What Was Left Unspoken
My earliest memories while still in my playpen are the clink of ice in a highball glass and the taste of green olives. My mother was a beautiful, vivacious woman but by the time I was a toddler, a dozen years into their marriage, my father left, defeated and dispirited.
When I was old enough to use the phone, I would call him for reassurance, frightened by my mother’s drinking. We experimented with spending a couple of weeks together each summer and on one memorable trip he spent so much money trying to win me a giant stuffed panda bear the carneys felt sorry for him and gave it to us.
By the time I turned ten, we had given up our feeble attempts at trying to have a relationship. No matter how hard I tried, I was never able to say good-bye without a flood of tears, leaving both of us feeling emotionally raw. I blamed myself for chasing him away.
As I entered my teens, my mother married a violent alcoholic who used his fists freely and often. There were no child welfare agencies or domestic abuse hotlines in those days. What went on between a husband and wife was no one’s business and the kids were collateral damage. My mother was beaten often, once badly enough to be hospitalized. I came home from school to discover the aftermath. I cleaned up the blood, threw away the broken pieces of a life lived badly, did my homework and went to bed.
My stepfather spent a few days in jail and went through the motions in rehab after which they reunited and we moved. I suppose we were all so desperate to feel something, pain was acceptable. Consequently nothing changed.
One late summer evening, another argument ensued. I listened from my room for the signs that would tell me where on the Richter scale this one would fall. The sound of crashing glass and a blood-curdling scream brought me into the living room where my stepfather began coming toward me. Something had snapped and when our eyes made contact I knew I was next. I turned, opened the front door and ran. A police car was heading toward the apartment; lights flashing and sirens wailing. I went the other way.
I would be fourteen in a couple of months, we had just moved to another state and I had no idea where I was. I wasn’t enrolled in school yet, had no friends, no money, only the clothes I was wearing. But I knew one thing with every fiber of my body: that I wasn’t going to live like that any longer. If my mother had chosen that for her life, it was her life and she could live it.
I stopped running as I came to the busy main highway. I stuck out my thumb and started walking. Within a few yards I came to a phone booth and it occurred to me I should let someone know what had happened. I stepped inside and placed a collect call to a number I hadn’t dialed in a long time. As I heard my father’s voice say “Hello,” it was all I could do not to hang up. Already in a hyper state of anxiety, hearing his voice overwhelmed me. In a matter of seconds I was fighting back feelings I had suppressed for years. Why couldn’t he have saved me from all this?
My dad was hard of hearing so I had to shout. “Dad, it’s me. I need your help, I don’t know what to do.” I began to explain what had just taken place and rushed to finish before I completely lost it. I would not cry; that had driven him away once and I would never do it again. I could feel my heart pounding. I heard each beat inside my head. My hands were shaking and clammy and my knees were barely holding me up. I was hyperventilating and felt nauseous.
All I wanted to hear was, “Okay, it’ll be all right,” but from the other end of the phone, what he said was, “Theresa, I can’t help you . . .” and that was all I heard. I hung up the phone with so much force I thought I broke it, slammed the phone booth door open and started walking. I don’t know how far I went before I spent all the emotion—miles and years, it turned out.
When I was finally numb I knew I had to think. It was then I remembered we had ended up moving to that area because a close friend of my mother’s lived nearby. She was listed in the phone book and I placed another collect call.
A few days and phone calls later my father knew I had found a place to stay and the friend interceded on my behalf to convince my mother I was better off not living with her any longer. There turned out to be a few strings attached with the new living arrangement but nothing I wasn’t prepared to live with. I started my sophomore year of high school the week before Thanksgiving, found a job and stayed out of trouble.
For almost thirty years I put that part of my life behind me, having virtually no contact with anyone in my family until one day, the phone rang. Someone had tracked me down through an old friend who knew where I worked. My dad was dying.
From then on I spent as much time with my father as thousands of miles would allow. One afternoon as we sat quietly in the small living room of the rowhouse where he was born and raised, I told him that I was sorry for all the time we had lost. I explained that there was very little in my life I would change, even the worst parts that broke my spirit and my heart.
I could tell from the look in his eyes there were many regrets, more than we had time to make up for, and that he didn’t have the energy to do this now. We sat silently and let the moment pass.
After a rest he reached for my hands, holding them in both of his, and closed his eyes. “You were my little girl and I didn’t help you,” he began softly. “I knew things were bad for you, but in those days kids stayed with their mothers.” He opened his eyes and breathed deeply before continuing.
“But look how you turned out. You took care of yourself. You have people in your life who love you and protect you.” Tears traced their way down his cheeks to be lost in the stubble of his chin.
“That night you called, I felt so helpless. I was hours away and I couldn’t help you. I was going to try to calm you down and figure out what to do until I could get there,
but. . . .”
I don’t know what more he said. I was suddenly a terrified little girl again, trying to be brave in a phone booth hearing him say, “. . . I can’t help you . . .”
An overwhelming sense of grief washed over me as I realized that my rashness in hanging up that phone had sentenced my father and me to a lifetime of estrangement.
I buried my face in his lap and cried like the baby he had left so many years ago. He stroked my hair and patted my back. He became my father that day, and I, his little girl. I can’t say how long we stayed that way, but it felt like a lifetime—at the very least, a childhood.
He died a few weeks later, but during the time we had left together it was never difficult to say the few words that could have made such a difference so many years ago, “I love you.” “I forgive you.” “It’ll be all right.”
(c) 2004 Theresa Peluso