Friday, April 30, 2010

RUNNING AWAY by Palmer Shaw

I didn't even consider running away from home. I heard kids did that but not me. I was petrified, locked in. I was a shallow breather, somewhat numb. I say that with hindsight 'cause it never occurred to me that I was anything but bad, with a capital B.

Of course, that was far from the truth. I tried to please, hoping to elicit some approval from mother. Which sometimes happened but I remember more the shaming and the jokes at my expense, the talking as though I was invisible, ignoring the abuse her pedophile husband inflicted on me, in denial of her alcoholism, of his alcoholism, of their narcissistic, sadistic, manipulative behavior. Slowly picking at me day after day, week after week, wearing me down, month after month, year after year, criticizing almost everyone and everything in their path.

I'm building a case here worthy of life imprisonment, hanging by the neck, actually torture seems fitting. Slow painful torture. I was so repeatedly tortured in what seemed like subtle ways I became convinced I was a torturer. I was dirty, evil, immoral, rotten to the core.

This became evident when I chose a direction down a dark and winding path to hell. Eager to please anyone who gave me the time of day, who smiled and spoke to me. I was lost not knowing where I wanted to go, just following along, riddled with guilt. How did I ever pull out of that downward spiral?

A tiny spark of something. A nun at boarding school had it, Sister Veronica Jean, she had compassion for me, a decency, a conviction that I was innocent, that I was worthy of gentle care, that inspired me as an 11 year old.

I was expelled because I was caught in the same bathroom with another girl, she was expelled too. But my mother was away so she couldn't take me home and I had to live in seclusion away from the other girls because the nuns must have thought I would contaminate them, they must have thought I was a budding homosexual. Nothing sexual was acceptable there. Sex was a mortal sin. But I was not familiar with the catholic church. My parents were not catholic but I knew that getting caught in the same bathroom with a girl was wrong. We had our clothes on but she was showing me what the word "Rape" meant. I had overheard girls talking and I asked what that word meant so one of the girls said I'll show you.

And then while we were in there someone called a nun and under the door of the toilet stall a black shoe appeared connected to a very stern and angry nun. The room I stayed in had only a brown fake leather sofa that I slept on and there was a bird in a cage and no curtains or shades on the windows.

Thursday, April 22, 2010


I was so relieved when my father died last October, and I am glad that I wasn’t present for the last few days of his life.

My sister Carolyn had called me from England on the Friday evening before his death, saying that the medical staff at the Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford had suggested that next-of-kin should be advised that his time was probably drawing to an end. My sister never calls me to talk; it had been clear for a very long time that we had nothing to say to each other, nothing in common, no common interests. She only calls in emergencies.

I was in my little house in Kerhonkson. I had just driven up from the city that Friday night, after work, as I was working full time then. I panicked, my heart started pounding. I told her I would immediately jump on a ‘plane and fly to Oxford. Then about thirty minutes later, my nephew Robert called, my sister’s oldest son who is now managing the Probate for my father’s estate, and from whom I have heard absolutely nothing since his cremation, when Robert was notably absent. Robert’s excuse was that his car had broken down on the way to the Banbury Crematory. He didn’t show up either for the food and drink that Carolyn had prepared at our father’s house, for all family and friends, after the cremation. Carolyn told me that he said to her he didn’t think it was worth it, to come just for the family gathering.

That Friday night last October, after I spoke with Carolyn and then Robert called, he said, Stay put, the doctors are telling us that it could change in the next 24 or 48 hours, he could rally, there is no point in your rushing over. So I breathed a deep sigh of relief and stayed put.

He died two days later, peacefully, in a coma induced by respiration pneumonia. He had fallen in the house a week previously and, because he was living alone – as no-one could stand being with him for more than a short period of time because he was so difficult and demanding – he had been lying helplessly on the living room floor for several hours, before help came, inhaling his vomit and mucous and emptying his bowels and bladder.

I prepared a speech to give at the cremation. Carolyn, in her usual very efficient way, had arranged for a Secular Humanist to preside at the cremation because Roger, our father, said he wanted nothing religious, and only close family and friends present. I emailed my speech to Carolyn, who gave it to this nice lady she had hired. I wasn’t sure that I could read the speech so Carolyn said that if necessary, the Secular Humanist would read it for me. Carolyn hadn’t prepared a speech. She had simply prepared an outline of our father’s life, most of it based on my speech, so that this lady could give the Eulogy.

At the cremation ceremony, after the Eulogy, I went up to the Podium and started reading my speech. After two sentences my voice broke, my eyes filled with tears, and I started sobbing. I had to sit down. The Secular Humanist lady, trained in these sorts of situations, said take a minute, I know you can do it, take a few deep breaths. I got up again and tried once more, but my voice was gone, and I once again broke into sobs, so she read it for me.

Nobody else wanted to speak; and so then the ceremony was over and we all embraced each other. Actually, not all of us, just my other nephew, James, Robert’s younger brother, and his lovely Moroccan-Jewish wife Natalie, embraced me. James and Natalie and I hugged each other and cried. My niece Sarah, Carolyn’s youngest daughter, didn’t embrace me, or anyone else. Robert wasn’t there to embrace me. And Carolyn just walked ahead and gave instructions to everyone to return to the house, for food and drink, which she had dutifully prepared.

Friday, April 9, 2010


Many years ago, shortly after entering the halls of Alcoholics Anonymous, I was asked to tell my story. In a fit of anxiety I exclaimed, “I have no story.” I haven’t attended AA in many years, much to the chagrin of my ex-AA friends. I guess AA is much like the mafia, once you join there is absolutely no possible way to depart, except in a box. But after twenty years I just felt like having a beer. One day I did just that. I have survived just as well with the beer as I did without. By that I mean I can wreck my life with or without the help of the evil alcoholic spirits. Given that fact I might just as well enjoy myself once in a while. For instance, financial ruin and two-and-a-half divorces all took place while I was free from the grip of “John Barleycorn.” I’m still using that brainwash lingo after all these years. I figured I just couldn’t do much worse from an occasional partaking of an alcoholic beverage. And that thought has held true.

There have been three or four lives that seem to me to be completely separate. In each one I’m a different person. Each life could be titled with a woman’s name. Like chapter one: The Susan Era. Sadly, the only thing that has remained constant is that every chapter has the same ending. I guess I’m still looking for the chapter that has no end. Right at the moment I feel about as far from that dream as one could possibly be.

I told a woman friend of mine who seems to be just waiting for me to make a move that I’m alone because I’m tired of feeling like I disappoint people. By that I meant wife-type people or relationship-type people. The thing is that I really like this woman. After I said that to her I thought, “Good work, Neil. There’s nothing a woman likes more than a great show of confidence.”

It’s time to start a new story. I’m not sure if the next chapter will be titled with a woman’s name. But I must admit to hoping it will be so. I guess a therapist would consider that to be a psychological defect, and tell me I must love myself first, along with the rest of the standard psychological mumbo-jumbo that I’ve heard way too many times. Screw Sigmund Freud anyway. Psychological defects aside, I’m still hoping to get it right.

Working in mental health, at this point, literally sucks the life out of me. Unfortunately being a starving artist doesn’t put food on the table and taking care of psychiatrically ill people does. It feels as if mental illness has been stalking me my entire life. It is time to say enough is enough. Mentally ill children, mentally ill wives, and my own depression that went unidentified for so long. Depression has often taken me down a dark lonely road with no off ramps and no u-turns signs posted all along the way. The thought that I am also dependent upon mental illness to live and eat is hard to bear. I think I have done my duty to the world of psychiatric disabilities.

Despite the earlier satire concerning Alcoholics Anonymous, I did learn some great things there. One that sticks in my mind is a little Charlie Chaplin-like, vagabond cartoon character. This happy little guy carried his past in a small bundle on the end of a stick, opening the bundle only occasionally to use one of life’s lessons in a positive manner. I’ve always liked that philosophy though I’ve never quite gotten the hang of it. My bag always seems to be filled with bricks. And they seem to be bricks with a reproductive system.

I had a dream some twenty years ago about an older man with long, gray hair who travelled the countryside writing. He was high in the Rockies, somewhere in Arizona or perhaps Colorado and there was a woman. She was not visible in the dream and she did not speak. The dream was about travelling, nature, and writing and a man who had learned to become one with the Universe. The woman’s presence, though the man did not see or hear her, was both strong and sweet, enhancing the experience, making an already incredible Universe even better. She was going his way and he was going hers.

After more therapy than anyone should ever be allowed, it is in the writing that I have figured it out. I keep writing about the endings. And it is for sure the endings that are preventing the beginning. The endings make the air thick with jagged knives that will cut deep in to my heart if I invade the space they inhabit and call their own. And landmines litter the earth, just waiting for me to dare tread in that hallowed territory called a new beginning. With that fear in mind I have lived all too long in the limbo-world. It’s time to move on, start the new story, and once again take that trek across the minefields of life. The possibility of being blown to smithereens is the price one pays to live. And even being blown up is more fun than being part of the living dead in the limbo world.