Having established that I am probably the mentally healthiest of the family, I started to wonder why that was. What was so different about my childhood that allowed me to be a dramatically healthier, more functional person?
Well, the short and obvious answer is, I was raised by and identified with the healthy parent.
My parents were married for almost 30 years. For more than 20, my father’s job was one where he was traveling most of the work week. This is not automatically a recipe for disaster — plenty of military families make it work, for example. But it does require a mother who is competent and capable of running the family and the household by herself — not one who wants to be taken care of and doesn’t like to work too hard. It requires a mother who is a part of a team, who is the glue that holds the family together. Our mother was not that mother.
When my dad was 18 or so, he enlisted in the Coast Guard in WWII so that he could send money home to his mother and the younger kids. His own father had died before he was 40, and after that they struggled for money. Dad became the hero who went off to work and sent money home to provide for his family. I have gotten his old military records, and there is a letter in there written by his mother, explaining that he was indeed the main provider for a family, so that he could qualify for extra pay. And he came back to a home run by a mother who did her own job properly while he was away, and appreciated what he did.
I have wondered if my father stuck with the marriage as long as he did in part because he convinced himself that he was doing what he was supposed to be doing — providing for his family — and if it was easier for him to be gone all the time, well, at least the kids were not at risk. Maybe he thought that by him being the scapegoat-in-chief, that protected the children from the unholy, unhealthy ways of my mother.
Of course this is not the case. The narcissistic mother poisoned all her kids to think the same way she did, to shift blame whenever possible, as she did, onto Dad for everything. Dad was always the bad guy. My siblings were systematically alienated from their father by a mother who had to have someone to blame.
I believe that when the family moved, and my father’s job became one where he was home every night instead of only on the weekends, he began to see how things really were. What he learned from my mother’s psychologist after I was born probably added the weight of professional advice to his decision. My sister said that our father once told her, “Your mother is crazy, and you’re going to end up as crazy as she is.” To me that indicates that he understood the depths of our mother’s mental health problems, and he also understood that she had probably passed them on to their children.
And I believe that once my father really understood what was going on, he chose to do whatever he could still do to not allow the caustic pattern to continue. He figured out (correctly) that the only way out was, well, out. So, he divorced her, and instead of just walking away, which he could oh-so-easily have done, he fought for custody of the minor children that were left.
Thus I was protected by him, more than any of the others — because I was the youngest, and had experienced the least of my mother’s unhealthy influence and parental alienation. It was much harder for her to alienate me from a father who was home every night, and who loved me, and took care of me in the ways she didn’t or couldn’t.
I believe I am the only one of his children who really, wholeheartedly, loved him. That doesn’t exactly make me special — it just means my mom didn’t get to work on me the way she did the others.
But to Dad, I was special.
A few days before Dad died, we had a conversation — one of the few where I ever saw my dad cry. He knew he was dying. He told me, “I’m going to miss you.”
I said something about how I would miss him too, and that for those of us left behind, it would be years and years, a long, long, time — but for him maybe it would only be a blink of an eye until we saw each other again.
He said, in a muffled voice — because his head was on the kitchen table, on his arms, because he didn’t want me to see him crying — “Yes, but you’re special.”
I still have that kitchen table, and the chair he sat in when he said it.
I believe that in me, he found his redemption, his proof that he really could be a good father, away from the sick influence of a woman who hated and blamed him.
One of my biggest regrets is that I never figured any of this out when he was alive — of course, it took his death for the truth to bubble up, so as long as he was alive, I could not have done so. I suspect that is just proof of what he sacrificed: not telling anyone about all of this, just doing what was right, and enduring years and years of blame and infamy from almost all his children.
There was one who was different. And I am so grateful to have been that one.
I wish like hell that I could talk to him, even just for a few seconds — it just has to be long enough to tell him, “Hey, Dad, I figured it out. I get it. I understand. And I love you.”