“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”— Leo Tolstoy
I love that quote. I think it’s the best part of the book. A 964 paged cautionary tale to unhappily married women everywhere, where 963.75 pages are dedicated to warning women about the perils of daring to be happy [a lesson already heavily integrated throughout our society and, therefore, completely unnecessary]. A tale as old as time, Anna Karenina is one where themes of self-discovery and adultery walk hand-in-hand with the backdrop that incorporates serfdom, duty and, of course, a well-established patriarchy. If you do manage to wade through the endless verbosity and tragic romance that made Russian writers famous, you may gleam some insight about how marriage can be a vehicle for creation…or a tool for complete destruction.
That’s my take on it anyway. Yep. That’s all I took away from it.
And that’s exactly what I’m thinking of as I sit here with my family, in their brand new home. I arrived a little over a week ago from Australia and have been sliding through a tidal wave of emotions ever since. My father was recently diagnosed with stage 3 bowel cancer and, after a successful surgery that removed the mass along with some of his lymph nodes, has started a very aggressive form of chemotherapy. The effects aren’t pretty, and I knew they wouldn’t be. I was warned by several of my closest friends who have no interest in painting rosy pictures that this would be the challenge of my life. Whenever I felt as if I had finally come to terms with the long, hard fight ahead – I would be reminded by something of just how unprepared I was to see someone who I loved so much, with whom I have felt directly at odds so many times, suffer so deeply. More than once, I had to remove myself from a meeting by sheer force of will so as to not end-up collapsing into a trembling, sexy, snotty, fabulous pile of self-pity. More than once, by the divine kindness of friends too far away to do anything else but listen, did I find myself reduced to a trembling, sexy, snotty, fabulous pile of self-pity.
Eventually, I just got to the point where I didn’t want to be around anyone – and I removed myself entirely from the world of social interaction. I cancelled on evening get-togethers with friends, stopped returning texts and signed off of my Facebook account. I spent week nights and weekends at home, face planted on my red shag rug, watching British dramas with the blinds closed and the ringer turned off. I didn’t sleep. I punished myself in the gym. I played the piano for hours. I cleaned until the bleach had soaked into my pores and ran through my veins.
If I stop to analyze why it got to that point, I think it was all about preparing myself to come home and deal with the realities of caring for someone who’s sick, face-to-face.
But nothing could prepare me, of course. It was just my way of trying to exert control over the things within my power to provide the illusion of preparation. I know that because I will never forget how I felt when I saw him in the airport when he picked me up. He was very thin, he was very frail and he was using a walker.
Fuck preparation. That’s my dad.
It’s not your typical father-daughter relationship by any means. He never called me his princess, and I never asked him to provide me with a fairy tale wedding.
Rather, it’s the kind of dynamic that would make Carl Jung sit back, twirl his moustache and say “Wait…go back. I don’t get it.” And I think it comes down to the subject of respect. My father and I have a mutual respect that doesn’t really exist for many people between whom lies a 32 year age gap, family or no. My best friend described it as an “aggro love,” where our affection is largely conveyed by a pride in getting the other to do something that they don’t want to do. Admit a fault. Concede an argument. Admit a mistake. It’s fun, but to outsiders, I reckon that sometimes we look like two people in business with one another than family.
And even though he participated in the same old lame-ass double standards of how you treat sons versus daughters, and even though he summoned all the dark forces available to him in order to stunt my adolescence for as long as humanly possible, he also did something that most fathers don’t do with their little girls – If it ever came down to a matter of being brave or being nice, he told me to be brave. Above all other things – be brave. Women should have the right to be brave – and that being nice was overrated.
So, when I get sad about [insert inane life drama here] or [insert name of person who enables inane life drama here] and I start to question who I am or what I’m about…I find myself drawing back to a centre that rings like a massive bell, and it echoes to me “This is not how you were raised.”
But, in the wake of this recent diagnosis, I’ve begun to realize that it’s not just what he taught me that’s at the centre of who I am. It’s him.
Perhaps, in my raw emotional state, I had forgotten about how things go around here. I forgot about the dynamic between my parents. I forgot about how she mutters things beneath her breath that nobody can hear, and how she moves things around that don’t make any sense. I forgot that she makes up things that never happened, and that she struggles with displaying affection openly to anyone. I forgot about how difficult it was to engage in a conversation with her, and how we often feel like a phantom limb of the other.
I forgot about how easily dad gets irritated with her, about how he no longer cares about raising his voice and sharply chastising her in front of guests and family. I forgot about how frustrated he is with his physical health, and how he expresses that by regressing to a state that can make him just plain mean.
I forgot about how their relationship draws the energy from the room like the sun draws water from the desert.
And within moments of stepping foot into their new house, I was thirsty.
I guess I should have known that cancer wouldn’t change any of that. Cancer can’t change the nature of a marriage anymore than it can change the nature of the alignment of the planets. It can, however, bring out the worst in everyone.
But then again, so can marriage.
“So, what does it take to make a marriage last?”
My cousin Lorenzo raises his curly grey eyebrows in an impressive display of side-eye and then exhales sharply and says “Shoot. Beats me.” He’s approaching his 50th wedding anniversary in October [don’t quote me on the month] and I figure if anyone can help me figure out the answer to this question, it’s him. He and my dad grew up together, although he is a bit older, and my dad has always looked up to him, which makes me stand at attention. Even though the dynamic between my father and I has been at times contentious, blossoming into a full-blown power struggle on several occassions, it cannot be denied that he is the most important person in my life.
That’s why I’m here in Florida right now, instead of Cuba. He’s sick. That’s all that really needs to be said.
Lorenzo is an intriguing character. He’s a Vietnam veteran who served three tours in the jungle and then became a school principal, but if you met him today you’d distinguish him by how he dotes upon his grand children and various house pets. I’m fascinated by the transition that men undergo as they age and become fathers, because I know that even though they have regrets…and they wish that they could have done a number of things differently, if given the opportunity to go back in time and make different life choices – they probably wouldn’t. Lorenzo’s folly in marriage was the same as my father’s – ambition. They were both men who understood the risks of complacence, and were determined to subvert the appointed edicts of their maker in order to disrupt their pre-assigned class structure…and they succeeded. They succeeded at great cost to people around them.
There’s another word for it – selfishness.
Not in life, but in love. And this is something he’s very forthcoming about today as he sits on the couch in my parents’ new home and faithfully pets the dog, who has laid her head on his lap after suspiciously circling him for the past ten minutes. I don’t hold it against him, and I don’t hold it against dad. Joyce, his wife, sits next to him and listens pensively with little facial expression. It’s not like she disagrees with anything he says. He wishes he had been more considerate, and thought more about what was right for his partner and less about his military career. He faults pride and laziness as sources of severed relationships and cannot speak highly enough of the value of patience. Joyce is sweet and kind, and her face softens as she affirms what he says with a smile and by nodding her head – but, a woman of far fewer words than her husband, she also makes the most poignant remark of all:
“It takes a lot of work.”