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Befriending the Swamp Monsters


My father was a world class emotional represser. And if anyone deserves the comfort of a little repression, he did. He spent his childhood with a dying mother and an abusive alcoholic for a stepfather. I don't even remember most of what he shared with me, because when he spoke of a formative moment of unimaginable violence stemming from what I hope was a broken soul rather than actual evil, the restaurant started spinning and my ears filled with a dull roar and I stopped tasting my strawberry parfait. And that was just hearing about it, half a century after it happened. Because I physically couldn't process such a thing, I remember looking down at my glass dish and thinking, "Way to take the edge off dessert, Dad."

If it took me thirty years to realize I needed to deal with my feelings even without any abuse or tragedy to manage, maybe it's no wonder he hit seventy without letting go of what had been lurking in his body. Instead, he coped the best way he knew how. He leaned on his intellect and stifled his emotions and bought himself an escape, eventually managing to get his younger brother and sister out too.

Last weekend, I was talking to a friend who postulated that each generation heals something, making things a little easier for their children. My dad made a giant leap in just one. We were secure and loved and supported. We vacationed on pretty lakes and were given every opportunity we wanted - and some we weren't so sure about. I slogged my way through piano lessons and happily danced my way through multiple pairs of ballet shoes. I was encouraged to attend any college I wanted and study whatever my little heart desired while I was there. My dad - with the help of my mom - managed to give us everything he never had.

But I believe the emotions my father buried ended up killing him.

When he landed in the hospital last September, he was fully expected to recover. But after lying in a hospital bed in pain for months engulfed by everything he'd spent seventy years avoiding, he wanted nothing more than his next out. But instead of leaving a small mining town in Pennsylvania for California, he had to leave his body for whatever comes after. So he did.

Yes, he left me with a bit of a mess to clean up - no will and no secondary health insurance makes for a bit of a temporary nightmare. But in every real way, he did extraordinarily well by us. And he left me with the knowledge of what I want to give my children: a deep understanding that emotions are nothing to fear.

I was 32 years old before I was able to say "I am mad right now." I was so lost on the spectrum of emotion that I didn't know how to identify something as basic as anger. My feelings were ancient hieroglyphs and my Rosetta stone was smashed. 

But I'm slowly learning that a brief bout of insecurity doesn't need to feel like a swamp monster crawling out of my rib cage. I don't need to try to trap the monster and beat him with a stick so he can't smear pond scum all over my well-ordered life. I just need to notice that he's there, and maybe give him a high five for calling the insecurity - something every person on the planet feels occasionally - to my attention so I can do something about it. Like go find a hug. The swamp monster would give me a hug himself, but he doesn't want to get sludge on my sweater.

I'm learning that the hard feelings are simply another facet in my ability to love and feel joy and cry when someone puts just the right words to music. Sometimes dealing with the rough stuff is cathartic and sometimes it feels like sliding face first down the cheese grater of life without anesthetic. But every time I dig up another feeling and release it into the ether, my life gets a little better.

I like to think I'm learning something I can pass on to my children, that the work I'm doing now to understand my own emotional landscape will heal one more layer of a family history. Because when you allow the pain, you create more room for love.