October 28, 2013 by Thomas Wictor
The Germans are great at coming up with words to describe the complexity of human existence.
Schadenfreude. “The humor one feels at another’s misfortune.” Laughing when someone’s pants fall off in public, for example.
Backpfeifengesicht. “A face badly in need of a fist.” Someone who’s got the kind of face you just want to smash.
Vergangenheitsbewältigung. “The struggle to come to terms with the past.”
That’s the best German word. It’s a struggle I have every moment of every day. The reason it’s so important to me is because I believe that most conflict, pain, cruelty, and failure stem from an inability to come to terms with the past.
Every dictator had a horrible childhood, in one form or another. Type-A personalities with superhuman drive always seem to have a dark past. I believe that many people react viscerally to political figures based not on the politician but what he or she represents: a ghost from the past.
That ghost is almost always our mother and-or father.
Since my mother and father died, I’ve become fanatical about self-awareness. Conversely, I can’t bear to listen to or be around people who unknowingly make their decisions based on their terrible relationships with their mother and-or father. Maybe this intolerance will fade in time. Right now I simply have to remove myself from the voice or the person.
A few minutes ago, I listened to a famous America-hating director give a radio interview as I took my shower. He doesn’t really hate America, since it made him rich and famous. He hates his daddy. Why? Because his daddy told him what to do. His father’s dead and now the director is old, but his daddy-hate goes galumphing along, unstoppable. Money, achievements, and relationships mean nothing, because fifty years ago a mean man told him what to do!
My own parents killed themselves rather than be told what to do. In the process they made Tim and me suffer more acutely than we ever had in our lives. It went on from January 16, 2013, to October 13, 2013. I’ll never understand choosing death—horrible, painful, slow death—rather than doing what doctors say you need to do in order to live.
My parents told me what to do; my father told me what to do right up until the day he lost his mind. Much of what he told me to do was nonsensical, so I ignored it. I didn’t get angry at him because I knew he had a compulsive need to order people around. It was who he was. He, on the other hand, became nearly hysterical when told what to do.
I used to take daily walks, which I stopped because people began assaulting me almost every time I went out. One fine afternoon I had a PTSD attack that made me dive into bushes because two teenaged boys on bicycles reminded me of the guy who tried to murder me on December 28, 1995. You can read about the attempted murder on pages 84-87 of Ghosts and Ballyhoo.
The two boys on bicycles were mortified. “Don’t do that, mister!” one shouted. He sounded like he was about to cry. “We don’t mess with people!”
That was the last walk I took. My novel Chasing the Last Whale is about a guy who takes daily walks. Weird, huh?
While I was still subjecting myself to assaults and PTSD episodes, Dad’s doctors told him he should take walks, so he came over to my house for advice.
He and Tim and I stood in the kitchen of what’s now Tim’s house and discussed shoes, blisters, distances, and pedometers. Dad was attentive. At some point, after several minutes, the usual state of tension I felt around my father diminished because we seemed to be actually communicating. That was rare. I said, in my enthusiasm, “Start out slow. You need to—”
He winced, squeezed shut his eyes, dropped his head to his chest, jerked it up again at a tilted angle, and with his eyes still closed as though he were straining to have a bowel movement, he shouted, “DON’T LECTURE ME!”
This was the persona Tim and I called Snake Man. It was a shovel-in-the-face moment, in which I felt such instant, homicidal rage that I wanted to upend him into the sink, cram his head down the garbage disposal, turn it on, and use a broom handle as a ramrod to finally get rid of him. He pulled stunts like this the whole time I knew him. It was a textbook bait-and-switch: He came into my house, drew me out, and then—when I was least prepared for it—screamed at me.
Tim had the worst Snake Man experience. After we talked about it, we determined that this happened after Dad was told he had cancer. It was almost two years before he died. To deny that anything was wrong, he went on an orgy of yard work at the age of eighty-two, in a state of endocrinological collapse because he refused to follow a diabetic diet. His blood sugar completely out of control, his blood pressure spiking and falling, he mowed, trimmed, and clipped until he became a lurching zombie that we had to cart off to the emergency room.
When tests showed that he was severely anemic, they put him in the ICU. Tim and I stayed with him for a total of fourteen hours. During our visit the next day, he began weeping and said he wouldn’t get out of the hospital alive.
Tim sat next to him and took his hand. “Well, let’s not talk like that,” he said soothingly. “You’ll get out, but this just means you have to take a little better care of yourself.”
Dad changed in a flash. He snapped his head in Tim’s direction, glaring. “Are you saying I’m stupid?” he hissed. “You think I’m not smart enough to take care of myself? Is that what you’re sayin’?”
Standing in the doorway of the room, I looked around for a steel bedpan to crown him. It was another ramming-my-father’s-head-into-a-small-opening fantasy. But Tim didn’t react. It was magnificent. He told me later that he wanted to fold the bed into a sandwich so Dad’s face and knees met, with his bare, size-thirteen feet sticking out at the top, twitching, but you would never have known it.
Dad’s own father was a teller of what to do. For some reason that made my father so averse to being told what to do that he ended up in an urn. Whatever his doctors told him to do, he wouldn’t. And yet he complained every waking second about his health, and he lost his mind when he realized he was going to die. If he’d had his abdominal mass treated almost three years ago now, he’d still be alive.
Mom was the same way. She stopped eating two weeks before her cancer surgery, and when we gently talked to her about it, she accused us of nagging her, criticizing her, thinking she was too stupid to know what was good for her, and thinking she was crazy. There was no reaching her. She was too angry and defensive. We had to watch as she lost almost sixty pounds over nine months.
I’ve discovered that her first five years at home were very strict, and then her time in the boarding school was like being in the Catholic army. So she too went to her grave rather than accept being told what to do. But Tim tells me that her final hours of consciousness were ghastly. She wept, clawed at the oxygen mask, and raved.
This is why I struggle to come to terms with the past. I will not let my past decide my present and my future. My parents are dead. My relationship with them is over. I will not replicate their deaths, nor will the deceased call the shots.
The tragic irony of my parents is that in their attempt to rebel, they allowed their parents to regiment them utterly, but in reverse. Whatever the doctors or Tim and I asked them to do, they automatically had to reject, giving their long-dead parents absolute control over them. When faced with being told what to do or dying, they chose death, but theirs were uninformed choices that led to deaths full of pain and fear.
I’m sorry, Mom and Dad. Tim and I wish we could’ve saved you. It just wasn’t possible. If you run into your own parents on the other side, I hope you can all talk this out. It went on for way too long, and look at the cost.
Tim and I don’t renounce you; we simply stopped the cycle. Be happy for us.
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