Accepting the Baton of Dealing with Troubled Emotional Habits

You know the joke: Sam and Sadie waited till they were both past ninety to get divorced. The judge says, “This is highly unusual a couple your age having been married for sixty-eight years wanting a divorce, but, seeing no legal reason not to grant it I have only one question: why’d you wait so long?” Sam looked down then shyly over to Sadie who took a big tired breath and said, “We wanted to wait till our children died.”

A few years ago, at 92, my father passed. My mom had died a few years earlier, in a car accident in which my father was driving. At the stop sign, as he edged out into traffic, he’d say: “you check to see if any cars are coming on your side.” There was one. An enormous Ford SUV. She didn’t say a thing… ever again. But, about ten years before all this they separated, and, to my recollection, my sister and I were still alive and kicking. Though, for me, maybe there was a sort of long slow symbolic death, and an ongoing, however difficult, rebirth.

Now wait a minute, if they separated why were they driving together when she died? Eight month after their break up, they came back together. Kind of. It was my mother’s choice to separate and her choice to return. (She had been in a fairly cool elderly “hotel.”) The fact that when they initially separated my father quite promptly scored a forty-five year old girlfriend probably contributed to my mother’s blinking first. And this was, among many things, a game of chicken. A long, long, sad, complex, interwoven game. One that obviously affected me.

In his youth, my father moved three thousand miles to get some distance from his loving but far too controlling mother. When he met the woman who became his wife, my mother, she had that kind of seductive wounded beauty and dreamy optimism that made you want to take care of her. And that is exactly what he did – as in taking care he was doubly insuring himself not to be controlled by a woman again. Wrong, big time. My mother became more and more “ill,” the diagnosis of which changed with the psychoanalytic fashion of each decade: “female problems,” hysterical, nervousness, excessively bored, low esteem, acute paranoia, manic depressive and finally, what seems to be the current default, bipolar. And the institutionalized demands of her state of mind on my father controlled if not constricted him far more than he could control her.

No matter what the truth of her actual mental state was, the diagnostic description always allowed my father the distinctively male luxury of not having to take this woman, his wife, seriously. After all, wasn’t she mentally unstable? And if hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, women (or anyone) hath no debilitating frustration like their reality invalidated. Thus, my father unknowingly inflicted on her a frustration that continued to further debilitate her. And trap himself.

When I spoke of the concept responsibility to my father, he interpreted it as blame, an indictment of himself. He prided himself, and rightly so, on having always provided our family with a warm home and food on the table; for sticking it through when many men might not have. This pride fueled him and allowed him to justify his occasional transgressions against his role as martyr. As enlightened as many of us who have gone through the sixties may think we are, I admit, sadly, to my affinity with my father’s hidden (and ultimately unworkable) logic: Be a mensch. Be compassionate. But be in control.

How “responsibility” relates to my mother seems equally mired in her misinterpretation of the idea of it. For no matter how unpopular these days it is among certain groups to imply that anyone is in any way responsible for their own illness – the reality created by one’s choices through life, can often suggest, at least, a possible reason for one’s predisposition and/or predilection toward that illness. My mother was a victim and became more a victim and, though she fought against it, she never took responsibility for it — other than the fact, that for better or worse, she married and stayed with my father. Except for that brief time of separation.

As a child, my parents’ divorcing was my worst nightmare. I was the one, at least in my own mind, who worked tirelessly to keep them together. I would regularly wait by the dark night window for my father to come home from work, willing his headlights into our driveway. The thoughts in my head were not unlike those of a hungry fisherman focusing solely on his rod, sensitive to every hopeful nibble. After a heated fight, I would make them kiss in front of me and promise they would never, ever get divorced. I would make them hold hands. But mostly I would worry about that which I never saw or heard, but constantly felt like a chronic stomach ache. Who I became, in many respects, was greatly informed by this insecure vigilance in my youth; by this constant fear of abandonment, by this natural reflexive desire to shore up a disintegrating family. How seamless it had been for me, for many men, to continue this role as care taker/provider and to find women who, at least seemed to, want to be or needed to be taken care of.

I went once to an Al-anon meeting when I first became aware of this pattern as a sort of addiction. The room was quite packed, predominantly with woman, and I immediately had that warm feeling of recognition: I know who these woman are; wounded beauty that made you want to take care of them; these are the ones that I had found and singled out at parties, in crowds; these are the ones that were easy for me to seduce; these are the ones that I’d always been involved with, that I try to make life mates. These were less my mothers and more the women who my father would feel safe with.

Although much of the reason that my parents stayed together all those years was generational, the decision to separate was my mother’s. My father was saddened, a bit awkwardly embarrassed (what will the neighbors think?), but not surprised. Somewhat relieved, but mostly at a loss to explain how life had happened the way it had. Wasn’t she just sick and he did what you’re supposed to do? Now, without the tacit excuses that all care-takers have as to why they don’t take care of themselves, he was left with an odd challenge: to try to make sense of a life he had both chosen and didn’t choose. At eighty, he said that there doesn’t seem to be any real incentive to rise to that challenge. To break the pattern, I told him. For me. For my son. But eight months on his own (even with a “girlfriend”) was not long enough for him to really have to deal with himself. To even attempt to understand how he arrived at where he was. By the time he might have essayed any change, my mother returned .. .and, of course, it’s easier to resume old habits if you’re not forced to change. So…

What my parents never dealt with in all of their sixty-six years of marriage was exactly what I simultaneously was dealing with (as opposed to separating) in my own marriage, my second marriage of, at the time, nearly ten years. When you’re over forty the big advantage is that there’s no way to blame the other person. When I found myself in the same relationship over and over, well… I guess I’m just a late learner. And yes, for this lesson to be learned, good-bye kids stuff. Time to grow up. So in a way I did die. A slow route, but who’s counting?

Probably it was the right thing that my parents got back together. After all, over a half-century of habits are difficult to change. Just the fact that they’d actively done anything toward either an improved relationship or simply improved separate lives, bodes very well unto itself. Isn’t that partly what it’s all about: to continue to continue to work life out?

Analytically, it seems odd to me that I’d continue to be affected by the choices of my deceased parents let alone by any comments they might or might not have made. Never the less, even though there’s been a few too early mornings when, in the twilight of consciousness, I’ve found myself momentarily lapse into that terrified little-boy self, afraid of being abandoned — I finally was more than ready to face the worst: freedom for those I love, freedom for myself, and an end to generations of a pattern that helped prevent it. And I’m still married.