In the end, there wasn’t any one or even multiple tipping points. Just a cavalcade of tiny irritants disguised as the business of keeping three – then four – tiny humans alive.
There were signs.
My voice a bludgeon; its sheer force fluttering my eldest son’s hair. He shrank, eyes wide.
My voice a badger; its infinite impatience battering my daughter’s heart. She screamed back, eyes narrowed.
My voice a bane, casual in its cruelty.
Always, always. Only my voice.
Carefully, carefully. Only my voice.
Only my voice didn’t sound like me. It sounded like my father.
“Bring me your My Little Pony!”
“Which one?” she whispered.
“Your favorite one. Bring it. I’ll know if it isn’t.”
She ran away, sobbing.
“Hurry up! I’m going to cut your pony up in front of your face!”
My husband just stared at me, mouth open. “Are you serious? This is ridiculous. What are you doing? She’s four.”
I crumpled to the floor as my daughter returned with Fluttershy, hand trembling. I hugged her as she wept.
I did not cut up her pony.
I was a failure. Not only because I yelled – but because I didn’t follow through on my threats. I don’t know what this says about me as a person that I was more concerned about not doing what I said I would than the fear I inflicted upon a four year old.
This was not our first nor our last skirmish. My daughter and I battled every morning for a year and a half when she was three because I insisted she eat a plain bowl of oatmeal for breakfast. Why was I so insistent on her eating a bowl of oatmeal when there were millions of acceptable breakfast alternatives? I had no idea. I just knew that the more she refused, the more I insisted.
For another year and a half when she turned five, she tantrumed, wailed, and spat invectives at me for no reason I could discern other than because. She was impossible.
She was my mirror. A clarion. A foreshadow.
I despised her.
“I know what you’re thinking,” he said. “I know because I used to be your age and think the same things. Well, you’re wrong and one day you’ll know. Stop it. Wipe that look off your face.”
I glared up at my 6 foot tall father, defiance bristling from my eleven year old body, fists clenched to my sides as I envisioned patricide in the middle of our kitchen, that mute witness to countless acts of violence both real and imagined.
I swallowed. I wiped the look off my face. I retreated.
It started as most stories started: long before most participants were born, buried in the haze of memory and willful estrangement.
But I remember.
I remember my father, bright and shining. So full of life. Sharp and clever. The center of every good time.
I worshipped him.
I barely remember my mother at all. Was she even there? Her edges were always blurred.
My father wielded words as benediction and weapon. He slipped in and out of the truth with such facility that to this day, I do not know which stories were real. It is only after asking my mother that I discover the lie to so many. But how does one fact check their entire childhood?
My father’s voice and its absence have shaped my whole life. It has whipped me into anxious frenzies of worthlessness. It has chased me into the arms of men who were wholly perfect for my exact type of Daddy Issues. It has echoed in the silence after fights with my mother and my children.
Though it’s been eight years since I last heard it, his voice defines my life even still.
“Did Baba wish you a happy birthday?”
“What did you talk about?”
“He wished me a happy birthday. Chatted a bit and then he hung up.”
“What did you think would happen?”
“I don’t know. Why were you so…” My mother trailed off. She reeked of anger and disappointment. Her face was turned away.
“So… what? You told us not to say anything. To act as if we didn’t know. What did you expect me to do? He was the only one to call me on my birthday, by the way.”
My mother shrugged.
“The moment you tell me we are allowed to know about his other child, the moment we are allowed to know that he has had multiple affairs, the moment we are allowed to acknowledge what he is, I will tell him he is no longer welcome in my life. That he is dead to me and my children.”
She was silent.
“Why do we protect him? Why do we act as if this is our shame when it is his? Why do we do everything we can to protect his reputation when he does not care about us? When he does anything he wants with no repercussions? Why can he treat us this way? Why do you allow it? Why do you force us to allow it?”
My mother stared at my 18 month old son, my then only child.
“He can’t even be bothered to lie to us well. He doesn’t even try to make sense. He either thinks we are too stupid to see through his lies or he has such contempt for us that he doesn’t care. Why do you allow this? Why are you still with him? Do you know that despite Baba lying to us – YOU are the one who taught me how to lie? You, Mom. You.”
Her mouth was a tight line. “I will think about what you said.”
The next day, she sent an email to my brother and me and said we were allowed to know. We could act as if we knew. At last.
I waited three days.
Then I told my father over email that he was dead to me. That we knew all about his secret family. That we knew he was trying to steal whatever money he could from my mother. That he was a horrible excuse for a father and husband and that in the future, should he be dying or sick, he could ask his new family to care for him.
He fired back an email, even then trying to goad me into replying. He called my mother and accused her of turning me against him. She called my brother, furious and bewildered that I would do such a thing. My brother texted me. I said that I had waited three days.
I had waited thirty-three years.
I swallowed all my words as my father taught me and never spoke to him again.
Until my first son was 18 months old and I was pregnant with my second child, I had never raised my voice at him.
Fast forward three more years when I had three children under the age of five, raising my voice was the least of my concerns. Daily, I screamed a litany of obscenities. Daily, I shouted my throat raw. Daily, I restrained myself from beating the shit out of my children, whom I loved more than my own life.
I could not stop myself.
I couldn’t interpret what the pressure and heat meant as it built up in my chest. I couldn’t understand that the fidgety discomfort was a clue to my emotional distress.
I had spent three and a half decades lying to myself. I was so good at it that I couldn’t even recognize what was happening in my own body as it was happening.
It may shock my friends and readers to hear that I have buried my words for the majority of my life. How could it be when I trade in them and say so much of what I think without much thought at all?
And yet, it was so.
I felt as if I were dying. Suffocating in a slow burn of grief. Drowning in impotent rage.
No matter what my therapists said, no matter what my friends said, no matter what I said to myself, the fear that I was a monster just like my father refused to be rooted out. It sank deep, eyes hooded, barely rippling the surface of my soul. It hibernated, content to wait me out.
I had exiled my father yet he was ever-present, overpowering my desires, streaming from my mouth. My traitorous mouth.
Last year, in the year I turned forty, I was inches away from discarding the family I willed into existence and forged in my womb. I could not understand how I had everything I thought I ever wanted and yet was still so furious. How could it be that all the choices I made for my life seemed to only increase my rage?
How could I have tried to form a different life for my children and yet still, it seemed destined to be sucked into the black hole my father created in me? How could I possibly escape gravity?
After three years of therapy and making progress with my yelling and dealing with my emotions, I regressed. I found myself back at square one – only worse because I knew that I had once been capable of being a better person and now I had four children instead of three.
How could I keep drafting innocent babies into this house on fire?
I despised myself.
It got worse.
But just as there was no particular tipping point in the downward trajectory, there also was not one on the scrabble back up.
I cut my hair into a lazy person’s mohawk. I dyed it deep blue with a purple tint. Then purple. Then fuschia. I bought a moto jacket. I got four large tattoos of my children’s Chinese zodiac signs on my back. I spent thousands of dollars on Korean boy band, BTS.
I covered my face as I vomited pain all over my therapist’s couch.
I fought with my husband.
I pretended I was someone who continued.
“Stop crying! Stop it! If you must cry more, go to your room. I’ve had enough.”
My daughter, now seven, did not stop crying. She also did not go to her room. In fact, she sobbed harder. I sighed.
“Come here.” I opened my arms and she crawled onto me, continuing her onslaught of tears. I patted her and made appropriate comfort noises.
She shuddered a breath and hugged me as I kissed her hot, wet face.
I did not die.
In the end, it was not precisely a coda but a de capo with ill-defined measures.