I joke that my Dad is the picture of curmudgeon when you look up the term in the dictionary, and in my head, it’s true. But I’m not easy to live with either, these last months and more. (The bipolar diagnosis was really only official confirmation of the coaster one rides when you roll with me on a regular basis.) You could call me moody, to put it lightly. Subverbal at the end of a workday, often. Don’t ask me for input on supper (much less ask me to take over the cooking of it at 8:30 at night when I walk in the door because I’d rather have cheese sticks and whisky) at the end of a long mid-shift. And don’t prompt me for conversation at table, much less expect me to continue my explanation after Dad in his Waldorf mode interrupts me with one of his rants about how the world should be rather than letting me continue with my explanation of how it actually is (much less how my day went) …. No. Like a puppet whose strings have been cut, I fall back into the habits of childhood, feeling disanimated and slumped, at least when I don’t have my full crank on and give back my best Statler, my own internal eighty-year-old fully engaged as we have at one another. (And yes, there are parts of the house upholstered with gilt fringe and velvet, in case you wondered.)
So there are times when I say “No. Never mind.” I don’t always have it in me to yell at him for interrupting me yet again or going off on a rant at the stupidities of the retail world in general or my store in specific—because I don’t have the heart to explain how I’m yet too heartbroken to muster the courage to find someplace new, someplace where he thinks (and I don’t disagree) I could put my legal/intellectual skills to better use but where I– on days where I am less inclined to think I’m a general failure and yet—think I will be challenged enough, paid more and yet not be too stressed to burn myself out before I can recognize (unlike the last time(s))—“Hey. I’m getting burnt out.” Having a conversation with him about the camaraderie of other-job-misfits, my fellow manager-nerd-artist-heroes, the tiny victories of real customer service, the thrill when the thousand small gods of bookselling help me find the answers the customers need and get all the stock out—those are lost on my purely intellectual papa, a man who’s never lived outside his own head or heaved freight for an underpaid living. The gardening pickaxe, the gentleman’s heirloom tomatoes, the power tools in the basement… that practical know-how, transmitted to me and used up cherry pickers and girders and in too many shitty college and grad school apartments to count as I rewired Salvation Army lamps and re-sanded and repainted floors and ran new phone extensions– they are all transmissions of knowledge, of sorts, an expression of love in its way. He can’t just come out and say so—but he can show me something he thinks is useful to know.
It’s why I don’t have it in me to yell at him for repeating the behaviors I found so hurtful (intentional or not, and I knew that they usually weren’t but habits—goddamn them to hell…) in my husband, and because—after all—isn’t it often the truth that we marry our fathers? (“It takes us until we’re at least forty-two to get over the things that happened to us with our parents,” he announced one night at supper, recounting a conversation he’d had one day at work with a coworker. “Forty-two, hunh?” Waldorf sipped his horrid caffeine-free Diet Coke. “Give or take a few years.” He knows. We just don’t talk about Waldorf v. Statler outright that often.) I do, at other times, try to mention when I am calmer, less overtly hurt, that I find it hard to respond to certain ways of his behaving because of (whatever reason du jour). He tries. He tries awfully hard. He buys gluten free brownie mix for me, and buys my protein bars. If I show the vaguest interest in something concrete, he is an enthusiast for it, even when my energy flags (and then I feel guilty about disappointing him… a bad circle to get in. Still, though, he tries.) So. I try in return.
I tried with my husband. It didn’t work then, though the open questions of when I should have realized what and what and how I should have tried will be questions I’ll ask for … who knows. Right now, I am trying to set them aside and just say—I tried. I don’t imagine I’ll get that far with my father. But I can at least say my piece and (sometimes literally) retire the field if I get too aggravated. Sometimes, I even get an apology in the morning, even if I get a splutter or an accusation of sulking at the particular moment when I put my foot down and say no. Stop it. You hurt my too-tender, stupid bipolar feelings. I would like to not sulk, not to retreat into my clamshell or get sullen or slam things—but short of that, at least being honest is something better than saying nothing at all and working myself into the sneaky hate spiral.
He said not long after I first moved back in—“I wish there was some way you could find to not feel things so badly.” I know that it’s part of it (at least, that’s what I’m hoping that’s what I pay my therapist for), aside from the whole thing of being bipolar– though where the pathology ends and my inherently romantic and sensitive, anxious personality begins is an Ourobouros, a Gordian Knot, an Icarus no matter which inept tradition I try to analogize to. I am too sensitive to his brusqueness that is nothing but his habit of living alone and his own social ineptness. I am too sensitive to the fact that everyone has their own shit and the universe is generally indifferent. I know it’s not about me 98% of the time. And yet, that’s precisely what hurts so very much, and why that Auden poem is both exactly right and totally wrong. I have been both the more loving and the more indifferent (entirely self-involved/depressed/obtuse/take your pick) party. It hurts, either way, to realize, later, that the people about whom you’re supposed to care have been ignored when they needed attention—or at least that’s how I feel. And I feel it intensely—prolongedly. Too long—and yet, I’ve not so far in these 37 years, learned quite yet how to stop caring so long or so much.
He’s said, too, that he would have done better if he could be more patient with people or make some effort to like them—but at his age (pushing 70, hard) he’s not likely to change. There is something to be said for the Irish personality type/essential belief that work occupies a soul and one should simply keep one’s self busy—but down time will happen, and he’s prone to loneliness, too. I know that I am his only real friend. I need to buck the hell up and force myself to conversation despite the fact that I feel crushed, often. The mere fact that I’m not committing suicide because it would probably give him a heart attack finding my body isn’t enough. I need more self esteem, damnit. (Rereading those two sentences makes me laugh-snorfle-cry. I think that’s probably good, at least the laugh part.) I need to pretend to be cheery until I can learn to do it again. I need to be more patient even when I am depressed and exhausted and feeling heartbroken, still, over something I need to just—not ever forget because you don’t forget love and the way that it hurts when you no longer love and are loved in the same way you were at its first blush– but that it shouldn’t spoil the memories of that first blush, either. I need to accept that there are new stories to write and that while this one didn’t end happily, it doesn’t make it a bad story, not overall. I need to accept that this story is over, and I’m starting a new one.
Aren’t all stories love stories of one kind or another, either the finding or losing, the having or lack, the loss or the gain or something the cycle of all of those things? There are all kinds of love, all kinds of ways it can be subjected, objected to and objectified—but those people and things we desire and loathe and thus form our actions in response to—of course we write our stories as ballads of love.
“Love’s awfully hard,” he said, about a month after I first moved back in and was willing to actually talk a bit about things. He never came out and asked, and I wasn’t ready to volunteer very much. He never pressed. “Marriage is one of the hardest things two people can do. You have to not be too hard on yourself if it doesn’t work out, because there are two people in it, and if you’re both not pushing toward the same point, even when you’re both trying…. And if there aren’t children….” He shrugged, looking off to the side of my face in the way that he has of never looking straight at me that he has when discussing emotions, because they make him squirmy. “You have to take some time off and know that loving another person is just rough.” And then we went outside and hacked the privet hedge in the front into shape.
I love my husband very much. And he loves me. And I know him well in some ways, and he likewise. And in other ways, both of us have failed to know one another in critical ways, either because we have changed, or because we never knew one another as well as we hoped, or because we were scared to tell one another about the scariest parts of ourselves, or because we were or are scared to know what those parts are and share them, and they have to be shared if we’re going to move forward. We had lots of fun. Laughed. Showed up places dressed in the same colors. Finished one another’s sentences, often. Tried to give one another considerate gifts. And yet, the story ends sadly because once we discovered the facts, we discovered that the things that were scary about me and the scary things that I needed and learned about me were not things he could know, no matter how well he knew and loved me (and was often the more loving one, oh, he loved me and loves me so well, better than anyone else has, even Waldorf) in so many other ways—and those things were decisive. We couldn’t just go back to our corners and hack privet hedges until the next morning because at some point, we’d gotten past the point where that would be useful. I could tell the story as a Russian-length novel with all the banalities of everyday life and worries about property, or Eliot-esque in the ways in which people change, age, fail themselves and the people around them, Flaubert-like in the hyperbolic obsession with feeling and striving the heroine has, though the parallels aren’t so close upon too close a scrutiny (no infidelity, for starters) and I wouldn’t like anyone to compare my husband with poor, put-upon, oblivious Charles.
So when the person who I love the most in the world doesn’t love me in the ways that I need to solve that story’s problems, that story has to end. A new one begins. It’s not a sequel. Call it a new chapter—whatever—but there’s a discontinuity as I break both our hearts and wallow a while and Waldorf and I elbow each other as we try to make room for each other inside this new novella of curmudgeonly grumbling about who fed the cat and who’s going to make dinner and why can’t you put the spatulas back where they belong even when Waldorf can never put them anywhere but in three different crocks his own self. Meanwhile, I reread the book of my marriage and try to learn lessons about how I should proceed differently in the future– without dwelling too much on the happy parts that will make me cry because I am lonely, or becoming too bitter about the things that didn’t work and so I could be angry at me or at my husband (two to tango and all) as I remind myself– books are for learning, not just enjoyment. I try to tick off the lessons.
Asking for help. Speaking my truth, even if it’s of anger and hurt. Doing things for myself and not waiting for them to be done unto me– even if I think others should know, even if I have asked. Being grateful when the nice things do happen—and not expecting them otherwise, because—indifference is the norm, and I shouldn’t let it reduce me to tears, though often it does. I’m awfully lonely, and not just because I miss my husband. But there are things I can do to remind myself that I am deserving.
To wit, I can buy my own flowers.
Every week. Without fail. Sometimes two bouquets a week, if I can afford it. Symbolic and therefore inherently meaningless in some meta sense? Yes. Symbolic to me, and therefore subjectively meaningful to me? Absolutely.
I like flowers. I like watching them unfold and all that possibility happen. Yes. They’re going to die, such ephemeral things. But while they live– oh, but the beauty. I like watching them across their life cycle, even like watching them in their dishabille as they wilt and flutter and die, dropping their petals and browning, like a debutante developing wattles and liver spots as she becomes a matron—but the fine bones of her coming-out photo are still visible under it all.
Waldorf has never asked about my flowers—but at my birthday, he gave me a Waterford vase. “For your floral habit,” he said.
And not every week, but some, he brings me home tulips. Or roses. Or cheap daisies or mums. I fill them with white flowers a lot, because I love how they glow against the crystal. It isn’t a vase I would have chosen myself, but Waldorf’s old-fashioned lace-curtain Irish and a Waterford vase is part of a lady’s dowry, I suppose. It’s a vote of confidence, too, I guess. I still get dowry presents.
Those semi-occasional grocery flowers (and the replacements for the protein bars of mine that he eats, the Friday night dinner dates that we keep) offset the grumbles and sighs and interruptions, the feelings that I’ve become a worry and disappointment—feelings that, if I said them aloud, he’d probably refute but which I’m not (not yet) brave enough to be a Statler curmudgeon and get testy about, state my piece and my intentions as a way of getting my nerve up to actually do it. (Would that it worked that way, hmm?)
Along with the camera (that Waldorf bought me, because I like to take photos) I need to do a better job about taking pictures of my weekly flowers. It’ll remind me not to miss a week. And to use my camera, because if I can’t have a long conversation with Waldorf with eye contact that says—thanks, Dad, I love you, too?
The least Statler can do is take some damned pictures.