Love and Fear

When I was eight years old, I finally met my father.

The End of My World as I Knew It

Shortly after my fourth birthday, my lovely childhood world collapsed. My grandma died. My grandpa got a new girlfriend who swiftly kicked me, my mom, and crazy Jonah out of the house. Next, my dad lost his ever-loving mind, dropped out of medical school, and ended up in the mental hospital. (Hannah Pavilion to be precise.) My mom took me, and my baby sister Star, born amongst the ruins of the marriage, to Alabama, where we all lived with my hippy-dippy poet uncle, my aunt, and my two boy cousins, eating pomegranates and sweet grass off of my uncle’s wholly organic farm. Next, my daddy came to Alabama to retrieve us, (me, my mom and my sister) brought us back to Cleveland and moved us into a roach-infested shack.

Besides the roaches, there were other problems like no food, and I mean absolutely no food in the house. Lights would get cut off, water too. My parents were always fighting about these things.

Sometimes, Jonah cried for no apparent reason. I remember him bursting into tears over nothing anyone could see. I was concerned about my father, but I didn’t know how to help him, or if he could even be helped. He was prescribed all kinds of different medications: Haldog, Stellazine, Vivactal, but none of these medications seemed to work and they made him do the funniest things. He paced, back and forth, across a room, aimlessly. He shook his legs, his hands, his lips, uncontrollably, sometimes. People talked. People said things in front of me thinking that I didn’t know or understand what was being said, but I did. What a shame. How sad. He’s so sick. He’s crazy.

If his depressive episodes weren’t odd enough, the manic ones were really weird. It would often start with him becoming obsessed with strange, but harmless things like: the constellations in the sky, or the size of the moon. He’d stay up all night, talking to fictitious people and spending lots and lots of money on the oddest things. He’d get the craziest ideas about things to explore, discover and invent. It was clear to most sane observers that he was losing touch with reality. But, if anyone tried to point that out, he’d become terrifyingly violent. The person who was almost always on the receiving end of his violent rages, was my mother. Whenever my father flipped, my mom sought refuge at her parent’s house.

Everyday when I came home from school, I watched Leave it to Beaver. I wanted Beaver’s life, because Beaver’s world seemed wonderfully normal. I got this idea that my family, like Beaver’s family, could be perfect, if only my father would turn into Ward Cleaver.

Because of my Christian upbringing, I’d been told repeatedly that God answers prayers. Not only that, God could answer any prayer, because God was all powerful. I truly believed that God could turn my dad into Ward Cleaver. In my mind, it was such a small thing to ask. I prayed that God would turn my father into Ward Cleaver and diligently waited for Ward to arrive.

The Rock Star

At the top of what seemed to be a really enormous hill, my father held my bike sans the training wheels.

“Come on Lisa, just sit on the bike. I’m not going to let you fall.”

That’s what he said, but I knew him better than that. I didn’t have a problem with training wheels on my bike, but Jonah had decided it was time for me to ride without them.

“It’s all about balance. Once you master that, you’ve got it.”

He held the bike steadily as I mounted it. He held it as promised, while pushing me along. I kept surveying him carefully out of the corner of my eye. I was nervous because Jonah was the type to let me go when I wasn’t looking. To his credit, he held me up, back and forth, back and forth we went, while I mastered the concept of balancing. Finally, we both agreed it was time for him to let me go.

“You go, girl!”

I was doing it and it was exhilarating! Jonah ran behind me to help me brake on the other side, but I didn’t need his help. I did it on my own and took off down the hill. He screamed after me,

“Look at her go! That’s my girl. My girl!”

Times like this with Jonah were great! He was my Ward Cleaver! He could be this, not just for me, but many people. He got into these moods where he could make people believe they could do absolutely anything! Then he would even help them to do it! When I made it back to the top of the hill, he asked me,

“So, how did that feel?”

“It felt like flying!”

“Flying huh? Well that’s something to think about. Maybe next week, I’ll teach you how to fly.”

“On a plane? Where we gonna get a plane?”

I had no doubt that he could get a plane. Jonah could do anything, in my mind. Anything at all.

“You don’t need a plane to fly, girl. You can just use your arms and take off.”

He demonstrated. He could be such a silly man sometimes.

“Oh daddy! You know that’s impossible. Remember what happened to Icarus?”

A character from one of the many Greek myths my father had read to me. Jonah read to me a lot… all kinds of stuff: fairy tales, Greek mythology, psychology books.

“Lisa, nothing is impossible. It might be improbable, but never impossible.”

Finally, I had met my father. Jonah had climbed out of his depression, stabilized his crazy manic mood and was acting like a normal person…well as normal as he could be. Really, he wasn’t very normal at all. But, he was even better. He was amazing! Finally, I understood why he had been so famed and celebrated. He was brilliant and beautiful…not in any kind of physical way, but inside his mind. He had at least a thousand books memorized and could spit passages out from any one of them with ease. He had thoughts and ideas unlike any I’d ever heard. He could take you places with his mind: exciting, wonderful, beautiful places. Everyone wanted to go with him.

During this time, my parents had lots of friends. They would come over and hang out just to get a chance to talk to Jonah. His friends loved him dearly; and so did I. He told me things that no one else did. Nothing is impossible. That was his favorite. He challenged me to test the limits of my thoughts in every way imaginable. Why not explore this? What are you afraid of? What is the worst that can happen? Will you die, if you do that? So what if you do? Would that be a bad thing? How do you know? To Jonah, death just seemed to be nothing more than another intellectual concept, to be explored and conquered. It didn’t seem to be something he feared, for him or anyone else.

My father encouraged me to ask the hard questions. We could talk about anything, just absolutely anything and everything: politics, philosophy, religion, sex…yes even sex. By the time I was ten years old, my father had told me absolutely everything that there was to know about sex, much to my mother’s disgust and dismay. But there was nothing she could or would do about it.

Jonah and Saundra somehow scrounged up enough money to buy a house, just twenty blocks to the east of the roach motel, on East 106th street. The street was the cusp of privilege and poverty, about two blocks away from the border of University Circle, a very affluent area. On the other side of 106th was 105th street, which was where the ghetto began.

Once we moved in, my family settled down into a life that seemed normal. My mother finally got a job as an elementary school teacher. I went to school. Star went to preschool. And Jonah, well… he wasn’t a doctor. He threw that whole medical school thing away, like trash. Despite his incredible intellectual ability, he could not keep a job. On top of that, he was horrible with money. Often times, he would spend up all of our money, (money needed for groceries, utilities, the mortgage,) on the most outrageous things. Equipment that he needed for various hobbies that he would have for a few weeks, or his “businesses.

Jonah started a new business every other month. Each one started out, like all amazing new industries do, with a really great idea. As for ideas, he had a million of them. But follow through was a little tricky. There was, for example, the Information Institute. Like Al Gore, my father invented the Internet. (Okay, not really.) But, in the early eighties, not only was he on the Internet and pulling information off of it at a time when not many others could, he accurately predicted that the future of commerce was information. Thus, he began a business where he sold information, at exorbitant prices. The Information Institute became an overnight success. He developed a steady clientele from his old school crew, doctors, seeking information on various medical conditions. For a while, things were going great for Jonah, but then something happened.

Fuck God (And Everyone Else Too!)

“Fuck you, Larry! Fuck you! Do you think I need this shit? I don’t need you! I got more clients! A thousand clients! A million clients! I don’t need your fucking money!”

Uh, oh, I remember thinking, as I watched my father pace back and forth, screaming at one of his most loyal and well-paying clients. Why was he yelling? Why was he lying? He didn’t have a thousand clients. Hell, he didn’t even have a hundred. It seemed, well crazy. Soon after that particular conversation, the Information Institute disappeared as quickly as it had begun. The demise of his most promising business could probably be chalked up to Jonah thinking he was too smart. My father had a huge superiority complex. He complained all the time about how everyone was an idiot; and he was the only person on the planet with any real intelligence. Idiot, idiot, idiot! He would often sneer at whomever he pleased, when he was in certain moods. Most people didn’t take too kindly to being referred to as idiots. To diminish the insult, they would come back at him, you’re not so smart as you think! Or If you’re so smart, how come you aren’t rich? It was a damn good question, I thought. But Jonah thought it was a stupid idiot question and explained the better question was actually this: if you’re so smart, how come you aren’t happy? I had to admit this was a much better question. Jonah’s response was a long diatribe as to why he could never be happy, but at least he was smart enough to recognize it.

I should have recognized that he wasn’t one for negotiating the everyday realities and practicalities of life. But I didn’t. I held him in great esteem, expecting great things, still. Surely, someone with such an incredible mind was destined to do something great. His thoughts alone seemed to have so much power.

He could be really irreverent at times. Although, from a deeply Christian family (Episcopalian at that), there were times when he would say things like Fuck God! Everyone in the family would look at him in abject horror. Fuck God!? Who dared to say things like? I actually expected him to be struck down by lightening. But nothing like that ever happened to Jonah. In fact, it seemed to me, the more irreverent Jonah became, the more God blessed him.

Family Dysfunction

My mother was a shadow, in comparison to him; that was her own quiet craziness. She could only define herself and her life in the terms of his craziness (or someone else’s). She seemed to get off on the fact that she appeared to be sane by comparison. (She wasn’t.) But, unlike Jonah, she did maintain a steady connection to the real world that everyone else lived in. She worked hard to maintain our piece of it. She did her best to ensure that all major bills were covered and that a roof remained over our heads. Wherever she failed, she asked her parents to pick up the slack. They did. So we went back to my grandparent’s house whenever things got dicey.

And they got dicey a lot. Things never seemed to go well between my parents for any length of time. Like most couples, they fought about money, which was complicated by the fact that he wanted to spend all of it on really crazy impractical things. Mom just wanted to pay the mortgage, but, this kind of practicality Jonah found incredibly boring, if not an outright threat to his personal philosophy. He attacked my mother emotionally, psychologically and physically, whenever she resisted any of his outrageous schemes. As a result, she went along with most of them.

I hated it when he would hit her. I was overwhelmed with feelings of panic and turmoil, as I hid behind doors or in corners, feeling powerless to stop the violence unfolding. More than anything, I just wanted it to end. Eventually, it did. They would kiss, make up and go back to life as usual, which was quite unusual.

Despite the fact that my parent’s marriage was made in hell (their own personal, private one, anyway), they just kept making babies. When I was eight, my mom was pregnant, again. Jonah wanted the baby to be born at home, but I didn’t think it was such a good idea. Neither did my Grandma Raymond, who often told my mom she was a fool to keep having all these babies by a no-good, low-down, no-count crazy like my father. I didn’t want to take sides, but I too, thought the hospital would be best and I told my mother so. But she ignored all sane advice. I had such an ominous feeling about my brother being born at home. I doubted my father, even though, he claimed that he could handle it. Delivering babies was so easy. He had done it three or four times before, in medical school.

It wasn’t that I didn’t believe him. Probably he had the knowledge. This was true. This was something Jonah always had. But, I felt like, at this particular moment in time, there was something crucial in Jonah that was lacking. Well, when my brother was finally born in my parent’s bedroom, my dad announced proudly that this kid was special; sooooooooo very special and especially because he had been delivered by Jonah. But it really bothered me that Jonah didn’t seem to have the slightest concern for my mom, who had actually delivered the baby.

She looked like death to me. Surely, there was something that she needed. But what did I know? I was eight years old, taking all instructions from Jonah. My dad had this way of making everyone around him think he had all the right answers.

But he didn’t. Not in this situation anyway. After the baby was born, he simply ran around the house on a self-congratulatory high, pouring everyone champagne and waxing poetic about his accomplishments, not thinking once about Saundra who lay upstairs in her bedroom losing large quantities of blood. Luckily, my mom’s brother Shane, and his wife Rene stopped by to check on Saundra. My Aunt Rene complained that all the blood loss wasn’t natural. She wanted to call an ambulance, but my dad was opposed to that. Rene and Jonah argued back and forth a bit. Finally, my Uncle Shane, who never said too much of anything, declared, Oh to hell with all of this. I’m calling 911.

After a blood transfusion and a week in the hospital, my mother survived. She’d survive more. We all would. Now there were four of us, trying to find places for ourselves in Jonah’s world; and what a strange, strange world it was.

Lessons in Love and Fear

During this time in my life, I began to get intimately acquainted with the rollercoaster ride that is bipolar disorder. It’s a ride that rages back and forth between the two opposite emotions love of the authentic self and fear of the ego. My father had a lot of love, but also a lot of fear, which also transforms into other heavy, hard emotions like: anger, rage, hate, shame and guilt. Unfortunately, I’d experience all of these emotions with my father. I was beginning to lose sight of love and my fears were growing. Dark times were ahead.

  1. Family Dysfunction — I’m sure you’ve come across the Tolstoy quote- “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” At a very early age, I sort of knew, my family was not in the happy boat, and I didn’t quite know why, but I knew that this term “crazy” had something to do with it. Everyone seemingly has something though: alcoholism, addiction, neuroticism, child abuse, spouse abuse, sexual assault, general family violence, financial stress, poverty, legal problems, divorce and shame, shame, shame, shame usually accompanies all these issues. Usually, there is at least one thing that we can name that we can blame our family dysfunctions on. What kinds of dysfunctions did you recognize in your early family life? Did you recognize them, back then? Do you recognize them today? How is this affecting your life today? So often in childhood, we just deal with dysfunction, not even knowing that something is off. What? everyone’s father doesn’t stay out all Friday night drinking to collapse and spend all of Saturday passed out?
  2. Spousal Abuse — My parents had an extremely toxic relationship, rife with both emotional and physical abuse that was often quite extreme. Sadly, this, is not uncommon. I learned this when I started assigning the most violent parts of my memoir (the preface) to students in my College Composition class so that they could understand the structure of a personal narrative. My preface, you see, tells a story: Just Get Over It, which you can read here if you’re nosy and are drawn to stories of extreme family violence, the sad truth is, most people are. Why? Sadly, because they can relate. Just Get Over It is about a fight between my father and I, over his physical abuse of my mother, which I wanted to cease. So many of my students came to me with similar stories of parents either being physically and emotionally abusive to them, or the other parent. I don’t think people realize how prevalent family violence is, nor do they realize the extraordinarily devastating effect it has on children, especially, young ones. The younger the child, the more devastating the impact. Some children may be irreparably damaged forever by it. This blog post on The Effects of Domestic Violence on Children Who Witness It, provides some pretty good resources to get you started looking into the issue of you’re interested. And I hope you are. Happy families are the key to a happy human society overall. I think we all should be interested. But it has to start with an individual. So what about you? Did you see your father hit your mother? Did you see your mother hit your father? If so how did you feel about it?
  3. Love and Fear — I knew someone who used to say, “There are only two emotions in life, love and fear.” Do you think that is true? What is your earliest memory of love, or feeling loved? What is your earliest memory of fear, or being afraid? How did these feelings impact your life and your experiences?
  4. The Journaling Challenge: So do these prompts raise any issues for you? Use the questions above as prompts, but by all means don’t stop there. Ask your intuitive higher self, what questions you should be asking your more limited, sensory lower self about those early years, with your family? Write without censors. Write for your life. Any questions? Leave them below.
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