Collateral Damage

Scroll up or click on “home” to read previous chapters in the history of my family – the story of where I came from.

This is chapter 8, the final chapter:

“So, What About Me?”

They still flit through my dreams.  The parents, the relatives, other assorted past significants.  I confess I awaken glad that they’re gone.  My immediate family really is gone.  Every vestige of their existence (their home, business, vehicles, possessions) has disappeared save a few sticks of furniture and some boxes of papers in my basement.  I’ve come to terms with that void and my empty place where parental love and acceptance should have been.  It’s taken me my whole life up to this point but it’s finally clear how I am who I am because of who they were.

I don’t regard my family history as particularly unusual.  I’ve heard much worse from a lot of people. I also realize my situation pales in comparison to the dreadful childhoods which we hear about all too often. I didn’t write this narrative as an accusation or a catharsis.  Thinking back on all these events it just seemed like a pretty good story.  Colorful characters, conflict, emotion, loss – the works.  I understand that my elders had no nurturing, supportive model to inform their actions.  It would have been difficult for them to behave much differently than they did.  The effect on me was, merely, collateral damage.  Forgiveness, in this case, is a big word given that damage.  We forgive children and pets when they screw up.  Maybe adults should be held to a higher standard.  Maybe people should be able to, somehow, reach beyond their automatic thinking and realize the mayhem they are inflicting.  With an anger built on pain and dulled by time, I will reserve judgment on forgiveness.  More importantly, the question I must resolve is – how will I behave, now, given how family life was modeled for me?

I’ve had my relationship failures.  I’ve made poor choices.  My life before I developed some insight was headed for the same train-wreck model I had come to know from my youth.  But I’ve changed, unlike my elders.  The insight I’ve achieved is a genuine perception, gathered through long and hard examination of the past and all its complex, scary, sad echoes – it’s  not the slogan-driven, psycho-babble psuedo-insight so popular today, especially on Facebook.  Armed with this awareness, I’ve been able to begin to break the cycle of generational accidental behavior.  I’ve been fortunate to have had a lot of emotional support and I can see more clearly where the bad example ends and I begin.

Then there’s my daughter.  I was, somehow, able to see beyond all my learned bad behavior and appreciate the unfettered love coming from her and respond to it.  I was a very angry person in her early life, for which I am deeply sorry as it affected my daughter.  She has told me that, sometimes, she would look at me and wonder “Why is he always so angry?”  Anger is pain and that was welling up straight from my early life.  In many ways I think my daughter saved my life.  If she hadn’t been around I may have continued down the same path as those who came before me.  I had no other true example of giving and receiving love before my relationship with her.  Without her unflagging concern, love and support I would have had no reason to question everything and try to understand the effect of my early environment.  I still have my blind spots and my empty places but I hope I’m more clear-eyed about how my family’s behavior has shaped me.  I also hope I can continue to forge a life that’s not dependent – not slaved – to the unthinking, angry, fearful model I was presented with as a child.

Probably the most important thing any of us can hope for is to leave behind a strong, loving bond with those who come after us. It’s the only part of us that will live on. Other achievements will fade, leaving money behind is nice but it won’t heal the hurts when you’re gone.  The only thing that will survive is a true, warm memory in the mind of a loved one.  I have few such memories and it’s sad.  That dirth of fond recollection really does erase my family permanently.  I can only hope to end the dismal spiral of acrimony I was exposed to and replace it, going forward, with another model of family feeling.  It’s no easy task and it also informs every other aspect of my life – every other relationship, no matter how superficial or casual.  Otherwise, eventually, I will be erased, forever, as well.

Understanding my past, however, has never made me feel hopeless.  I have come to terms with sadness and wear it with all the other components of my character.  It’s not the controlling emotion.  It just exists alongside everything else.  Without it I would be blind to the hand I was dealt.  Sadness informs the truth of who I am and makes me more resolved about who I strive to be.

It’s tempting to think “what if?”  What if I had had more support, come from a more enlightened environment, had a better financial model?  It’s pointless.  I believe emotional healing is based on accepting what is and what was.  Striving to model a different paradigm is all the sweeter when your achievement is in spite of the bumps, bruises and travails of the past.  It would have been nice if my parents were able to stop and understand the needs of a child, as I have tried to do with my daughter, but they didn’t.  In spite of that, I have had some success in the arts, theatre, television and real estate.  I have a strong, close relationship with my daughter.  I will take sole credit for those achievements – my childhood never prepared me for them.  I am fortunate that my intellect has emerged intact and that I was able to expand it well beyond anything my family exhibited, despite my early environment.  Early history will continue to influence and inform some of my behavior but now I can recognize when it’s harming me and prevent it from leading to disaster.

There’s a movie that always circles me back on my childhood and what it has wrought from me in the present. In “Disney’s The Kid”, Russ Duritz (Bruce Willis) is confused by the sudden appearance of his 8 year-old self, Rusty, (a wonderful Spencer Breslin). The two of them embark on a journey of discovery into his childhood past and its echoes into the future. The movie always makes me very emotional as the younger Rusty prods memory from his older self and the older Russ helps his little self through a significant episode in the past.  The image of Willis embracing and re-assuring little Breslin is the quintessential image of a grown up self comforting the “inner child”, a frightened, confused, innocent, vulnerable child who deserves love, acceptance and care and gets something less.  What Rusty teaches his elder self is that the past will control the future only if we are afraid to confront it and change.  It’s a struggle that goes on in me every day.

I hope the angry, colorful, funny, fearful, profane and very sad people from my past, whose blood I share, have found some peace in life and in whatever lies beyond.  I continue to make my own peace – with them – with memory – and with myself.


2 thoughts on “Collateral Damage

  1. Hello Jim! I really enjoyed reading the history of your family. Always looked forward to the next chapter. Thank you for posting!

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