*Another heavy piece. Proceed with caution*
About a month or so ago I read a letter my father had written to my sister. It’s dated January of 1982. I was nine years old, my father fifty five.
Some time previous to the date of the letter, he and my mother had separated. He moved to Arizona while his family stayed in California. I think I was actually happy about it. By this time, I was in the custody of the state and as long as my father was living at home, I wasn’t allowed to be there (for my own protection). Apparently, one of the flags that got the attention of my neighbors (my surrogate parents) and my closest aunt were the admissions my father would make in confidence that he was worried he would one day kill me, that he would smother me with a pillow and not be able to stop himself. If I heard a grown man confess such a thing in seriousness, I would be concerned as well. My “second” and “third” parents, as they could rightly be called, certainly were and Child Protective Services was contacted.
I remember the day I was picked up from day care. I was playing with the other kids and I was summoned. There, a police officer said he came to pick me up and take me to a facility. It was called MacLaren Hall Juvenile Detention facility (read “kid prison”complete with high solid walls, buzzing doors and I-wish-they-were-padded bare, white painted brick rooms) in El Monte, CA. I think it’s still there. For most of the kids there, it was indeed a prison. For me, it was intended as a temporary home until something more suitable could be found. Thus began my tour of the foster care system which would also include an extended stay with a generous aunt and uncle who were willing to take me in and call me their own.
On the way, I began to beg and plead not to go. Whatever it was, it couldn’t be better than being around my mother and my siblings regardless of my father’s abuse. I didn’t bother to think about my dad and I didn’t know he wished me dead.
When we arrived at the facility, after spending over an hour at the police station where the detective allowed me to look through line-up cards, he finally relented and agreed to ask the judge for an exception, to let me stay at home. He suggested I have a meal, it was just beyond 5 o’clock by now, and that afterward he would come and get me once he had talked to the judge and got special permission to return me home.
I went through intake without them actually calling it “intake” where upon examining my flea bitten legs, the employees and counselors were convinced these red sores were evidence of my abuse while my maintaining their origin was fleas was evidence of my denial. It wasn’t. It was flea bites. As a kid, fleas loved me. I loved to scratch. This was in the days before flea dips and bug bombs and well before “Advantage.” The best that was offered was a flea collar. I’m not sure it did anything other than act as a necklace to our beautiful yet finicky calico cat, Sam. Calling a cat “finicky” is probably redundant. Forgive me.
After dinner, the counselors at MacLaren Hall suggested I go with them to pick out some pajamas. I declined, after all, “I’m not going to be staying,” I told them. “The policeman told me so.” Every few minutes another employee would approach me and suggest we pick out some pajamas. I politely declined wondering why the employees weren’t getting the message. They were wondering why I wasn’t. I never have. I’m terrible at subtlety and worse at taking hints. It’s not that I ignore them, it’s that I don’t see them. This was no exception. Finally, after over a half hour of rebuffing their appeals, a counselor approached me in the almost entirely empty cafeteria. She sat down beside me with her back against the edge of the table facing out while I was facing in. “Peter, why don’t you come with me and let’s pick you out some comfy, new pajamas. Wouldn’t that be nice?” she asked.
“Oh, no…no thank you” I stammered while trying my best to be polite. “That won’t be necessary.” I repeated my previous line “The policeman who dropped me off is coming right back to take me home. He just had to talk to the judge. I won’t be staying, but thank you.”
“Peter” I could hear her voice drop “the policeman left over an hour ago. He dropped you off, filled out some paperwork and left.”
At that moment, all the trust that I could manage to manufacture and assign to any adult, even one as trusted and respected as a policeman (remember how you revered police when you were a boy?) vanished. It was my first taste of a bitter reality that everyone, every single person on the face of this planet tells or has told a lie. It is part of the human condition and no one is immune from its affliction, not even a police officer talking to a small boy telling a tall tale.
I was devastated. The tears, the inconsolable, unending tears and screams of “Nooooooo!” poured out of my vanquished mouth. I was hyperventilating, sobbing uncontrollably and wishing, praying that my God wouldn’t allow this to happen. It was the same prayer I had prayed and would pray many times before and since. As in any good Disney movie, I knew moments before the end, my hero (whoever that was) would show up and save me from certain destruction. He never did. Nor did my God ever answer my prayers in ways that I could understand. I hated them both, the police officer and the God of my childhood for abandoning and forsaking me. This was to be the first in a long series of people I trusted giving up on me. In retrospect, that was probably the first time I encountered a reality of “I am alone.” It scared me in ways I wasn’t able to comprehend at the time. It’s the kind of fear that makes each breath a struggle. It was the devil I didn’t know and it was worse than my dad, the devil I did know.
I was left to fend for myself and try to make sense of where I was and how this had happened. I had never showered alone until that first frightening night in MacLaren Hall. I was terrified. As soon as a dorm mate who was nice enough to escort me to the edge of the shower stall and stay with me put shampoo on my head, I threw my head under the water and frantically tried to rinse it off and wisp it away lest shampoo get into my eyes and blind me. I knew just one thing. “Never get soap in your eyes or you’ll never find your way out of a desperately dark, black maze.” Where that came from I don’t know, but it’s what I believed. As a result of rinsing too quickly and not thoroughly enough, I slept with suds in my hair. I could hear them when I lay, crying quietly in bed. Between the suds and crunching plastic on my mattress under my sheet (some kids were still wetting the bed) there was no silence or stillness in my otherwise quiet but never empty room. There was one other sound to go along with the soap and the crackling sheets, it was I, crying myself to sleep. Fortunately, I had cried myself to sleep many times before. I was a pro at it.
My father passed away in 1986. I was thirteen years old and even now I don’t remember whether I shed a tear. I doubt I did. I remember feeling, in some ways , relieved. The wicked witch was dead. It felt like that. Never mind the reason for taking school so seriously suddenly evaporated while I processed what, in hindsight, was grasping at futility; I was adjusting to a new sense of being half way between hell and being an orphan. It was better than it had been. Now there was no structure and there were no consequences. My hatred for my mother for allowing my father’s brutality multiplied and erupted almost ceaselessly. However, that was long ago and long before my mother and I were able to eventually reconcile (see my trilogy* I wrote about my mom’s death for reference).
Only a few memories of my father exist with clarity. One, was being told “Go to hell!” when I had cried out to him from the back porch of our empty house (my mother had taken my brother to handgun safety class, I believe, when my mother never felt guns were EVER safe) because I could not reach the cabinet where I wanted to retrieve a shoelace for my corrective, arch-inserted shoes. A second memory was one I never witnessed but will never forget. My brother and sister had returned from Arizona after visiting my father while he was in the hospital recovering from a stroke. This was about 1985, I think. When they came around the corner into his hospital room, he craned and moaned (he had lost the power of speech, I believe) while he motioned expecting to see more. For a while, my brother and sister were trying to decipher this code. Finally, he was able to communicate to them “Peter.” That was the first and only time I knew my father, the one who wanted and didn’t want to smother me with a pillow, loved me. Maybe he didn’t love me. Maybe he was only looking for forgiveness. Probably, it was a bit of both.
The letter I read 32 years after it was written, the one I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, reminded me of my days at MacLaren Hall. The letter was two paragraphs long. It reads as follows:
See that Mrs DuBois and Dr Vidmar’s office gets this letter, please. Perhaps you or son 3 can drop it off –or maybe son 2 can drive you up there (with Peter’s doctor) + send me her address.
“What’s all in the making for the summer? We’ll love to get together on vacation since I have 2 weeks coming. Maybe you could take a bus to Blythe and I would pick you up there. Will you be free to come at all?
or son 3?
or son 2?
or son 1?
Love, Dad. ”
In case you didn’t know my dad as well as I did, which is to say not very well at all, between the lines I hear a sad and lonely man hoping at least one of his own children loves him. I hear emptiness. I hear pain. I hear pessimistic hope and I hear the cry of being abandoned.
I wish I could say the story of my father, during his life, had a happy ending. It did not. My father died the way most people grapple with their greatest fear of dying…alone, unwanted, unwelcome and unloved, or so he must have felt. My father died the way I did that first night in MacLaren Hall.