Dad used to say that a lot, that “Life sucks, and then you die.” He would laugh, a cackle really, and bite down on the cold stump of his Cuban cigars. I never knew where he got those cigars from in the height of the Cuban embargo. They were probably fakes, rolled from tobacco grown on the East Coast somewhere, with the little gold Habanos rings slipped over them like false promises of ‘til death do us part’ slipped onto girlish naïve fingers. The stumps always smelled like a wet ashtray, and saliva, and from the rolling of the stump from left to right there were permanent yellowed streaks in his mostly-grey beard on each side of his mouth.
He would give me the cigar boxes if I asked nicely, and I would wait impatiently for him to finish the 25 cigars, for the perfumed treasure chests of pinkish cedar, the aroma of the wood and tobacco and the apple slices he used to humidify them creating a heady scent that would permeate the foreign bills, and pieces of dyed snakeskin, the notes and drawings that I thought important enough to take with me everywhere, through the changing homes of cars or buses or trailers, to stash in my backpack while letting go of the other things, old comic books or sketchbooks or clothing.
But that wasn’t what I set out to write about. I considered how to write about it objectively, and there is only my own objection. There is only what I know about myself, and my own feelings, as there only ever is. In thinking about the whys of me, the wherefores, the whens, I have to consider the whys of him, of others in my life. It’s hard to do, but easier because I know certain things, things I have learned with adult hindsight and things I knew instantly without thinking. I know he was not as hard as he liked to pretend, that he must have been angry that he always felt he had to run, angry at his parents and their too-many children, angry at his own shortcomings, angry with the government and the way-things-were. Angry with my mother, for wanting, for needing. He must have felt powerless. So he bought a lot of guns, and he drank, and he screamed, and he railed against it all and he grew more frustrated and impotent. He killed, not people, but helpless things that couldn’t fight back. I think it is why the innocent things tear at my heart so, why I pick up the injured animals and bring them home, why I take in the rescues and why I love them so hard it hurts. It’s why I don’t want to understand him, not really, because to be in a place where your only power comes from hurting others is a sad place.
He took a whole litter of kittens, once, and he stomped on each of their tiny heads until my brothers ran sobbing away. He didn’t bother to wipe the blood from the bottom of his boots. He always had a good reason, and this time it was that we couldn’t feed them all. “If that cat gets knocked up again the same thing is going to happen,” he said. He would laugh when he told people the story of how he got a free goat, a pet goat that the owners wanted a good home for, and he said he walked into the yard and he cut that goats’ throat in front of them all and watched the blood and the horror flow all around him. “But we needed the meat, you know,” he would say, as if that made the brutality justifiable. “They didn’t see that one coming, huh? Bet those kids had never seen anything like that shit.” I bet they hadn’t. I never doubted the story.
He brought home a puppy, in a moment of thinking of us, he said, and we all fell promptly in love with the little pitbull mix. A few weeks later he ripped up a bicycle seat, and when my dad beat him mercilessly and the puppy growled at him in pain and fear, he shot it in the head with his .45. Thinking of us, again. The blast rang in my head, over and over, a death knell, and I let go of the feelings I had for the puppy. “Don’t go out there,” Mom said, perfectly still. The puppy’s yelping had stopped with the sound of the gunshot, instantly. “He was no good, he would have been a killer,” Dad said. “If they growl at you like that you can tell.”
I cry more now than I ever did as a child. When an emotion comes I try to embrace it, to let it be. The feelings weren’t easy to read on my face when I was a child. I took care to hide them and all signs of weakness, because life was hard and it would eat you up and spit you out if you showed you were weak enough to allow it. As a protective measure, I could shut it all out behind a big, smooth wall that stretched farther than I could see. I would withdraw, and I would forget for the moment until I had space to think about the things that hurt.
I am surrounded by love now, and permission to be, and gentleness, and kindness. Those things flood your heart, and make you weaker so you succumb to the tears and the feelings. I know that dad tried to make us hard, and it worked. We were all as hard as kids could be, our faces locked into masks and our feet thick as leather from running on stones. I hope that my siblings meet someone that can break that wall down for them, that they have not let the wall become them. Feeling the world hurts, yeah it does, but that’s what it takes to live. You can’t run and hide forever. I mean, you can, but at the end what do you offer to eternity – do you hold in your two hands the broken pieces of your heart? That’s what my dad will hold, and I hope he has regrets. I plan to hold my whole heart with all its scars, and to look back with love and thankfulness and joy. It all does matter, I know it does. Every kindness, every beautiful moment.