TRIGGER WARNING: This blog contains references to childhood sexual abuse, death and dissociation. Please practice excellent self-care skills while reading.
My Mother once told me, “I bet when your Father dies, you’ll dance on his grave”. We were on the balcony of a cruise ship sliding down the coast of Alaska. Such ugly words for such a beautiful place.
I don’t know what prompted her to say that. Mom and I, we rarely spoke of my Father. For two different reasons neither of us wanted to fill the air around us with painful memories. I didn’t want to speak of the brutal eight years of sexual assaults. She didn’t want to know the atrocities that the man she chose to marry and father her children inflicted on me.
My family hoards stock in Avoidance. I’m pretty sure we own so much that we are majority shareholders. In our defense, I’m not sure anyone wants to voluntarily converse about child rape. Even my Father didn’t want to talk about it. As a perpetrator though, his silence is not forgivable.
For all of those reasons, and perhaps a small smorgasbord of others as our family is rarely lacking in copious reasons to explain thoughts and behaviors, her statement took me by surprise. I tried to read her intention with my eyes. All I saw was a 66-year-old woman holding a cigarette in her hand, blowing smoke toward the sky.
The cogs in my head began to churn, pulling out thoughts, feelings about my Dad. It was a vast database. I had never thought of his death so, as it turns out, there wasn’t much to pull together.
“I don’t think so, Mom. I don’t feel a lot of anger like that toward him,” fell out of my mind and slipped between my lips.
“I do”. That was her singular reply. Using our profuse supply of avoidance, we moved on to another topic and never spoke of my Father’s death again.
Until we did, eleven years later, this time over the phone.
“Diana called me. Your Father has pancreatic cancer. He’s not doing well. It’s very aggressive,” Mom reported. Diana was my Dad’s sister. My parents had been divorced for two decades and no longer had any contact.
It was a brief conversation, but it sent the entirety of me, mind and body, into a tail spin. Instantaneously, a thousand memories about my dad – from the sweetness of his cuddles to the brutality of his rapes, wanted to be witnessed. The cogs, that were supposed to regulate what was thought and felt by pulling out only approved content, disintegrated into dust from the pressure of everything wanting to rush forward into my consciousness.
Like many victims of years of childhood abuse, my mind realized shortly after the abuse started that it couldn’t hold all the memories of my sexual assaults. It was too much, especially for a child’s mind, to contain and still function. So, my brain created a solution. It conjured a row of little girls just like me. In turn, each was cast out from my head into real life. She had to endure the abuse and pretend to be a happy child, content with my Mother and Father’s idea of love. Once one clone was filled up with as many memories as my brain thought it could hold, it was capped, put in suspended animation and exiled to the furthest reaches of my mind. Then another little girl was brought forward, and the process began again. By the time the abuse ended there was a Chinese Terracotta Army of capped and silenced little girls in that macabre storage space.
Not every memory was stored in that way. For some reason, in some way, several of those little girls are neither lifeless nor in storage. They live in my head, fully formed younger versions of me who have shared both their memories and their pain with me over the last 40 years. They are frozen at the age when they were replace and brought back into my mind, one as young as three and the oldest on the edge of adolescence.
Calling each other sisters, they exist independent of me. As most siblings do, they scream, cry, fight and play together. On occasion they watch the world through my eyes, like portholes on the outside wall of their world.
Those little girls may be small, but they are quick. Whoever was watching when I got my Mother’s phone call spread the news of my Father’s impending death before I hung up. There was an immediate reaction from each of them.
One came charging at me, grabbing hold of my arms, “Bobbi, you have to go now. Please, please, please. Go say you’re sorry,”.
I dropped to my knees, “We’ve talked about this before. I can’t go say I’m sorry. There’s nothing to be sorry for,”
“Please,” she pleaded, “You shouldn’t have told. That was a bad thing. You need to go say sorry. Maybe he’ll love us again then,” Tears welled in her eyes. Her face twisted with pain as she begged, “Please Bobbi, please. Go say sorry. Go. Say. Sorry.”
I took her hands in mine, “I can’t. And it wouldn’t make a difference. Sorry won’t fix this.”
She yanked her hands out of mine and balled them up into fists, slamming them into my chest and shoulders. “I hate you! This is all your fault,” She backed away from me and turned to run before I could reach out to her. I whispered, “I’m sorry, Sweetie”. I knew she would never forgive me.
I moved to another little girl, this one sobbing so hard she was gulping for air. I sat down and gathered her in my arms, placing her in my lap. She burrowed into me. I don’t have memories of my Mother holding me like this. But I remember my Father doing it. He would come to me in the night, waking me and pulling me from under my covers into his lap. It was a sleepy, sweet feeling being held by him. I thought it was love. Now, I know differently, but this girl I’m holding doesn’t know that.
“Will he still come?’ she asked, between gulps. This small one, she was holding onto the hope that our Dad would come back and love us again. In the fairy tale in her mind he will knock on the door one day, declaring his love for us and wanting to be a part of our lives again.
“I don’t know, Baby,” I said, kissing the top of her head. She cried harder. “It’s okay,” I soothed, “Breathe. Breathe,”
She tilted her head up toward the sky and wailed “Nooooooooo!” Her chest rose and fell with a deep breath, “It’s not okay, Bobbi. He has to come. He has to.”
Another crying little girl, this one older than the other two, sat down next to me. I put my arm around her. “You ok?”
“I’m a horrible person,” she whispered.
“No, never. Why do you think that?”
She looked at me, tears running down her face. I stroked her hair gently. I remember having the haircut that is immortalized on her. It was the first time I managed to dodge my Mother’s attempts to cut my hair short. It feels surreal to hold her hair in my hand, forty-two years after having brushed that hair on my own head.
“Why do you think that, Sweetie?” I prompt again.
Her head lowers. She whispers, “I want him to die”
I pull her closer to me as her crying escalates. I know she feels so much shame. The little girl on my lap knows too. Her crying eases as she reaches over and puts her hand on her sister’s shoulder, “It’s okay. We’re going to fix everything. Bobbi will fix everything. Right?” she says looking up at me, hoping for reassurance that I can fix her and her sister’s pain.
“I don’t want Bobbi to fix it. I hate him. I want him to die,” the older girl proclaims. In a flash, her sister grabs a chunk of her hair and pulls, hard. Little limbs fly back and forth before I can get an arm between them. The littlest girl stands up, screaming at her sister “Well, I hate you! I hope you die!” before running away.
Abandoned by all the little clones of me, the remaining little girl and I sit huddled up next to each other.
“Do you hate him, Bobbi?”
I take in and blow out a deep sigh.
“Yes, I hate him. But I love him, too. I want him to come say he’s sorry and yet I live in fear that he’ll find us and hurt us again,”
“That’s a lot,” the girl said.
“Yep,” I replied, “that’s a lot.”
As the following days played out I struggled under the weight of the mass of conflicting emotions. New memories began to trickle into my mind, too. I hadn’t had new memories of my abuse for decades. But now, as my Father sat on the edge of death, they seeped in from somewhere unknown.
I remembered him coming into my room at night and waking me by licking the edge of my eyelids, right where they bloom into eyelashes. As clearly as if I am still there, I know I open my eyes and see my Father. He is smiling widely, so pleased with himself. I am confused, unsure whether I like being woken like that. But I see his happiness, and I want him to be happy. So I make myself choose happiness too, giggling at him in return. It was the beginning of my eight-year journey of sacrificing myself for his happiness.
A few days later I remembered that he had also woken me in the night by choking me, grinning wildly at me when I scrambled back into my consciousness from sleep. I was afraid and confused but chose once again to bury my feelings and adopt his.
More days, then a new memory surfaced of my Father waking me in the night. This time, like a gleeful child, he was hovering his face a foot over my own, dripping spit from his mouth, in a long strand, into my mouth. Memory after memory of fear and confusion traded for his happiness, over and over again.
Ten days later, my sister left me a voicemail while I was teaching a class. “Maria called. It’s now 5:35pm. Dad died at 5:05pm.” I lost my breath. Never have I lived on this Earth without my Father brutalizing and haunting me. Now he is gone and I feel oddly alone, tumbling through space filled with grief, anger, relief, confusion and freedom.
While in freefall I hear explosions going off. The hidden away little girls, pressurized capsules of pain, were being shaken with the earthquake of my Father’s death. They blow open, each one of them. In the blink of an eye, my mind fills with the cacophony of eight years of brutality.
I have withdrawn into a corner of my mind, watching and listening. I don’t know how to take in this horror movie starring younger versions of myself. There’s no manual for this, no trove of articles published on the web describing how to cope with your abuser’s death.
I kick at the walls on either side of me, managing to break my corner free from the rest of the real estate in my mind. Drifting alone in the sea of my self feels safer. I can still hear the little girls screaming, crying and moaning through their pain. Periodically a memory reaches me, It jolts my body like an electrical current.
The water carries me further from the horror show. But I know there is no complete escape. My Father has marked every part of my mind as his territory – from here to the farthest distances deep in my head.
My parents were big fans of The Eagles. As my ice floe drifts, Hotel California lyrics drip from the sky. “We are all just prisoners here, of our own device…you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave”