“Leave safety behind. Put your body on the line. Stand before the people you fear and speak your mind – even if your voice shakes. When you least expect it, someone may actually listen to what you have to say.” ~Maggie Kuhn
I haven’t spoken to my father in six months. This is not the first time in our relationship when silence has come to fall between us. When I was 23, we had a dispute that led to two full years cessation of contact between us over questions I had regarding a car he had previously owned but that I had purchased from him. During those two years, birthdays and holidays went by without any notes or cards or calls. Even my paternal grandmother stopped acknowledging my existence. I was exiled because I’d had the temerity to ask for advice regarding something that was now my problem. The argument we had over the car and the period of time when we were estranged came to an end only after I had gotten engaged, and my mother told me the right thing to do would be to reach out, share my news, and ask him to walk me down the aisle at my wedding. I didn’t want to do it, but I acquiesced, convinced it was the decent thing to do.
This most recent period of estrangement began in September, but it had been brewing for years. I had asked him a multitude of times not to send me ANY political or religious email forwards, as we hold diametrically opposed views on those topics, among many others. On my birthday in May, he came by to bring me a card and, while we were standing socially distanced from one another in my front yard, he chose to celebrate my birthday by insulting me. We were discussing the necessity of masks during the pandemic, and he let me know that maybe if I watched “real news” as opposed to fake news I would know better. The remainder of that brief visit was strained. We kept our distance after that until in September he sent me another political email, one meant to instruct me once again in how wrong I am regarding my political views. I had had enough. I replied to his message, said I could only assume he had no respect for me or my repeated requests, and therefore I was blocking him from my phone and my email, and taking a break. I was proud of myself for standing my ground. I have been at peace ever since.
Yesterday morning, as usual, I got an emailed, advance photo of the mail to be arriving in the afternoon. In yesterday’s photographic evidence was an image of a long envelope addressed to me in my father’s neatly printed handwriting, all capital letters. I froze. Peace was gone. My stomach flopped nervously. My heart began to race. My mouth lost all moisture. My hands trembled. I began to perspire. My mind raced. I sat in the car for a long while trying to calm myself enough to walk into the grocery store. As I think about that envelope now, the same anxiety pulses through me. I can hazard a guess as to what is written inside, but I don’t know for certain as I could not bring myself to gather in the mail from the box yesterday. So it sits there still as I try to decide if I want to travel down that road again.
Most of my life has been a steady stream of people, beginning with my parents, telling me how to treat my parents and how to feel about their actions. For forty-plus years, their words kept me in line. They told me that I owed my parents respect and support and kindness and gratitude. They told me I was lucky because I’d had a home, food, and a couple new outfits at the beginning of each school year. It’s not like I was chained in a basement for eighteen years. I should be grateful. About seven years ago, however, I came to see things differently. I began noticing the anxiety that surfaced when my phone flashed with my parents’ numbers. I’m guessing that if you come from a family where your parents taught you through their words and actions that you were loved, respected, and cherished, you feel that same way about them and can’t imagine not having them in your life. You want to take care of them they way they took care of you. But what is your responsibility to parents when your memories of them aren’t happy and filled with love? What if thoughts of your parents bring you only PTSD? What then?
It’s only recently that I have come to understand that living your life out of duty and a sense of fairness to others in a way that compromises your own mental stability is not a healthy way to live. I don’t know what’s in that letter in the mailbox from my dad. I suppose it could contain an apology or a plea to end the discord between us. I imagine that is unlikely, though, as I have never received such a thing from either of my parents yet. My parents, god bless them, are just who they are. They believe they have done right by me, the best they could, better than they got perhaps. But my cotton-mouthed, trembling-hand anxiety belies that notion. My body’s physical response means that it understands danger and aims to protect me even if I have been unwilling to protect myself. I’m 52 now, old enough to comprehend that if the thought of speaking to someone sends you into a panic attack, you can choose not to speak to them. The dozens upon dozens of small infractions by my parents built up over the years, leaving me with a fight-or-flight mentality where they are concerned. Seven years of weekly therapy has not been able to untangle that mess. I’m better now than I used to be because at least I am able to recognize the apprehension and discomfort and to honor it. I’ve learned that I have choices. I’ve learned that it’s not right to feel dread when you think of seeing or speaking to your parents. It’s not normal. It is not a universal experience. You know who taught me that? My sons. They did not have the same childhood I did. I raised them to know they are my entire world, the sunshine in my heart. And now as young adults they look out for me the way many children look out for their aging parents. They want me to be safe and happy and to know I am loved and appreciated.
So, I may go get the mail today and set that letter aside for a day when I am stronger and know its contents cannot hurt me. Or I may let my husband read it and decide what to do with it. Or I might just run it through a shredder because everything I need to know about our situation has already been played out cyclically for decades. I’m not certain if speaking my truth here will cause members of my family to become angry with me. I’m not sure who I might alienate with this admission. I only know one thing. I need to stand my ground and put other people’s ideas about how I should treat my parents out of my field of view. They haven’t walked in my shoes. They don’t carry my scars. And maybe if I turn off the gaslight I have been carrying around since it was handed to me in my childhood I won’t be able to read that letter at all.