Sisyphus, My Father and Me
The truth is, I’ve barely been getting through the day. For over a year now, in between clients or errands or chores, I curl up in my bed, or on the couch as if I’m convalescing from a long illness. But I am not sick, nor have I been. I have no words for what I am. It feels like shock, like the stupor and ache that happen after the adrenaline wears off.
I had no idea that having a daughter would bring me right back to the experiences I had in my own life at her age. I started to get anxious when she turned 3, felt the tide rising around me, higher every day. I am trying so hard not to let my anxiety affect her that I am shutting down, going dark like the lights turning off in a stadium after everyone has gone home, row by row, section by section. I can see and hear the darkness getting closer with every click of the light switch.
When my daughter got a UTI from the bubbles we put in her bathtub, I felt my voice rising almost to a screech when I tried to explain why we needed to go to the doctor. “You’re fine, honey, you just have a little infection,” I said, after a deep breath and a detour through the kitchen to get my shit together.
“I just got scared for a second, and I didn’t mean to scare you. The doctor has some medicine for you, and then it won’t hurt to pee anymore.”
I tell her this as I am remembering all of the UTIs I had as a child. I remember my father squirting little green bottles of Phisohex into the bathtub and telling me to sit and soak. I remember the countless doses of chalky, pink Penicillin, the name of the prescribing doctor on the bottle was my father’s—never a different name on the label that might have belonged to a person who could have asked questions.
My father was a doctor who treated us for every injury, gave us the right medicine, the casts, crutches, bandages and, sometimes, stories to go with the injuries. My broken ankle at 5 years old was from a “playful game of rough-housing,” and not his rage, which flashed across his face before he shifted course and crashed onto my foot and leg. My ankle made a sickening snap when he landed and we looked at each other for a moment, eyes wide, not saying a word, like two kids not wanting to get in trouble. That’s when he started to laugh.
“Hahahaha, that was so fun, playing sea monster! What’s wrong, kiddo, are you hurt?” He drove to his office to get plaster and crutches, then sat me on our kitchen table and put a cast on my leg. I remember this story while I am putting a band-aid on my daughter’s stubbed toe and trying to make her laugh. I am five years old again, sitting on the kitchen table, feeling the warmth of the new plaster on my throbbing ankle and foot.
My father is joking and I am laughing because it is best to show everyone that I am okay. If I am okay, he is okay. And if he is okay, everyone is safer and everything is easier. We are inextricably interconnected in our okay-ness. We are stuck in a state of mutually assured destruction.
The memory knocks the wind out of me and I gasp for breath. My daughter snaps her head up to look at my face.
“What’s wrong, Mommy? Do you have an owie, too,” she asks.
“No, love, I just remembered something that surprised me. You know, like at breakfast when, all of sudden, you remembered your dream about the dragon and your whole body jumped?” I say.
“Oh,” she says, studying my face while she thinks about this. “Did you remember a dream about a dragon, too?”
“No, I remembered my daddy putting a cast on my leg after I broke my ankle, when I was about your age.” I say. At four, she is still impressed by the idea of a cast and crutches, and we talk about it while we finish dinner.
I keep the conversation with my daughter light even as my arms and legs get heavy. It feels as though all of my limbs are encased in plaster casts. My daughter’s whole bedtime ritual is still ahead of us and I fight gravity with my arms as I help her brush her teeth and change into her pajamas. When I read her bedtime stories, my voice sounds distorted to me, like the music in her mobile does when the battery is dying and the notes slow down. I scratch her back, trying to convey as much love as I can through my fingertips while the rest of my body is shutting down. Some of the sweetness of being with her gets through to me, and I stay as connected as I can to myself and to her, as we stop talking to listen to the train passing by, 6 blocks away.
Every summer, I read that article about what drowning really looks like. There is no flailing or splashing or yelling, the article says. Drowning is quiet. A person drowning stays vertical in the water, trying to keep her mouth and nose above the surface for as long as possible, opening and closing her mouth when it bobs above the surface, trying to get a last gulp of air. I remember this and then realize that is the word for what’s happening to me. I am vertical in the water. I am drowning.
When I fell and broke my wrist in gym class at age 8, I waited in polite silence until the end of class to tell the teacher I hurt myself. When my mother came to get me from school, the principal said, “We’ve never seen anyone so brave. She didn’t even cry, and she has been sitting here with us telling jokes.”
“Yes,” my mother said. “That sounds like my daughter.” I could tell she was proud of me then.
My mother drove me from school to the hospital where my father worked. After the x-rays and the waiting, my father put a cast on my broken wrist. When we were alone, hidden behind the curtain in the crowded ER, he said, “It’s a messy break. You probably should have surgery, but I don’t trust any of these other guys to operate on you, and I’m not allowed to do it myself, because I’m your father. You might have problems with that wrist your whole life, but I set it well and we’ll just see what happens.”
As a child, I told people this story again and again. I thought it was a story about how protective my dad was of me, and how thoughtful. I told it proudly, bragged a little bit even. I needed a story like that. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized there was also a different story. That story was not about protecting my body, it was about possessing it. My father was letting me know that it was always his call how my body would be treated, how much access I had to medical care, how much say I had about what happened to my body. He was saying, “No one else can help you. I won’t allow it. You only have me. And I’ll do whatever I want.”
In truth, I could tell either story. In truth, it is both stories together that make me whole.
The story of my broken wrist spread around my school and my family. I got a ton of praise for being brave. I got rewarded for breaking a bone and not crying. I hadn’t realized that being brave meant being in pain but staying quiet, calm and funny so no one else got worried.
I liked this new version of me. I was no longer the clumsy one, the chubby one or the lazy one who made her sisters late to school. I was brave and I liked it. I had only ever felt afraid before. Afraid felt like drowning. But brave I could work with. Brave was a story I could tell.
My daughter falls asleep as I am massaging her feet, pressing my thumb into the heel of her foot how she asked me to. I tiptoe out of her room and crawl onto the couch in the living room like it is a life raft. I try to read, but instead, I keep thinking about Sisyphus, cresting the hill, pushing his boulder up up up, his lungs burning for air. The boulder slips from his sweaty hands and nearly knocks him flat before it continues crashing down the hill, crushing everything left in its path. Lying on this couch, I am flat in the aftermath of the boulder.
I close my eyes and take a deep breath. I imagine Sisyphus does, too, at this point in his day, watches the boulder get smaller and smaller before it disappears from sight. He takes in a deep breath and stays still, enjoying the view. He closes his eyes and listens to the breeze whisper through the eucalyptus trees.
The sun, low in the sky, is longing to set, but unable to tear itself away from the light it is reflecting off the leaves and the water, making everything glow. Like everything else, the sun could also tell two stories—one about longing and one about beauty. It holds both stories together as it takes a deep breath and exhales below the horizon.
No one ever tells this part of Sisyphus’ story—the one about the moment when he is unburdened. Light. Free. He starts his slow walk down the hill, listens to the gravel crunch under his feet, watches the hawks fly in low circles, and continues on into the darkness until he finds his rock, cool and still, and ready for the next journey. Because he has repeated this more times than he can count, he has learned to appreciate the value of that moment, and, in turn, learned to appreciate the work that leads up to that moment. He understands that one depends on the other—that these two separate things are creating something whole.
The story of Sisyphus is my life raft, just as much as the couch is. It is told as a story of Eternal Damnation, but I always hear it as a story about Hope. Sisyphus, who valued his life so much that he evaded death in order to spend more time on earth, living by the ocean, enjoying his life. He was eventually caught and sentenced by the gods to push that boulder up the hill and watch it roll down again for eternity.
The gods gave him a task, but they didn’t tell him how to undertake it. So, I imagine that he lived his punishment the same way he lived his life. I imagine him enjoying his rock hard abs and glutes. I picture him stopping to do a little yoga at the crest of the hill and maybe sitting for a moment in prayer or meditation, remembering the ocean back on earth with a wave of sadness. I hear him making up songs and befriending rats and beetles as he walks back down the hill.
All the gods did was give him a task. They did not tell him how to undertake it. And all my history does is remind me that I am pushing the boulder up the hill one more time, and when it rolls down, and I am free of it for a while, I will let go of the story one more time and remind myself that I am so much stronger now than when I started.
I understand that I am struggling with things that I have already survived. But now I also know that I never told the other side of my story. I never told the story of how I was not only pretend brave, but also real brave. I never told the story of having a light so strong in me, it never flickered, not during any of the trauma, nor its aftermath. That light didn’t flicker until I had a child of my own and was brought to my knees with fear and despair.
Telling the other story is making that light strong again. That story says that I am not just one story–I am made up of thousands of stories. I was terrified of my father, but I also loved him. I owe him my sense of humor and my love of poetry. I owe him my hatred of the scent of Sandlewood and of the smell of whiskey on someone’s breath. I am a writer because of him and in spite of him. I am glad he is gone and I have missed him every day of my life, even the days when he was right there next to me.
And because I am made of thousands of stories, I also know that he is too. My father taught me to swim while he was also drowning me. He loved me and hated himself. He opened his practice to patients who could not pay him and he routinely sent the child support check late. The doctors he played cards with didn’t trust him to play fair, but they did trust him with a scalpel. He punished himself his whole life, and at the end of it, it didn’t matter that I forgave him because he would not allow me to say the words.
He disowned me as a daughter—I was conspicuously absent from his obituary—and even so, half his blood still runs through my veins. Even so, I look more like him as I get older. The link between us is unbreakable no matter how any one of us feels about it.
My father was Sisyphus in his lifetime, cursing the walk up the hill and trudging back down in a state of prolonged dread. He turned to me once, when I was about 10, and said “Listen, Fruitcake, if I can teach you one thing it’s this: Life is just one piece of crap after another. Just one crappy thing after another after another. If you expect that and not anything else, well, maybe you won’t be as God damn bitter as I am.” I tried to look at his eyes to see if he was joking, but we were driving northwest while the sun was setting and all I could see was his silhouette against the sky.
If the gods have given my father another task since he left this life, I like to imagine that he has undertaken it differently than the way he lived his life. I like to imagine that he has undertaken it with a heart full of curiosity and hope so that he finally has more than one story to tell. So that he finally gets to be whole, like I know Sisyphus is as he walks down the hill at dusk, thinking of nothing but how good the cool wind feels on his face.