My Day of Atonement essay from late last week seems to have resonated with a lot of people, and their kind comments make me feel as though it’s time to address some of the ugly Big Stuff, that which I’m really ashamed about.
I was a rotten big brother. As a child and teenager, I saw my sister as a reflection of myself, for whom I had the fiercest self-loathing, and very often treated her with disdain. I took her, wide-eyed with excitement, to her first concert — The Moody Blues at the Forum in Los Angeles, and was too worried about being seen as having my kid sister as my date (rather than the Playmate of the Month, say) to share in her joy. There’s a very good chance I told her to cool it a little bit, and I don’t anticipate ever ceasing to ache remembering that.
But not as much as when I remember flying back to LA four years later from my first trip to New York, where I’d communed with English rock stars I idolized, and even lured one of their admirers into my own bed. Having become the living embodiment of cool while on the East Coast, I didn’t say a word to my dad — the living embodiment of clueless uncool — the whole way home. The world had hurt me wantonly not that many years before, and I, over and over again, cravenly struck back at those who loved me the most, secure in the knowledge that they wouldn’t abandon me for being a perfect little shit, an unspeakable little bastard.
In the late '80s, I visited my parents from the wine country north of San Francisco, where I’d moved. My mother, in that way she had, spent the day slashing my dad to ribbons with her tongue. I ignored it, and ignored it, and ignored it, and then, finally, blew up, but guess at whom — not at the real culprit, but at my dad, for enduring it. “You’re nothing!” I bellowed at him in my parents’ kitchen, loud enough to be heard down on Pacific Coast Highway. “Nothing!” All he did was blink at me incredulously. I had of course been speaking to myself as much as to him. I will of course go to my grave aching inside over that.
My dad died and I called one of his two nephews with the news. He spoke of what a great guy my dad had been, though in fairness he’d barely known him. I, in more pain than I could deal with, emphatically refuted him. Shame on me. Shame everlasting on me.
My dad died and I didn’t lose only him, but my mother too, as it finally dawned on me how she’d always contrived to alienate us, for fear that I might love him as much as her. I began, as she entered a period of probably excruciating loneliness, to treat her as she’d always treated him, with that same savage disdain. When the dementia began to consume her, I acted as though she’d chosen not to remember to take her various medications, for instance. Had she railed viciously at my dad? Had she spent their life together making him feel stupid and inadequate? Well, brave Johnny would show her what true viciousness was!
All of which, of course, doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface. Said the Dutchess [sic] County mental health professional to whom I appealed for relief in 2010 and 2011, “You’ve got to let go of this stuff!” Said I in return, “Letting go would feel like letting myself off the hook, and the hook is what I deserve.” I might be an unspeakable monster, but I have some sense of fair play.