Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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A friend of mine is talking about his father, who beat him up about every other day when he was little. Usually just on weekdays, though, my friend says. Usually we took the weekends off. Weekdays he would stop by the bar on the way home from work and then come looking for me. I was the oldest, and I figured, Well, better me than my kid brothers. I understood the whole Christ-martyr thing early on. It never occurred to me when I was little that there was a world in which dads did not come home from the bar and beat up their oldest sons. It was totally normal, you know what I mean? It was so normal that I used to wish I had an older brother so I didn’t have to get beat up all the time. It wasn’t until I was about ten that I understood my dad was different from most other dads.
I got good at being beat up. I learned defense, how to huddle, how to protect my face, how to lean back or sideways at the right time to reduce the blow, you know? Later, when I had boxing lessons, I realized I had taught myself instinctively how to take a punch. I got good at using my forearms to catch a blow, so he would feel like he got me, like his punch landed, but he would mostly just be banging on my forearms. Never broke a bone, though.
I started hitting back at about age twelve. I remember the first time I hit him back. He was shocked. I hit him in the stomach as hard as I could. He was real surprised. He came back strong, though. Angrier than before. He was pretty much always angry. I never knew why. After that, I learned how to just keep him engaged until he ran out of gas, you know? I learned how to hit my dad — isn’t that a weird sentence? I learned how to keep him from getting his feet set. That was important. A punch where a guy just gets the power from his arm doesn’t hurt as much as one where he gets his legs into it. I got good at jabs and feints and keeping him off balance. It turned into sort of a waiting game. He’d start strong, and then I would just wear him out. He’d run out of gas after about ten minutes. He would just walk away silently. He never said anything. I figured it was good that he didn’t yell and curse. He was just a hitter. I used to wonder if his problem was that he didn’t want to have kids and I was living proof that he did have kids.
My mom never said anything about it, and after Dad was dead, there wasn’t much call to talk about it I guess. I turned out relatively normal myself, so what was there to talk about? Now it all just seems weird and sad. I didn’t get to know him well. I don’t know why he was a hitter. He just was. He only hit my kid brothers once or twice. I thought about teaching them how to hit Dad, but I figured, better they didn’t know until they had to know, right? For a long time I felt weird because I didn’t feel anything about this. I wasn’t angry. I just wanted to age out of the program. I figured he would stop when I got bigger than him, which is basically what happened — plus I went into the Army.
I worried about myself when my wife and I had our first son, but I turned out to be a regular dad. What a relief. I was really worried. My wife understood. She’s great like that. She’s never pushed me to try to figure out my dad, either, which I appreciate. It’s just sad, is all. I’ll never know what kind of dad he would have been if he hadn’t been a hitter. Sometimes when he wore himself out, he would just suddenly stop, and there would be like five seconds where we would just stand there, and I always wished he would say something right then, you know? Like that was our chance. But he never said anything, and then he would walk away. Probably those few seconds are where he could have started to be a regular dad and we could have worked something out, but it never happened, and now he’s dead, so what can you do? I think about him a lot now that I am trying to be a good dad. Maybe he wanted to be a regular dad, but he just couldn’t find a way to get there. I almost feel bad for him sometimes. Almost.
Brian Doyle’s essay “How to Hit Your Dad” [October 2014] struck a chord with me. Although my dad never hit my sisters and me, his emotional distance marked all of us. Like Doyle’s friend, I have grown tired of trying to figure out my father.
I made a choice to nurture and care for my own children in spite of my upbringing. I recently visited one of my adult sons, who is a playful and attentive parent. There is reason for hope.