Forgive Us Our Trespasses
I thought everyone had left the table as I headed back into the dining room to pick up the last of the dishes, but he was still sitting there at the far end, staring at his plate. “Is everything OK?” I asked, knowing if I had to ask that it couldn’t be.
“I’m sorry,” he said without looking up. I followed his eyes to where his dinner, mostly uneaten, was swimming in salad dressing. “I thought it was one of those squeeze bottles with the little hole. I’ll buy you some more tomorrow.”
There had been five of us at the table that night enjoying Christmas leftovers, bantering back and forth about the previous night’s holiday feast, the weather, the company, the condition of the roads for their drive home the next day. None of us noticed he’d gone quiet. If we had, we would have seen him trying determinedly to pull bits of lettuce and tomato to the side of his plate to drain them enough to eat. We would have shared stories of our own inept encounters with stupidly designed plastic salad dressing bottles… and it might have eased his pain. But we didn’t notice and one by one, we drifted away, oblivious, to other rooms, leaving him alone with his flooded dinner. My return interrupted him and when he finally did look up what I saw in his eyes humbled me. He was at once a 60 year old man and a 2 year old boy, embarrassed, confused and sorry. I had known this man for more than 40 years. I had known him angry. I had known him irrational. I had known him outraged. I had never known him vulnerable.
We first met when I was 15. According to my teenage diary, I “loved him” intensely for about six weeks until, with the flip of a page I suddenly loved some other boy. Ten years later we met again at a party. I joked with friends years after we divorced that I hadn’t ever expected our marriage to last, given that I’d won him in a Backgammon game and married him for a blender. It was unkind of me to reduce him to that. We’d had what’s called a ‘tumultuous’ marriage, the end result of which was an equally tumultuous divorce. Like many divorces ours was complicated and compounded not only by issues of custody, finance and emotional pain, but also by underlying and, at the time, unrecognized issues of sanity. With four young children affected by every brandishing of our swords, we awkwardly negotiated a shared parenting agreement. For the next 20 years my ex-husband and I lived our lives totally distanced from each other within the same few city blocks. We scheduled who would be at whose place and when, attended separate parent teacher interviews and limited joint ventures to unavoidable crisis. On the surface we treated each other with icy tolerance. Underneath, I feared and despised him. Though he had never been physically violent, his ever-present anger at me flared out of nowhere. During our marriage it kept me isolated from friends and family. During our divorce it fuelled my resentment and cemented my resolve to stay as far away from him as possible.
And thus the distance was maintained, reduced only when one of our children asked me to “please invite daddy”. Birthdays, Thanksgivings, Christmas dinners – I was uncomfortable having him over, but the kids loved him; I couldn’t deny them their father. I am no Saint. It took years of therapy and sage counsel to keep me on a path of reason. While I didn’t want to hurt my children any more than I had by getting a divorce I sure didn’t want to have to help maintain or support my ex-husband’s relationship with them.
In spite of my intentional efforts to the contrary, he increasingly accused me of parent alienation. He’d leave letters under my door detailing his beliefs and citing examples of things he thought had been done. In recent years he apologized to the kids, now adults themselves, telling them he never did the things they’d heard about. They told him they’d never heard anything, but he dismissed their objections as further proof. I had no idea.
A couple of years ago, with the kids grown and gone from home, I moved to another province and settled in a beautiful mountain town I’d been to in my youth. Every year at Thanksgiving some version of the kids makes the trip to see me and brings their dad with them. With the extended physical distance between him and me our relationship had softened. I no longer felt anxious and at times, even relaxed in his company. When I went back to see the kids I often went over to his place for coffee. I thought we’d come through to the other side of something. I was wrong. We were, all of us, in fact, barely stumbling through the door.
Things started to go increasingly and alarmingly awry. Timelines and details jumbled together. Important information, previously ignored, resurfaced. The effects of a tanking economy, provincial budget cuts, skyrocketing rents and lack of family doctors converged and we almost lost him. One day he was who I thought I had always known him to be and the next, on the verge of homelessness, he was finally (though in retrospect, not surprisingly) diagnosed as schizophrenic. His diagnosis was compounded by the additional presence of a brain tumour. Further MRI/CAT scan images also revealed through mapping of damaged brain tissue that he’d been suffering ‘mini’ strokes most of his life, likely since infancy. I remember him telling me during one of our coffee chats that he felt like he had a Harpy sitting on his shoulder. He said if he could ever show it to me, he would. After the diagnosis he did just that, pointing out its shadowy presence on the MRI. Everything suddenly made sense. Made sense? No, so much time had passed; there was no sense to be made of it.
All those years I had dismissed him as an angry alcoholic asshole. All those years I hated him and wished he would disappear and leave me alone. All those years ago the boy I’d crushed on back in high school, the talented writer, the pre-med student, the journalist, the world traveler, the loving father… was already gone. He’s been gone now another 30 years more. I remind myself every time I see him that I didn’t know what I was dealing with – cold comfort for him and me alike. As his capacities diminish I struggle to organize family and help put into place the necessary resources to address his increasing disability. I secretly pay his phone bills. I consciously buy Mental Health awareness stamps from Canada Post. Underneath everything I struggle to come to terms with and accept my culpability.
… sicut et nos dimittimus debitoribus nostris.