He repeated his question.
I repeated mine: “What? I don’t understand what you mean. I don’t know what you’re asking.”
“Let me tell you when I did. I was five years old digging through my dad’s closet and I found his guns and I’m holding them and playing with them and my mom finds me and goes off on me. She had just lost her daughter, my sister, to a terrible disease and she was afraid she was going to lose me. And then, the first day of school a nun beat me for no reason. I hadn’t done anything wrong but she beat me and that’s when it happened, that’s when I lost my voice to fear and that’s when I started to kill the kid inside of me. So, I’ll ask my question again ‘When did you lose your voice and when did you kill the kid inside?'”
Now I get it. Now I understand. He remembers the exact moment. I’m struggling to find mine and then it hit me. I know when I lost my voice and I know when I began to kill the kid inside. I did it at the breakfast table.
It’s my oldest memory and it’s also when I lost my voice. I didn’t even have a voice yet, but I lost it. I wasn’t old enough to speak but I was old enough to think and I stopped speaking before I ever learned how. When my dad’s open hand slapped my face, when he was screaming at me to eat my oatmeal and when my sister was crying more loudly than I was, begging him to stop, “Daddy, no! Please stop!” I lost my voice and I killed the kid inside.
Oatmeal is still a trigger. I still hate it and resist eating it almost always. Every once in a while I’ll decide to try it again, only if it’s covered in things that kill the taste like butter or honey or brown sugar and I’ll taste it and as soon as the taste of oatmeal makes it to my tongue, I wince because I feel my dad’s slap. I feel his huge, hard right hand knocking me in my high chair and I hear his grizzly, gruff, loveless voice shouting at me, telling me I’m no good, telling me I’m worthless, telling me I’ll never be anything and I believe it because I believed it then and why wouldn’t I? After all, it was my dad who was telling me and I was my sitting in my baby chair and the only way I learned about me and my value was from my parent who told me how little value I had. I believe this. I believe we come to value ourselves based on the value we perceive others, especially parents, place on us and when people tell us we’re nothing we begin to believe it and embrace it and act as if it’s our own. I certainly did.
Right there and then perched high in my chair I knew I was worthless because my dad told me so. I didn’t want to eat oatmeal. I hated it. It’s my taste. It doesn’t taste good. It’s as simple as that and I didn’t want it. I didn’t want it anywhere near my mouth and I certainly wasn’t going to open my mouth to invite it in and I didn’t and my dad hit me because he was frustrated that he had a job to do, to feed his son who didn’t want to eat food he didn’t like and when I wouldn’t eat it, when I wouldn’t let my dad do his job, he slapped me. As soon as I felt that sting, that stun, that sock that rocked my jaw I lost my voice and I began to kill my kid inside.
What I let out afterward was anger. I let out a monster. I let out defiance. I let out adulthood because I no longer had a kid I was ever going to let see the light of day. That kid was dead to me because he had to be. It’s only thirty nine years later that I’m learning to let that kid creep out, that one I still sometimes see in the mirror, that one who writes stories he wants to tell that he couldn’t because he was never brave enough to talk before because he lost his voice and died inside.