long read

Father’s Day: What did I know?

Those Winter Sundays

by Robert Hayden

Sundays too my father got up early 
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold, 
then with cracked hands that ached 
from labor in the weekday weather made 
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him. 
I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking. 

When the rooms were warm, he'd call, 
and slowly I would rise and dress, 
fearing the chronic angers of that house, 
Speaking indifferently to him, 
who had driven out the cold 
and polished my good shoes as well. 
What did I know, what did I know 
of love's austere and lonely offices?

My eyes widen as I read each word. This poem–I feel like I wrote it. How could someone else capture my thoughts so perfectly? I feel raw. Exposed. I am sitting in a college classroom on a damp, dreary Fall afternoon, and this poem makes me feel warm, yet I have chills. This is how I feel about my father. This is what I have been trying to articulate in my mind for eighteen years. I think of all the gestures he did to show his love–silently, at times begrudgingly, but he did show his love in the mundane tasks of keeping house. And no one ever thanked him. We may have said the words as we dashed out of the car or grabbed whatever was in his hand, but there was never an exchange of thanks that involved eye contact and a firm hand shake or lingering hug. Affection was quick, obligatory.

And I DID fear the chronic angers of that house. There was always so much anger. It began with my parents and enveloped each person that existed in that small home–nine of us–ten if you include Anger, which certainly felt like another sibling living among us.

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I will never forget the day I first came upon this poem. Freshman year at The University of Scranton. A survey literature course. Robert Hayden–my literary brother. It was this poem–Hayden’s words–that provided me with one of mybooks_clip_art_by_zenoracle-d4qi2lb first experiences of what language could convey. I was in awe that a few lines of verse could so profoundly summarize my relationship with my father. I credit this poem for being one of the reasons I became an English teacher. The written word can speak to a reader in many personal, powerful ways. The experience can be incredibly private and eye-opening, yet the reader need not reveal to the world that “this is me! These words are my own! I’ve had the same experience.”

I have gone on to teach that poem in my classroom, and whenever I do, I am reminded that somewhere in the room, there probably is a young man or woman (or ten) who sees themselves in these lines–who hears their own fears being echoed in the voice of the poet: “What did I know of love’s austere and lonely offices?” That line has become sort of a mantra of mine as I have aged, as I have reflected on my childhood and my upbringing. What did I know? I knew my dad loved me, yes. He was a good man. He wanted to be a better man than he was, and he did love me. And yet, he was very lonely. Surrounded by his wife and seven children, but alone. And austere. His firm and unbending sense of discipline made him very austere.

My dad died eighteen years ago, when I was in my early twenties. I wish he got to know me better. I wish he was able to meet my lovely wife, and see his beautiful grandsons play. I wish he got to see me as a father. I think he would be different now. I know I am. I am not afraid. I no longer live in fear of the chronic angers that filled my childhood. But in my mind, I recall the blue-black cold of the rooms that hold the memories of my youth.

Flash forward twenty some years. The college freshman reading poetry is now a father himself. He wants to be a good father, but he fights the anger that has lived in him for so long. Indeed, it has subsided, but it still lurks. He loves his sons more than anything. He cannot help it. He knows this is the circle of life. A boy cannot understand his father until he is a father himself…I see now Dad, I do. I see how hard it must have been for you. I see that you were living in a much different time, a time when men were only worth the pay check they brought home–and yours never seemed to be enough. A time when feelings and emotions were never discussed, let alone understood. I see the man who was incredibly bright, but never had the chance to go to college. I know you loved us, but the pressures and chaos of that household were too much to bear. And as part of your legacy, I have inherited some of your struggles–as a husband, a father, a man.

I grapple with this often, almost daily. I know the kind of dad I want to be, the kind I set out to be every day, but then I see my frustration creep in, my impatience, my arrogance. Lately, I’ve been reminded of this innate struggletrainer_fall2012-38 between father and son when dealing with my second born, Hayden (I do not think we arrived at his name accidentally.) Hayden and I fight–a lot. I know it is because we are so similar in personality. My friend Liz, over at The Kovies, told me that “God doesn’t give you the child you want; he gives you the child you need.” I now know that I needed Hayden. I needed him to see myself as a boy–difficult. Caring, loving, and sensitive, yes–but also difficult. I bear witness to my frustration with him. I am trying so hard to be present in his life, to show him my unconditional love. But he challenges my patience, and seems to bring out the worst in me sometimes. And yet, we love each other very much. I snuggle with him in his bed, and he takes walks with me and the dog. He knows I love him, and I am able to show it in ways that my father did not–could not.

In the past month, when I’ve tucked Hayden in at night, I’ve become frustrated by our exchanges. I’d say, “Good night, Hayden. I love you.” And Hayden would say nothing–NOTHING! At first, I tried to ignore it, or I would add a passive aggressive “I love you, too, Dad” before leaving his room. Still, no reply. One night, after no response, I implored,”Hayden, I said I love you.” “I heard you.” “You’re supposed to say ‘I Love you, too, Dad.'” “Sort of,” he says, head buried in his pillow. “Sort of?” I yell. “It means a little,” he explains–to his father, an English teacher. I walk out, incredulous. On another night, I try again. Still, no reply. “Hayden, I know you love me.” He shakes his head “No.” “Yes, you do!” Again, he shakes “No.” “Do you love Owen?” He shakes his head “No.” I feel comforted by this. “Do you love Mommy?” A big head nod “Yes.” So big of a nod, his chin almost hits the floor. I refuse to surrender. “Well, I love you Hayden, no matter what.”

trainer_fall2012_web-38In the past few weeks, we’ve made progress. Now, when I say it, he says “Okay.” That’s all. “Okay.” I leave his room frustrated, but I’m trying to be okay with “Okay.” Still, my mind reels: All I do to show this boy how much I love him every day. Not just the basics. I coach his baseball team (even though I suck). I volunteer in his classroom. I remember to buy his favorite cookies…How can he not know how much he loves me???? Then, it dawns on me. Not right away–it’s a gradual epiphany: Oh, I see. “What did I know of loves austere and lonely offices?” The role of a dad can be cold and austere regardless of the amount of affection we show our kids. It feels cold, because we are often the bad guy–the punisher, the disciplinarian. And lonely. So lonely. We love our children so much, yet watch them push us further and further away toward their eventual independence. What did I know? Not much, until I had children of my own.

Once again, I am comforted by the words of Robert Hayden. Decades later, his poem still beckons and consoles me. I am glad I realized this in time to celebrate Father’s Day. It is a day filled with mixed emotions. How does one celebrate a role that is so layered and confusing? How do I reconcile the past and the present? Well, this year, in honor of Hayden’s refusal to return my “I love you,” I thought of another poem–a song–that reminds me of my father. It is probably the most tender memory I have of my dad. When I was very young, about four, I recall sitting in the front seat with my dad, alone! No seat belt to tether me. Just me sitting next to my dad.  Six brothers and sisters and I had Dad all to myself in his big, thick-cushioned, blue Chevy Nova. I remember driving with the windows down, the breeze mixing with the smoke of his cigarette, and he began to sing me a song:

You’ll never know just how much I miss you
You’ll never know just how much I care

And if I tried, I still couldn’t hide my love for you
You oughta know for haven’t I told you so
A million a more times, you went away
And my heart went with you

I speak your name in my every prayer
If there is some other way to prove that I love you
I swear I don’t know how
You’ll never know if you don’t know now …

On the rare occasion when I was alone with my dad, I would ask him to sing me that song. It only happened a handful of times, before I got too old to feel comfortable requesting it. Well, Dad, I didn’t know then. But I think I do now. And I wish the same for my son. Someday, Hayden. Someday, you’ll know. And I hope I’m around to bear witness.

trainer_fall2012_web-38You’ll Never Know:  music by Harry Warren, lyrics by Mack Gordon

Therapy

About a year ago, a friend of mine at work was telling me how he had an appointment with an acupuncturist after school to see if this would help his breathing issue. Bill suffers from a lung disease, and the acupuncturist may be the answer he needed to assist him in breathing better. I thought, Cool. It’s amazing what different areas of medicine can do to heal a person—even something as unconventional as acupuncture. As I left school that day, I recalled Bill’s casual mention of seeing a non-traditional practitioner of medicine.  See, I was on my way to therapy after school, yet I would never have mentioned this in the work room to one of my colleagues. In fact, I’d say fewer than five people knew I was in therapy back then. That day, I fantasized about how refreshing it would be to talk about seeing a psychologist as casually as mentioning the dentist or the chiropractor. Sadly, we don’t live in that world. We live in a world where any mention of therapy is often met with fear and ignorance. Even those bold enough to mention it in discussion do so warily and with trepidation. And even then, these professionals are looked at with speculation: My shrink tells me that… To this day, on the rare occasion where someone does mention going to counseling in public, even I tend to think he/she is making a joke.

Yet, if you’ve been following my blog, you have heard me mention that I have been in therapy. I have seen a total of four counselors over the past ten years, and I am a changed man as a result. However, until now, only a handful of people knew I was in counseling. And, I must say, it feels amazing to just put it out there. It is nothing to be embarrassed about, yet I have lied on many occasions about my fifty minute hour with said therapists: I have to stay late after school, My son has a doctor’s appointment, I have to get a cavity filled—it seems I am happy with any other type of obligation except for Mental Health. Think about that expression: MENTAL HEALTH. Why are we so afraid of talking about the other form of health that inhabits our body? Is it because we can’t see it? We can’t see air, but none of us doubts its imperative nature in our lives. So why back away from health of the mind? If your ankle was swollen, you would see a podiatrist. If you had a skin outbreak, you would go to a dermatologist. If your cholesterol test came back high, you might start to take a supplement.  But I would guess that the majority of us would not be quick to make that call to fix our mindset.  This saddens me.

My counselors were as varied as the hang-ups living inside my mind. Therapist number one, Dr. Bob, was a warm, grandfatherly type. He was in his sixties and had an affable demeanor. At my first appointment, I was so stifled emotionally that I left the part of the questionnaire that said “Why have you sought counseling?” blank. I was too embarrassed, too ashamed to write anything. As we sat there that first visit, he immediately went to that unanswered question. Calmly, he inquired, “You are here for a reason. I cannot help you if I don’t know why.” I looked at him for a long time, realized I hadn’t been breathing, exhaled, and began to speak. By the end of our first session, I had shared more intimate things about my life with him then I did with any other person in my life, including my spouse.

I was with Bob for about two years. It was a time of self-discovery. I began to tear down a lot of the walls I had built up emotionally. It all seems so hokey until you put it into practice. Before therapy, I would often joke about loving oneself, or someone having daddy issues. But once under a doctor’s care, I began to see all of the cheap defenses we hide behind—laughter being a huge one for me.  He and I talked about the importance of loving oneself (I know, stupid, right?). Yet, how many of us do check in with ourselves? How many of us do look out for our own well-being? One of the coolest things he and I discussed was the importance of being self-CENTERED. Previously, in my world, if you were trying to do what was best for you (but not necessarily those around you) you were accused of being selfish. “What does selfish mean?” he would implore. “You know, like, self-centered.” “And shouldn’t one be centered? Centered in the self? Shouldn’t one be balanced, and aware of one’s limitations?” LIGHTBULB! It was as if I was seeing for the first time. “So, it’s good to be self-centered?” I asked, hesitantly.  “How can you be available to others if you are not available to yourself?” WHOA! It was a turning point in my life. How often do we ignore our own needs, give to the other people in our lives, and then end up resenting them for what we chose to give? For the past ten years, I have become much more selfish, and it has allowed me to have more meaningful experiences with all those I am lucky to surround myself with.

After my time with Dr. Bob, I took about a year off. In the meantime, Pam and I had our first child, and then a lot of my resentment of the past started to rear its ugly head. I went to a female therapist, Carol. She and I did not mesh well. I often found her aloof, sort of phoning it in during our sessions. Instead of paying her, I should have just stood in front of a mirror and repeated my statements as questions.  Me: I’m not sure I should say anything about this to my sister? Carol: Do you want to say anything about this to your sister?  Me: I’m not sure I want to have more than one child. Carol: Do you think it’s a good idea to have more than one child? I think Carol went to the Goddess of Echo School of Psychiatry.  One night, I ended up leaving Carol’s office, somewhat heatedly, and I never returned.

Next, there was Marie. Marie was well read, had a lot of education, and a lot of hang-ups of her own.  I felt sorry for Marie, and as a result, I never wanted to burden her with my problems. Aside from a few good parenting books, Marie offered little in the way of therapeutic assistance.

My final therapist was a man.  I do think in my case, because a lot of my issues are with my dad, that a man suits me better in therapy. This guy was relentless. He never talked about his own life (married or single, father or childless, Catholic or Jew, gay or straight, I’ll never know). Beyond that, he was very analytical in the Freudian sense. And he was very good at deciphering dreams and finding connections in my life that I was unaware of. I recall one time, I was telling him how I had started to feel panicky whenever running races. I have run long distances since my mid-twenties, and had recently become more competitive with trail races. “Why now? Why would I have anxiety when I’ve been racing for years?” “Because now you care more about being competitive and you don’t want to look like a loser. Because now you feel like a man.” Ouch. That hurt. But I was glad to know the reason, and I believe he was right. Such discoveries opened my eyes in ways I would have never seen without therapy.

But the most fascinating thing about seeing Dr. Doug was his assessment that I had a lot of anger issues. “I’m not angry,” I protested. He stared straight into my eyes, unyielding. “I’m not,” I mustered up in response. “Am I?” I whimpered.  When I got home that night, I told Pam about my session: “The doctor thinks I have a lot of anger.” I have never seen Pam’s eyes grow wider. It was if her eyeballs were nodding emphatically. “You think so, too?” I asked. “Yes!” she said resoundingly. And here I was, eight years of on and off therapy, four therapists, and finally the crux of my issues—I was angry and I needed to work on it. And I did. I saw Dr. Doug weekly—that’s once a week!!!—for over a year.  I was with him for over two years.  And now I finally have some perspective on my past, I am aware of my anger, and I have spent a lot of time healing.

I have been out of therapy for over a year, and I feel great—for the most part. I still get angry. The point is to not avoid anger, but be aware of its presence and your triggers.  I can tell you this, though, most of the time, when I do get angry, it has very little to do with the thing I yell about.  But I realize that this is all a process, that I continue to grow as a person—a husband, a father, a teacher, a friend…  Looking back on the past ten years, I can tell you this about my experiences:

Therapy is like dating cancer. You go to meet this entity (your psyche) each week; you bare your soul and are more intimate with this being which represents all of these issues that could have destroyed you. You are the host to this vile, caustic thing, and you need to spend time with IT—whatever issue you are confronting—and recognize how potent it is in your life. If you ignore it, it will continue to feed on you until it has consumed you. Okay, maybe this isn’t dating, maybe it’s stalking. But you get the gist. She is a bitch, but you will keep seeing her until you break up on YOUR terms. Who is stalking whom?

Breaking up is hard to do. When you commit to seeing a therapist, the two of you establish a rapport, and it is hard to know when to say goodbye. I was with the same person for several years, but how long should one stay? It’s an individual choice, but a necessary one.  I have the utmost respect for my last therapist (Doug), but he was not getting the hint when I kept telling him I needed a break—I was tired, I felt drained, and I needed to apply some of this knowledge to my daily life. Finally, I resorted to writing him a Dear John letter while he was on vacation—it’s not you, it’s me, I just need my space. He wrote me a very caustic reply, saying he would not be able to see me again if and when I ever decided to come back. So long, Doug… As for the others, the first ended when he moved away, the second in a nasty fight, and the third I just never called back when she reached out to get back together again. Such is the life of dating—I mean therapy.

Everyone could benefit from therapy! Everyone. Think of how cool it would be to confide in a person in the strictest of confidences? Who could not benefit from understanding why they react the way they do, from a non-judgmental professional who has an adept understanding of the way humans behave? Not sure why you can’t stand your sister-in-law? Wondering why you can’t relax in museums? Noticing a pattern with your unsuccessful dating life? Resentful of your kids for no good reason? Your answers are closer than you imagine. (The above scenarios are all hypotheticals, of course.)

There are affordable options.  Laws are changing to ensure that mental health coverage is commensurate to other health care coverage (Parity Law). Moreover, under the Affordable Care Act, more people have access to mental health treatment than ever before. If I did not have insurance, I could not have afforded to see a therapist weekly. But the co-pay was money well spent, even if it was a considerable expense in my weekly budget. When money was tighter, I went less often, but I still had access. There are also services through churches and synagogues (many of which are non-denominational), and many therapists will work on a sliding scale.

Don’t stay in a bad relationship. Finding the right therapist is work. Most health care websites have a database of practitioners in your area. It may take a few different ones before you feel the right fit. I did not have luck in this area. I knew I did not feel right with either female therapist, yet I stayed because I felt bad. That’s my issue. But if you are brave enough to seek counseling, do yourself a favor and find a good match.

Be open to the idea that you may find yourself in therapy again. I have been in and out of treatment several times. Right now, I am applying what I’ve learned in how I live my life. But I know that someday, I will probably need to seek help from a therapist again. And I hope I am aware enough now to know when that day arrives. Who knows, maybe, as I continue to grow, I won’t be ashamed to tell a friend where I am going after school?

Finally, the words of the song “What Do You Hear in These Sounds”, by Dar Williams, always resonate with me when I think about my tumultuous ride with therapy:

I don’t go to therapy to find out if I’m a freak
I go and I find the one and only answer every week
And it’s just me and all the memories to follow
Down any course that fits within a fifty minute hour …

And when I talk about therapy, I know what people think
That it only makes you selfish and in love with your shrink
But oh how I loved everybody else
When I finally got to talk so much about myself…

Her words sum up so much about my experience. I am no more a freak than you—okay, I did just laugh—but we’re all freaks in our own way. And, when you are given the right, the encouragement to talk about all of the things
that may be blocking you on life’s path, you find you are so much more open to others outside of therapy because you have dealt with your own issues in such a meaningful way.

The Mother of All Fears

When my mother was five years old, her father dropped dead from a heart attack at the kitchen table.  She witnessed this.  It breaks my heart to think that such a young, sweet girl would have to endure such a tragic sight. To make matters worse, her mother suffered a series of miscarriages and stillborns throughout their marriage.  The day Joseph Donahue’s heart gave out, his wife, Mary, was three months pregnant.  She carried the baby to term, only to deliver another stillborn.  Thus, the die was cast, and Joanne, an only child, began a life fixated on death and all things macabre.

As a child, this dark fixation was fueled by the pagan babies she adopted in church to save from the fires of hell.  As an adult, it found its energy in all of life’s tragedies. When I was growing up, this was most exemplified in my mother’s signature send-off when kissing us good night.  The only family I knew who was tucked in when I was a kid was The Walton’s on TV.  But when we went to kiss my mom goodnight, all of us said something to the tune of “Goodnight, Mom.  Love you. See you in the morning.” Her response: “God willing.”  God willing??  No, “I love you, too”, or “Sweet dreams.”  God willing!  I would lie in my trundle bed, and imagine the angel of death coming in her long, gossamer gown, and her silvery blue hair, to suck all of the life out of my mom, and carry her soul to heaven.  I hated that angel.  And those words would echo in my ears as I tried to will myself to sleep.  God willing.  Why would God want to take a woman with seven children?  What would His will want with Joanne Trainer from Thunderhead Road?  (Years later, my sister Kristen told me that she would sneak into my parents’ room in the night and place her tiny fingers under my Mom’s nose to feel her breathing.)  So, I found comfort in saying my prayers.  I prayed that God’s will would see fit to keep my mother on Earth, because we needed her here—she had seven kids to look after, for Christ’s sake (sorry, Jesus).  And I ended my prayers with the most comforting of songs to a good Catholic boy: Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.  Ahhh, Death, the immortal comfort in our home.

One of the first times I realized the impact of my mother’s obsession with death was when she was giving me driving directions to a party in Philadelphia.  It went something like: “Make a right where that boy was hit and killed by the drunk driver, then go past the funeral parlor where your Uncle Billy was laid out.  Turn onto the road where I had to walk home from work that night your brother forgot to pick me up and that strange man tried to mug me, and just keep going straight…”

There I was, in the car, alone, with my mother’s directions, wondering why I was becoming increasingly anxious as I approached my destination, and it hit me—she’s crazy. The woman is completely fixated with tragic outcomes. She should have married Edward Gorey, creator of the Gashleycrumb Tinies.

Not too long after that, we were away at my brother’s graduation from college.  Again, I knew her death obsessed clutches had a hold on my thoughts.  We were sitting around the indoor pool of the hotel, when I realized I needed something from the room.  Before I left, I immediately thought of the horrible story about a young boy who was abducted in a hotel years before—snatched from the hallway while going to his room, never to be seen again.  I no sooner pushed this dark thought from my mind and announced I needed to go back to the room to get something, when my mother pipes up—without missing a beat—“Be careful, hon, remember that little boy who was kidnapped and murdered in that hotel.” Sadly I did remember him– one of the many anonymous phantoms who filled our days with imaginary angst and dread. Yet, I was past my kidnapping prime—I was twenty years old.  Should this have comforted me?

Joanne never tired of regaling us with stories of characters (assumed real) who met untimely, dastard demises:  the little boy who fell out of the tree, the girl whose hand was knocked off by a telephone pole because she stuck it too far out the window, the boy who refused to wear a raincoat and then died from pneumonia. Each victim a faceless character from “up state”, her euphemistic attempt at keeping danger a few counties over.  As a kid, whenever I thought of “up state”, I thought of streets lined with body parts from all those kids who lost limbs because they were bad listeners, and I imagined the cemetery with all of the victims whose head stones relayed their accidental demises a la haunted house style: Here lies Sara who died from catching fire after stealing her mother’s cigarettes…

When I was in third grade, a real tragedy struck our town: a young woman of about twenty was killed in a car accident. “Grace” was a passenger in her boyfriend’s car.  She was from a large, well-liked family, and to make matters worse, she was an identical twin. I can remember many Sundays watching her family at church—all nine of them—lined up in loving order, with Grace and her twin like two statuesque beauties standing side by side.  It seemed as if the entire world mourned the loss of this bright star.  My brother Joe, a year older than I, was in school with Grace’s brother.  He wanted to go to the viewing.  Not wanting to be left out, I asked if I could go, too.  My mother obliged.  It was one of the saddest experiences of my life.  The streets outside the funeral parlor were lined with mourners, many of them Grace’s peers—young people in the prime of their lives.  Tears flowed abundantly.  I remember waiting in line, the wailing chorus of “No’s” and “whys” echoing through my mind.  By the time we neared the family, and then the dreaded casket, my anxiety had reached a frenzied state.  This was a scene that no child should have to witness.

Realizing her mistake in bringing us to this tragic event, my mother convinced my father that it would be a good idea to get our minds’ off of the evening by taking us to see a movie.  Now, in my house, a movie was a big treat. It was something we did a couple times a year! (Pre-cable people!)  This was serious.  My sad ears perked up.  A movie was just the thing we needed to wash away the sadness.  My mother took us to the late showing of a film called The Champ, a remake of the classic Mickey Rooney film, starring Jon Voight, Faye Dunnaway, and a young boy named Ricky Schroeder.  It was the saddest movie of the decade!  In the end, the washed up, has-been boxer makes one last attempt at redeeming himself by fighting in the ring to reclaim his reputation, and his son’s complete admiration.  He dies.  HE DIES!  My mother took us to the one movie that had a sadder ending than any movie I had ever seen.  My brother and I cried harder at this than we did at the viewing.  At one point, Joe’s sobbing became so loud that he had to leave the theater.  In hindsight, it is hard to believe that my mom could make a special outing like a movie sadder than the death of a young woman, but she did.  I could be more understanding if she did not know what the film was about—but it was a remake of a classic film that she had seen!  It has one of the saddest endings of all time.  Not to mention the fact that it was the late show.

In my mind, when I replay the events of that night, we go out for ice cream, a nice bowl of ice cream, and my mom calmly assuages our fears of death, and tells us how proud she was of her brave big boys being so tough at the
sad event.  Such is the childhood of my dreams. Instead, I’m sure she reminded us to offer it up for all the poor souls in purgatory, and told us that we were lucky because we were all still alive. When we got home well past midnight, I simply wanted to go to bed and forget this day ever happened. I kissed my mother, then said my familiar nighttime chorus: “Good night, mom. Love you. See you in the morning…” As I walked up the stairs, I could hear her reassuring me: “God willing.” God willing indeed.

All drawings done by the amazing Edward Gorey. Visit http://edwardgorey.com/