Words to Live By
I used to think people were generally good at heart. In my twelve year old world, I always found a way to maintain my chipper self. Birds sang outside my window and my little red cheeks beamed with hope. Life was one gargantuan Disney movie. Some people call it naivety, I just call it happiness. Why do so many people see a generally enjoyable time in life as a negative thing? I didn’t understand the reason for the phrase “Don’t grow up too fast”, but I learned. Boy did I learn.
It was just like any normal south Florida summer day. The hot sun pierced through my bedroom window. I waited with one finger poking down my Venetian blinds and one eyeball leering onto the street below, wide open with anticipation. My sister pulled into the driveway and exited the car in a huff. Her face was blank and frozen, lost between states of consciousness. I hurried down stairs to my sister’s aid. She had just been in a car accident, and surprisingly her seventeen year old body didn’t have so much as a bruise to show for it. “Thank God,” I said aloud, “she’s unharmed.” My parents, on the other hand, didn’t seem to breathe the same sigh of relief. I stood aside and watched as my father completely reprimanded my sister. I couldn’t even decipher the loud, obscene words my father just seemed to let leak from his mouth. My sister Michelle stood there paralyzed in guilt. My mother didn’t really react. She simply asked, “Did you call the police?” and “Did you exchange insurance policies?”
I was completely appalled by my parents. Their child, their first born child has just had a major, life changing calamity. It’s a wonder she’s not dead, but the only thing my parents could do was belittle and interrogate her? If she were my child, she’d know how much she meant to me. I’d hug her and kiss her. I’d squeeze the air from her lungs. However, I don’t recall my parents showing any affection. I don’t remember a single “I love you”, “I couldn’t imagine losing you”, or “you mean so much to me.” It hurt. I don’t know why it hurt me because I had nothing to do with the whole situation. Somehow I just ached for my sister. I could feel the anguish and pain in her eyes. I knew how exactly she felt. My parents had no sympathy at all. At that moment, I wonder if they even loved her…if they loved any of their three children. Logically speaking, if they’re this cruel to my sister, they must feel the same for my older brother and me. Do they love us, I thought. Do they love me?
My anger gave me a sudden burst of courage. I had to know why my parents cared more about insurance money than my sister’s safety. If no one else asked, I would. Bravely I looked them both in the eye and said, “Well isn’t anyone going to ask if she’s okay? Don’t you care if she’s alright?” To my surprise, my mother warmly placed her hand on my shoulder and replied, “Of course we’re concerned. We just want to make sure she’s being responsible.” I guess I felt a little better, but then I glanced over at my father. With absolutely scathing condescension my father commented: “Not everything in life is pretty, Alicia. Your sister did something stupid. Don’t do the same.” He turned and walked away from me, all the while muttering curse words under his breath. “These people are assholes,” he said to my mother. He looked up again and coldly spoke to me. “One day you’ll figure out that some people deserve to be called that.” I met the first person who deserved the proper title that day. Thanks Dad.
In that small wrinkle of time, my little, naïve mind began to grow. It began to understand the callousness of human beings. God only knows why a twelve year old has to learn such a difficult lesson, moreover, why she has to learn it from her father. Allow me to introduce my father, a professional computer engineer and an amateur sadist. He bleeds monotony and white collar. Everyday he goes to an office and walks around dictating to the masses, coffee cup in hand. He’s like the boss from the movie Office Space. Every sentence starts off with the phrase “so uh, yeah I’m gonna need to get right on that.” That’s fine for the workplace, but it’s kind of strange when you’re talking to your kid.
My father is emotionally disconnected from the world around him. I think it’s because he has this paranoia looming overhead. He just sits and waits for the next chance to lose his temper. He lives by the phrase ‘screw them before they screw you.’ Who are “they”? The entire world, the elements, humankind, dogs perhaps? My father constantly feuds with this unidentifiable foe. My whole life he tried to impart his “words of wisdom” on me. I’ve been taught to anticipate enemies.
From what I can recall, childhood seemed to slope down after the day of my sister’s accident. I transitioned into what some would call an awkward adolescence; that’s the best euphemism I have for it. I was chubby and generally not a prize photo-op for the family portrait. So of course, my family made many jokes at my expense. Good times. Especially my father, he got the most out of my torment. He pegged me with such terms of endearment as porker, grandma, and (my personal favorite) queenie-bee. Yes, I was given the delightful nickname because my hind parts resembled that of a swollen mother bee’s abdomen. I remember the day I tried on my outfit for fifth grade school portraits, he said “You look like a sausage in that dress.” In spite of everything, I never thought to fire back. My good nature persisted. He didn’t mean it, I thought to myself. Maybe he had a bad day and he took it out on me.
Truthfully, not all of the comments had caustic undertones. My mother reasoned with me more than anything. “You would look so much better if you lost a little weight”, “Just get some exercise, you’d feel good about yourself”… “I just want to make sure that you’re healthy”. No matter how nice the words seem, it’s still a little jarring for a twelve year old to hear. Six years later, even after I have (debatably) outgrown the chubby phase, words continue to echo in my head. I will never fully comprehend the fact that no one thought to make amends. I never got a freaking apology for it. I find that mind boggling. Any time I bring up my childhood, my folks always say, “I don’t see anything wrong with the way you were raised. I think you’re just a bit emotional.” I guess emotions are optional in my house. I learned another life lesson: don’t expect people to sympathize with you, they most likely won’t.
Eventually I began to accept the reality of life. I can sense maliciousness like a bad odor. I always look over my shoulder. I find it’s the only way to truly succeed. My mother says I’m better for it; it’s better to be self-reliant. I agree. However, I would like to lean on someone else once in a while. I try to trust people, but then I’m taken back to these little flashbulb memories that tell me to stop.
The most prominent memory happened not too long ago. During my senior year in high school, my mother and father were at each other’s throats, as usual. Then one day I came home and saw an endless mountain of boxes. Big boxes, smaller boxes, and little baby boxes populated my parent’s room. I walked in and thought; well I don’t think we’re moving. But wait—someone is moving. My father had his share of our household. He couldn’t muster up the courage to tell my brother and me about it until the day before he left. His things were packed away; did he honestly think I would ignore it? How stupid do I look? I was insulted to say the least.
I stood looking in the refrigerator while my brother cooked. My father approached us with a melancholy aura about him. His head hung low like a dog, just hit on the nose by a rolled up newspaper. “Can I talk to you guys for a minute?” he said. “I’ve got something to do,” I replied. I tried to make this moment as difficult as possible for him. If I refused him, he would have to insist. So he did. His monologue started thus: “Well I know you guys aren’t stupid. I pride myself on that. I do not have stupid kids. I guess you already figured out that I was leaving. I didn’t think it would have to come to this. I’m only gonna be down the road. You can come by any time you like. I just wanted to say that I-I-I love you”. The more emotionally taxing the words got, the quieter my father spoke. For some reason, the phrase ‘I love you’ was so painful for my father to say. The words seemed foreign to his mouth, so poisonous, that he had trouble articulating them. Literally, I can count the number of times he has said ‘I love you’ on one hand. It didn’t strike to me to say it back, funny enough.
An awkward silence persisted for what seemed a small lifetime. “Is that it?” I said finally. “No,” he continued, “Do you guys have any questions…Anything at all?” I feel a jolt of adrenaline shoot through my body. Do I have any questions? Let’s see. Why have you been an asshole my whole life? What did I do to deserve you? Why do you treat my mother like garbage? What happened to you to make you so bitter? Why do you say the words ‘I love you’ when you have no idea what they mean? My mind probably proposed several hundred questions in that tiny minute. I said nothing. Somehow I couldn’t bare the thought of being disappointed. I knew exactly what I wanted to ask, and I knew exactly what kind of answer I was going to get. “I don’t know.” “That’s life.” I’ve had enough pointless and aggravating conversations. I wasn’t about to pretend like this time would be different. I simply told my father no, I had no questions.
In actuality, I had already answered the real question for myself. Does it really matter what he has to say? No. My father stays trapped in his own little world. He has no idea who I really am. So how on earth could he answer any of my questions legitimately? He would be talking to a stranger. I think deep down inside, he knows it too. After his leaving, he tried to make amends (in his own way), but he’s so incredibly lost. To this day, when he calls me with a foreign sense of sincerity, he still talks to a stranger. I just laugh in spite of everything, shrug, and continue on with our little chit-chats. Business as usual. I learned volumes from my father, my family, and the experiences we‘ve all endured together. I know that people have to earn your trust. Trust is a privilege, not a right; it‘s a result of respect and dependability. Ultimately, now I know to expect disappointment. It’s human nature. I haven’t grown stale. I’ve just grown up. I used to think people were generally good at heart. I was wrong.