I feel like I should slap a warning label on this particular story. I love to write non-fiction humor but this is a story from the land that funny forgot. The point isn't the trauma, or the horror though. At the root of this there exists something beyond admirable, if difficult. It's the story of a difficult woman, who made some sad choices, some self-destructive ones too. That could be anyone's story, really. It describes most of us, but this woman did something I'm not sure I could do, and it is the stuff of nightmares. Some of them mine, I suppose.
It's the story of how my grandmother saved the life of a woman she hated, and in doing so made my entire life, as it stands, possible. She just had to do the unthinkable to accomplish that.
The thing is, with this sort of story, why tell it? There's the "well, it could help someone know that it's possible to overcome." That's entirely true. We are, all of us, more than the sum total of our traumas. I am, and I always have been. This part of my life is no more important today than any of the other things you might know about me. That I like to make people laugh is really how I'd rather be thought of, and about.
I'm very protective of other people when it comes to my childhood. I talk about my love of books, and the good memories I do have but I don't share many stories often, and there are only a select few who know of this memory. I don't like to upset people, why should I? I'm fine. Folks, I'm beyond fine. I'm happy, and I have a lovely life. It took hard work to get there, for instance, I wouldn't really recommend my twenties to anyone. It was what it was, and I made a good life, with some incidental tears, sweat, and the occasional horrific dream.
But this isn't really about me. I've tried to figure out a way to tell this story without referencing the center part of it, and there isn't a way to do that. So, with many a disclaimer, warnings galore and not a little trepidation on my part, I'm going to launch here in a moment, and tell you how thirty years after her death, I realized how much someone cared about me. I guess bravery can wear a lot of faces. That when I say, "We are more than the sum total of our traumas." We are also more than the sum total of our failings.
When I was six-years-old my mother left my father, an event with much drama around it. She took with her my half-brother, and I remained behind with my father and grandmother . She left because, as she will tell you, my father was going to end up killing her. She's not wrong, and her life has been hard. Please don't judge her. I don't, I love her even if I feel rather distant from her. If you knew her? You'd like her, she's a pretty good person on top of everything else.
I caught a bit of guff from a longtime friend not long ago when I referenced some of the more positive things about my father here, and didn't mention the bad. I wasn't concealing anything, the good parts of my father, of both of my parents really, are what I remember these days.
I suppose people could say that my mother is overly dramatic. That she's overstating something, but sadly, she wasn't. Whatever the official diagnosis on my father's problems might be it is lost to time. He's long dead, but he had a long, sad story and a violent one. Every now and then my father would snap, and it was as if he was an entirely different person. Honestly, I remember that, and it really was like being in the presence of someone I didn't know. My mother describes it as such, also. He fought in a war, and was pulled from combat following a breakdown. He was hospitalized for over a year, long before I was born, but ever after he had exceptionally violent episodes. Stress brought it out in him, and three times he very nearly killed my mom. He once beat her head on an asphalt driveway, as a for instance. A neighbor intervened. It was the seventies, the approach to domestic violence was quite different.
When you're five-years-old life is pretty simple, or rather, your assessment of a situation is pretty simple. The person who is bleeding is the wronged person. Whoever has the biggest owie has been done wrong, and that's all there is to it.
I've heard this story more than I've ever told it. My mother tells it frequently. She will tell it to people who know me, on the rare instances that they are in the same space. I really wish she wouldn't. For one thing, it scares the stuffing out of them. What exists in my memory is a slippery, rather terrifying thing. I was playing "boat" on the bed in my room, with my brother and two neighbor children. Heaven help them, by the way. Oddly enough they weren't allowed to play at my house again.
There was an argument about an oven, of all things. My father had cleaned the oven, and my mother was irritated, tired, and snapped at him about that oven. It could be something that small for him. The landing in front of my room was next to a staircase, with a radiator up against the bannister. It was a bending staircase, a back staircase. What I saw was this, my five foot tall mother, being choked by my six foot tall father, and a great deal of screaming. The force of the attack propelled my mother backwards into the radiator, and my father continued to choke her, bending her back over the staircase. The only thing that might have saved her life was actually if she had fallen, it would have been a fall of about six feet and she might have survived that. She wasn't going to survive being throttled, and my brother and I (along with our poor, terrified guests) were locked in place, screaming our collective lungs out.
The next thing I remember is a lot of blood spurting from my father's head. This is where the fact that I've been told this story so often comes in. I can tell you that what happened is that my grandmother hit my father in the head with a lamp, hard in order to stop him from killing my mom and that blow was no joke.
I have no memory of that blow, I only remember the blood afterward and screaming, "You hurt my daddy!" at someone. I didn't really understand choking, but I understood bleeding.
And having heard so often, "Nana hit your father in the head with a lamp." I assumed that it was my tiny, Scottish grandmother, over for a visit. I don't know why I never questioned that. I knew my grandmother lived in Scotland, but she visited, so that was possible. However, my grandmother from Scotland is four feet ten inches tall, and alive to this day. My other grandmother was 5'9". I don't know why I still have no memory of the fact that it was my father's own mother who brained her son with a lamp, and saved a bunch of lives that day.
My mother has a habit of repeating the same stories, over and over when I talk to her on the phone. Don't we all? I've gotten into the habit of trying to prod her along when I've heard one too often. I know why she brings up that memory so often. She feels guilty about having left me. People judge her for that, too. I forgave her long ago. I don't see her all that often, but I send her flowers on Mother's Day, give her the occasional spa certificate. My mother was in a terrible situation, and she had to make a terrible choice. It happens in life. She'll tell you that there was no way to take me, and she's right. I was my father's only child, and he never would have let me go.
My mother was telling me this story again, I don't know why. I tend to hear it every couple of years, and she doesn't need to ask for my compassion any longer. I prompted her, "And then Nana hit him in the head with a lamp."
"And he picked her up by the hair, and threw her." Yup, another delightful gem that I'd just as soon not revisit but, it is what it is. I probably sounded a little bored, or impatient.
"Yes, Pat...", my mother continued, and if life had a soundtrack, there would have been a needle screeching for me.
"What? What did you just say?"
"Pat hit your father in the head."
Pat was my father's mother. The woman I lived with growing up until I was twelve, and she died of cancer of the almost everything. She was an alcoholic, as it happened. One rather funny sticking point is that my mother remembers her as not drinking much before I was in bed, but I suppose that's because when my mother knew her best, that's what she did. Pat went on to drink all day, every day but she took care of me when I was little, almost from the time I was born. My mother worked and went to school.
A lot could probably be said about that, about my grandmother who had lost the husband she adored years before I was born. She wasn't fun, but she wasn't horrible either. She did sort of nearly kill me as one of her last acts, but it wasn't intentional. Pat was a smoker, who would take a bottle to bed with her. She managed to set her mattress on fire three separate times, and on the last occasion, didn't realize she'd done it. I assume she felt sick (because she truly was, the cancer was in her brain by the time it was discovered), and after she dropped her forgotten cigarette, she went downstairs to her den to watch TV. The house caught fire, with me on the same floor. I'm fine, but that's yet another thing I don't recommend. Waking up with the house on fire.
It is a sad, but true fact, that is the only time I ever lashed out at my grandmother. When I awoke to bedlam, I threw open the window -- dumb, but I was twelve, and couldn't breathe -- sucked in enough air to remain conscious and ran to the downstairs phone to call the fire department. When I discovered my grandmother, asleep in her den in our very large house, I woke her by yelling at her, "You almost killed me, you stupid drunk!"
Not my proudest moment, and luckily not the last thing I ever said to her. She was taken to the hospital by the firemen, as was I, for smoke inhalation and there she was diagnosed with a cancer that took her life six months later.
But for all her faults, when Pat saw her son attacking my mother, she tried to stop him. He evidently had pushed her down, hard, down the hall, out of my sight. Then she got up, grabbed a lamp, and did what I can't even imagine doing, she hit her own son with as much force as she humanly could. My mind always inserted my mother's mother into that, no image required. I knew the story, and it's very easy to think that a mother would attack the man attacking her daughter. It is a very different thing entirely for a mother to do that to her own child. My father was not the product of an abusive home, by the way. All of his problems seem to have started with Korea, his childhood was happy, even though he was a kid in the Depression.
It becomes important to tell you that both of my parents were only children. I have no uncles, aunts or cousins. I have no idea what would have happened to me if my father had killed my mother. None. I suspect it would have changed a great deal. Foster care seems likely, although poor drunken Pat probably would have fought for me. I also suppose it's possible that my father would have simply stopped killing my mother, and jeez, you'd hope. Rather unlikely, and you'll just have to trust me on that. He never really just snapped out of his fits by himself.
Pat stood by the side of her only son through all of his troubles. She hated my mother because Pat blamed my mom for many of them. Evidently my dad had been doing well for years. He'd studied in Ireland, he'd gotten his doctorate. When he came back from Ireland with his Scottish wife, and her son, he stopped doing well. If you think I'm blaming my mother, that's not the case, at all. My poor, tiny, rather brilliant, and exceptionally pretty mother had no clue what she was getting herself into when she married my father.
I cannot imagine the horror of the choice Pat made. If you're a parent, heck, if you're able to read this and therefore human, I doubt you can imagine it either. I cannot imagine hitting my son with a lamp, or anyone for that matter. There'd have to be imminent peril for another human being involved. I cannot imagine the desperate moment in which she realized it was the only way to keep him from killing that Scottish woman. And then she did it, and he threw her across the room.
So she didn't stop him, did she? No, but she set in motion the thing that did, and she tried like hell to stop him. The thing that stopped him, as he turned around to get my mother was a five-year-old's reaction to blood. When I saw my father bleeding, I ran directly into the proceedings, and it all ground to a halt.
Why tell this story? Well, you see, when I hung up the phone, I had to sit down. Everything in my life, the one I cobbled together through sheer force of will. My determination to be happy, meeting my ex-husband who is the father of my son, meeting my husband now and being loved, and happy? All of that is a path that would have changed forever had my father killed my mother. I never realized that the person I had to thank for that was a woman who made a very hard choice, a choice I wouldn't wish upon another soul. Even if my father hadn't managed to kill my mother, that was the catalyst for leaving my dad. If it hadn't been such a complete horror show, she might have continued to stay, particularly if he had stopped on his own. Because he had to be stopped, my mother knew that he was capable of killing her, or at least she came to believe it firmly that day.
What really struck me is that it clicked with something else. When I woke my grandmother up, tearfully shouting at her in a the sort of blind howl of outrage only a truly terrified kid can muster, she did something. Something I never mention when I tell the story of the night I woke up to the house afire. I never thought it mattered, because I had already called the fire department. And I have always been angry about that fire.
Pat got up, and ran towards the fire, to try and put it out. She collapsed, and as she lay on the floor struggling she yelled, "Call the fire department."
She was still trying to crawl up the stairs when the firemen got there. I never thought about how I lived with a very unhappy, troubled, but almost insanely brave woman until I found out about that lamp and her impossible choice. One of many, I suspect. Until that phone call, I never thought about my grandmother in any positive sense, or her courage in continuing to stay in an impossible situation she hated. Pat didn't like me much, but I guess she must have loved me.
I doubt I ever knew her very well. There was more to her. There was more to her than the unhappy drunk who set houses on fire, and always made me feel an unwelcome burden.
There's more to everyone, isn't there?