Published on August 14th, 2018 | by Elizabeth Garber5
Risking the Truth: Talking to an Aging Parent about Childhood Abuse
There are so many news stories of abuse by parents, priests, doctors; people we’ve trusted yet we were trained not to challenge, not to say no. Sometimes when the abuse happened years before and the abuser is elderly, we might think a variety of thoughts. “It’s not worth it. I did therapy. I’ve worked it through on my own. It’s too late. They are too old to bring it up now. Maybe they don’t even remember that anything happened. Maybe I should just let it go.”
I had adored my brilliant father as a child, but in my teens a dangerous cocktail of mental illness, the 1960’s cultural revolution, and his rage built up such a pressure that he erupted, causing immeasurable harm to my family. Over the years, I kept trying to connect with him, coaxing back the dad I had loved. I sometimes felt I had the good dad back in a phone call, or for a few days, but I never knew when a landmine in conversation might set him off. I never dared confront him in those last years. I had decided to shelve my memories and not challenge my father about what happened to me. But in the last months before he died, he ran up huge phone bills. He called people from all different times in his life. I heard later that he apologized for arguments and fallings out. And then he called me.
Even though I talked weekly with my dad as his health steadily declined, I never knew what a call from him would bring. To distract him from his furious complaints about the people helping him, I’d tell him things he’d like.
“Guess what, Woodie, I’m making applesauce with your favorite apples, Jonathans.”
His voice belted out his gasping enthusiasm. ““The secret is cooking down the peels separately. That’s how you get that incredible red color. You remember, don’t you?” He sighed, “We used to freeze over a hundred quarts of applesauce. That wasn’t too terrible, was it?”
“No, of course, not.” I reassured him. I didn’t say I would never make my children work until midnight canning and freezing food.
He said, “I don’t know what I’d do without you, Missy. This was really great talking tonight.”
“It was. Good night, Daddy. Love you.”
One winter day I came into my house and heard my father’s voice on the answering machine. “Hi Sugar. I was hoping I could talk to you.” I stood, poised with water bottles to take to my husband and children cross-country skiing in the meadow below our home in rural Maine.
His voice continued. “I’ve been doing a lot of thinking.” His usually commanding voice was quieter, gentle.
I put down the water and picked up the phone. “Hi, Woodie. I’m glad to hear you.”
I pulled the phone cord so I could see the kids at the crest of the hill. Four year old daughter Miriam was trying to ski in tracks in the snow. My husband Peter showed eight-year-old Gabriel how to use his poles as he skied downhill.
My father’s voice was subdued. “I want to know what I did to you. I don’t remember.”
I was stunned, silent.
He continued, “Peter once yelled at me, saying that I’d ruined your marriage because of what I did. I’m ready to talk about that.” He was waiting; leaving a space for me to speak.
Where to begin? I’d spent years in therapy, filled journals with nightmares and memories. There were years when I couldn’t let my husband touch me because his hands turned into my father’s in the dark. But my life now was filled with love. I didn’t need to blame him or attack him.
Then I knew what to do. I stepped into my professional voice I use in my practice as an acupuncturist as a way to educate someone. I started. “You took nude photographs of my brother and me to chart the development of our bodies. That was a violation of our sexual boundaries.”
He had kept the Polaroids in his upper-right bureau drawer, where he dumped his coins at the end of the day. If I closed my eyes I could reach in that drawer and slip out the faded photos. My brother and I stood in the living room, nude children. My brother’s eyes stare through the floor. Our faces flat and enduring. Our young bodies held captive on fading blue-green glossy Polaroids.
“You forbade us to close the bathroom door when we took showers. You walked around the house naked, with just a magazine over your groin, when our friends came over. This was a violation of our boundaries.”
I wrenched myself out of my childhood to look out the window. Where were the kids? I stretched the phone cord as far as it would go so I could look down the snowy hill. There they were, slowly skiing. Peter was holding Miriam under her arms so she could ski right in front of him and not fall down. Gabe was farther ahead, turning back to wave to his dad.
I breathed, trying to calm the tightness in my belly, before I spoke again. “You made me lie naked and gave me back rubs and then front rubs. That is sexual abuse. I froze my body so I didn’t feel anything.”
He asked with a saddened voice. “Does it make any difference that I never meant to hurt you?”
I answered, “Even if you didn’t mean harm, harm was still done. I’ve gone to therapy for fifteen years.”
His voice was anguished, “Why would you have anything to do with me?”
“Because I love you. I kept working and working on this for years, trying to heal, and still have a relationship with you.”
He was in tears. “I’m so sorry. I never meant to hurt you.”
I cried too. “I’m sorry too. But the biggest gift you could ever give me is that you asked. You listened, and you said you are sorry.”
“I’m so sorry. I feel so bad about this. I love you.”
“I love you too.”
After I hung up, I felt dizzy and shaken. I picked up the water bottles, put on my snow boots, and walked out into the bright sunlight. I walked through the snow following my family’s footsteps to the field just as Peter, with Miriam on his back, skis askew, arrived at the top of the hill. Gabe was beaming because he’d beaten them to the top. I handed them each a bottle of water and put my arms around Peter, and began to cry.
“What’s happened?” He asked.
“A miracle,” I smiled. “My dad said he was sorry, for everything.”
Peter wiped the tears off my cheeks.
My daughter asked, “Why is mama crying?”
“Because I’m so happy.”
A week later, winter settled back in with a vengeance, ten below zero. The north wind carved the snow in hard chiseled ridges around the house. The woodstove warmed our hand-built home. Miriam lined her dolls in a row. Gabe built a Lego fort. I was upstairs folding laundry when the phone rang. Before I sensed danger, I said, “Hi, Daddy.”
His words throttled me. “You stupid, hysterical, ridiculous woman.” His words pinned me like someone holding a knife to my throat. I stumbled to sit in my desk chair, staring at the door to anchor myself. His furious voice bellowed over the phone, “Why have you done this to a dying man? You are a vicious, sick, cruel woman!”
I sat in my bedroom at my desk, staring at the wooden door my husband made from wild cherry cut from our woods. My father’s voice blasted into my ear. I stared into the grain of the wood, unable to see the sun-drenched snowy meadows stretching beyond the window behind me. I heard my daughter laughing on the swing we had bolted into the ceiling beam.
I was reeling. I didn’t know what to do. He was a sick dying man. Maybe I had to listen. Maybe I had to be understanding. His mind had played him like a mad piano night and day. His words kept socking me. “You lay this shit on me. It’s shit, that’s what it is! You are cruel and relentless.” His words were jabs, slaps, punches.
It took me half an hour before I remembered. I didn’t have to listen to this anymore. I decided no one would ever yell at me again. I interrupted, speaking quietly, “I’m done, Woodie.”
“What?” He demanded, startled that I dared speak and break his tirade.
“I’m done. Good-bye.” Setting down the phone felt like locking a door. The bond with my father, that had always kept me trying and enduring, had broken. I felt faint and trembled. I lay down and stared at the ceiling. I heard my children talking to Peter as he made blueberry pancakes for breakfast. Slowly the goodness of my life brought me back.
A month later on Valentine’s Day, my father’s voice was tender on my message machine, when the kids and I got home from school. “Hello Sugar. I was hoping to talk to you. I miss you.” He paused before saying good bye, the last time I heard his voice. “Love you.”
By the time my father died a few weeks later, no one from our family was there. He had worn us out. No one spoke of madness. He was Woodie, damned stubborn, unrelenting, unbending, impossible, Woodie. His apartment was like places you read about in the paper, of old men living in mazes of piled newspapers. It was a labyrinth of books, architecture journals, sculptures, and papers, stacked and falling. He was dying and hell if he was going to eat Meals on Wheels. Hell if he was going to let that old woman give him a bath. Hell if he was going to let anyone move him to the hospital. But in the end, when he was screaming in pain they took him by ambulance into the city to hospice, where they made him comfortable for the last two days.
When my youngest brother, Hubbard, called to check on him, the nurse said, “He’s in a light coma, but I’ll hold the phone next to his ear so you can talk to him. He can probably hear you.”
Hubbard heard Dave Brubeck they were playing for him and his rough breathing. When Hubbard began to speak of their years together, the nurse said Woodie opened his eyes. “I want you to know we love you. Remember that trip when we went to Boston to Legal Seafood, and how you loved plates of raw oysters. Do you remember the time I was sailing so fast and hit a rock and flipped your catamaran in the main channel with everyone watching? And they were supposedly impossible to flip.” He continued until he ran out of stories. He paused. “We love you, Woodie.” He was quiet and stayed on the line from his office in Boston.
The nurse came back on the line, “Your father just died.”
After a long pause, she added, “Yesterday he looked me in the eye and said, ‘I’m not afraid to die. It will be a relief.’”
A blizzard scoured the windows of my home in Maine when my mother called me. “Your Dad is gone.” While the wind whirled around the house, I sobbed like a girl who had lost her Daddy. Yet after the tears eased, I felt a sudden release of tension in my body. “I don’t have to be afraid, anymore. Nothing more bad can happen.”
Excerpted from Implosion: A Memoir of an Architect’s Daughter (She Writes Press, June 2018)