Losing them, fixing them, forgetting to put them in
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After my first son was born, I was flexible, generous, in tune. Then I had my second child, and I started yelling at my now-three-year-old son almost every day. Once, he was bouncing the baby’s seat too hard. I told him to stop, and when he didn’t, I slapped him. I knew then it was I who needed to stop.
I read a Buddhist book on anger and learned to recognize the itchy hotness that preceded my outbursts. I learned that there were times when anything I said or did would cause pain, and I chose to walk away instead. The only place to “walk away” to when you’re home alone with a three-year-old and a baby in a sling turns out to be the bathroom. I say to my son, as he bangs the phone, spills the cat’s water, pulls the clothes off the clothesline, or squishes figs into the rug (sometimes all at once), “I am feeling angry. I am going to take care of my anger,” and I head for the bathroom. He says, “I’m coming with you,” and follows me. The only thing I can remember from the book is to close my eyes and slowly breathe in and out, three times. So that is what I do.
My days are composed of hundreds of variations on this moment. I’m learning to lengthen the gap between feeling angry and taking action. I’ve found that it’s possible to watch the feelings pass and let the desire to act or speak fall away. I open my eyes and discover myself and my children standing on the other side, unharmed.
When my son Joseph passed away just three months short of his seventh birthday, I was not angry at God, as so many people asked if I was. No, the night he died, as the EMTs worked on him, I knelt and prayed to a picture of Jesus, desperate to convince him to help my son.
When we came home from the hospital that night without Joseph, the first thing I did was pull out the stepladder so that I could take down the picture of Jesus. But still I wasn’t angry at God. I was angry at myself. Jesus’s picture was a reminder of my failure to pray the right words that would have saved my son. I’d heard of many mothers whose children had been brought back from the brink of death by prayer. Having carried Joseph in my womb and been the first to know him, I should have known the words to speak to keep him alive.
I tried to dissect my prayer and understand where I’d gone wrong. How could I have said it another way? Had I not offered enough in return for my son’s life? I shared my thoughts with no one, because I was afraid people would agree that I had indeed been responsible for my son’s death. For years I thought the fault was mine.
El Paso, Texas
As a teen I would often get angry with my parents, yelling and even running away. In the middle of one fight, when I was sixteen, I ran to my bedroom and slammed the door. I stood in my room, the noise still ringing in my ears, and thought, What an ugly sound. I decided that, from that day on, I would remain calm no matter what.
Controlling my anger was surprisingly easy once I set my mind to it. My even tone of voice often made my mother furious. Nothing she did would unsettle me. This sometimes brought her to tears.
It took me years to understand that, though I had managed not to exhibit anger, I could still be cruel.
There were nine of us in our two-bedroom bungalow: seven kids, my mom, and our new stepfather, Gerald. He was good-looking, friendly, and, in our young eyes, a hero because he’d married our mom, allowing us to come home from the orphanage after four years. We didn’t even mind that the seven of us were crammed into one bedroom with two triple bunk beds and a crib. We were together.
Gerald’s bad moods arrived with no explanation. He would fall silent one day and go weeks without speaking to anyone in our house. We kids always figured he and Mom were fighting, but many times even Mom had no idea what had triggered his stony silence. As soon as Gerald arrived home from work, we would all stop talking too. He’d eat his dinner in his recliner while he watched television. We would eat our meal at the dining-room table and then watch whatever he chose, usually something dull like The Lawrence Welk Show.
Mom’s response was to stay cheerful and tolerate Gerald’s moods, which always passed. “At least he doesn’t drink” was her mantra. Gerald’s sisters had told us the story of how he’d lost his mother, with whom he was very close, when he was twelve: He’d gotten into an argument with her, yelled that he wished she were dead, and run out the back door. When he’d returned an hour later, he’d found her on the kitchen floor, dead of a heart attack. So we tried to understand and forgive his episodes.
But I had a hard time not taking my stepfather’s silence personally. He was a lathing contractor and often invited me to go with him to job sites, where I collected scrap copper wiring to sell. When his bad moods struck, he would cut me off. After his moods vanished — always as mysteriously as they had appeared, no explanation or apology — I would struggle with my hurt feelings while he wooed me back. It didn’t take much: a root-beer float or an ice-cream cone. I felt guilty for taking his bribes, and I eventually lost interest in being his special buddy. The rejection was too painful.
Looking back, I think Gerald had such moods because he was afraid to show his anger. His silence poisoned our mental health as a family and taught us that unresolved feelings are acceptable only if they also remain unexpressed.
Francis Collin Brown
Port Townsend, Washington
In 1966 I made the regrettable decision not to go to college. At age nineteen, facing the specter of the military draft, I naively enlisted in the army, believing that if I volunteered, I’d get my choice of assignment. I thought I’d go to Germany and live it up.
On induction day the clerk who processed my papers said, “I think you’ve got what it takes to make a man.” But I knew right away I’d made a terrible mistake. Basic training seemed absurd. I was cynical and defiant, still figuring the worst would soon be over and I’d become a desk clerk. Then the army ordered me to Fort Polk, Louisiana, for infantry training: a sure ticket to Vietnam.
I survived the war by a fluke: after six weeks I was wounded by friendly artillery fire, spent a year in a hospital, and was given a medical discharge with 60 percent disability. I set out to create a life as far removed from the military as possible.
I went to college on a free ticket (under the close scrutiny of the Veterans Administration) and protested the war (under the close scrutiny of the FBI). In the early seventies I learned about Transcendental Meditation, natural foods, and alternative medicine. I wanted to stay as healthy as possible to avoid ending up in the VA medical system. I created the life I wanted and became, in the words of one work supervisor, “an exceptionally nice person.”
Then in 2008, after forty years, my war injury caught up with me, and I had hip-replacement surgery at a VA hospital. It was my welcome back to the military: volunteers selling army hats, military propaganda everywhere. The bitterness over basic training, my six weeks in Vietnam, and a lifetime of limping came back. I could be composed one minute and break into a rant the next about what kind of “men” the war had made out of our broken bodies and spirits — those of us lucky enough to have survived.
It’s been a struggle to reconcile these two poles of my personality. The anger of a war veteran is with you for life. I acknowledge its permanence and try to embrace it, to love peace and be mad as hell.
Fort Wayne, Indiana
My father was an engineer, but when he got laid off, he found a job as a teacher so his schedule would be more suitable to raising a family. My mother ran a pharmacy, where she worked from opening to closing, so my father looked after my siblings and me: He learned to cook. He drove us to and from school and lessons. He helped us with our homework. He rarely had a moment to himself. “Women’s work,” he used to mutter, but he never told my mother he resented doing it. We were better off with him raising us anyway; she was more suited to business.
Today I’m a mother myself, and I wonder how my dad took care of us and remained so even-tempered. I have a lot of help from my husband, but I’m the late-night and early-morning parent, and after last night I feel exhausted and spent. I’m weaning my two-year-old son, and he screamed for the breast and woke the baby at midnight. And 2 A.M. And 4 A.M. Finally I got out of bed with my son and distracted him from his tantrum by playing with his trains. (I’m still wearing the engineer’s cap he put on me.) But now it’s morning, and my seven-year-old daughter has wrecked the train track I built, and with it the calm I’d created.
The two-year-old screams — a single, high-pitched note that’s impossible to ignore — and I go over to pull him and his sister apart. She swings at him and hits me instead. I lose my temper and say terrible things.
“I hate your face!” my daughter yells.
I hate this life: getting up at night with the kids and then getting up early to make lunches; stealing moments to write; never exercising enough; always cooking and caregiving; trying to hold a family together and hold down a job.
I give my son a bowl of Cheerios in the dining room, then hide in the kitchen to eat the last cinnamon bagel. I jealously guard this bit of pleasure for myself, refusing to give everything away.
Bose was barely five foot six, with graying temples and a slight slouch, but to my seven-year-old eyes he looked resplendent in his starched khaki uniform and black-banded felt hat. He was a friend of my aunt and worked as a guard for the railways in India: checking tickets, helping travelers with problems, and telling children not to lean out the windows. The tiny last compartment of the train was his home-away-from-home. I would see him often at my aunt’s house and imagined him a happy-go-lucky wanderer: traveling to exotic places, meeting new people, savoring foreign cuisine — in short, living a life very different from my humdrum existence.
Bose had a shy, boyish smile and told wonderful stories. When he came to my aunt’s alone, he was lively and garrulous. When his wife came with him, though, he was taciturn and guarded. If we referred to stories he had told us previously, his wife always found some mistake or exaggeration in them, even if it was trivial. Sometimes she alluded to the mundanity of his railway job. She seemed angry that life hadn’t granted her a more affluent or prestigious husband.
When I found out that Bose had hanged himself from the rafter in his outhouse, it was the shock of my young life. Three days later his widow told us, “He thought he would punish me with his foolish act. But I will live on. Happily!”
My husband’s mistress was blond to my encroaching gray; thirty-something to my early forties; seductive to my familiar weariness; fertile to my sterility. Nevertheless my husband said he wanted to stay with me if I would let him; her pregnancy had not been his idea.
“Fight,” my dark-haired friend said. She was the veteran of many affairs (although, in her case, she’d been the one cheating), and her marriage had held together. Just.
I didn’t know how to fight, especially when the other woman wept and pleaded helplessness, and her belly started to grow. So I learned to be calm and solicitous and to make my face as blank as a geisha’s while my husband poured out his trials and tribulations. My heart was broken, but he was too involved with his own drama to notice. I cast myself in the role of his confidante; the more knowledge I had of them, the better I could maneuver.
One night I was washing dishes after dinner, and my husband was beside me, drying. Mildly, face averted, I asked about her. Amid suds and clinking crockery, he held forth: She could be difficult. In many ways he preferred the way he and I were together. But still, she had admirable qualities.
He was talking so easily that he did not notice my stillness. Anger suffused me, pure and cold. I observed it as if I were looking out a window at a landscape. I looked at the cook’s knife in my hand: perfectly balanced, exactly the right weight. I keep it sharp. The blade must be dried quickly, or it rusts. On the cusp between breathing in and breathing out, I thought, If I turn, he is close enough; nobody would blame me. I breathed out and passed him the knife, handle first.
Two years into our marriage, my husband was doing laundry when I noticed a stack of shirts he had folded down the center, and something inside me snapped:
“I can’t believe you are doing this again! When you fold them like that, there is a huge crease right down the front! We’ve talked about this a million times, but apparently it’s too much bother! Don’t you even think about what matters to me?”
I felt at once outside myself, watching this rant, and at the same time consumed by a desperate, out-of-proportion anger and a need to be understood. I paused, daring him to respond.
My husband stood directly in front of me, placed his hands on my arms, and said, “You are not upset about the laundry.”
In that instant I was startled by my desire to control something, anything. Just a few months earlier my parents had been killed in a car accident. When I recognized my pain, my anger vanished. I cried and leaned into my husband. Eighteen years later I still remember the relief.
I have cancer and don’t think I will live to see fifty. I feel angry because I was so careful. My mother and grandmother both died of cancer, so I quit smoking, exercised, ate a vegetarian diet, and went to breast-cancer screening clinics. I was fit and strong. I’d found love and had children.
Then at forty, between yearly mammograms, I found a lump. I had eighteen months of treatment: mastectomy, lymph nodes removed, chemotherapy, hormone therapy. When you receive a cancer diagnosis, you go through stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I never seemed to make it past anger.
Six months after my treatment ended, my neck began to hurt: The cancer was back. Stage IV. Aggressive. By the time it was diagnosed, my C2 vertebra was destroyed, and others were being eaten away. I had to wear a neck brace and endure more chemo, radiation, and surgery.
I am angry that my cancer is not going away. I am angry that I have lost my breast and my healthy body. I am angry that I will never again run across the grass or dive off a dock. I am angry because, though I am the one with cancer, my whole family is suffering. I am angry that I have caused so many people to cry and worry. I am angry that cancer is in my children’s vocabulary; that, when my daughter drew a family picture with stick figures and a bright sun, I was off to the side, lying on a sofa; that my little son comes in every morning to see if I can get up and if my hair is growing. I can’t even tell you about the Mother’s Day poem.
But the other day I was out in the yard and heard a low conversation indoors. I looked in the open kitchen window and saw the three of them — my man, my girl, and my boy — going about the business of dinner and homework. I realized that they will be OK without me, even though that is something none of us want. I felt not anger but relief, flecked with sorrow.
I spent my early adulthood grappling with the fallout from my mother’s mental illness and addictions. After years of therapy I was defiantly proud that I’d avoided becoming the person I’d been raised to be. But I was confused by one persistent failure: I was still in the grip of the smoking habit I’d picked up from my mother. After another unsuccessful attempt to quit, I went to see a hypnotherapist.
The therapist asked me to describe my withdrawal symptoms. “Anger,” I said. “Uncontrollable, biting, sniping anger.” A week or so of nicotine withdrawal would unleash my inner monster, who would eat a friend for a pack of Ultra Light 100s. When the therapist asked about my emotional life and family relations, I resisted. I was all done with that, I told him. I’d dealt with it.
The therapist gave a quiet laugh and scribbled on his notepad. Then he guided me into a hypnotic state.
I felt as if I were watching my life go by in reverse. I saw myself as a defiant teenager, an awkward middle-schooler, a quietly compliant girl. Finally I had a vision of myself at age four perched on a steel examining table while my mother told a distracted emergency-room doctor that I had a dangerously high fever. She wanted the doctor to admit me to the hospital — now. The doctor pointed out that I was only slightly warm. Of course, my mother insisted: she had put me in a tub of cold water to reduce my fever. “Isn’t that right, sugar cookie?” she said to me in a baby-talk voice. Her face moved closer to mine, and I smelled stale smoke. I mutely nodded.
That evening my mother had placed me in a tub of steaming water. She’d shushed my cries while my legs and tummy had turned red like a sunburn. I’d glimpsed my rosy bottom in the bathroom mirror as she’d plucked me from the water and wrapped me in an itchy wool blanket to hold in the heat. I’d cried and struggled to free my arms and legs. Fifteen minutes later she was shouting at a woman behind a glass-and-wire-mesh partition, demanding to see a doctor immediately.
That ER doctor was the first of many authorities who could have helped but didn’t. My mom would later tell people that I had asthma, fainting spells, bipolar disorder, and even deafness. Physicians, teachers, and counselors would all discover that she was lying, but they’d never call her on it.
Now I cried in the therapist’s chair, “Nobody ever told her she couldn’t do that to me!”
“Do it now,” the therapist said.
I didn’t understand.
“Pick up that little girl,” he said, “and get her out of there. You raise her.”
I saw myself walk over to the tiny towheaded child, who looked up at me. We didn’t say goodbye to anyone; we just walked out.
I haven’t had a cigarette since.
In high school I smoked dope and dropped LSD until I ended up in the hospital, ashamed and terrified. Realizing I couldn’t continue that way, I promised my mortified parents that I would pull it together somehow, and I started going to church again. That’s where I met my husband.
When I married at eighteen, I wore a lace ribbon in my long brown hair to match the lace on my homemade wedding dress. My new husband — a twenty- three-year-old college student from Bombay, India — had long black eyelashes and an exotic accent.
My husband liked me to be natural and to dress simply. He frowned on my wearing lipstick, so I didn’t. He discouraged my wearing skirts, so I switched to pants. I embraced his advice because I wanted to be a good girl and keep the peace.
Over the next seven years my husband broke his promise to put me through college after he’d graduated with his teaching certificate. He postponed getting a full-time job as a teacher, preferring to eke out a living cleaning swimming pools. He wanted to buy a house, so we used my savings as a down payment. He bought living-room furniture without consulting me, as though my opinion didn’t matter. I didn’t know how to stand up for myself. I’d never been good at expressing my anger.
One morning I found myself driving across the Bay Bridge into San Francisco, squeezing the steering wheel as if it were my husband’s throat. In the city I went to a chic hair salon. “I need a change,” I told the receptionist. She looked at my straight, waist-length hair, which hadn’t been cut in a decade, and said, “James will be free in twenty minutes.”
The air in the salon smelled acrid, unnatural. That’s what I want, I thought. Something unnatural.
When they called my name, I sat down in the chair, and James spun me around to face the mirror and ran his fingers through my long hair.
“What can I do for you today?”
“Something new. I’m tired of this long hair,” I said, scared but excited.
He lifted my hair to my chin and said, “I think this length, and maybe a perm.”
I took off my glasses and closed my eyes. With each snip I felt the person I’d become falling away. I felt angry, then guilty, then angry again. When he’d finished, I put my glasses back on and looked in the mirror: a ridiculous, poodle-headed woman stared back at me. I felt like an idiot.
On the drive home I kept peeking at myself in the rearview mirror in horror. My husband would hate it — I hated it. What a stupid way to exert my independence. I almost started crying as I opened the front door. I smelled curry and headed for the kitchen.
My husband’s surprised face twisted into a scowl. “How could you do that without talking to me first? You had no right.”
“I don’t need your permission to cut my own hair!” I screamed, shaking all over.
He picked up a chopping knife and started toward me. I grabbed a glass of water from the counter and flung it at him, then flew out the front door to my car and sped away. After a few blocks I had to pull over because my heart was thumping so hard in my chest. He didn’t pursue me.
That was the last time I saw him, except in the courtroom on the day of our divorce. I never wore my hair long again.
Shortly after my forty-eighth birthday I attended a men’s-movement retreat and was inspired to start a men’s group of my own. I didn’t have any close male friends and wanted to explore what it meant to be a man.
At our first meeting we talked about our fathers. I hadn’t consciously thought about mine in decades. When it was my turn to speak, I struggled to breathe and had trouble hearing. My heart raced, and sour bile scratched at my throat. I sat with my head in my hands, trying to compose myself.
In my mind I saw myself at ten years old, balled up defensively on a wooden pallet in the basement of my childhood home. My father was standing over me, beating and kicking me, screaming and swearing. I never cried when my father beat me, probably out of defiance. In retrospect I’m not sure which hurt more: the physical pain or the emotional one.
My family lived in Boston, and we were always broke. I remember coming home to a cold, dark house because the gas and electricity had been turned off. I was constantly in trouble in school and frequently suspended. At sixteen I was hanging out in Harvard Square, drinking cheap port and smoking pot to numb the hurt. I ran away from home often and spent summers working in the kitchens of Cape Cod hotels and restaurants. I loved living on my own, working hard, and paying my own way. I was a tough, hardened kid on the outside, but inside I was falling apart.
During my junior year of college my father died at age fifty-two. I went home to Boston for his funeral. I wasn’t sad, just angry. He had left my mother destitute, and despite the fact that I was broke and had tapped out my student loans, I had to support her for the next twenty-five years.
All my life I’d felt angry, but I’d never given it any thought. I’d just accepted it as part of my “male temperament.” Now I saw how my father’s abuse had given me a lifelong fear and mistrust of men. The more I told my story in the group, the less it hurt to recall it, and the less angry I felt.
Mill Valley, California
When I was ten years old, I ruled my household. No whimper or threat of a tantrum went ignored. The more I was given, the more I took.
We were not rich, but my clothing was clean, and our home was immaculate. My mother made bread every week: six perfect loaves baked until the entire house was filled with the sweet scent. If my mother denied me the warm, moist crust, I’d fume and stamp my feet until she succumbed.
In October she’d put away jams, sweating in the hot kitchen while I watched. In December she’d wrap presents gaily in red or blue or green: hand-knitted sweaters or scarves; homemade chocolate-chip cookies and Russian tea cakes; a book, perhaps, or a little toy. One snowy February afternoon she cleared the walk over and over while I sat watching Batman on TV.
The spring I turned eleven, she asked me to hoe the garden. I demurred, preferring to play baseball and ride my bike. When I returned, the garden was planted with flowers and tomatoes.
One day my mother had a headache but was working in the kitchen anyway, preparing chicken-noodle soup for dinner, as Father and I expected. I ran in and shouted, “I’m thirsty!”
She ignored me and slammed the dough down, rolling it out thin to cut noodles.
“I’m thirsty!” I repeated.
“There’s water,” she said. “Help yourself.”
“No!” I responded. “I want Kool-Aid!”
“I’m busy,” she said. “Perhaps later I’ll make some.”
“Now!” I demanded.
“Not now,” she said.
“I hate you!” I shouted.
She laid down her knife, wiped her hands, and went upstairs, where I heard a door slam. I stormed up the stairs in pursuit and flung open her bedroom door. She wasn’t there. It was quiet, so quiet I could hear the attic walls creak in the heat. Then I heard a small sound, like the mew of a kitten.
“Mommy?” I said softly.
I walked to the door of her closet and opened it. There my mother sat, among the shoe boxes and linens on the floor, crying.
“Go away,” she whispered.
© Julia McHugh
I am angry because poor children in the U.S. have one-tenth the chance that rich children do of going to college; because multinational corporations continue to pillage the world in the name of “economic development”; because religious bigots insist that an overnight elopement in Las Vegas is more sacred than the twenty-five-year relationship of a gay couple; because young men and women are still dying in Iraq and Afghanistan. For these and dozens of other reasons, I am angry.
But, I remind myself, I am fortunate indeed to live in the U.S. In 95 percent of the world my lesbian partner and I would never have been allowed to start a relationship, much less stay together through six moves, two serious illnesses, and one child. A hundred years ago women weren’t even allowed to vote. In most parts of the world, throughout most of history, I would have died of rage.
My mother died of a heart attack when I was in high school, and my father remarried fourteen months later. He was a patriarch in need of a woman to fill the wife’s role. I was his bristling, feminist daughter.
For many years I felt angry at him. He just didn’t seem to know how to be a father — at least, not the kind I wanted. He liked to give unsolicited advice that I took as criticism. I moved out at nineteen and never went back. In my four undergraduate years at college he visited me once; during law school, not at all.
For most of my adulthood my father and I lived a hundred miles apart and rarely saw each other. When we did, we communicated badly. On my fortieth birthday, by that time a parent myself, I realized that I had contributed to our conflicts as much as he had. Wanting to make peace, I took my seventy-two-year-old father to lunch.
Over iced tea at his country club I told him how I appreciated the home, the education, and the opportunities he had provided me, and I asked his forgiveness for all the times I’d been disrespectful and ungrateful. After I’d spoken, he leaned back in his chair and said, “It seems to me your apology is long overdue.”
I was ready for something like this. I asked what he wanted from our relationship in the future.
My unemotional, logical father took off his glasses and wiped them with a cloth napkin. Then he blurted out, “I want you to look up to me like you did when you were a little girl.”
My face grew hot, and I had to turn away from him. He did not feel any need to apologize for what he’d done or failed to do over the years. And now he wanted my childlike admiration.
After we said our goodbyes, as I got in my car, a tide of anger and sadness washed over me.
I’m doing my grocery shopping quickly, because I’m hungry and want to head home for lunch. My five-year-old son, Soren, has brought some allowance money with him to buy a toy, so I’ve left him in the toy aisle with a warning not to move from that spot. He knows I want to get home to eat. When I come back to pick him up, though, he’s not there.
I walk the length of the store, glancing down each aisle for him. I do this twice. When there’s no sign of him, I begin to panic. Is it possible someone lured him away? Surely the employees would have noticed if a stranger had pulled Soren out to the parking lot.
I abandon my cart and begin running through the store, calling down every aisle, “Soren! Soren!” Finally I see him coming out of a checkout line with an excited look on his face.
“I told you not to leave the toy section!” I shout. “I’ve been running around the store screaming for you! I am never letting you do this again! Why didn’t you do what I asked? Where have you been?”
Tears streaming, mouth quivering, he lifts a little bag that holds the item he snuck off to buy with his allowance money: a bakery treat for his hungry mommy.
Jill Rehkopf Smith
I was born on Friday the thirteenth, and when I was in second grade, my older sister had me believing it was my destiny to become a witch.
On my walk to school every day, an older boy wearing the orange safety-patrol belt would tell us children when it was safe to cross the street. Sometimes, as we entered the intersection, he would yell, “Run as fast as you can! Cars are coming!” and when we dashed for the other side, he’d laugh at our fright.
One day after school the safety-patrol boy made me wait an especially long time at the crossing. I think he knew I had to go to the bathroom badly. (My bouncing and dancing probably gave me away.) After he finally said I could cross, I tried to run home, but I couldn’t hold it. I was too ashamed to go inside with wet pants, so I hid in the bushes by the porch. When darkness came, my mother found me there and spanked me and sent me to my room.
Lying in bed with bloodshot eyes, I blamed the safety-patrol boy for everything. I called upon my dormant powers of witchcraft to vent my anger: He should be pushed into traffic. He should never be able to hold his own pee, and it should burn when he does go. He should have monsters jump out at him in the dark. He should die slowly under the wheels of an ice-cream truck. I thought up new and terrible curses all night.
The next morning the safety-patrol boy was not at the corner. That afternoon I asked his replacement what had happened to him. He told me the safety-patrol boy had fallen at home the night before and broken his leg.
I was absolutely sure I had caused this.
To this day, when people upset me, I hold my temper, just in case.
My boyfriend Keith had a lot to be angry about. Born to meth-addicted parents, he came into the world early and small. When he was ten, his dad was found dead. When he was twelve, his mom went to jail, and he slept on his grandmother’s couch for a year. She was poor and could barely afford to take care of herself, much less a growing adolescent. At night he’d eat his TV dinner as slowly as he could, savoring each bite.
When I met Keith, he told me these stories nonchalantly, as though they were from a book he’d once read. I marveled at his spunky energy, the way he’d walk anywhere, eat anything, sleep on a thin futon on the floor. We were like rambunctious playmates who couldn’t get enough of each other.
Then we began to bicker and squabble. As a new teacher, I had a heavy workload. He complained that I cared more about my students than I did about him, that I never cooked dinner for him, that I was boring. Though I worried about who would look after Keith if I wasn’t around, I decided to break up with him.
It took months to sever ties completely. As the end neared, the fighting got worse. One night he came home drunk, woke me up, and started shoving me around and chasing me through the house. He threatened to kill me and bury my body where nobody would find it. He laughed at my fear, screaming that I was a bitch and was abandoning him. He was breaking every glass item in the living room when the police arrived. (The neighbors had called.) I tried in vain to keep them from arresting Keith, but after he’d left in handcuffs, I felt relief.
One image still haunts me: While smashing the last remaining picture on the wall, Keith cut his wrist wide open. As blood dotted the carpet, he turned to me, his face that of a scared child, and said, “Help me.”
Santa Rosa, California
In my family for a woman to raise her voice, even in laughter, was unladylike. My childhood temper tantrums were greeted with alarm and punished. As I grew into womanhood, I learned to be more docile, to speak in dulcet tones and close doors gently, but in the process I lost an essential, spontaneous part of my character. My outer tranquillity hid an inner turmoil, and I developed headaches and insomnia.
Therapy helped me understand that it would be good for me to let out some of my pent-up emotions, but this wasn’t easy for me to do; I had been conforming to my parents’ expectations for so long. If I spoke my mind or disagreed, I believed I was being greedy, selfish, spoiled.
The process of learning to feel emotion without passing judgment on myself was frustratingly slow. Progress came in bursts: Exasperated with an incompetent aerobics teacher, I walked out of his class. (Before, I would have stayed, so as not to hurt his feelings.) Waiting at the deli counter, I saw a woman try to get in front of me, and instead of letting her, I said, “I’m sorry, ma’am, but I was here before you.”
Then one summer day I was about to pull away from a gas pump when a pickup truck in back of me honked. Apparently I had taken too long to pay. I got out, walked over to the pickup, and flew into a rage. “What are you honking about, you ignorant jerk?” I yelled into the driver’s open window. “Who do you think you are? Don’t you ever do that again!” The shocked driver rolled his window up as I continued to shout. I must have appeared out of control, but for once I felt in control.
My mother’s anger was mainly directed at my father. His unforgivable crime? Not being the father she’d lost as a young woman. She was prone to intense rages and on rare occasions even got physically violent. (Ironically it was she who first told me what Eleanor Roosevelt said about anger: that it was just one letter away from danger.) Home was a minefield for my siblings and me.
A few years ago I heard a story on the radio about a brother and sister whose mother would lash out at them. It turned out that she’d had a brain tumor for years, and it may have caused her temper. The story made me feel better about Mom: maybe she couldn’t help herself; it was just how she was wired.
Despite her angry outbursts, my mother could display astonishing compassion, empathy, and even forgiveness. I believed that, in her final days, her better side would come out and heal us. But our last conversation was tainted by anger. Mine.
When Mom was hardly eating or drinking anymore, she agreed to let my brother and me move her into a hospice center. We fixed up the room with her favorite things, and the first day we had an especially good visit. Mom was lively and lucid. By nightfall I was tired, and I had a meeting at work in the morning, so I told her I’d see her again on Friday. (It was Wednesday.)
A cloud fell over her face, and she said she had hoped I’d spend the night with her. Couldn’t I just cancel the damn meeting? I would stay the night on Friday, I told her. Her voice became stony and accusing, and she pointed out that she might not be alive on Friday.
That’s when the anger hit me. “Mom,” I said, “look: I have a life, OK?” Her illness had prevented my having much of a life, actually, and the resentment I harbored must have been evident in my tone. My mother stared off sullenly, as if this were the ultimate betrayal. “Sorry,” I said. “Really. I have to go, Mom. I’ll see you Friday.”
Still feeling guilty as I waited for my bus home, I phoned the hospice, and the nurse who answered told me Mom was suddenly not happy with her room. I knew why, but still I didn’t go back. The next day I called after my meeting at work, and a nurse informed me that my mother had passed away less than an hour before.
I was working at a drab corporate office and commuting in miserable, bumper-to-bumper Los Angeles traffic: one hour in the predawn darkness, another hour back at twilight. My stress level was high but no worse than anyone else’s, I thought. Sure, I may have thrown a fan off our balcony once, smashed a few windows, yelled and screamed a bit. But I didn’t kick my dog or hit my children. I was in control.
One summer evening, the setting sun shining through the smog, I pulled into our driveway and saw my young daughter jump from the porch, her face lit up. Any tension I felt dissolved as her little legs carried her toward me. “Daddy’s home!” she cried. I went to meet her halfway, sleeves rolled up and arms outstretched.
Then her bare toe caught a crack in the cement, and she crashed to the ground, skinning her knees and elbows. Her joyful cries became howls of pain, and the tension from my long drive and my dreary job came rushing back. Curses flew from my lips as my wife consoled our daughter, who no longer seemed to care that I was home. I went into the house, slamming doors and punching walls. All I could think about was the unfairness of it. Why couldn’t I have this one sliver of happiness after all my sacrifices?
In the bedroom I heaved my dress shoes at the closet. Then I heard the door open behind me. My wife was standing there.
“Your daughter’s fine,” she said.
I breathed through my rage. “Not the best way to come home.”
“Kids skin their knees. It’s your anger that leaves the real scar.”
I tried to explain to my wife that I wasn’t angry with our daughter. I was angry at the loss of a happy moment: at life for taking it away; at myself for failing to protect my daughter from falling.
“But don’t you see?” she said. “Your anger hurts her a second time. It’s as if you shoved her back to the ground.”
That’s when I began to cry.
Redondo Beach, California
Of the many issues of The Sun that I have read, December 2009, with the Readers Write on “Anger,” was perhaps the most excruciating, and the most useful. Let’s face it: anger hurts, yet it can be a healing emotion, moving us past obstacles we might otherwise never have overcome. Learning to understand and empathize with others’ anger is the key to forgiveness.