|Father & Son Nest|
I need to start with the nightmare. I really don’t want to start there, I’d rather not go there at all. After all, its just a little boys dream and it doesn’t have to directly reflect this reality. But this post just doesn’t make sense without starting there, thats where the tinder for this cauldron’s fire comes from.
It was a recurring dream I had when I was young, it probably started around six or seven. In the dream I was floating, disconnected from my body, above a suburban landscape. Looking down I saw my Dad running with insanity, killing each of my family members one by one. The gore was not spared as he angrily assaulted each one. As I finally returned to my body, it became clear that he was coming for me. I was wheelchair bound, there was nothing I could do as he broke down the fence with his ax and raised it above his head.
I always awoke just before the ax fell, I always awoke on the floor beside my bed. It didn’t matter if I was sleeping in a hotel or on the top bunk, I always woke up on the floor.
I grew up with an angry Dad. Of course he wasn’t homicidal, but somehow he had convinced that younger me that he was. He wasn’t always that angry, not when I was really little, but at some point anger became the main timber of our connection. At some point his anger, the way he expressed it, became a terrifying force that governed everything I did.
It wasn’t that he backhanded me, which he did – but not repeatedly and not that often. It wasn’t that some days he would rise to his most powerful anger at the drop of a hat, which he did. It was the canvass of anger he painted through frequent threats.
“Get downstairs or I’m gonna break your neck!” To him it was a false threat, but at five or six, what did I know? My older brother and sister seemed to fair better, perhaps their age gave them a clearer perspective.
“Don’t make your father angry or else he’ll …” Mom would say. She didn’t have to finish that sentence. How many of us grew up with that threat hanging over our heads, how many of us were truly terrified by it? For years “Dad” meant a world of danger to me. Now I’m a father, and I have my own choices to make.
I should say that Dad and I are really good, I know it may sound crazy. Even before his sudden death we’d come to a kind of peace around that part of our past. Since his death, through dreams and shamanic journeying, I’ve had the cathartic releases and the healings I’ve needed to let go of the hard parts of my past with him. Thats the challenging thing about this kind of relationship: angry people are still worth loving. Just because rage pollutes the relationship does not mean love is gone, its not. Its just hidden in the shadows along with trust. We need to work with that too.
I’ve moved way beyond forgiveness, to a place of deep love and gratitude for everything he’s given me. He gave much to many in his life, was a true hero to some. I now get to look forward to rediscovering the gentle moments of my childhood with him, and reflecting upon the great accomplishments of his public life. I get to cherish my Dad all over again, just like when I was really little. I consider myself truly blessed.
Being the father of a young boy, I get to work on this stuff anew. Growing up I swallowed not only my own terror from that period of my life, but his anger, and my anger at him, as well. The same chasm in him that opened up when he was most terrifying, has been gouged in me as well. Do I yell and threaten the way my father did? No, but a trauma is there quietly haunting my relationship with my son. It still takes us, he and I, in the wrong direction. I face the same chasm of my childhood, now from a different vantage point.
Anger is such a small thing, and its huge. It can flit away in a moment like a moth into the night, or carve tectonic landscapes up like grated cheese. It has unmade many lives.
This anger didn’t start with my Father. Its been handed down generation after generation. One uncle told me it was given to him by their Mother. She “beat us mercilessly” he would say. If it wasn’t her, it was the nuns and priests in church, or the Protestant kids picking on the only Irish Catholic family in the neighborhood. From the sound of it my Dad had tempered his own upbringing quite a bit by the time he got around to me.
He called it the “Irish Way”, perhaps the anger was born of a conquered people dispossessed of their own land and treated as a slave class for centuries. Perhaps that anger is part of the immigrant experience. To be sure there are larger issues at work here, but it all comes down to a father and son, and what they can mean to each other. My Dad was not a bad or a good person because of his anger. He was carrying something that was a part of his generation and his people, its a part of our family – now mine to take responsibility for. Telling my story is part of that.
For many reasons; feminism, the men’s movement, the many generations since my ancestors labored in coal mines, intensive shamanic healing, therapy, I get whole new set of tools in addressing this issue. That means I get to have a different relationship with my son. I get to cherish with celebrated tenderness my dove-mouse for the rest of my life. I am doubly blessed.
I’ve always known that I’d never hit, spank or threaten my kids the way my Dad did me, but I never told myself I wouldn’t get angry at them. That aways seemed false, a way of parenting that could teach my kids it was OK to lie about what you were really feeling. Kids know when you’re angry – why bother hiding it? I’m all for reality based parenting.
But all that stuff is really just the physicalization of an inner process. Its that inner process that my son is most sensitive to. The really interesting thing I’ve learned is that my anger only serves to make my son angry, and not for the reasons you might think. He becomes angry at me not because of the reactive discipline I try to impose, but because I am breaking trust with him. When I get angry in that certain way, usually around my own sense of authority, he feels like our love connection is broken. When I stop that flow, I’ve broken trust. I’m handing him a shovel and telling him to start digging his own chasm.
I know there are some of you out there reading this who can relate to my story. It doesn’t matter if your’e a parent or not, if you were hit or not. If you were made to feel unsafe in your own home growing up, you know the feeling of broken trust with your parents. You know what its like to consider your own survival at a very young age. It sticks with you. I still revel in the quiet safety that my life as adult gives me. Many is the night I’ve laid back, savoring the feeling of peace and safety I’ve won for myself. I don’t expect I will ever stop doing that.
Its in those moments that I think about my son. I imagine him sitting in a beautiful field by the ocean with the sun warming him. That place is my heart. I surround every bit of him with my love. There are some days its harder to see him there than others, thats when I know I might be pulling away. I know I have to dig deeper, relax, embrace all of him more. The light I make for him begins to fill my own chasm.
The days leading up to Dad’s death were filled with rich dreams and powerful feelings. A few nights before he died I posted this poem:
I thought I had forgiveness
until I saw it glowing bright in the distance
and me walking there
a free man.
A few weeks ago I got to spend a weekend with a couple of Dads who were full time stay at home parents. Four boys, three dads, tons of love. All the boys were fairly young, all had lots of big energy. The other Dads had given as much of their passion and time to their sons as they could, and it really showed. There was a calmness and a depth to all of the boys, including my own son. Those were wonderful waters to soak in.
This crossing has been calling to me for many years, even before my Dad died. I think I know what lays on the other side – my father, in all of his fullness, standing in that heart field along with my son and I. Anger free parenting? I don’t know, maybe there is an anger that doesn’t frighten or push away. I do know this: build bridges, not chasms. This crossing has taught me that I’m bigger than the chasms I fear. Perhaps thats what I needed to learn to become a good bridge builder.
Blessings to you in your own crossings.