I dreamt a while ago that my father kidnapped me, tied me up in his trunk and brought me to an empty sewer line. He handcuffed me to a pipe, facing the wall and explained all the precision and care he had taken to ensure that no one would miss me for weeks.
In reality, I am the youngest child in my family and the only one my father has been unable to track down and mildly terrorize. I have lived as discreetly as possible - no bills with my name attached, no credit cards, nothing that would leave a trail, in the hopes of escaping any contact with him. This last nightmare was the worst of all my "what if..." scenarios.
In my vivid subconscious he chuckled, pleased by his own cruelty. His hollow laughter echoed and died as he walked towards an unseen, far off exit. The only decision left to make, he yelled into the darkness between us, was how he would kill me.
He left me there in the dank, silent blackness for hours. There was a faint haze of light in the air, but nothing to see. I remember sensing water nearby, but then I heard his footsteps again and his self-satisfied whistling. He stood a few feet away and announced that he had decided on using patient, delicate, repetition. His plan was to strip me naked, bind me to a raised platform further down the sewage line, and with a fine blade, slit me, just enough so that I would bleed, from head to toe, down each section of my body. There was no need to gag my mouth, he said smiling, since we were so far below ground. He would wait for my blood to clot, then he would cut again, deeper each time, letting my blood wash away, over me, until I bled to death. How delicious, he said, that all of my determination to protect myself had been in vain, that all of my fears, those spoken and unspoken, were coming true. And, really, he was killing five birds with one stone, he said, because what a blow it would be to my siblings when they heard the news that their uppity baby sister bled to death like a butchered pig a few hundred feet below the city.
As these images began to slip from my sleeping mind and shove me back into consciousness, I wondered if anyone had noticed yet that I was gone. I jerked awake, tense and sweating, wondering how long it would take me to bleed to death, how much blood I could lose without losing my life.
I have a reoccurring fantasy of singing to my father at his graveside. At least when he is in the ground I can approach him without fear and finally release some of the demons in my heart. I would sing hymns, maybe bluegrass, something to soothe, something to connect, or maybe in order to leave him, to let my father go in a way that, years from now, might feel something like forgiveness.
Something I should mention about my father is that he killed my mother. Technically, pneumonia brought on by a collapsed lung, which she suffered while fighting breast cancer, killed her, but my father gave her cancer the advantage from the beginning. When my mother began to sense that something was wrong, that perhaps her cells were betraying her, he forbade her to go to a doctor. He declared that her fears of illness were a test of her faith, that doctors would only interfere. He took great pleasure in controlling and adding to any suffering, particularly that of his family. Months went by until, finally, she snuck out of the house, out of her own house, and went to Georgia Baptist Hospital.
...If only she had come to them sooner... How long had she suspected? Yes, let's start treatment immediately, not a day to lose...
During the last two years of her life, she was often in the hospital for weeks at a time. We lived far from the hospital, so we couldn't see her much during those long stretches away. On one such night, my sisters and I called her hospital room and a nurse answered. She had been checking our mother's vital signs and medications. We asked her to put the phone by mama's ear so she could hear our voices. Then, for about fifteen minutes we sang to her, favorite hymns, the same hymns she had filled our home with for as long as we could remember. Mama would start humming to herself, then sing lightly, as she cooked supper or folded warm, clean clothes. One of us would join in mid-verse from the living room, and another from a bedroom, our voices blending from all corners of the house. That night we sang into the phone to ease her mind, to assure her that the roots of her love still grew deep within us. We said goodnight to her, then cried for a while, holding each other close because she couldn't.
In the end, we set up a makeshift hospice for her in the living room. We brought her home to prepare for what none of us had the stomach or words to talk about. She died on May 26, 1987 at 6:36am, while the five of us were getting ready for school. I was ten years old.
My heart still breaks every time new medical strides in breast cancer treatments are covered in the news. It is not that I am jealous of those who will survive it, or of the children who will have their mothers much longer than I had mine. I mourn my mother's lost time. I regret that she died in his house, with her wedding ring in the back of a drawer, heavy as a stake driven into the ground, pinning down each of us to our shared familial fate. She pulled the ring off her finger using a little olive oil. She was too weak to get to the courthouse to sever the legal ties, but at least she didn't have to stare at that damned gold band all day. I mourn the years she could have had to get to know herself again, maybe for the first time, independent of him. I mourn my loss of that same opportunity, to know who she was, other than 'mama', to have vivid memories of her, rather than of the cancer that ate her alive and took her from us.
We were orphaned when mama died, our father having abandoned us a few years before. If he had abandoned us completely that would have at least been a clean break, but he showed up in our lives with calculated timing to threaten any adults who tried to take us in, any one who offered their help. Because of him, my sister and I were stuck in an orphanage for four years. A few years ago we found out about the death threats he had made to several families and individuals who attempted to adopt us, and of pay-offs he made to the orphanage psychologist to assure that he would never approve an adoption for my sister or me.
My father remains in the periphery of all our lives, lurking at the edges of our awareness like a cockroach. The most frightening thing about him is that he is completely sane. I sometimes wish he was mentally ill, to have a disease I could blame, but I don't think hatred counts as a medical condition. Those dark, bloody images that woke me with sweat and gasping were only a dream; I realize that. What gives me a continuous low-grade stomach ache is the "well...how can I be sure he wouldn't?" that flickers off and on at the edge of my mind.
A gnawing sense of danger has been enough to keep me subconsciously paranoid for a long time. That's the subtle strength of his influence - all he has to do is pull our strings every now and then, to remind us that he's still around, to violate any sense of safety or privacy we may have begun to develop. A random email sent to an address my sister hadn't given out to anyone but a few friends, a package of pornographic material sent to another sister at her new home on Mother's Day, a package sent to my brother containing items he had liked as a boy - Bottle Caps candy and Garfield comics, with a nonsensical note attached. I'm the only one he hasn't been able to find, the only one he hasn't snuck up on yet. Usually I assume he's just entertaining himself with his crude violations of privacy, but then I remember that he was in prison for three years for the attempted murder of a state Supreme Court judge and it's harder to shrug off.
Sometimes I'd like nothing more than to make him as scared as he has made me. I would like him to feel the paralytic grip of panic brought by nightmares he can only pray are wildly exaggerated. Some say that forgiveness heals the heart. Right, but forgiving a sociopath is a little more complicated. It's not like I can send him a Father's Day card and say, 'Let's be friends!' He can't be part of the process, so, what do I do? I pray for him, and for me. I try to stop his twisted influence from tainting my relationships. I try not to project the sins of my father onto the men I try to love, and I fantasize about singing over the stillness of his fresh, solitary grave.
I know he has his own army of demons waking him up in the night - his empty, seething heart is its own punishment. Maybe the bright, fearsome flames of malice within him have cooled to ash and embers over the past decade. Maybe he has stopped making dark plans for his elected enemies. Maybe the prowling, loathsome beast of his enmity has grown mangy and gaunt with age, unable to sustain itself now, after all these many years. Maybe he only scowls and mutters when he mentions our names now, my name.
I want to live without watching my back, without having to stomach the thought of what my father may be capable of doing to another human being. I can't imagine how long it has been since he felt something like peace. I crave the peace of giving a warm greeting to a man who has offered me nothing but hate. Even if he wouldn't accept my offering, wouldn't accept me, at least I would have the chance to say, for the record, that I don't hate him back. I do resent him though, for making closure in this life impossible. He is the open wound in my psyche, the bit of shrapnel in my heart that I can't cut out, however willing I may be to bleed, if it means I could heal. I want to understand what he is and how that relates to me. I want to examine the many knots he tied in me as I grew, to understand the web of influence he cast over my heart and my life, but mostly, I just ache to be rid of it.