Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Emotional Sneak-Attack

One of the elements in life that can be jarring is the emotional sneak-attack. We can think, as much as we want, that we have filed our experiences into their appropriate cabinets and closed the doors; that everything is shuffled into its respective folder for permanent storage. But experiences are less like files put into a cabinet than they are like animals stuffed into cages; and a caged animal will try to get out.

I was in the car, a few days ago, when I remembered an incident with my dad, a little while before he died. He was in the early grips of dementia. My mother had needed surgery, so I went to their apartment, while she was in the hospital, to stay with him, because his mind just was not right.

That night we had numerous "conversations." One of them had been about how my father "knew what was going on" between "[my mom] and [so-and-so]." Clearly, my dad pointed out, they were having an affair. For the record, he was about as wrong as one can get: [so-and-so] is my mom's brother and, he's gay. 

But I would sit and listen and do my best not to patronize him -- to make the conversation as real as possible; to endure the sadness it brought upon me to hear him struggle with a partial understanding that he was making no sense and his efforts at defending himself as sane: "I know -- you think I am crazy..."

Finally, it was bed time. As I was getting him settled in, he began to tell me about the noises he was hearing at night; that he thought there might be ghosts in the place. My dad had always, even when lucid, had a belief in the possibility of supernatural phenomena, so I was not surprised that he now believed there might be some retirement community haunting going on.

I did my best to dismiss the sounds he was "hearing" -- a loud heater; the refrigerator motor -- and he was pretty well tucked in. As I left the room, he said, good naturedly, "Do you want to sleep in here? Like, in the bed, here?"


"I mean," he said (and pardon the direct quotation from a man of another generation who would, in life, never have discriminated against even those for whom he used politically incorrect terms), "It's not like we're faggots..."

"I know, Dad," I said. "It's not that. It's just that it is seven o'clock and I am not really tired yet."

"Oh," he said, clearly disappointed. "Well...maybe when you are tired..."

"Yeah...maybe. Good night."

Well, I didn't go in there when I was tired. I slept on my mom and dad's awful couch. In fact, it threw my back out of whack for about three months. Maybe that was payback for my insensitivity...

....because, all I could think, last week, when this event of about four years ago popped into my head, was: couldn't you have just gotten into bed with your dad? After all the irrational fears he talked you through as a kid; after all the comfort he brought you in the late hours, after a long day's work, when he would rather have been asleep? 

I can still see his face in a flashback to my childhood; I can see him in silhouette, sitting on the edge of my bed, on a night of sickness or of irrational childhood fear, looking down at me. I can feel him gently squeeze my arm and say, "If I could, I'd take this from you and onto myself, I would. I'd be sick or scared for you, if I could..."

But I couldn't inconvenience myself when he saw a monster in his closet...

Maybe a better metaphor for this is that memories are sharks down below us, cruising around, waiting to clamp onto our legs. This one got me good.

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