The Difficult to See Murder of Slow-killing Love (part one)

A few days after an unfortunate event at my sister’s wedding decades ago, my parents and I met in their living room for a violent confrontation.  There was snarling, bad language exchanged, overheated comments made on both sides, and once things became too much for me, physical violence — a single finger passed inexcusably across my father’s nose — to illustrate to him the real difference between physical violence and the emotional violence that was his specialty.

I have to back up for a moment, as I’ve tried to condense too much there.   The argument between my parents and me was over whether I had a right to be upset after an attempted beating, by the caterer of my sister’s wedding, who, by the end, had the assistance of three or four fellow off-duty cops who held me by my arms. True, he’d only thrown a dozen punches, or so, and I’d managed not to be hurt, though it was an undeniable ordeal, deserved or not, particularly while wearing a rented tuxedo I later got some of my blood on.  

My parents position was that, since I had clearly provoked the confrontation with this polite, smiling stranger, no matter how I might try to spin it to justify myself, I had only gotten what I deserved.  I found that position unfair, particularly coming from my parents, who I’d hoped would be at least partially sympathetic listening to my side of things.   Their unified, hardline attitude made it impossible for me to restrain myself from expressing my opinion at length, and with increasing conviction.

And so, because these two irreconcilable emotional positions could not be peacefully resolved, things quickly came to an ugly stalemate there in my parent’s comfortable living room.   After the illustrative pass of a single finger across my father’s nose, all hell broke loose.  It was like throwing a lit match onto a lake of gasoline.   The explosion of ugliness was not without an instant of timely, dark wit from me, but this story is not about any of that.

After enough screaming was done, I gave my parents the finger one last time as I left their home, a home I’d been told I was no longer welcome in, and rode off on my bicycle, through the rain, toward the subway for the long ride back to my apartment.   Passing the nearby home of an artist friend, a woman my parent’s age, I stopped by and rang the bell.   Florence and her husband listened to my story, troubled and sympathetic, and told me gently that time would heal this too, that these kind of mad family things have a way of blowing over and that I should not be too hard on myself.   All good to hear.  I hugged them and went on my way through the cold, dark, rainy night.

The point of this story:  the next morning I woke up to sunshine, birds singing, feeling unexpectedly light as a feather.   It was as though an immense anvil had been lifted off my chest, a tremendous weight I’d carried always, without realizing it, was suddenly gone.  I felt like leaping through the air, the relief was exhilarating. I remember the surge of energy I felt to be free of the kind of love that sadly concludes that if somebody wanted to punch you in the face over and over, they probably had a damned good reason for it.  [1]

Understand, I’m not trying to present myself as an innocent victim.   As you can probably conclude just from reading these words today, the words of a man who’d whip his own father across the nose with an outstretched finger, I am not a person who shrinks from a fight, nor any kind of angel.  When I was younger, if somebody told me I couldn’t talk to them like that I’d smile and tell them to go fuck themselves.  Cost me more than a few jobs in my day.   I have tried to learn to do better.  I’m pretty sure I do better, certainly in terms of not always giving vent to my anger, but that is not the point of this story either.  

People who insist they love you sometimes don’t really grasp what love is, and, in fairness to them, they may have come to their understanding of love honestly, never having experienced it.  The first requirement of love, it seems to me, is wishing no harm to the person, or creature, that you love.   First order of business, tend to the hurt they are expressing.   Feelings are real and can’t be dispelled by mere logic when they are enflamed.   Later order of business, once things are calm, if it will be helpful in the future, talk about the underlying issues involved, how to resolve things, etc.  But when you see a loved one crying, the first instinct must be to help them dry their tears and sit with them until they start to breathe normally again.  

That may sound kind of tender, coming from a man who’d slap his father across the nose with a finger, I know, but does it ring true to you?  

You come to me upset.  I say “before I hear your entire long story, let me quickly tell you five reasons why you really shouldn’t be upset, you need to let me finish — JUST LET ME FINISH–  before you can continue.  Try not to interrupt me, it will only take a few minutes and my calm explanations will clarify everything for you.  I have a right to tell you these things, because I love you.”  You raise a hand, extend one finger and slap me smartly across the nose.   Knowing what I know now, I really can’t blame you for that reaction.  

The thing to do, except in a situation where someone you love is about to hurt herself or somebody else, is let the person you love do what they need to do, say all they need to say, particularly when they’re upset.   The time may come, when heads are cooler, to discuss why I wasn’t actually wrong to insist on telling you the reasons you were wrong to be so upset.   But that time is not when you are upset.  

The immortal Charles Bukowski, in his immortal “The Shoelace” catalogues some of that swarm of trivialities that kill quicker than a heart attack.  On that list, and leaping off of it some days, are “people who insist they’re your friends.”   They claim to love you like family, and often they do.   It is good to remember that many assaults, most murders, and all incest, occurs in families, but that is a side note.

The main note is this — horrific as it also is, and upsetting to the stomach and disruptive to sleep as it is — if a person who tells you they love you does not treat you the way they’d want to be treated by the people they love, then that love is probably not the best kind of love for you.  

If they impatiently sit through your explanation of why you were hurt, when they meant only to help, and they insist on their right to tell you why they still believe they did nothing to hurt you, intentionally or otherwise, no matter how precisely you try to explain the hurt — and they wind up screaming at you and hanging up the phone because you have so upset them by denying their right to be just as upset as you are, in fact, more upset because your upset over an “accidental tasering” is such an irrational and unfair accusation of them… well, the best you can probably hope for is waking up the next day feeling a bit lighter.   As I can practically guarantee you will.  

 

 

[1]  This wonderful feeling of liberation would not last long, my father called a few days later to negotiate a peaceful return to the status quo, and after some wrangling over the course of several powwows, we went back to the way things had always been.  It would take until the last few hours of my father’s life, thirty years later, before he expressed his deep regrets about having been the way he’d always been.

 

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