Well I survived that night, and the next morning I went to school with those bruises on my face. But nobody really took notice, they probably just figured I’d lost another fight with one of the other female students. Go figure, all the people who wanted to hurt me, and I never learned how to fight.
In case it wasn’t already obvious, I really hated going to public school. I was used to my small class of kids who would at least get in trouble when they called me Mount Killaminjaro. Despite my friendly demeanor and my numerous attempts to latch on to anyone willing to talk to me, by the end of the year I hadn’t even made a single friend. Looking back on that school year now, I frankly don’t know how I made it through. I sat by myself at lunch every day, and tried not to piss anyone off. It sucked.
And even though I told the guidance counselor at my entrance interview that I fully intended to go to college, there was no evidence of that in my grades. I went from being a bright, A-B student to failing out of two classes and barely passing the rest. But thankfully, public school didn’t have to last much longer for me anyway.
You see, obesity and early-onset heart disease runs in my family, especially on the male side. Here is a good place to mention that by this point in time, my father had already suffered his first heart attack when he was 33 years old. No, that’s not a typo. I was twelve years old then, and he scared the living shit out of me. He scared me even more a few years later when he’d been arrested one too many times for DUI and went to jail for two months, awaiting trial. Because he was raising two kids on his own, they let him come back with an ankle brace and for several months he was only allowed to leave the house for work.
My father put a lot of fear into me. His lifestyle was so obviously reckless, even to me, that it seemed I was always waiting for something really bad to happen to him.
But nothing, not the threat of jail or of death, ever scared my father. Never stopped him from smoking two packs a day, drinking, snorting and living his life the way he wanted to. Not even the responsibility of raising two children.
Or maybe he really just thought that nothing could ever happen to him. He couldn’t have been more wrong.
On September 26th, 1994, during a late-night hockey game, the last bump of cocaine he’ll ever snort still highlighting his veins, my father suffered a massive coronary and died. He went down right on the ice at the Wallace Civic Center. Skates, goalie pads, helmet and all.
I awoke to the sound of the phone ringing that night, and answered it. It was someone from the local hospital, but she wouldn’t give me any information. But fate was merciful, because my grandfather and his partner Marge had been staying over that night, and were able to talk to them. They both disappeared from the house without telling me what was going on. A few hours later they came home to tell my brother and I that we no longer had any parents to take care of us.
That was the second time I saw my grandfather cry.
Soon after that we began the game titled “Who’s Going to Take In the Kids?” It was a fancifully demoralizing game of tossing the ball back and forth between this family member and that. My grandfather was in his sixties, retired and too feeble from his own struggle with heart disease to be taking on two teenagers. My father’s sister and brother-in-law were my Godparents, and they had a great big house out in the country for themselves and their three daughters. They were very well-off and financially able to take us in, but they weren’t about to make any alterations to their lifestyle just because my father decided to die so much younger than planned. The sibling rivalry between them was never more apparent to me than then.
For a week I stayed with an aunt from my mother’s side whom I’d never met before, and her daughter who was exactly my age and went to my high school. I hadn’t known before that she was my cousin, but now I was potentially moving into her bedroom and she understandably did not like it.
I think at that point it had become clear to my grandfather that we should be taken out of public high school. He knew that I was sneaking out at night, skipping school and getting bad grades. I had dyed my hair jet black and shaved parts of it down to my scalp. I wore gobs of black eyeliner and shapeless clothing that would have been baggy on a 200-pound man. I was headed straight into the cesspool my parents lived in before me, complete with abusive boyfriends, teen pregnancy and a lifetime career as a night-time gas station clerk. And if nothing else, at least he knew better than to send me there.
Instead he sent me to my Aunt Pauline’s house. Aunt Pauline was his brother’s wife, but his brother had died back in 1978, in his early 40’s (heart disease, shocker). All their kids were grown now, so Pauline had a giant Victorian house all to herself, located less than half a mile from the Catholic High School.
Pauline was well into her 60’s then, full of caffeine and tough as a bull whip. She was barely tall enough to ride the adult rollercoaster, but as soon as we moved in she put a noose on us so tightly that we could barely breathe. She wanted us to focus on academics and become upstanding members of society. But because she had heard the story of our dad’s parenting style from my grandfather (who has an all too familiar penchant for “remembering big”), she went totally overboard with the regulations.
She liked to call it the “thumbs down” approach.
First, she had our grandfather give away our dog. Then she took away the televisions we both had in our previous bedrooms and forbade us from spending time upstairs, something most teenagers usually do to be alone. We couldn’t talk on the telephone for more than 15 minutes a night and our calls were monitored. I wasn’t allowed to go out more than two nights per week during the school year, and working late at my part-time job counted as a night out. I had to sign up for as many honors classes as I was accepted into, and if I didn’t make the Dean’s List (all A’s and B’s) I was grounded until the next report cards came in. I couldn’t have a boyfriend until I was 16, but once I turned 16 I wasn’t allowed to have a boyfriend if I was cheering that semester. The way she put it, I didn’t have time for more than one “extra-curricular activity.”
She meant well, she was the best parental figure I ever had – but I didn’t like it even one bit. Naturally, we fought a lot. She sent me to a psychologist who ended up telling me I was a surprisingly well-adjusted teenager…and hinted that I should try to go to college in another state.
So I did. College was fun. I caused a lot of trouble and skipped classes on my own dime (which I still haven’t fully paid back yet). I did get through school in four years though, and with fairly good grades to boot.
It wasn’t until after college was over that I really had to face my mother again. Over the course of my teen years she had popped in once or twice, sure. Once she had a three year old child with her, Bo, who was taken away from her by Social Services and later adopted. Lucky kid. Another time she came to watch me cheer at a high school basketball game. It was weird.
But when I was an adult I got curious about her. I wanted to get to know her, I wanted to get over being angry with her. After a few strange visits, introducing her to my boyfriend or going out for dinner, it became clear to me that my mother was even more lost than my dad ever was. She was impossible to dig into – it was like she had a pane of glass covering her body. Nobody got inside.
Eventually I gave up trying to figure her out and continued on with my life. Then a few days after my 31st birthday, she died too. Of cervical cancer. I’d go into more detail, but I already wrote about it here.
And then there was just me.
Yeah, you’re probably thinking “that’s not true, you’ve got your brother.” But unfortunately, I do not. He never grew out of whatever it was that made him enjoy watching our dad kick my ass over the Kool-Aid he spilled on the floor. When I went to college he stole all of the jewelry from my bedroom and gave it away to some girls in his class. Then, after pushing our aunt across the kitchen floor, he ended up in a foster home. And then another. And then another, until he turned 18, dropped out of school (he was only a Junior, since he’d repeated 4th grade) and proceeded to wreak enough havoc on the state of Massachusetts that he still has warrants out for his arrest if he ever returns.
He served some time in Georgia for raiding a pharmacy for Oxy. Then he moved to upstate New York, where he still resides. I’m not sure where or how he lives, only that he repudiates the idea of working for a living and prefers living off “the land.” Which probably means he grows, smokes and sells a whole lot of weed.
Either way, he and I still get along like cats and dragons. We just do not understand each other. He blames me for our shitty upbringing, and I stay the hell out of his way. I check up on him every month or so on Facebook, just to make sure he’s still alive and kicking. And then I mosey on before he has the chance to ask me for money or remember how much he loathes my elitist, working-for-the-man, sell-out ways.
Meanwhile, I learned that I have a strong eye for design, and an even stronger capacity for writing. I’ve been admonished with compliments, awards and even some cash for my writing, and I managed to put my college degree to use, by scoring a full-time job as a designer.
I also love to run. And while I’m no Scott Jurek (heck, I’m not even fast enough to pace him during his 130th mile at Badwater), I still can run farther than a majority of the American population, so that’s something. And maybe I have something else in common with Jurek. With Mark Twain. And that is this: my childhood royally sucked. And I think those guys would agree with me when I tell you that I wouldn’t change a thing about it (well, maybe I would take back that ridiculous house party. And the black hair dye). Know why? Because it taught me about being tough, about sticking things out and about the art of bouncing back, more than it ever did make me cry.
I don’t usually tell people this story, either. In fact, an old friend I’ve known since 4th grade, someone I knew through most of the bad days, was utterly shocked when she read the first part of this post. She didn’t know about everything, and I never even thought to tell her. Why not? Well, you might think that I don’t tell people because I’m ashamed, or because it’s too sad for me to think about. But it’s neither of those things. I don’t talk about it with people because it’s not my life. Not now, anyway. It’s the story of the child I started out as, but it’s not the story of who I am today. It’s not the story of my future. That sad, sorry tale is what I see when I look backward. But I’m not the kind of person who sees any point in looking backward.
I am the kind of person who is ever moving forward, moving faster and faster toward the dawn of my future. Like my friend Vanessa once wrote, it’s just one foot in front of the other…forever. I think that’s probably my favorite phrase in the English language. And I especially like that it was written about an ultramarathon.
I suppose in some way my life has always been like an ultra (or perhaps it was always preparing me for one?). If you make it through the rough spots, the unbearable lows and the back-breaking hills, there’s nothing but glory at the end. Glory to last the rest of your life.
I mean heck, maybe that’s why I love running so much.
now I’ve seen both my parents
play out the hands they were dealt
and as each year goes by
i know more about how my father must have felt
night falls like people into love
we generate our own light
for the lack of light from above
and every time we fight
a cold wind blows our way
but we can learn like the trees
how to bend
how to sway and say
I think I understand
what all this fighting was for
and I just want you to understand
that I’m not angry anymore
no, I’m not angry anymore