulled through, but it was as if her skull never closed the fracture completely. We need a membrane to keep us contained. To keep the world out. She doesn’t have one. The way she cries over the homeless man with the holes in his gloves. The way she buries the dead birds in the field behind their home, trying to make death less cruel. The way she stands there when her baby sister bites her in the stomach. Just stands there.
He has bought her her own little rod, in anticipation of the mornings they would spend together. The love that would grow to fill the gnawing inside of him. Wrap around her and keep her safe. He is smart and expects that he will command her respect and she will learn. He takes her little hand and places it just so. He is clear and concise with his instruction, letting his voice drop to its deeper register. He is certain that he can succeed. He wants her to, after all. Hers depends on his.
Just the other morning he said to his wife, “Whatever happens, do not let me become my father”. But it’s not his father he tears the rod away from in rage. It’s his own four year old self. Weak and incompetent. Shamefully afraid. Failing all over again to earn his father’s love.
What is rage, anyhow? I refer to anger as a secondary emotion. Hurt plus powerlessness. We feel pain, and simultaneously we feel unable to control it, and terrified of its power over us.
Anger is a fight response to pain. A shorted circuit.
Anger in a parent always triggers shame, because it is driven by love. Which often intensifies the anger, damn it all to hell, can’t win for losing.
Sometimes our child leaves the dishes and we have failed to teach them. Failed Doctor Phil, and all of those memes on facebook about generations of disrespect. We have failed to create order in our own homes. We have failed to tough love. Or use the right currency. To turn our parenting experience into a text book presentation of how to do it right.
One time my daughter showed me this meme of a Mom sobbing in a heap over a fork in the sink.
I’ll let you sit with that one for a moment.
Because I am a really great Mom.
I think I am pretty chill about the ratio of dish doing in our household. But every once in a while I look at something disgusting that has turned up in the sink and it becomes a symbol of all that I have done wrong in the voices of a thousand judging faces. I haven’t been tough enough. No one cares. I am the laughing stock. I will never keep up, and it’s on me friends.
I have been that mom, crumpled over a fork.
Anger in us as parents triggers shame, because even when we are really messed up, somewhere in there a voice is trying to reach us that says “Stop. Don’t blame it on this tiny human. Look at how tiny they are you idiot.” Whether the tiny human is physically small, or an emotional neophyte in a gangly six foot football playing physique. Somewhere in there, possibly buried with the dinosaur bones, is a cry for our own compassion and love. Don’t do it, Dan! As we, Dan, do the very thing we least want to be doing. Ugh.
Often the hurt in an anger response is deep old hurt. A legacy. A baton. Dad’s dad’s dad’s dad, was shamed, or bullied, or made to feel unworthy, and we have learned a finely honed and perfected hair trigger response to weakness that makes us want to stamp it out for our very survival before you can say ‘Sick ‘em, boy” and unleash the metaphorical hounds.
Sometimes we mutate. We are made of softness, and so the baton is slapped into our hands but instead of anger the tiniest decisions feel like LIFE and DEATH, because somewhere in our four year old mind, we have failed the one small thing that was asked of us, to reel in a fish with the pressure of a quadruple axel salchow lutz at Olympic figure skating championships, and instead, we tripped and landed with our butt in the air and our underwear on display, and well we’d rather take a thousand years evaluating permutations and combinations, trajectories and intercepting variables, than feel that way again, thanks for asking.
The good news, is that there IS a cure for all of this. We can heal, and be healed. We can choose again.
That voice of powerlessness is wrong. We are not the shameful thing we fear we are. Our capacity to experience love and joy, and perhaps sanity, is not left to the mercy of a fork.
If we are lucky enough we get the lion’s share of this deprogramming under our belt before we are in position to accidentally spread it on our children’s toast, or pour it into their breakfast cereal.
But if that is not the case for you, take heart. When you have been needing something for ten years or twenty years and you get it, YOU GET IT, the heart heals. The light in the sky of memory softens. You see gentleness reaching through. Someone somewhere above pats you on the back. There is a twinkle in an eye. Laughter returns. Love outshines the fear. Dishes are just dishes.
When you get what you need, you give what is needed. Because you can. Because that is how it works. And they tell two friends, and they tell two friends.
It is never too late to choose love and to spread it on some toast.
And it’s easier to relearn than it is to hold onto fear and shame. Even if fear tells you otherwise. Duh, like fear’s gonna rat on itself.
It doesn’t make it okay, that you were hurt, or neglected or abused. To be on the giving or receiving side of anger. Or that it has been going on for centuries. It doesn’t make it okay that some of us are doing it out of survival, or even under the guise of love and can’t differentiate the two. But it makes it worth getting brave enough to choose something different. To undo the patterns that we might not want to see because they scare us.
We deserve it. You deserve it. Four year old you deserves it. If you knew you could change it, if you knew you could answer a cry for love with love — breathe change hundreds of years into the past and future (and I am here to tell you that you can) wouldn’t you have the courage to look, to go fishing one more time?
It’s thirty years before she returns. Closes her eyes and gets on a boat to Neverland to find him, crying and writhing in the dirt and shame.Shhhh, she whispers. There there. And she rocks him through his 24 years of rage with her chubby four year old arms. You don’t have to be angry anymore, Daddy. You’re a good kid after all.
— Love Erin
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