Hope v. Wish v. Expectation

To hear it from my therapist’s point of view, I have a lifelong pattern of pursuing unavailable women.  This goes all the way back to, yes, you guessed it, my relationship with my mother.

I may have been seven or eight, when, for some long forgotten reason, I was standing at my mother’s side, probably pulling on her in some way, asking, begging, pleading with her to give me a moment of time, to listen to whatever cataclysmic need was about to overwhelm me.  The way I remember it, she didn’t even respond, or if she did, it was something along the lines of, “stop it, not now, quit bothering me, can’t you see I’m busy right now?”

It was at exactly that moment that I told myself, “okay, that’s it, it’s over, I get it.  We’re done, we’re through, we’re finished.  I’m going to shut up, sit on my feelings, and never, ever bother you with anything ever again.”  At the time I really believed she would sooner or later notice that I had gone quiet, that something must be terribly wrong that I wasn’t talking to her anymore, that she finally realized just how unimportant, lonely, invisible I was feeling, and that she would hug me, tell me how sorry she was, and that she would pay more attention to me.

That never happened.  If anything, things just got worse.  The only attention I ever got from her was for being quiet, not causing trouble, not making a nuisance of myself.  “I like you when you don’t bother me,” was the message I was hearing, and since crappy attention was better than no attention at all, I said, okay – I want you to love me, so I won’t bother you.

She’s been dead for over thirty years now, this all happened well over fifty years ago, and apparently I’m still not over it.  I’ve pretty much concluded that I’ll never be loved the way I want to be loved – which, of course, is different from concluding that I’m not worth anyone’s love.  I can try to reason my way through it, tell myself that all kinds of people love me in their own way, just not the way I want them to love me.  But I can’t talk myself out of feeling ignored, belittled, push aside, dismissed.

Before the Hordes

My dad was a salesman for an electronics company that worked with spot welders (transformers, relays, capacitors, etc.) that were used on the auto assembly lines.  It was a good job for a young man fresh out of college with his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering.  He married my mom shortly before his 23rd birthday in 1946.  In ten years he fathered five children; by his fortieth birthday he had fathered another five (one stillborn).  There would be one more birth, in October 1964, to close out the stable at ten kids, fulfilling the biblical imperative to be fruitful and multiply.

One of the things I remember from those early years was how every so often he’d bring home reel-to-reel tape recorders, from large “portable” ones – they had handles and weighed maybe twenty pounds, and could handle 7” diameter reels of audio tape – to much smaller battery operated ones, one with 3” reels, another with even smaller ones (Two inches?  Who remembers?  Small.)

It still boggles me a bit that he’d bring these things home from work.  I guess his workplace would occasionally get some new equipment, and company was glad to see him haul the old stuff off to his home so his kids could play with them.  Play with them we did; the Olson 20 pounders had this little green tube of an indicator light that sat between the two reels of tape that would bounce reactively to whatever audio you happened to be recording.

I came across some of those old audio recordings years later.  The two oldest siblings at the time were five and three years old, saying their names and home address and telephone number recorded for all eternity – or, at least as long anyone held on to the tapes before they’d disintegrate.  Number three was maybe two then, and I don’t think the fourth one had yet been born – so we’re talking sometime around 1952.

It was one of the first times I ever got a real sense of what life must have been like in the house with only three children.  It crossed my mind that Dad was not only a lot younger and more energetic then, but that, with only three children, he could give each of them some the “quality time” kids need to have with their parents.  Of course, with every subsequent arrival, the time that Mom or Dad had to give to the kids would shrink – their responsibilities increased, and the time so easily available before became an ever increasing rarity.

Where Are We Going?

Sometime in the late 90’s, maybe 1998, I was visiting my sister in North Carolina.  On Sunday, we went to Mass at her nearby church.  The congregation was filled with people of all ages, but I especially noticed one young mother trying to persuade her small daughter to keep her voice down during the goings on of the Mass.  The daughter seemed to me to be perhaps four or five years old, and hadn’t really yet grasped the experience of what it meant to be in a public, solemn place.  The child’s voice was not especially loud, conversational, bored, only a little whiny – but of course, in this place, readily noticeable and not exactly the sort of attention mom wanted.

This was the case from the beginning of the service until, after the Gospel but before the homily began, the young mother decided that it was time take her daughter out from the proceedings, perhaps to the “cry room” back in the church vestibule.  As they were making their way out of the pew, and I swear, I will remember this for as long as I live, the little girl looked up at her mother, and through a few choked-back tears, asked in a somewhat cautious voice, “Where are we going?”

My sister and I joked about the matter after Mass (she too had noticed the girl’s lament), about what mom might have whispered back to her as they removed themselves from the congregation.  Of course it was too cruel to suppose that tales of fire, brimstone, and eternal damnation were being told to such a small child – their desired crippling psychological effects are much more likely to take hold once the child reaches the age of reason.

But I digress.  I remember hearing the tone in her voice, not really one of fear, I thought, but something of curiosity, something of the unknown, something – of hope.  Or maybe these are just my own projections upon this particular event.  But I like to remember it as a moment ripe for philosophical reflection and exploration:

Where are we going?  Where are any of us going?  How do we get there?

High School Seminary

Even though I had three brothers attend high school seminary before me, I didn’t have a very clear idea of what the place was like.  I think I expected a quiet, dignified, solemn place, with holiness the object of students and faculty alike, to love God with their entire mind and heart.  What I found was a raucous, chaotic, bawdy place; the upper classmen’s goal was to torture and/or humiliate the incoming freshmen class, and the faculty’s goal to get through each day in one piece, square the child monsters away enough by 9:30 PM to retreat to their side of the building for a scotch or a brandy or some other intoxicant for a much needed break from the asylum of hellions on the other side.

Those first few weeks of high school were straight out of Lord of the Flies.   Establish dominance, and leave no doubt that you will not be intimidated.  If you couldn’t physically do that, you relied on a strong vocabulary, a crafty wit, and the ability to run faster than the angry sophomore or junior or senior who would chase you and pound you silly once he caught you.  I learned the verbal boxing talents I needed in the new environment by fending off the taunts of four, five, even six siblings at once during those cage matches my parents lovingly called “suppertime.”   I was not, however, as gifted in the running department; while I would manage to escape the occasional lumbering upper classman, the rest of them were much faster and much stronger.  Once you were caught, you were pounded accordingly.

I soon accepted that little if anything going on there was holy.  In my sophomore year, I saw teenage hormones revved in full gear.  While growing up in Detroit, my grandparents had the only pet in our household, a female tabby named Fifi.  I was probably ten years old when, one day, I noticed Fifi was sitting up high in a nook of the backyard pear tree, slightly flicking her tail but otherwise looking quite composed.  A second glance at the yard revealed something I don’t think I had ever seen before – at least twenty other neighborhood strays were sitting around the bottom of the tree, eyes glued to Fifi.

Fast forward five years.  With a new typing lab set to go, the school a hired a new typing class teacher – a woman.  There were no other women teachers at the school at the time:  just priests and laymen.  The student body reaction was a mix of curiosity and libido in overdrive.  I knew where I had seen this before:  if there had been a pear tree and Ms. Smith had had a tail, I would have bet she would have found a nook beyond the reach of that teenage horde of hormones, flicking a bewildered tail.

What Would They Look Like?

Kids rely on parents to care for them, protect them, love them.  Sometimes parents don’t care.  It takes only one unfortunate event for a parent, annoyed and irritated by a kid who refuses to shut up, to lose their patience and strike their child, hurting her, humiliating him.  Yeah, that shuts ‘em up – but it also shuts them down.

How do kids get back on their feet?  They take care of themselves – not in that brutal way they were treated, but from a way that says, “this is how you should have treated me.”

If those parents saw me now, some fifty plus years later, on one of my not so good days, I like to imagine the conversation would go something like this:

Parents:  “Hey you, why so down?  You look like you don’t have a friend in the world.”

Me:  “I don’t have any friends.  I mean, I have friends, but they’re only so deep.  I’ve been on my own for so long, and I’ve felt for just as long, maybe longer, that I’ll be alone my whole life.”

Parents:  “Really?”

Me:  “Really.  Intellectually, I know that’s not true – but that doesn’t change the feeling.  I don’t know why I feel this way – I only know that I do.”

Parents:  “Wow.  We don’t think we’ve ever met anyone who’s hurting like you’re hurting, for such a long time.  It doesn’t look like many people know this – it’s not like you’ve been beaten up, physically, so people can see the cuts and bruises.

“We don’t know why the people who meant so much to you didn’t think you were important enough to listen to, to pay attention to, to love you in ways you wanted to be loved.

“But here’s something you need to know:  It’s not you.  You are one of the most caring, loving, funny, charming people we’ve ever known.  And even more than this …

“Every human being on the face of the planet deserves to be cherished, to be protected, to be cared for, to be loved.  Not because they’re special, or deserving, or have earned these things.  They deserve it simply because they exist, they’re here – they are enough.

“Kid, you are enough.  We know you’ve been hurting a long time, carrying this hurt, never free of the pain, trying to go on in spite of it.  But it’s okay.  You don’t have to hurt like this anymore.

“You are loved.  You’ll feel lonely now and again – hey, we all do, sometime – but that’s okay.  We’re not really here to tell you that you won’t die alone – that’s a real possibility.

“We love you, kid.  We want to take care of you.  We want to protect you from this pain.  And we’ll be honest with you – we’re not sure we can do it.  But we are sure we want these things for you.”

They’d look like that.