Smile, Though Your Heart is Breaking: My Memoir

The older I get, the more visits with the parental unit become concrete episodes of psychological disorder ripe for analysis, versus emotional jabs to the heart. An obese, hot-tempered and narcissistic father dying from not one but two-types of cancer yet beating the odds thus far despite terminal illness, and a mother who has no ability to process emotion and who lives solely for capturing life in posed photographs where everyone looks happy, never mind how they actually feel.

When I hear of yet another occurrence of my father jabbing my mother with his cane or throwing her phone against the room, shattering its screen, or him calling her any number of degrading terms, I can’t help but blame the victim, or see them both as victims, as she has no ability to empathize with others, only to nag and focus solely on the illusion of happiness in moments captured on camera with no context to the disorder and discomfort underneath.

If I were to write a memoir, perhaps its title would be – Smile, though your heart is breaking. I had rationalized throughout my life that every family takes photos, that smiling and looking pretty in pictures was a normal part of life – which is it, if not to the extent of addiction to photographs without having the ability to live in the moment. The measure of the success of any life event or family outing could be measured in two ways — did my father not have an outburst, and did my mother capture photographs of everyone smiling at the camera with our eyes open and teeth showing just the right amount.

Yesterday, I had to stop my father from flinging across the room the $700 point-and-shoot camera I had purchased as a gift to my mother for the wedding. At dinner with my grandmother, sister and parents, my mother asked the waitress to take a photo on her phone, which inevitably didn’t come out that great because it was dark and the phone doesn’t take good pictures, so she asked the waitress to take another photo on the camera instead. This prompted my father¬†to threaten to toss the camera across the room in a way where you knew he was serious. His mother luckily talked him down and the photo was taken by the waitress, albeit with my father purposely¬†with the back of his head to camera.

Earlier in the day, a friend from childhood came over to visit. She was in town as the same time as I was by coincidence, but she actually had planned to see my parents at the time when she didn’t know I would be there. She came over and talked to us for a bit – time wise it was not ideal as we had to leave for dinner with my grandmother. We had to say goodbye and get going to be on time, but of course, my mother needed to take pictures of us smiling for the camera. My father nearly struck her with his cane, but company was present so he somewhat behaved himself. He took a swing as to threaten, but did not get near her.

I hear that this year when they were at their winter condo in Florida, with no one watching the moment, he struck her on the side. She knows that’s not ok, but at this point it’s just her life.

Mom complains about going to the hospital with my father for his surgeries, and shares that she is not looking forward to “taking care” of him if (when) his cancer gets worse. It breaks my heart that she can’t empathize or sympathize with her husband of all these years, of another human being who is dying of cancer and who has his best years behind him. But then I remember all the things my father has done to her, and I can’t blame her for her reaction – though it would be the same if he were a loving, kind man, she’d still only care about herself. She’d still complain about how the events are harming her life, not showing any modicum of care for another human life.

Smile, though your heart is aching. Smile, even though it’s breaking. — I see my family infrequently, and when I do, I always remember why I moved so far away. I wish I could have a close relationship with them, but that just isn’t in the cards…

I knew, getting out of the car, that my jeans had shifted too low and my shirt to high, and my stomach, plump with the roundness of a long winter’s depression and its related binge eating, was protruding in a non-flattering fashion. My father, of course, had to comment. “I am going to say it,” he said, and I knew what was coming. He paused, for a moment, clearly about to say I look fat but instead shifting the language to say “you should change before we go to grandma’s, she won’t appreciate how you are dressed.” I took a deep breath and said “I just need to pull my shirt down,” and left it at that. Years ago the comment would have been more direct towards my weight gain, but I think at this point since I have a husband he doesn’t bother me with that, only the inappropriateness of my clothing choices, despite having just traveled to visit them.

I know it could be worse – much, much worse. I’ve heard stories of friends who have parents who have done horrible things, or who just weren’t there at all. Parents who were divorced, who got remarried, who dated abusive men or women and alcoholics and drug addicts. Plenty of people are born into much worse situations – perhaps into loving families, but in areas of the world riddled with war. Few, in th history of time, come from healthy, stable families. Some do. And those who come from stable households often struggle with life when it gets rough unable to handle any imperfections. Perhaps in a way being hardened early is a blessing as life only gets more emotionally challenging over time, with the loss of loved ones built into not one the status quo, but the inevitable.

I’m trying to break free of all of this to find myself – before I have my own family. I have a wonderful husband who is everything to me. As I said to a friend the other day — one can be grateful and still miserable. Today, that’s me. Grateful, but broken. Appreciative, but empty. In awe all that I have, but have long forgotten what happiness feels like, my mental definition of the emotion locked in as a moment where I tilt my chin lightly downward, pull my shoulders back, open my mouth slightly with lips tilted upwards at the smile, and wait for the flash to capture the shell of a person who appears to be having a wonderful time.

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One comment

  1. Money Beagle says:

    Your father reminds me of my best friends dad and how he used to be. He was constantly miserable, very mean to his kids when they were growing up, and given that I spent a lot of time there, I caught a pretty good amount of insults thrown my way as well.

    My friends dad actually changed though. He was a pretty heavy drinker when we were growing up, and it caught up with him in that his liver gave out. Thankfully he was able to get a transplant and that second chance at life, combined with his giving up the bottle, made him a changed person. He married a wonderful woman of Asian descent, whereas in the past he was the most racist person (against any non-white) I’ve ever known. He began to cherish the relationships with his kids (albeit they still kept somewhat distant because some wounds couldn’t be fully healed). He became a nice and pleasant man to talk to.

    Every time I read your posts about your dad I hold some hope in my heart that he will maybe have a similar change in his life, but it really doesn’t seem like that is going to happen. My heart breaks for you for that. But it does seem you’re making sure to not repeat the sins of the father in how you treat people. For that you deserve so much credit. I hope you embrace that.

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