Sunday, October 17

Past comes knocking

As a middle aged white American male, I had it all. A wife, a white picket fence, 2 kids and a dog – the perfect American life.

All this changed sometime back. As the inevitability of my mortality dawned on me, the skeletons and emotions that I had kept hidden successfully for decades started to haunt me. The traumas of childhood, that we men are expected to ignore, came back to torment me. The pledges of childhood, once forgotten now consumed me in a fashion I cannot describe. As empty-nesters, my personal ghosts ended up affecting my wife who had no other outlet. This continued until she could not take it anymore and left me for someone far younger. Mid Life Crisis. Such a simple phrase that sums up such a vast array of problems.

Even during the troubling times, I knew that the answer to all my questions lie in the small village where I grew up. My childhood was something that I had successfully forgotten for better part of my life. I guess some would call it normal. We lived in a small village in the middle of nowhere. It was a place where nearest neighbors were miles away from each other. You ran into each other at the Market, the church or school functions. People were busy with their own lives. So much so that we kids were allowed to run around and do whatever we pleased. There was only one rule – we had to be present at the dinner table neat and clean.

My mom was a good Christian. She did her duties well – her duties to the lord, her duties to her husband and her duties to her son. She never questioned Dad when it came to anything. She was a ‘Yes Dear’ kind of wife. She was not a warm loving person. I don’t think I blamed her for that. Her own hardships had toughened her till she had no love left to give. She was the perfect housewife from the outside. She was as close to a mechanized robot as one could be and still be human. I am not an unkind human being and I still believe that is the best way to describe my mother.

On the other hand, my father was borderline abusive. I don’t think he did it intentionally – It was who he was in a time and day when no one knew any better. I do not think I can recollect a single conversation I had with my dad. He firmly believed that kids are to be seen and not heard. I remember that day where I had a weird feeling that I was being watched as I walked home with my friend. I had raced home, closed the door shut and was panting when I noticed my dad on the couch who did not lift an eye from the newspaper he was reading. I blurted out that I thought someone was watching me. In what would end up as the clearest memory of my dad, he lifted his head from the newspaper, grunted once and went back to reading. He must have been seething inside – because when my mom came back from the market – he flew into a rage at her saying that she was turning her son into a sissy just like her. That taught me to never ever address Dad for anything at all.

It wasn’t difficult staying silent as my dad was an avid hunter and would be gone for long periods of time. He shared a hunting cabin with his friend. This was common in the village we lived in. Most men had their hunting cabins, where they would go with their friends and sons and come back with meat for the family to tide them through tough times. I guess, my father’s bitterness also stemmed from the fact that as a kid when he tried to teach me shooting, I had an accident that did not leave any physical marks, but left me mortally afraid of guns. I don’t think my father ever forgave me for being scared of guns. Funnily enough, as terrified as I was of the guns and equally terrified of my father, I still looked forward to the days when my father would be back from his hunting trips. The meats he brought back were amongst the fondest of my childhood memories. I guess you could say, that there is no animal in the wilderness around my state that I have not eaten – this is just my guess as I was not foolish enough to ask my dad about the animals the meat came from. I took my blessing where I got them.

Two things happened that further traumatized my childhood. One – My only friend Adam (who was as close to me as a brother could be) disappeared when I was 16. It happened out of the blue. The police told us that there have been one or 2 teenagers missing every year from neighboring villages too as is common in the small villages around my place. People always left– they wanted the glamor, lifestyle, wages and anonymity that a big city could provide that small villages simply could not. They said Adam must have run away. I guess everyone believed it as his dysfunctional family made mine look like a perfect one. I guess it was no small wonder that my father and Adam’s father were friends and hunting buddies. Adam had his share of burdens. But I never believed that he would run away without telling me. I kept searching for Adam. Like a dog in search of a bone – I kept asking people about their last memory of him – in hopes that I would be able to piece together something. I did not notice it when it began, but by the end of it – most people had started avoiding me. I guess, talking to me was now something akin to a chore. I was the weird kid who refused to accept reality, the one whose closest friend ran away without telling him. But the nagging feeling that I was overlooking something important never went away. I owed to myself to find Adam no matter what happened.

The second thing that transpired a few months later would shatter any semblance of relationship I had with my father and would mark the end of pretense of being a perfect family. My wounded father was deposited at our doorstep by his hunting partner. It was a wound that would take a couple of years to recover from. My father told us that it was a hunting accident. I believe that accident also drove a wedge between my father and Adam’s father. Robbed of his mobility, his only friend and his favorite hobby – my father took to alcohol and his abusive nature worsened. My mother and I were targets of his rage for just being in his vicinity. In his struggle of getting used to the injury in the initial weeks, we were required to be in his vicinity often. It took almost a year of bearing his rage for me to build up my courage to say anything in return. It was my 18th Birthday and some details are so hazy while some are so clear. He got started at me for something, something so insignificant that I no longer remember. For the first time in my life, I gave back as good as I got. As means of retaliation, he turned on one person who would never say anything against him – He turned on my mother. He made it seem like it was her fault that I dared give back to him. I don’t remember exactly what happened – but a few hours later, I was standing on the front porch with my bag, begging my Mom to come with me.  My mother told me that I should forgive my father and that he was exactly like his father. She told me that I should not hold his behavior against him and it was my duty to honor and respect my father. Her words drove away the last bit of doubt that I had about leaving that hell hole. I have not stepped into that house since. Sure I call my mother on Easter and Christmas. I was a good son and I could definitely set aside 2 minutes of a year for the woman who raised me. I climbed out of that hell hole and made something of myself, leaving my past behind.

Yet, here I am, decades later- lost in the same world that I thought I had successfully escaped. I am unable to explain to myself the fixation with past. Adam, who has not graced my thoughts in years now consumes my mind. When I was asleep, I dream about either Adam or my father and sometimes both. As my days and nights merged, I grew desperate to find out where Adam was. Maybe, he did run away and I would be able to trace him. Maybe he has contacted his parents again and they would let me know where I can find him. I knew I had to go back, go back and face my father, face all those people who made my childhood so terrible. I knew there was no escaping what was to come.

As days rolled by and I sat there moping about my future and building up courage for what needed to be done, fate gave me a shove. I received a phone call from a lawyer. It seems my parents had passed in a car crash and the last will determined that I was the sole heir to all assets – including the house, land and the hunting cabin. It would not be honest of me if I said I had any remorse to their passing. If anything, I was relieved that I would not have to face my father again. As for my mother, I guess I was more like her than I knew – it was difficult feeling any emotion for someone who had shown me so few emotions over my childhood. My course of action was set – I would go back to the village – Arrange for a funeral for parents, talk to Adam’s parents, clean the house and put it on market, clean the cabin and put it on market and return to resume my life. As per my calculations, the entire thing should not take me more than a week. Confident that these steps would return my life to normalcy, I set out on my journey. Little did I know what was in store for me!

It was a feeling unlike any as I re-entered the house after all this while. A quick glance around told me that my parents had not changed and they still were people with modest belongings. As I walked through my childhood home, I confirmed that there were no traces of me ever having lived there. Knowing that it wouldn’t take me more than a day to clean this house and put it on market, I prepared for the funeral next day. As luck would have it Adam’s parents attended the funeral service saving me a trip to their place. Having no intention of talking to Adam’s father, I walked up to his mother, hoping for a little chat. We exchanged pleasantries and I told her about my plans for the house and the trip to the hunting cabin the next day. She told me that they hadn’t heard from Adam and that she approves of my decision to leave the village behind. Disappointed that I had no lead on finding Adam, I headed back home.

The next day, I started early in the morning as the hunting cabin was a little secluded and hard to get to. I stood before the place, my heart feeling with dread. I had been here once before, I knew exactly where everything was. I knew that my father kept most of his guns in this place. After all these years, I find that I am still terrified of guns – the years have amplified my fear to irrational levels. I stood outside the doors, trying desperately to calm my nerves. The plan was simple – get in, get rid of stuff in pantry, clean basement freezer of any leftover meat, get his guns and get out. Everything else in the house could be sold as-is. As I entered the house, an unexplainable calm settled over me. Maybe it was my mind releasing itself from prison built out of childhood needs, maybe it was the realization that I would never have to see my father again or the knowledge that no one would cram a gun into my hand every again and force me to do something I did not wish. I found that I was happy again – I cleared the fridge out of all the meat and condiments just as I cleared the pantry. A stray thought that the cabin was amazingly well kept as I noted that I did not hear a single creak as I walked through the place. I loaded the bag onto my car and headed back inside to tackle the basement. Memories returned to me as I recollected the skinned and dressed deer that was stuffed in the basement freezer the last time I was here. The basement was pristine just like the last time, the butcher block with my father’s prized hunting knife. Not a lot had changed except for the presence of a second freezer. I walked over and flipped it open, it took a while for my brain to process what my eyes were seeing. This could not be so – there was a body of a kid stuffed into the freezer, even standing up, I could see that there were parts of his body missing as though someone had cut it for meat. I raced to the other freezer, panting hard, struggling to breathe and desperately trying to get some much needed air into my lugs. The second freezer was an even bigger blow to my gut, staring at me from within the freezer was the face of my long lost friend. As I stood there comprehending a life of deceit, I felt a sudden blow to my head. Fighting the dizziness, I turned around to find Adam’s father with a baseball bat at his feet and a hunting knife in his hand. Then I passed out…

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