When doing my morning meditation with my dear friend Bodhipaksa we spend 45 minutes together while he teaches me to breathe and to be aware of what feels to be every single cell of my body. It is an amazing three quarters of an hour that has been liberating, soul searching, and transformative. I look forward to our time at 5am like no other time of the day. Selfish? Maybe, but this is a time in my life where being selfish is what I need.
After the long breathing meditation he has a second meditation called the Metta Bhavana, that is the Buddhist development of Loving Kindness. The meditation calls for standard sitting position, breathing meditation, but asks for you to think of four people in your life who you want to mentally and spiritually spread good will and loving kindness to. The first person is of course, yourself. I think of myself and wish myself well “May I be well. May I be healthy and free of disease” and on it goes.
The second person is someone who is very close to you, someone you care about deeply, a family member, a loyal, close friend, someone who deserves the same loving kindness. I usually think about Melissa or one of my kids, or one of my sisters if I think they especially need some long distance spiritual help.
The third person is someone you are not really close with. It could be an acquaintance, a semi-stranger you see at the store and say hello to, another parent at school. This could be some passing soul who you don’t give much thought to but the meditation is asking you to do that very thing: Think about that person and wish them well. Spread the loving kindness to someone who in the larger scheme of things means very little to you and your life. But here I am at 5:55am thinking about this woman and wishing her well. Wishing her strength and courage and kindness and hoping she does the same to others.
Then comes the hard part: The fourth person, the person you have active issues with who gets under your skin or who may have a bad past with you. It could be an old friend or family member who I had a falling out with who is still in my memory and affects me in some negative way in my daily life. This is difficult because a) it’s personal and b) I really don’t have many people I have issues with (yes there was the guy who tried to get into my bathroom stall at a store recently but I made sure he would never ever try that with anyone again), there is a teacher of mine at the University, but she really isn’t an active issue. So I always have a have difficulty with this last one. I thought about an old girlfriend recently and wished her well, but again, she isn’t that much of a weight on my soul at the moment.
And today it happened: It was my father. Why am I about to write about something so personal and painful on this blog that 200 people read daily? Because I can. And because it will help me exorcise some demons that need to come out. Meditation is bringing these out in a way that therapy never did (despite hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars) and this morning’s meditation is so fresh that I have to write about it. It fouled my mood for the day and I realized how many issues I still have with that man despite the fact that I am an adult with 3 kids and he is 80, a grandfather of 7 and still the biggest figure of my life. Well, my mother is up there too but she gets her own entry soon. Think Grey Gardens minus the raccoons.
So here I sit, thinking of my fourth soul. My father pops in for first time. And as I sit there trying to conjure him up as he is now, I find that I can’t. I remember him as a fiftysomething grillman immigrant who would come home, drink, get drunk and spend his evenings beating his only (acknowledged) son (he had another son in Greece who he abandoned when he was a kid–long story).
I know I’ve lost half my audence at this point, but as I am conjuring up my fiftysomething father to wish him well, I remember our old apartment in Brooklyn, NYC. It’s summer 1983 I think because there were all these free concerts in Central Park that year. My sister who was 11 is on the love seat, facing the TV set. She is wearing shorts and a tank top. She is holding a long broomstick with a pointed end (this is the channel changer.) Her hair is done up in French braids. A fan whirls in the window. An old TV stand holds up a 19” color tv with buttons on the top for channel changing. The TV shows two announcers with microphones discussing the upcoming show. One of them is saying: “Boy Milt, this is going to be one hot night.” I’m 14, on the floor, lying down facing the TV set also. To the left of me is a tall, dark china closet with a glass door. Dark, frayed carpeting covers the floor. The room is cramped with furniture and knick-knacks. There is a bronze statue of the Greek God of War on top of the TV set. Painted plates and worry beads adorn the walls.
I remember the mugginess that day. We suffered summer after summer in NYC because we could never afford an air conditioner, and this day gave us a particularly difficult time.
The claustrophobic confines of our apartment made the heat unbearable. I mean, there were five of us in a 600 square foot shithole in working-class Bensonhurst.
Diana Ross took the stage for her free concert in Central Park and my sister wanted to watch the broadcast on television. I didn’t. I wanted to watch reruns of The Honeymooners. My 9 year old sister had enough smarts to stay out of the fray.
We engaged in the classic battle of channel changing. “Leave Diana on, you asshole!” Click. “No, shut up! Who cares about that bitch!” Click.
During this percolating battle royale, my old man comes home from his usual long, hard day’s work at the restaurant.
He was a grillman.
Every morning he would get up at 4am.
Kiss us all goodbye as we slept.
Take the subway into Manhattan.
Work all day like a dog.
And then come home pretty angry at night. Its not that he didn’t like to work, on the contrary, he worked all the time. He even held two jobs at times. His problem was that he was overqualified in his line of work.
Before immigrating to the States in 1969, he led a pretty charmed life in Greece. He worked on Greek films throughout the 1950s and 1960s, married a good looking actress, had a kid, and got some acclaim for his work as a writer, and director. He eventually divorced the actress, (he claims she cheated on him, but who really knows?) but he maintained his career.
Things took a bad turn in the old country in the 1960s. A military dictator seized power and the filmmaking industry had to produce fluffy films that promoted the new government or else heads would roll.
In the middle of all this upheaval and turmoil, a proper setting for what comes next, he married my mother. They were introduced by my mother’s sister, Kiki, a lunatic of a woman who felt that at age 29, my mother was
already over-the-hill and needed a husband and child before the age of 30. Wish granted. My parents wed in May 1968, and I was born in March, 1969. (You do the math.)
Meanwhile, my old man gave up his filmmaking career and focused on his writing instead, you know, because it’s a lucrative and stable career choice. He published articles in newspapers and magazines about culture, politics,
and philosophy. What he treasured doing more than anything else, was writing for underground newspapers that sought to energize the populace to overthrow the dictatorship. No small task. He had a bunch of friends who involved him in the literary underground, and a hero was born.
While he achieved some underground political success, the government did not enjoy his prose. Through a series of interrogations, someone squealed and he wound up getting arrested a couple of times and was eventually threatened with a long prison sentence. What could he do? They arrested him a couple of times while my mother held me as a baby.
My mother’s brother John lived here in New York, and she suggested that my father move the family here for a new start. So, in November 1969, we immigrated. My father spoke zero English, had no connections, and
immediately landed a job as a cook in a greasy spoon in Manhattan. It paid cash and the boss never asked for documentation for immigration or taxes. He took one restaurant job after another for over twenty years.
Can you see why he would be angry?
So that night as my sister and I fought over Diana Ross and as his key opened the door, he was about to enter with his usual amount of daily anger. Now you know why he carried it.
He despised what his life had become. He once told me that he was half the man he used to be.
“The river of life has taken me already. Don’t let it take you,” he would often say.
He often referred to his filmmaking and writing careers as the happiest times in his life.
He walked in quietly removing his grease-spattered restaurant shoes. Hid his cigarettes in one of the shoes, as usual, and walked in to the middle of this fight.
He was a pretty tough guy. As a young boy in Greece during WWII, the Germans and Italians occupied his island. He witnessed friends and family members die during the war, he starved, he stepped on a grenade, shattering his leg, and now he had to endure anonymity, my mother, my sisters, and me.
He found solace in the little things, I guess, but he sure was far from being happy. A fridge full of Pabst made him happy. A fridge full of Heineken made him even happier.
The only problem was that he never went to a therapist. He never learned the vocabulary to express his emotions. Let me correct that. He had a unique way of communicating. He sat in the kitchen quietly while my mother did the dishes. He drank his beer, smoked his smokes, watched the small TV that dangled on top of the fridge all while the noises from the living room got louder and louder.
After wrestling for the remote, I pushed my sister down, and she gave us the old, patented, wailing scream of frustration.
We heard the slamming down of his fist in the kitchen. I knew what was coming. My sister and I both quieted down quickly. Shit. Here it comes, I thought.
My old man could let us know how he felt without ever speaking. I heard open his drawer in the bedroom, which was next to the kitchen, get his belt out, and headed my way.
He didn’t have to say much.
He hit my legs with that belt about five or six times. He always began across my legs. That pain. I will never forget that pain or seeing the little holes from the belt burned into my skin after a few shots.
I remember the welts instantly appearing. I remember being on all fours trying to make my way to the door to run down to the street and get the hell outta there for the night but I never made it. He grabbed on to me and whipped me across the back and also the back of my legs. Meanwhile, I remember my loving mother standing there watching this whole fucking thing go down. This was nothing new, mind you, but things were about to take a new turn.
I kept telling him to hit me harder and harder. That he was a small man who beat his children. He obliged. He hit me harder than Ali hit his opponents. Slaves got hit with less anger than I did that night.
Finally, I screamed “Hit me harder, you asshole!” He obliged with his hardest hit yet, one that had the belt across my stomach while he kicked me in the side. I think I called him a woman at that point.
Seeing that he couldn’t break me this time, he let out a scream and threw the belt at my mother’s old china closet, shattering the glass display. My mother screamed at him “You broke my China closet you lunatic!”
Thanks, mom. It was the only emotion she showed that night.
She cared more about that broken China closet and than she did about her broken son. There is a longer story behind her shortcomings as a parent and human being, but I remember her tending to the broken glass as I was writhing on the floor in pain.
I remember his chest heaving, looking at me with his bulging eyes, hands trembling. He left the apartment, as usual, not before grabbing his smokes.
My mother tended to her china closet while I slinked away towards the bathroom.
I applied Peroxide to my wounds. Sitting against the wall, knees up on the darkened bathroom wall.
I stayed in there for hours.
My father came back a few hours later, and as usual, we never spoke about the event. I remember him walking through the living room. My sister and I are watching Diana Ross on the T.V. Diana is at the mic saying: “This is a great night, New York City!”
OK that took a lot out of me. I thought about this story this morning as I paused my Metta mp3 and tried to think of someone I had issues with. I guess my father is it. My mother too. I just told Melissa that I wrote about this story and how it felt like an exorcism of sorts. I still see the man once in a while and he has never asked me about my cancer, my studies, my teaching, my life in any way. He doesn’t know how. Correction. He does know how. He has plenty of ‘intellectual friends’ he talks about in very minute details, details that he would know only if he asked. But here is his son, a scholar also, cancer patient, writer, successful, and he has never ever asked me a question.
And it bothers me! I know that he is my fourth in my Metta, but I am unable to give the man the wellness that I am supposed to. I can’t yet. I am failing. Melissa said there is probably some connection between my cancer and my upbringing. My therapist used to say that we were never allowed to show emotion or act out in our apartment and as a result my sisters and I internalized in ways that most abused kids do: We got quiet, we became anxious, and we grew tumors instead. Is there a connection between this ‘man’s’ behavior and my cancer? Who knows? But maybe if I was better at expressing myself I would not be here in this position today.
Then again, maybe I wouldn’t know how to take a beating. At least now I know how. More on this later. This has been a long day. My Decadron withdrawal has made me think of my father and how he was an asshole without Decadron all the time and I am withdrawing as I write this and feel like a heel for how its is making me act. My old man acted like a Decadron junkie all the time.
I apologize to my family every night for the pain I have caused them during the day while going through withdrawal, while the old man has never apologized for anything he has ever done to anyone.
I never meant for this post to be a session on my father. I just wanted to say that part of me getting better and helping myself feel more love is to forgive and wish well upon this fourth person and move on with life. I am having an easier time embracing fear and my cancer than I am my father. That is an obvious problem.
And I am stuck. Will try it again tomorrow.