Heartbreak Smiles

Sometimes I wish I could remember how I answered. Other times I am glad some of the details are obscured by the acute pain of such an unfortunate experience. It is an instance of episodic memory that no child should ever have to suffer passing from their temporal lobe into the annals long-term memory

I do remember the line of questioning well: “What do you think Wayne? Should Daddy be able to come home? Do you think he is sorry?” I remember where I was when she asked: crouched down under that 3 foot wide, awkward built-in counter space between the refrigerator and the kitchen wall. But I don’t remember how I answered. At least I don’t remember how I answered that day when I was 5 years old.

I do remember how my mother answered me years later, shortly before her body succumbed to a rare neurological disease that would rob her of her short term and eventually her long term memories. This time my father was present only as the topic of discussion and I played the inquisitioner: “Do you really love him? Why don’t you get a divorce? Do you think it is too late for you both to be happy?” My mother answered with all of the nuance and conviction that her conservative, Charismatic Christian orthodoxy afforded her: “We don’t do that! God hates divorce!”

I was not yet one year into what I thought was the perfect marriage. A marriage that is currently pending divorce, as the friend of the court determines custody and child support arrangements. It should really be little wonder to those who know me well that I have taken to the task of translating this life of pain into something I hope will encourage and inspire others, through written prose and spoken word art.

Much of my early poetry recounts the pains of the many late night fights I heard growing up, hearing my mother take care of my father when he passed out in the shower, and the time she expelled me from the house when I was 15 to go live with him, in what would become his last great alcohol binge and my parents’ last separation.

I came home from school one day to find my parents in the living room of the seedy little one bedroom apartment where my father and I had been living. My heart sank. All throughout childhood I had taken my mother’s side every single time my parents separated. She had betrayed my trust, left me feeling abandoned to the father I had always felt estranged from. But those couple of months that we lived in that grimy little apartment where we shared a bathroom college campus style with the dirty old man that lived across the hall, provided me with a sense of closeness I had never felt with my dad. This time no one asked me how I felt about things. My father and I moved home that weekend and he never moved out again.

For some time, I performed a spoken word piece called “Where I’m from.” It recounted some of these painful memories in detail and ended with the lines:

I am from the pictures in the closet
and the albums dad wont give us
Smiling, smirking, rolling my eyes
Sad eyes and heartbreak smiles
and laughter and laughter
And I need them so I don’t forget
that I am more than plain white trash
from butter and Coke and a broken home
a shiny new double wide home
and the ashes of the shack that it replaced
and the marriage that should have burned instead

I no longer perform that piece of poetry. In fact my dad did eventually give me those pictures. And I no longer want to look at them. When my wife and I separated (for the first and last time) in October, I threw the majority of those pictures into the dumpster. I was reminded of this all recently as I read a fantastic piece from Carmelene Siani at The Elephant Journal. Siani recounts being given a picture of her own parents by her daughter as a birthday gift. She gave the picture back. She couldn’t look at it. She explains,

So, I gave the picture back to my daughter. It reminded me of instability and of grownups being afraid and of my mother saying she was sick of “living with the wolf at the door” and of my father “just being friendly” with the next door neighbor’s wife and of turning over my babysitting money and of never ever wanting a swimming pool but always, always wanting parents who were stable and happy and who loved each other.

I no longer feel I need to remember the phony, posed smiles for the camera to piece together a happy childhood that didn’t exist. I would rather remember the time my dad wasn’t there and my mom, my brother, my sister and I played Yahtzee and my mom laughed, a real genuine laughter with an authentic, contagious smile and no camera to catch it. She laughed so hard that she peed her pants. I would rather remember when my parents were separated and I lived with my dad and he took me and my two younger siblings to see Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey. For once my father was fully present to all three of us because he wasn’t busy avoiding my mom. I felt at home.

Most of us have our own abandonment issues to face. My abandonment issues stem from my parents “staying together for the kids” and for the sake of their religion. They do not stem from the marriage ending. There is no doubt in my mind that my lack of trust, my acclimation to instability and feeling unworthy of love all contributed to the dissolution of my own marriage. But as Katie Vessel wrote a few months ago, the same week my wife and I agreed to separate, “My fear of abandonment from others was really my fear of abandoning myself.” She continues,

As a child, I did not yet have this wisdom. I read books, I wrote, I would draw and do my best to appear confident and conformed to social expectations, but I struggled.

As an adult, I get to choose.

On the cusp of 39 years of age, I am choosing to look at this as a second chance. I am choosing to look at this as a chance that my parents never gave themselves or their children. A chance for me, my soon to be ex-wife and our two children to live and love vigorously. A chance to greet the world with the warm, authentic smiles. The kind of smiles that are nurtured by stability and the certainty of two parents who love each of them with a boundless love, whether we are together or apart.

I no longer want to remember the sad eyes and heartbreak smiles of my childhood. I just want to remember my mom happy, free and laughing until she peed her pants. I choose to remember my dad taking us kids to the movies and being fully present to us. My own children are only 6 and 8 years of age. And I want the same thing for them, without a lifetime of canned, phony smiles they would someday rather forget.

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