She never listened to me, which was half the problem, but I knew that she was right about my family. My father had enlisted at 18, and like so many of his generation, had served his country and then never talked about it again. He swallowed his pain, buried his anger and in doing so became adrift from our family, battered about like a skiff in the ocean while we remained moored on land.
When I was born, my mother was working on her bachelor’s. She aspired to be a writer, and the plan included a bachelor’s, an MFA and then a fast-track path to tenure. Life would have consisted of little more than the world of ideas, broken only intermittently by the occasional staff meeting, and, of course, the mind-numbing banality of office hours.
But then I arrived, and everything changed. The world of ideas became replaced by the world of diapers, the world of mashed spinach. Yet even with her life becoming increasingly infantilized, she remained committed to her passion, publishing two stories in a local literary journal and a half dozen poems while I was still in Huggies.
Right before I entered pre-school, my father disappeared for more than a week – eventually being returned by the police without his jacket or shoes despite it being in the middle of particularly nasty winter. He slowly deteriorated after that, bristling at every loud noise and screaming at both my mother and I if he perceived our behavior as being even the slightest bit annoying.
My mother, god bless her, bravely tried to keep up the fight, taking on the entirety of the housework, childrearing and even picking up a part-time job while my father wasted away in a fog of booze, pills and psychic pain, watching an endless loop of 50’s sitcom programming, idealized worlds totally alien to our own. This went on for several years, tearing at all of us. My mother’s writing, which was once an animating source of light, inevitably slowed and sputtered to a stop, her pens and notebooks collecting nothing but a fine layer of dust.
The rows between my parents, which had once been few-and-far-between, became chronic and bitter, painfully escalating from verbal sparring to physical aggression. He would slap her, and she would slug him right back, and the sounds of their battles ricocheted through the house, forcing me to hide my head underneath a pillow until I could finally fall asleep.
One night in high school, I came home to find my mother crying. Her shirt was torn, and blood trickled freely from a evil-looking cut above her eye. Back then, I was probably twenty pounds lighter than I am now and cut out of stone. Upon seeing her, the next thing I remember is a red flash shooting across my eyes and my fat, mentally ill and broken-down excuse for a father flying into the living room wall, knocking a picture of a rare family vacation to the ground – where the glass shatters musically. I never saw him again after that night.
Now I sit in the mediator’s office and listen to my wife tell me that I’m just a product of my family, that I am my father’s son. She isn’t listening to a thing I have to say, and hot anger ripples through me, once again drawing my attention to how bloated I feel in my tightly-fitted dress shirt. I’m not 18 anymore.
The mediator calls us in, and I pull myself unsteadily to my feet. Having five beers the night before was bad idea, but what else is there to do when you’re a failed writer heading towards the termination of your third marriage? And as I walk into the mediator’s office, I recognize something. My wife’s words finally click. Although my father left when I was 18, he has always been with me. In fact, he’s with me now. Together we are in that skiff, being buffeted by the briny surf and watching in vain for any sign of the shore.