A few months will go by and I will realize that the images haven’t invaded my mind—a sort of remission. It’s a relief and then a reminder. Some sensory thing will bring it back to me, a misstep on concrete, looking over a railing in a shopping mall and feeling the familiar stomach drop, or brushing against peeling paint on a window sill. Then, I am there.
It was summer, I was 7 or 8. Annoyingly, the specifics of some parts of that day are lost to me…my exact age, the city we were in, the name of the hotel. I want to know, I want to physically go back there for some reason. But I can’t. The rest of the details, for a span of probably 10 minutes or so, are terribly clear. Vivid. I wake to those details many nights, sweating and with my heart pounding visibly through my nightgown. There have been several nights when I have had to get up and change the sheets after waking to find I have been sweating terribly for most of the night. I wake to a damp, hot and cold cocoon, and peel myself out of it. The last two nights have been that way.
It is ten minutes of my life. But it won’t leave me.
My mother, father and I were on a vacation somewhere. I am fairly sure we were at a beach (maybe Florida?). I think we were there for a short time, maybe traveling with my father while he worked somewhere. I remember wearing a yellow bathing suit, and that our room was small, but opened to a balcony. Our view looked straight across a courtyard to rows and levels of rooms and balconies just like ours, a mirror reflection of middle-income weekend-getaway style. Many floors below (maybe 8, maybe 10?) and to the left, a turquoise swimming pool shimmered and made reflections on the ceiling of our balcony- little glimmers of light thrown from far below, beckoning me to the water.
The TV was on, I was bored, nothing was out of the ordinary. I heard the familiar clunking sound of the cooler being opened, and then my father immersing his hand into the icy water and melted ice, finding one of the colder cans of beer in the bottom. My whole life, anytime we have stayed in a hotel, and long before mini-fridges were the norm in each room, my father’s first order of business was to fill the large orange Igloo cooler with ice at the automatic machine to chill the innumerable beers he had just purchased somewhere nearby.
So, today was no different than any other time, any other trip. My memories of my father almost always include a beer in his hand, for years and years, a Pabst Blue Ribbon can. That image, that red white and blue logo and lettering, is part of my childhood. What is odd is that he hid the effects so well. My estimation is that he was almost constantly buzzed or drunk—all the time. But, he wasn’t a stumbling, jobless, word-slurring drunk. He had somehow managed to conquer the tell-tale signs for the public. At home we saw longer stretches of inebriation and violent outbursts, but to be honest, over my whole life living in the house with him and my mother, and for the many years I tried to go home for holidays and have a normal life, more often than not, he seemed fine. If someone dropped in to visit, nothing seemed amiss. The flipside of that, though, was that we could all be sitting around the dinner table and something…nothing… would cause a reaction from him so unexpected, so shocking, that the rest of the evening blurred afterwards for me.
So this day, in this hotel, was just that way. There were no loud voices, no provocations, just all of the sudden the air in the room was different. He was different.
I was sitting on the bed in my bathing suit, watching TV, and in what seemed like a split second, my father had picked me up off the bed by my wrists, and spun me around. He wasn’t angry, he wasn’t upset, he was actually laughing.
What might have been normal father-daughter interactions were always laced with trepidation for me. Today, in particular, I noticed his grip on me was weak, faltering. It turned a light hearted moment into one of me assessing how close he was spinning me to the glass door and the corner of the nightstand.
He then carried me out onto the balcony and before I could think or protest, flung me over the railing of the balcony, dangling me, eight or so stories up. He was laughing and joking with me. At first, I struggled, but then became paralyzed with fear, especially as he seemed oblivious to the danger of the situation.
He pulled me up over the edge, back onto the balcony, and looked puzzled at the expression on my face, and my tears. He began teasing me for crying. He was still laughing, and looked absolutely shocked at my reaction. My mother was standing near the open door of the patio, but said nothing. She had a distant, faraway look. She never said anything. To me or to him.
As if to prove it was all in fun, my father scooped me up again and again, repeating the same steps, holding me over the railing longer and longer. I scraped the back of my heels against the peeling, painted concrete, trying to somehow climb backwards onto the safety of the balcony. I looked down and tried to will the pool to move underneath where I was hanging, instead of the patches of grass and sidewalk that were directly below me. I felt his grip slipping a few times, and I was terrified he was going to drop me, let me slip away.
Each time I was finally back safe in the room, I was a wreck, and crying loudly for my mother to make him stop—pleading with him-- telling him he was scaring me. In his drunken haze, he was just more confused. In my mother’s life-saving veil of denial, she couldn’t be in that room. She was there, but not there. It wasn’t happening.
Those last two sentences did not come easily to me. Over the years, I remembered that episode in my life with so much bitterness. I remembered a drunken, uncaring man who saw his little girl terrified and wanted to keep scaring her. I saw a mother in that room who didn’t care and did nothing. Those statements are both true and untrue. There is reality and then there is the whole picture.
As it is with all occurrences like this from my past, I have no one I can go to and say—“do you remember this? Can you tell me more about that day?” These things simply didn’t happen in the world my parents live in. My father, in truth, can’t remember a lot of things in his alcohol-soaked past. My mother may remember somewhere in her lost soul, but she can’t let herself.
All of this realization came after years of therapy, and in particular, one night in a Barnes & Noble bookstore in Washington DC. It has been over a decade now since I sat in the floor of the self-help aisle in that bookstore and pulled book after book off the shelf about living with an alcoholic parent. At that point, I wanted to understand my father more, I was trying to solve the mystery of it all. I had just started admitting the reality of my life to myself. I wanted to know how my father came to be this person, and what kind of person it was making me.
What I found instead was words on a page that described my mother in such intricate and perfect detail that I was frozen in that spot. Her denial, her absolute inability to look back and help me piece things together. Over the years, I had tried desperately to shake answers from her, questioning her, reminding her of dates, holidays, what I was wearing on a particular night—trying to jog her memory to give me the answers to all the whys I had for so many incidents. She would reply with a blank stare, a confused expression, and finally exasperation that I was “misremembering” or worse, making up things.
It had haunted me. Was I crazy?
Did I imagine these nights, these outbursts?
No, I hadn’t. And as I read the words through my tears that night at Barnes & Noble, I knew that what I was reading was true. No one could write about what I was living with such accuracy unless it was happening to others, unless it was real, unless one thing led to another. My father was an alcoholic, my mother was a typical spouse of an alcoholic. I was also on my way to becoming a statistic. Depression was ruling my life at that point, I had broken down more than a few times. I had been in therapy, but I hadn’t been honest. Secrets were a way of life in our house, and they were kept with an unspoken promise. I hadn’t told anyone the truth of my life, the truth of it all. The main reason I hadn’t was that I felt I was somehow the reason for it all. I had always felt that way. I felt if I had been a better child, a better daughter, my father wouldn’t be the way he was, and my mother wouldn’t be the way she was. If only I had been better, our lives would have been different.
That night in the bookstore was a turning point for me. Many more years of therapy, truth telling, and realizations lay ahead of me. If I had known how many, I might not have kept going. It was a long road from there to here, just to understand days like the one in that hotel. And I do understand it, I do. But it still haunts me.
Tonight it hit me that I have so much uncertainty in my life right now, and I feel so out of control. Maybe the reason this dream has visited me the last few nights is that feeling of being out of control was so present in that moment. Maybe it is one of the first times I remember feeling that way. Maybe the two are connected.
In my dream, all the details of that day are the same except the end. In my dream, he loses his grip, and I am falling and falling…it seems like forever. And just before I hit the ground, I wake up, gasping for air.
A part of me wishes I could remember where it all happened so I could go to that hotel, find that exact room, and step out on that balcony. I want to look over the railing and sigh with relief that it was only a floor or two up, not a long drop at all. I want to realize that he hadn’t put me in as much danger as I thought, that I was just being a child, being scared, seeing things as worse than they were in my mind. He didn’t nearly let me slip away. I always wonder if that would put this memory to rest once and for all.
But like so many things in my past, so many similar memories, I won’t get that type of closure. I would likely get something worse- that it was all just as I remember it, just as scary, just as bad.
I would just be chasing memories, going in circles, getting nowhere. There is nothing deeper in that ten minutes than what I know it to be. I believe I am at peace with that, but for whatever reason, that day still has a hold on me.
And I will be here, waiting, until it lets me go.