By Zofia Barisas
Had he lived today my father would have been in jail and my brother and I would have grown up in foster homes. It’s a scary thought.
How can a mother stand by, wringing her hands, as the father beats their five-year-old son with a belt as if he wants to pulp him into the ground, and not move to cover her child with her own body? What could a five-year-old boy have done that would bring on such rage?
How is it that she does not use the three day silence that is so effective in keeping him from raping her – she has a sense of inviolability about her body and he does take her against her will. Whatever some think of the man’s rights, women have rights also. How is it that she does not use the days of silence on behalf of her son? In between are days of calm and then suddenly the rage triggered by some insignificant detail.
This goes on until the son turns sixteen. He is now bigger than his father. He grabs the belt away, throws it to the ground, tells his father to eat shit, words never heard in that house, and goes off walking to the woods. “Eat shit,” “Valgyk shudu,” in Lithuanian. Fifty nine years later I remember those words, “Valgyk shudu,” that turned our family’s life around. My father never lifted his belt again.
The relief of seeing the father deflate like an old balloon. Me standing there by the kitchen sink, 14 years old, my mother cooking, witnesses to the fall of the tyrant, and him, in his humiliation, storming out to go to the stables to groom his horses that love him, that he never beats, that he loves.
There was no lasting sense of triumph when my brother grabbed the belt. We had heard our father talk about his own violent father and had been told stories by our mother. He could be no other than he was and more than once had said he should not have had children.
I recognized him in me when I had three small sons and rages came on for which only the bloodline could account. A rage that so much caring was wanted from those who had never received it, so much giving expected that there was no meeting it, the whole thing magnified by one’s personal knowledge of lovelessness.
He takes us one day to show us where he works at Canada Wire. A metal door opens. We go down seven stairs. Like descending into hell. The suffocating heat, the masses of flames in the mouths of furnaces, the noise of machines, the clanging of metal on metal, the horrific sight of the men moving in there, dwarfed by the sheer size of the place, by the huge rolls of wire, walls black with soot. We in there being introduced to his friends, and his pride in us, and always the noise and the smell and the heat. This is what he does, years of it, day after day, in that godawful place.
Slowly, with gentle words, my mother has talked him into moving away from Montreal. She has talked him into buying a farm, to get us into healthier living. And still the beatings continue.
He and my mother moved into our house when he was dying of cancer. She couldn’t drive and she couldn’t speak French. I was married by then and we had three sons. He didn’t want to go into a hospital. His brother had died in one, of cancer also, and my father never forgave his sister-in-law for not bringing him home to die. Our sons were still babies, the youngest two months old.
“He has no more than a month to live,” the doctor had said. It took three months. I managed to find a doctor who -- in that Catholic land where suffering was seen as a way to expiate sins and speed passage through purgatory into Heaven -- twice a week, left me a supply of morphine. I gave a shot every four hours and my mother took care of his physical needs. The house stank of rotting flesh and Lysol.
He spoke to me in a morphine haze at the end, calling me Katya, his favorite sister’s name, so that he wasn’t really speaking to me.
“Katya,” he said, and the look in his eyes and the light smile on his face showed such a tender love as I had never seen there before. Or maybe I had and had not recognized it, so certain was I that it couldn’t be there, “do you remember the time we were sent to get firewood in the forest and it turned dark?”
“Yes, I remember,” I said.
“And I was afraid of devils coming after us and you weren’t?”
“It was a long time ago,” I said.
“Yes, we were young then,” he said and his eyes closed.
He died on Boxing Day. No doctor to be had or funeral home open. Two men came from the morgue, wrapped him up in a blanket and strapped him upright to a dolly. The body looked no more than the folded blanket, so little of him was left. They carried him down the stairs and to the vehicle. We stood on the porch silently, my mother, my brother and I. I did not know relief could be so immense.
Why did I take on my uncle Victor when he was found dead of a heart attack in his home next door to my mother’s? We lived in Toronto by then and she still in Montreal, seven hours drive away. The morgue, the funeral arrangements, the cleaning of the house? She couldn’t do it, she said.
Why did I take in my parents when my father was dying?
Why did I deal with my mother when she got Altzheimer’s?
Why did I not walk away like my brother did, invoking his work, while I, with three small sons, took it all on?
Because I was never beaten. No child should suffer what he suffered. And because I had a wonderful husband who coped with home and sons and work without ever a word of reproach.
Decades have passed. I was a young woman then and now I am old, the age my parents were when it seemed I would never reach that time in my own life.
Once, after my parents were long gone, I met two French Canadian men and a man from Kansas, in Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca. They were smoking marijuana and since I don’t smoke the man from Kansas gave me a small bag of dried up mushrooms that looked like bits of old skin. They tasted bitter. While we talked I absentmindedly chewed on these things until none were left. Suddenly the effect hit me. My vision filled with a stippling of small geometric shapes in all sorts of colours, in constant movement. The man from Kansas got scared and took off. One of the Canadians stayed and then, after telling me the room they were in, he left also.
I sat on the floor seeing an amazing world. I flew over countries looking at the places, the events, the atrocities I had read about and seen in the news: the tortures, the natural calamities, the wars, the celebrations, the wounded, the dying, the starving babies, the lush fields, forests, streams, filled with enough food to feed every human being, the greed, the inequalities. And I cried over the suffering everywhere and laughed in seeing how it all belonged in the order of things. All questions I had ever had were answered, or rather no questions came. It was night time. I was awed by the flawlessness of the construct, by the sheer beauty and intelligence of it. I grabbed my notebook and my pen. I wrote furiously what I now saw, so as not to lose the knowledge, hurrying to take it all down, so much was being revealed. It lasted hours.
In late morning the two French Canadians came back and took me to an early lunch at a restaurant on the cliff side. I was still tripping. The cream of oyster soup was delicious. I was so hungry. It was Sunday. The open air restaurant was packed with people. We sat overlooking the ocean far below. Everything was funny and I laughed uncontrollably, stopped and started again. The waiter refused to serve me a third rum and coke. I drank from my friends’ glasses. Those two men were really exceptional. They stayed with me and took care of me.
And then the effect of the mushrooms slowly ebbed and I was back in the ordinary world. Back in my room I opened the notebook, eager to see what I had written. There were pages and pages of lines going up and down like an EKG printout. I remembered with clarity what I had seen, how every part had its place in holding the whole together and how everything shifted and re-shifted, shape-changing along, a living world, nothing permanent and nothing dying, always renewing itself.
And in this, like a tiny stitch in the living fabric that peopled the planet, was my story of my father and our lives, pre-written by an unknown hand, lived out according to some plan I had never known, or no longer knew or maybe did not yet know.