I never talk about my dad.
I tend to forget I even have one.
Every now and then I will see my mom and I will ask her if he is still alive.
She usually says that he is “in bad shape” and that his liver is failing.
I don’t know how she knows this.
She doesn’t know him either.
The last time I saw him was ten years ago.
I was walking into a liquor store.
He was walking out.
I said “Hey Melvin.” and he looked at me and tried to place me.
“Do I know you?” he said.
I felt like I should feel something so I became the actor I always had to be and feigned anger.
“Don’t even know your own fucking son.” I said and walked out.
I wondered if he had a bunch of families that he had abandoned.
I wondered if he had a lot of sons like me.
Little boys who used to clean their rooms and wait for their daddies to come home.
Little boys like me with their glove and their ball sitting on the steps waiting…mastering disappointment so early in life.
I used to say that it didn’t affect me, but I always got teary eyed when I would hear Cat’s in the Cradle and the first time I heard the song House of Pain by Faster Pussycat I had to leave where I was at because it crushed me so hard.
Little past supper time
Still out on the front porch sittin on my behind
Waitin for you…
Now as an adult, I see that it has actually shaped every human interaction I have ever had.
And it will continue to.
It is part of who I am.
I have one memory of us throwing a ball in the backyard when I was five.
I suspect I may have invented it.
And I have one memory of us sitting down to eat dinner together in front of the television.
I remember someone had shot Ronald Reagan and he and my mother were happy about it, calling him a “piece of shit” and I remember watching the footage of this old man being shot over and over again and feeling very sad about it.
As an adult I realize that they did not dislike Reagan for the reasons I have come to.
They did not understand his policies against the poor and minorities.
They did not know that the “War on Drugs” would become a new form of slavery for the impoverished of our country.
They just hated him because he was president and we were poor and that’s what they thought poor people were supposed to do.
I remember once I was lighting some matches, trying to burn some paper I had shoved into a gutter spout on the back of the neighbors house.
I wasn’t trying to burn their house down.
I was four years old and wanted to see if fire would shoot out the top of the pipe.
I felt a pain in my neck and blacked out for a second.
When I opened my eyes my father was towering over me.
By the way he held his hand I could tell he had just karate chopped me in the neck.
“Don’t light fires, boy.” he said in his southern drawl and lumbered away.
I have a sort of Stockholm Syndrome with that moment.
As an adult I know I would never knock a four year old unconscious, but I never lit another fire after that, and as sad as it is, I loved him for teaching me that.
I respected him on an animal level.
The big strong beast who could take my life at any time with one chop of his great hand.
My father. The giant.
But that was not the only time he hit me…
He wore a leather belt and on the belt where all these little metal rings, built into it.
When I had done something “bad” he would take it off and chase me into his bedroom.
He would tell me to take off my clothes.
I would beg him not to hurt me, but he delighted in it.
I would be in the corner curled up crying “Please daddy, please.” and instead of hitting me he would walk back and forth and talk about what a horrible child I was and pop the belt in his hands to make his point after each sentence.
He would do this until he was so angry that he could no longer contain himself and then he would just start hitting me wildly.
Occasionally one of the belt’s rings would open up a cut in my skin.
When he was done I would run to my room and crawl under my bed and cry for what seemed like hours.
I remember thinking that I wanted my mom to come and pull me out and hold me.
She never did.
I also remember thinking that they were mean like that because they had hard souls.
This is seriously what my little brain would say.
I would say that they had hard souls and that I would never let my soul turn hard like theirs did.
I told myself that their souls became hard from pushing down their feelings until they turned to anger and I had a very visual understanding of this concept in my head.
I imagined them pushing all feelings down and them getting all compressed in their stomachs and turning black and then the blackness oozing out of them and making them turn mean.
I remember thinking that it was harder to just feel my feelings and cry, but it was the only way I could keep from becoming like them.
I remember thinking that the tears were the feelings draining out of me.
Looking back it amazes me that I had such an advanced thought at such a tender age.
And in a very abstract way it was actually spot on.
I remember being five and sleeping with a knife in my bed.
A big butcher knife I had stolen from the kitchen drawer.
What did I plan to do with that knife?
I have no idea.
I just remember holding onto it like it was a Teddy bear and feeling safer.
The thought of this makes me very sad now that I have kids of my own.
One day, when I was eight, he went too far.
My mother came home and found me unconscious, covered in blood and told him to leave or else she would call the police.
My crime had been that I was confused about how to make instant tea.
I had poured the water into the jar of tea instead of using a glass.
It really seems stupid now, but no one had ever showed me.
He left and never came back.
My mother blamed me.
She told me that before I came along things were fine between them.
She told me that she wanted a girl and when she saw me that she tried to get the hospital to keep me, but they refused.
And then two years later, after not seeing my father at all during that time, she told me that I was going to his apartment for Christmas.
He was living with “a black lady who got him to stop drinking”.
My mother dropped me off at the apartment Christmas morning and I met Millie.
She was really nice.
My dad sat in front of the television drinking and Millie kept telling him that each beer was his “last one”.
With each beer he yelled at the TV more and more.
With each sip his anger built and so did my fear.
Finally Millie tired of it and went to bed in the middle of the afternoon.
My dad wanted to play chess with me.
I had never played, but he showed me how the pieces moved.
Every time he took one of my pieces he yelled at me “You will NEVER be as good as your daddy!!”
I recall sitting there, a ten year old boy, staring at this stupid drunk man and thinking “I am already better than you.”
So when the game was over I asked to play again.
How hard could it be to be a drunk idiot at chess now that I understood how the game worked?
And that’s exactly what I was doing when he lunged across the table and threw me to the ground and began punching me.
I squirmed away and ran down the apartment stairs but he caught up with me in the alley and dragged me down into the snow.
After a few hits I lost consciousness and when I came to my father was lying face down in the snow with handcuffs on both his ankles and wrists.
For some reason, the police then wrapped his entire body up with what looked like medical tape.
He looked like a mummy, except his head was sticking out.
“I’m sorry.” he kept saying “You daddy loves you son.”
He just repeated those lines over and over again until they loaded him in the van and drove him away.
All the neighbors were outside.
They must have watched the whole thing.
Some people in uniforms bandaged me up and some lady talked to me about hitting and gave me a bear.
Millie took me inside and she smoked a joint while we waited for my mom.
She was sad, but she cared about me.
She was just wearing a nightgown and it was hanging open.
I could see her bare breasts inside the opening.
I wondered if she was stoned enough to let me touch them.
I wondered how far I could go with her.
When Dravin was a toddler all he wanted to do was play with his action figures.
I indulged him.
As a first time father, who was so poor as a child that I didn’t even have toys, I OVERindulged him.
I didn’t really have a childhood so I wanted to make sure his was amazing.
We didn’t have much money, but every spare penny went to buy him the little plastic beings he loved so much.
Once out of their boxes, they would find themselves in a world they could never have imagined.
They would have to adapt to insane circumstances or be blasted to imaginary smithereens.
Gene Simmons may have looked cool in his box, but his bass was no match for the laser power of Buzz Lightyear.
The T9 from Terminator was pretty powerful with his grenade launcher, but was no match for an entire village of vintage Smurfs, who would devastate Arnold due to sheer strength in numbers.
Lego people were created on the fly to do battle with viking ships sailing the beige carpet sea of his bedroom.
The adventure never ended…
But my patience did.
As much as I loved my son, my attention span for colliding tiny men into each other was about 15 minutes.
I would try to lure him with the promise of video games and fast food, but his dejected expression would cause me to plop back down on the carpet and pick up one of his Buzz Lightyears and say for the trillionth time, “To Infinity and Beyond” and then the wild rumpus would start again.
His beautiful smile would give me fuel for another 5 minutes of these childish antics, but my attention span quickly departed as my feet fell to sleep and my back began to ache.
I would stare off into space and imagine how fun it would be play my guitar or to read a book without pictures, then I would chastise myself for missing out on these precious moments.
“Be here now.” I would remind myself and then would have his over-sized Jessie the cowgirl doll lasso a My Lil Pony to the ground and yell “Ima tame that critter!!”
The adventure continued…
I used to hang out on my porch a lot in those days.
I would just go out there to take a break and play a few chords to get myself centered before going back inside to be Dad again.
My neighbor would always be sitting on his porch and we would do the whole “Hey..how you been?” routine while he sat there and smoked pot.
He would always offer me a hit.
I would always decline and play my guitar.
My father was a junkie, so being a dad, made me even more determined to keep clean.
I needed a clear head to be a parent.
Nothing was more important than that.
I mean I can’t be stoned when I have important daily activities like Action Figure Theater, Scooby Doo Marathon and staying up all night playing The Legend of Zelda – Ocarina of Time w/my 4 year old.
All of these activities required…”HOLY COW!!” I realized. “ALL OF THESE ACTIVITIES WOULD BE SO MUCH BETTER IF I WERE HIGH!!!”
So the next time I became bored with the action figure game I stepped out on the porch, said “Hey..how you been?” and waited for my neighbor’s offer.
After toking for a few minutes I returned back to the bedroom floor with renewed vigor and all new story-lines.
No longer was I dreading The Neverending Story being written in my son’s bedroom, but I was actually looking forward to it!!!
How had I been so preoccupied before?
There were countless stories waiting to be told here.
Murder, romance, espionage, deception.
I began to compose complex Shakespearian plots where no toy was safe and at any moment good could triumph or everyone could just as easily die.
For all of 10 seconds Dravin stared at me wondering “Where is my dad and why has he been replaced by a giant toddler who looks like my dad?” but then he just dove in and playtime would last for hours and wouldn’t stop until we were both doing the pee-pee dance on the floor.
No longer was I fantasizing about my next break.
Instead it would be Dravin who would be worn out and yawning.
“Can we eat ice cream and watch Scooby Doo?”
My reply was always the same “Sure thing little buddy!”
Scooby Doo made so much more sense now!!
We would pause frequently to have in depth discussions about who the villain was and what their motivations were.
I felt the kind of true terror and fascination that only a child can experience simultaneously.
I saw through the eyes of my toddler.
Our minds melded.
We were the same.
Thanks to my neighbor’s wonderdrug I was now completely engrossed in the show, whereas previously I was only half-watching, thinking about bills I had to pay or some news story.
My little boy would fall asleep curled up in my arms and I would lie there exhausted but sober and think about what a horrible father I was and how I was no better than my own father, the junkie who stole my birthday money to score; the man who snorted our rent money and made us have to sleep in the car, homeless, on so many nights.
I lie there with tears in my eyes thinking about how I was a horrible person because I had to smoke pot to be a more attentive father.
I failed to see how I was any different than my own dad who would be so intoxicated that he would take a strap to me for something as trivial as breaking a saucer or dropping a fork.
All I wanted to do was be a good father and yet I was so much like my own.
But the next day I would get bored of playing action figures and I would visit my neighbor again.
A vicious cycle of marijuana, lassos and laser beams.
And it went on like this for a while, until I realized that I could create the same excitement without the pot, just by being completely attentive.
But I cannot fully dismiss the experiment.
This is the part where some would like me to say that I learned a valuable lesson about sobriety and that smoking pot and spending 12 hours a day playing with my toddler, while stoned much of the time was a horrible thing to do.
But I can’t really say that.
It opened me up to the idea that I could be a better dad if I just forgot all the adult stuff I carried around on my shoulders and just let myself be completely absorbed in what I was doing.
And because of that I am at peace with my decision.
Dravin recently asked me, almost as if he couldn’t believe it had really happened, “Do you remember how you used to just sit and play with my action figures with me all day?”
He looked befuddled.
I told him that I remembered.
“Didn’t you get bored?” he said.
I told him that because my parents never spent any time with me that I knew it was important to soak up all the time I could with he and his sister while they were still young enough to actually still want to hang around with me.
I told him that I always knew that those toddler years were fleeting and that even though it was hard to sit and play like that for hours that I knew it wouldn’t last very long and if I didn’t take advantage of it while I could that one day I would regret it and wish I had that time back.
I also told him about smoking pot with the neighbor and how that allowed me to be so into playing with the figures and forget about being an adult.
He laughed so hard he nearly cried.
Buckled over at the waist, he managed to say “Oh my god, I had the BEST childhood!!”
“Yeah, I did too.” I thought. “I finally had mine at the same time you were having yours.”
Hey readers, I just want to thank you SO much for taking the time to read about these crazy adventures and I want to say that you can feel free to comment anything that you want here.
If you think that is horrible parenting go right ahead and speak your mind.
I certainly have battled with a lot of self-judgment because of it, so I totally understand anyone else who would judge me.
The point is that your comments are always welcome.
They help me to do this better.
The most common question I get asked is how I became a single father.
I usually don’t answer, simply because it is such a long answer.
I promise to cover it in a future blog.
On the rare occasion that I do answer it, I get the inevitable follow up question;
“Aren’t you angry with her?” meaning my kid’s biological mother.
Honestly I never had time to be angry about it.
I have been pretty busy the last 12 years, and also I am way too selfish of a person to harbor anger.
I just don’t like the way it feels.
But there is one question that I always ask myself.
And that is, “What the hell am I going to do when Chloe (insert major female right of passage here).”
It used to be “What the hell am I going to do when Chloe needs a bra?”
That turned into “What the hell am I going to do when Chloe has her period?!”
Now I am wrestling mind-bending questions like “What the bloody hell am I going to do when Chloe starts dating???!!!”
Or “How will I stop from murdering a grown man when I catch him checking out my daughter?!!!”
It is not that I am your typical clueless man.
I am a musician and a writer.
I was raised by women.
When I was little I had long hair so people always said what a pretty little girl I was.
I have always been fascinated with the fairer sex, so I spent a good deal of my life studying them.
I have a very small measure of understanding of what it means to be a woman.
But there is still that crippling handicap.
I am a man.
So when a female friend told me Chloe needed a bra (and Chloe was only 10!!!!!) I was annoyed and in complete denial.
When a second female friend told me the same thing, I realized I must be missing something.
I looked at my little girl.
She was just a little girl.
She didn’t have curves.
She didn’t have breasts.
She was my little bacon bit ( her pet nickname from when she was a toddler).
Why were these women seeing breasts when she clearly was just a little girl.
So I asked Chloe…
“Yeah. I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that…” she said.
An hour later we were bra shopping.
I felt bad for Chloe.
I felt like I had failed her.
I had tried to find a woman who would take this role, but I had picked the wrong women.
Or maybe I was just the wrong man and had sabotaged the right women.
I don’t know.
But standing under the harsh fluorescent glare of the department store lights I was exposed.
Exposed for the man I am.
Exposed for the fraud I will inevitably be, when trying to navigate seas I have no business in.
A stranger in a strange land of under-wire protection and push-up support.
Feeling inadequate simply because I AM inadequate and wishing beyond wishing that I had just dated women who loved Chloe and had put my own selfish needs aside.
Double D, C. B. A…drowning in a sea of bras, I thought of the jokes men would make about women’s breasts and I wanted to punch every man in the entire world right in their collective throats. I thought about men looking at my daughter’s chest and objectifying her and every callous, jagged locker-room comment I had ever overheard came swarming back to me 10,000-fold and then when I was right on the verge of panic I heard her tiny voice…
“I like this one” she said.
And she is holding it in front of her.
“I can’t cry. Not here. Cry later. This is about her. Not about you.” my inner monologue rolls on.
Practical dad speaks through me “Will it fit?”
“I think so.” she says.
And with that she slides it over her head and turns around.
I help her to fasten it and think of more callous male jokes about bra clasps.
But I am no longer angry…or panicked…
I am so choked up that my throat hurts.
She straightens it out a bit and I say “How does it feel?”
“Kinda weird.” she says and turns around.
I see now what the women were talking about.
My daughter has boobs.
No. “Boobs” sounds silly.
My daughter has…hmmmm…”breasts” sounds clinical and “tits”…no freaking way does my daughter have TITS!!!
My daughter has…beauty
My daughter IS…blossoming…
My daughter IS…beautiful..
My daughter IS…perfect.
It doesn’t matter what we call them.
They are HERS and SHE can call them whatever she wants.
They are hers and they are her and I have new-found respect for breasts and women in general.
All the books on feminism and college courses on gender did nothing to prepare me for this.
“Chloe.” I say “I’m sorry you don’t have a mom to do this with you. I’m sorry if this isn’t how you imagined it.”
“You ARE my mom.” she says.
And then something flew into my eye.
I have a pretty debased sense of humor, but I worry about the proliferation of such “jokes”.
Aren’t these sentiments giving tacit permission to child abusers?
By laughing at it aren’t they really just saying it’s okay?
Once I was at the park with my kids and a bigger kid was pushing and shoving some of the smaller kids.
The tension built as the parents wondered whose kid this was and should we step in.
Finally the kid’s mom saw what he was doing.
She walked directly to him and smacked him harshly across the back of the head.
Several of the parents, whose kids had been bullied, burst into applause.
Surprised by the clapping she swelled up proudly and said “I’m old school.”
Being the big-mouthed jerk that I am (I was recently fired from my job for telling my pregnant boss that smoking was bad for the fetus) I said loudly so everyone would hear “Yeah well that school is closed. Now we TALK to our kids. Why do you think he is hitting people?”
Everyone just thought I was an asshole, but I was hoping maybe the child might have felt better and learned something from it.
My parents abused me and I thought it was okay to do that until I overheard other people admonishing my parents for it.
It would have never occurred to me that I didn’t deserve it had an adult not told this to me.
People are going to argue that hitting is effective, and yeah, well it is.
It is effective in stopping the behavior that you want stopped.
But it is also effective in destroying a child’s self-esteem, destroying trust between parent and child and it IS MOST EFFECTIVE AT TEACHING A CHILD THAT IT IS OKAY TO BULLY PEOPLE THAT ARE WEAKER THAN THEY ARE.
I am not going to drop statistics here.
Let’s face it, statistics can be manipulated to say whatever we want them to say.
But we all know that most bullies are bullied at home, right?
Bullying is almost always linked to child abuse.
The worst thing I see is the parent who smacks their toddler.
Did you know that the child’s brain has not formed enough to understand WHY you just hit them until they are around four years of age?
They cannot fully grasp behavior/consequence yet.
That part of their brain hasn’t fully formed.
If you hit a toddler they will stop doing the behavior that you wanted to stop, but not because they understood the punishment.
They will stop simply because they are traumatized and crying.
And when they are done with that they may very well return to the behavior and the cycle will start again.
Being a parent isn’t about being perfect.
We all slip up sometimes.
When Dravin was 5, he used to have this habit of throwing his head back really hard on the bed when he would lose at a video game.
He would be sitting on the edge of the bed playing and when his character would die he would just throw his torso backwards and his head would hit really hard on the bed and bounce back up.
I told him repeatedly not to do this.
I explained why.
I explained that he could injure himself or someone else.
I explained that something could be sitting on the bed behind him and it could seriously hurt him.
After that when I saw him do it, I would immediately shut the game off and ground him for the remainder of the day.
Then one day, I set Chloe, just an infant at the time, on the bed for a minute to change her diaper.
A second later Dravin’s head came back and scraped the side of Chloe’s cheek.
She was unharmed, but startled.
She began to cry.
I grabbed Dravin by both his arms and picked him up.
I screamed at him “ARE YOU CRAZY?! HOW MANY TIMES HAVE I TOLD YOU NOT TO DO THAT!? YOU COULD HAVE KILLED HER!!”
He ran out of the room traumatized and I picked up Chloe to sooth her.
I was in tears right there with her.
I was thinking about how scared she was, more from my yelling than from the contact with her cheek.
I was thinking about my little boy and what he must be feeling right then.
On one hand I was glad that he was scared.
Maybe it would stop the behavior, but on the other hand I knew I had went too far.
Once Chloe was soothed I went into his bedroom and I saw my fingerprints still pressed into his arms.
I was mortified.
I told him that I was sorry that I had picked him up and screamed at him.
I told him that I shouldn’t have done it.
I doubted myself.
I wondered if I was capable of stopping the cycle of abuse I had sworn I would not carry over from my own parents.
I felt like the worst human being in the world.
And the confusing thing is…
The behavior stopped.
Never again did Dravin slam his head back like that.
As parents we sometimes get a desired result from an undesirable behavior.
Of course the behavior stopped.
I traumatized my son.
But I wish I had just continued to ground him until he mastered the self-control required.
Or found another creative way to curb the behavior.
Because results are secondary compared to the relationship we have with our children.
If our children feel loved and safe and respect us, we will not have to go to extremes to get the result.
It will happen.
Some of these changes take months, even years, but they happen.
This is why being a parent is the hardest job in the world…and also the most rewarding if we let it be.
As one of my readers reminded me, we are giants to our children.
We do not need to strike them to get our point across.
The most effective method I learned was to lean down, put my hand firmly on my child’s shoulder, look them in the eye and speak slowly and seriously.
Your superior strength is felt, but a feeling of safety and security is transferred.
Your child knows that you are completely serious and there is no confusion about who the boss is.
It takes an incredible amount of love and patience to be a parent and most of us aren’t ready for it when it happens.
But if we make mistakes and forgive ourselves then we are that much closer to forgiving our child’s mistakes.
And when we do that, we are closer to healing ourselves.
By the way your comments are always welcome.
I am still learning 🙂