I wasn’t going to go anywhere near this prompt. Almost all of the Scintilla prompts have made me wince at how personal they are, but rather than write something safe and not as meaningful, I’ve taken them as a challenge - to lean into my discomfort and try to understand what I’m afraid of, and write anyway. There is something about revealing too much about myself, feeling exposed and vulnerable, a fear of being judged harshly. The subject of heartbreak takes that fear to a whole new level. There are a few too many stories I could tell about that but it occurred to me that perhaps all of our heartbreaks are a result of the original heartbreak, the one I think most of us experience and spend most of our lives trying to repair or get over or even deny – the first heartbreak(s) we experienced in relationship with our parents. If I’m honest, when I really think, or rather, feel, about heartbreak, these are the two memories that come up straight away. They are both connected to my Dad and they both occurred when I was in my teens.
I can’t remember exactly how old I was, I’m guessing 14 or 15. We were visiting Thailand over the summer and we went to a “Dairy Queen” in Bangkok for some ice cream sundaes. I remember the coolness of the air because of the air conditioning, I remember how everything was white – the walls, the leatherette seats, the formica tables. I sat down with my ice cream and my Dad sat next to me. Suddenly, he started to play with my hair. It was so unexpected that I froze. Both because it was so out of character – my parents were not demonstrative in the slightest and it was my brother and I who instigated hugging in our family when we were in our late teens – and because I was afraid that if I moved even a fraction of an inch, he would stop. He did stop not long after and it was never mentioned.
The second memory was from when I was 16. We were living in Cyprus and my father was dropping me off outside the cinema where I was meeting some friends and the boy I was dating at the time. He’d parked so that my door opened onto the pavement side of the road. I didn’t look as I opened my door, but I wasn’t expecting there to be any traffic to look out for. As I opened my door, an old man on a bicycle was riding by. He collided with the door and fell off his bike. He was a little stunned, but he was unhurt. However, my Dad insisted on driving him home. I thought it was all under control, so I said goodbye to my Dad and went to meet my friends.
When my Dad picked me up later, I asked how the man was. My Dad answered that he was fine. Otherwise, he didn’t speak, but that wasn’t unusual for him. The next day, after I’d gotten home from school my mother waylaid me and took me into my room for a talk. She closed the door and had her serious face on. I immediately went into a panic, wondering what had happened, or what I might have done.
She reported that I had bitterly disappointed my father, that he thought he’d raised me to be better than the selfish person I clearly was. My stomach fell through the floor - my stomach, my heart, my blood - I felt like I’d been hollowed out. I could not fathom what I might have done to deserve such a judgement. Then she told me. By going into the cinema to meet my friends the night before, rather than stay behind and accompany my father and the old man to his house, I’d shown myself to be utterly and wickedly selfish. I was shocked. Shocked that my father had felt that way but said nothing to me at the time. Shocked even more that he couldn’t talk to me about it himself.
My father rarely loses his temper and rarely expressed any disappointment in my brother or I. When we didn’t do quite as well as expected with our grades or failed to complete our chores or any number of things my mother never let us get away with, my father was always more understanding, more encouraging. So to receive this judgement from him was a real blow. I felt utterly misunderstood. I don’t think I’d ever felt so unfairly judged as I did then. It was so upsetting to me that I felt like I’d been abandoned. I felt my father’s disgust for me as physically as I’d feel a shove in my chest. It was all the worse because he couldn’t even tell me to my face. And by sending my mother to talk to me, I couldn’t even defend myself to him. I remember trying, trying to explain to my mother and then feeling angry that I even had to explain and then I just started to cry. Maybe I imagined it, but I think she felt some sympathy for me. Because her tone was soft, and her tone was hardly ever soft. I don’t think she enjoyed being my father’s messenger but she had a belief in his authority as a parent, even over her own, even though she was the one who always did the real parenting “work.” I remember her saying that she would talk to him, but I felt deeply ashamed for a long time around him – ashamed and angry and disappointed. I still feel shame when I remember the whole thing. It was far worse than any physical punishment I’d received from him and it says a lot about our relationship and my long struggle to ever feel “good enough.”
This week, Jake and I were Skyping him and my Mum. At the end of the call, when my parents had to go, Jake suddenly got really upset. Usually, he’s quite happy to say goodbye to them but not this time. This time he was absolutely sobbing and wailing that he wanted to stay with them a bit longer. I did what I usually do when he’s upset – I held him and kissed him. Sometimes he pushes me away but this time he let me hold him. In the meantime, I could feel my father’s extreme discomfort about Jake’s crying. He started by saying that he had to go because it was getting dark and he had to go for a swim before the mosquitoes came out. Naturally Jake has no idea what any of this means. Then he went into the awful good boy speech. “You’re a good boy aren’t you Jake?” My heart broke when Jake nodded, tears rolling down his cheeks. “So, if you’re a good boy, you should let people go when they want to go, right?” My heart sank. Jake, to his credit, shook his head. “Oh, so you’re going to be a bad boy then?” At that point I held Jake very close to me and said to him, “You are a good boy Jake.” Jake was looking at my Dad’s face on the screen, sad and confused. So I started to try and talk to Jake about why he was crying. I said, “Are you sad Jake? Are you sad because you’re going to miss Grandma and Granddad when they’re gone?” He nodded. So I repeated that to my parents, telling them how he felt in the hope that they would acknowledge it and reflect it back to him, so he would feel heard and understood. But they said, “We miss you too Jake but we have to go now…” He just carried on crying and shaking his head and saying, “Please, I don’t want you to go, please just stay a bit longer.” Then my Dad started making stuff up – saying that Skype were sending them a message saying that they had to go because they were going to close the office and cut off the connection. “You see Jake, it’s not us, we don’t want to go, we have to go, they are going to close the office.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. But at the same time, I remembered that my father’s like that, that he’s always been like that. Jake carried on crying and looking confused. Then they said, “OK, we’re going now” and ended the call. Jake cried harder, grabbing the mouse and saying, “No! No! Call them back, call them back!” He frantically directed the mouse to the “Call with video” button and clicked on it and managed to call them back. They answered and the whole thing went on again for a bit longer. Then, as I held Jake in silence as he sobbed, they suddenly fell silent. For a minute or so, we all just sat in total silence. It felt powerful. I felt hopeful that they’d be able to just sit with his feelings and their own without running away from it. But it didn’t last. Soon after I had this thought, they ended the call, this time without even saying goodbye. Jake cried again and frantically tried to call them back. This time, they didn’t answer. Jake was fine after a few minutes. I just held him and kissed him and then he was fine. Me though? I felt heartbroken by the whole thing. I felt that it wasn’t just Jake I was holding through the tears, but my own 3 year old and 14 year old and 16 year old self.
(NB ~ Even as I post this, I am wincing wincing wincing. This feels like such raw exposure. And I keep hearing these voices in my head laughing at the triviality of my pain, saying, "Jeez, you think this is heartbreak? I'll show you real heartbreak!" But hey, this is my post and this is what I have to say. So bite me.)