One Hundred Little Funerals: The Cyclical Rebirth and Death of My Father
My mother told me that our house was haunted when I was a baby, and that she once encountered the pale translucent figure of Abraham Lincoln while fetching me a bottle one night. She had read that upon encountering a ghost, one is supposed to mentally recite the words, go away and never come back. So recite she did, and the story goes that the figure disappeared and never did come back.
The kind of child who puts herself to bed with anatomy textbooks and a Halloween Store CD entitled “Spooky Sounds for Haunted Houses” is not typically the kind of child who fears ghosts, but my mother’s story terrified me. Not so much the idea of the undead or the fact that the deceased 16th President was inexplicably drawn to a middle-class home in the northern Chicago suburbs; what frightened me was moreso the fact that a total stranger — someone unfamiliar to me, something unexplainable, foreign, untouchable — could be inside my home at any given moment. Why our house? Why me? Why us?
Years later, I would credit my mother for unconsciously preparing me for daily hauntings — the kind that wouldn’t go away with a simple chant; the kind that only became more frightening and more powerful with time. The undead resided in my home already, and I witnessed his rebirth and death three or four times a year for over twenty years.
The word victim has been coopted by abusers, but it is also a vastly more complicated word than its dictionary definition. The term implies a predisposition of innocence and ignorance. It implies a perpetrator, human or otherwise, and a series of events that transforms the very nature of someone’s being. One can be many things: writer, student, daughter, sports fan — but add victim to the mix, and that informs an identity far more effectively than any other trait. Hence why the term survivor has become the preferred term — it implies strength, resilience, and a refusal to be defined by the villain.
But the villain, of course, can also be a victim. They too can bear the burden of abuse and neglect, and again the victim label trumps all else. They didn’t know any better. They didn’t have the resources to stop the cycle. They’re undiagnosed. Untreated. We should pity them. We should forgive them.
I never quite learned how to forgive my father for his victimhood. It didn’t sit right in my stomach. Every time I tried, it was like swallowing a rock; my pride sat inside me and corroded my guts until I regurgitated blame and castigation. Each time he returned to his regimen of medicine and therapy, I felt that pride dissolve away like an extended-release tablet. The anger and fear melted into thick puddles on the floorboards of the living room, returned from whence it came. Kinship and love, even friendship, sprang up in its place, a little white daisy between us on the couch during Psych marathons. My dad was charming, magnetic. He could coerce the peel off an orange when he was in his element. These months-long reawakenings breathed life into my house. The vents sucked the ghosts up like something out of an 80s buddy comedy, and the sun seemed to stream through the windows in a perpetual wave of warmth and energy.
Then, inevitably, my father would wilt and turn inward. For days he would seem to turn pale and despondent, unresponsive, until he flatlined once more. It would take decades before I could foresee his semi-annual deaths, but once I moved out it was easier to observe his internal clock. I could predict his sleep-wake cycle with 90% accuracy, and would prepare myself in the weeks preceding his scheduled demise. Like a widow setting her home for a large family wake, arrangements always had to be made: I set up my bedroom as a sort of panic room, complete with headphones, water bottles, and even a makeshift bedpan should the hallway leading to the bathroom — which connected to my father’s office — be deemed unsafe for traveling. I kept my car keys as close to the front door as possible and kept a Go Bag at my then-boyfriend’s house. When I was old enough to come and go as I wished, I prepared enough excuses for why I couldn’t come home for a weekend or would have to miss out on prescheduled family plans. The middle-class home clad in rose bushes and garden gnomes would shut down like an active crime scene, with my father’s dead body lugging around his aimless soul until its weight became too much to bear without medical assistance.
Rattling chains on the “Spooky Sounds” CD were less comforting during these low tides. Each day brought homemade melodies instead; primarily the violent banging of cleaning instruments against walls, the stomping of feet and slamming of doors, the sound of my mother’s name being spit onto the floor and ground into bits. Mine and my sister’s names, too, were defiled, but at the time I believed that was par for the course. I knew mommies and daddies were supposed to love and respect each other. I wasn’t convinced that daddies were supposed to love and respect their daughters.
Never a small man, my father’s towering corpse followed us around and chased us throughout the house. I often prayed for rescue in any possible form, sometimes wishing for a silver bullet to take this zombie away and let him rest in peace. Childlike fear and anxiety grew into post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and eventually bulimia. Each funeral for my father would eventually end, but these guests became permanent fixtures in my life.
I didn’t know the term “bipolar disorder” until late into my teens, and even then I thought it was just a fancy term for dramatic teenagers. “Narcissistic personality disorder” wasn’t in my vocabulary until my early twenties. I thought my dad was untouchable — at this point, he was a wealthy, powerful man rising in the local and international ranks as an expert in his field and a brilliant corporate executive. How could someone like that be sick? These were the days before mental health and wellness were respected topics — we were still making jokes about Britney Spears’ 2007 incident and describing our overly-energetic friends as being “off their meds”. When my former psychiatrist suggested that I had Borderline Personality Disorder, I immediately blamed my father for his genetic curse. (Later on I realized such a diagnosis in someone under 18 years old was tenuous at best, and medically negligent at worst.) I didn’t realize at the time that psychological disorders could be treated and managed like any physical ailment. That perhaps it could flare up or relapse, but a long-term commitment to self-help and advocacy could result in a fairly normal, if not successful, life.
In my experience up until that point, a diagnosis of any personality disorder was a velvet-lined seat on Death Row. I believed that at some point I, too, would feel myself shrinking and shriveling into a carcass, and would be able to do nothing but lie in my bed for months like roadkill waiting for the vultures to pick me apart. In a moment of particularly severe hopelessness, I left the house and sat for a few minutes in the garage. I scanned the rows of gardening tools for a hose I could use to funnel the family car’s exhaust fumes into my nose, only relenting and returning inside when I realized suicide would preclude me from participating in my school’s prom.
I determined that a woman prone to repeated death is unfit to be a mother, and resigned myself to never having children. The cycle of abuse could stop with me if I either destroyed my physical body beyond any chance of survival, or if I allowed myself to suffer alone and refused to pass on my genetics. I had become a victim who was slated to become a villain, just like my father. I firmly believed that this meant I was inherently evil and abusive, because how could anyone with a personality disorder ever be capable of longterm recovery? I had seen firsthand that the cycle was continuous and never-ending. I knew that every few months would bring another funeral, another wake. No matter how beautiful the rebirth, the decay and death always overshadowed it like a tall marble headstone over an old immortelle.
In the years between my so-called diagnosis and the final stages of my prefrontal cortex’s development, I managed to cling to life in a way my father never had. No matter how close I came to flatlining, my will to live was stronger than whatever neurological salmagundi was pushing me towards the edge. During the rebirth cycles, my dad was like a freshly-fed toddler. His childlike joy and excitement was infectious, and I would immediately regret every negative thought I had ever had about him. It was hard not to; every time he recovered it seemed as though this life would be the last. I felt protective of him, proud of him, almost parentally so. I would feel vice-like guilt wrapped around me, cursing myself for heartlessly wishing ill will upon him during his most recent funeral. Then the crushing disappointment of relapse would stir my dormant resentment for him, and I ran out of places to store my conflicting feelings.
I got serious about my own vitality. I learned the truth through my own psychiatric journey: that victimhood and villainhood can coexist in the same soul, and hating my dad for what he was didn’t negate my hatred for what he went through as a child. Similarly, my hatred and fear of the pieces of his psychosis that remained attached to my DNA did not negate the scraps of his ebullience that existed alongside them. With a predisposition to depression, anxiety, and self-destruction also came a penchant for self-expression and perfectionism. I also had my mom’s neuroses and talents, which filled in the gaps where my father’s traits fell short. I had her strong will and musical skill, her insistence upon seeing the best in everyone even when they cannot return the favor. Where my dad gave me my work ethic and derealization, my mom provided empathy and pertinacity. The combination of these and others obtained through nurture over nature became the perfect cocktail of my survival.
Exhausting though the cycle may be, bearing witness to it has largely been a privilege. It has taught me the ability to look beyond the lens of my own id and see others for their wonderful, disappointing, beautiful, difficult humanity, not just for the way they treat me. Three or four funerals a year for 25 years has taught me the sanctity of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and hope. Three or four funerals a year showed me the peace that comes with sweeping up cocktail napkins and charcuterie, collecting siddurim and well-intentioned but borderline inedible fruit baskets, nibbling whitefish and crackers in the liminal silence of an empty, grieving home.
There is grace in reliving trauma for the purposes of self-reflection and betterment. In dressing in black, kneeling at a grave, and offering tears that form these words in the frozen dirt: I love you. I forgive you. I’ll leave the lights on for your return.