When my Dad was mad he’d threaten me with sixteen kinds of hurt.
There was the clip over the ear; the smack on the chops; the belt across my buttocks; the gut punch; the double fisted shirt grab; the single handed throat grip; the thrown object; the arse over tit shove; the chair knock over; the millimetre-close door slam; the bookcase pulldown; the plate slid across the table to smash and send food into my lap. There were probably others. Who was counting? The whole show was all about his abandonment to ferocity, the strength of his feeling and the feeling was entirely of the moment. Wherever he was and whatever he had to hand, right there and right then.
Thinking back, the hurt never changed much. To me it was always the same goulash of surprise, fear, humiliation, shame and bewilderment. Even today, in moments of stress, these same churning peppery sensations are instantly present when I see hurt coming. It doesn’t have to be a physical blow. The hurt can be emotional, financial, professional or anything really, they all produce roughly the same effect. My face flushes, my eyes look to the floor, my scalp itches, my hands shake, and my gut goes in all directions at once. I go mute and rag doll: can’t speak, can’t move. I’m thinking “just hit me already.” If I see it coming I am a duplicate of my frightened eight year old self, paralysed, not even able to brace for impact.
As a child this rag doll passivity served a dual purpose. Firstly, it got the impact over with and I could retreat to wherever might be safe, usually my room or outside with the dog. Secondly, it made the injustice I felt and suffered concrete, and from that materiality I could righteously absolve myself of whatever role I may played in producing the circumstances, in causing him to hurt me. My consoling righteousness enabled fantasies of revenge: hitting back, withdrawing love, stealing hope, sabotaging comfort, crushing dreams, undermining confidence, trivialising joy. I imagined inflicting all of these and, perhaps, with the shaky hands of the afraid, tried to do it once in a while.
But he was my Dad and he wasn’t like that all the time.
He didn’t say sorry, ever that I recall, and he didn’t do remorse, but he was loving. He wasn’t very good at it. He really sucked at it. I didn’t know why this was for a long time, and during that long period of not knowing I was not inclined to be forgiving. I didn’t want to know why he was so terrible at love, or how hard he tried. I was too busy trying not to be terrible at love myself and forgiving him might have required me to directly address the limits of my own capacities for love, as well as acknowledging that my own deliveries of hurt to others were similarly unforgivable, modelled as they were upon his. I didn’t care what broke his heart. I only cared that he broke mine and that my broken heart had led me astray, making hurt a big landmark in my topography of love.
I thought he should pay for this. I thought that whenever I came into view the hurt he did should block every path in his future. I can’t remember when I realised that revenge was an unreliable compass, when I understood that my hurt could be duplicated in my loved ones and it could block all our paths. Later, I knew that my hurt was a duplication of his and that the course laid out by my revenge for this could take us all back to square one. Whenever it was that this became known to me it was already too late for Dad and me. His journey, his hurts and his burdens, demanded a heavy price in health and then he was gone.
I’d like to think that the cycle has been interrupted, that there is no more duplication of his hurts, that violence need not be a gift the men of our family keep on giving. I hope that the hurt and violence he gifted me is quarantined in my dreams of him, and not in the architecture of my children’s lives. I’ve worked hard to this end, to untether violence from a father’s love, from a man’s love. This is a worthy project that can only expand the prospects for loving well, and for being justly loved. It’s not without cost. There’s a weight to carry and not put down: a sadness that the past cannot be reconfigured in a similar light, that hurt cannot be undone, that we can’t go back and find a way for our fathers to forget all sixteen kinds of hurt.