Why I need to be “good”

750 Words — Day #8

I lost my mother when I was five years old. I was the eldest of four children left with a young father. I wanted to talk about the ways in which this has skewed my experiences in life.

As a four year old, you take everything your mother says literally — as gospel truth. My mother told me I had a “guardian angel” who was behind me all the time, so I used to try to turn around really quickly and see. She didn’t discourage this, as far as I can remember, although it may have been couched in some further mystery to explain why I couldn’t see my angel in the mirror.

I remember access to my mother becoming limited. I remember her being hidden in a room upstairs, surrounded by papers in various languages, French, Spanish, Arabic. It was fascinating to pick up a familiar Ladybird book and discover it opened backwards, the mysterious script flowing from right to left across the pages.

She had a phone up there and would call down when she needed something. It became disappointing to me in future that you couldn’t ring the downstairs phone in all houses!

One evening, my father sat me down with my two brothers and my sister and told us the terrible news.

“Mummy’s gone to heaven”

When you’re five years old you don’t really have a concept of death. I hadn’t even experienced the death of a pet — I didn’t know anything yet. But I was suddenly faced with the great expanse of my own lifespan stretching between now and the moment I would get to see her again.

Seeing her again was not unconditional. Catholicism makes this abundantly clear. Only good people go to heaven. I would have to be a good boy for a very long time, and the stakes could not have been higher.

That word — good — is subjective and polymorphic. It has seeped into my life in many ways, some obvious, others less so.

Being a good Catholic was my first matter of all-consuming urgency.

Another measurement of my own “goodness” was through schoolwork. One day in a panic I brought a completed test back up to my teacher (Sister Anne-Marie). I was horrified that one of my answers lacked a tick. She inspected it, taken aback by my earnest reaction, and explained that in her haste she had failed to ensure that each tick lined up accurately with each answer, so with great relief I confirmed my 100% score by counting the ticks instead.

The first time I failed to get 100% in a school test I was maybe 13 years old. I burst into uncontrollable tears in a Spanish lesson in front of the whole class. I didn’t consciously understand what was at stake but it was so deeply ingrained at the core of my being it could fail to erupt spectacularly.

Nobody ever really explained to me what ‘bullying’ was, and at home I was a tyrant. My younger brother always struggled with involuntary little ticks and squeaks at night time — we’d be in our bunk beds trying to get to sleep and he’d make these weird little noises, randomly timed, maybe a few minutes apart. I’d warn him “if you do that again, I’m going to hit you”. He would inevitably emit one of these sounds — the suppression of which could only be compromised by its inevitable consequence — and I’d come down and punch him in the arm. He would start crying. Too loudly. My father would come in, shout at me as I protested “I hardly touched him”, but this wouldn’t prevent a spanking. Then next night the cycle would begin again, often multiple times in one night. I took every squeak as a deliberate act of defiance. I punished my brother and he, with his screams, punished me in return, a nightly escalation — the unnecessary involvement of the behemoth of parental retribution — an over-sensitive cycle of violence.

I did not understand that enforcing my own rules with violent punishments was the act of a bully. I believed it was my right as the eldest brother (or simply as a cohabitant of “the boys’ room”) to expect certain things, and my responsibility to ensure that order was maintained. My brother’s overreactions combined with my father’s overreactions fuelled a crucible of rage within me — the injustice felt so profound, but anger begets nothing but more, deeper anger. I was a condensed ball of fury ready to explode at any hint of injustice in the only ways I could as a child — through violence against my younger siblings or, in public, with uncontrollable tears. I didn’t understand that I was a bully; I didn’t understand that I was not being good. Had she lived, perhaps my mother would have taught me the value of kindness and empathy. Perhaps she would have helped me to accept my brother’s flaws.

I imagine this won’t be the last of my posts on this subject. I have never been brave enough to talk about this subject in public before for fear of painting any of my family in a bad light. I love my brother and my father — I blame them for nothing and I beg their forgiveness for my own transgressions — we are all human beings with our own idiosyncrasies and we were all dealing with what happened in the only ways we knew how.