THE FATHER/SON CHALLENGE
Raymond Filip is an award-winning
author who teaches English as part of the Peace Studies Program
at John Abbott College. He is also a co-founder of the Montreal
Estonian Society golf tournament (the token Lithuanian). This
annual event celebrated its 10th anniversary last summer.
winter, I watched The Father/Son Challenge televised from Orlando,
Florida. The golf channel had choreographed split-screen sequences
of how the O’ Mearas walked together in sync and putted
similarly using the same claw grip; how the Elkingtons swung in
sync identically; how the Lehmans both flexed their right knees
in the same way to remove a ball out of the cup; and how the Cinks
shifted clubs from one hand to the other in sync. High fives,
knuckle bumps, huge hugs: the abused child in me wished that some
fundamental male voice would have shouted out, when I was a youngster
plonking a plastic ball across a dirt backyard into a tomato can:
ana ranka!” My father would yell, as I turned a doorknob
with my left hand. Fearing his beatings, I would quickly switch
to ana ranka, the other hand: a feeble, stunted, clump
of fingers. To this very day, when approaching a closed door,
his command still escorts my muscle memory. I obey. One bit of
positive advice. retrieved. from. nine. shattered. years. of.
my right hand. Both were a nemesis. Born with a birthmark on my
wrist, a long-sleeve shirt could have easily covered up that packaging
error of blood vessels. But my parents, a good-looking couple,
concerned with appearance, I suppose, decided to trust the doctors
in a Lübeck hospital, outside the DP camp where we roamed
about like cattle spared from slaughter. In postwar Germany, DP’s,
displaced persons, were despised by the local citizenry. As a
newborn, endowed with blond hair, Baltic blue eyes, and a red
nevus, I served as live bait for pediatric experiments. The malpractitioners
not only removed the birthmark with radiation treatments, they
botched up the entire carpal region. My beautiful right arm, disfigured,
dangled a deviated metacarpus suspended from an atrophied radius
and ulna bone. Perhaps the birthmark had resembled a map of communist
Russia? Revenge upon the helpless? Schadenfreude? Who
knows? Out of sync.
happened to your hand?” That question would pursue me for
the rest of my life. “Hockey injury,” I now reply,
“just don’t put me on any disabled list.” Neither
my father, nor my mother, ever explained what happened. My parents
split up as soon as we had arrived in Canada. One photograph shows
my father holding me in his arms like a trophy nonetheless, before
our separation. He appears to be content, smiling, bonding with
his son in the black-and-white sunshine of that 1953 snapshot.
The one and only time my father had ever held me, a tyrant "worse
than Stalin or Hitler," my mother would fill in the picture.
dad, he practiced all the vices: smoking, drinking, gambling,
swearing, roughing up his family, and sexual no-no's — which
included incest with his daughter. I inherited his anosmia, but
not his stinking ways. My fist would strike the core of my guts,
and dictate: take the opposite path. Vice versa.
puffed on small cigars. He would give me a quarter to hurry to
the corner store and buy him another 5-pack of Simon’s cigarillos.
Cancer then sneakily attacked and ravaged his throat by the age
of 59. He wasn't a beast. I never saw him licking the hair on
his chest. He was my father. And so when he was dying, I traced
his whereabouts to the Montreal Jewish General. I forget which
hand I had used to open the door of his room. My autonomic nervous
system had the yips. Fight or flight or write. As the family record
keeper, for the sake of the truth, I confronted my sire. There
he lay, alone, on his side, asleep, almost as thin as the cigarillos
that had killed him. I definitely did not want to end up this
way. What a shame. Both of us speechless for different reasons.
How could I mourn the loss of a father I never had? Enough not
is a death wish. Even a doobie is a dubious pleasure. After supper
one evening in the backwoods of La Macaza, a Mexican-Apache artist,
his non-native wife, and 10-year daughter, had passed on a jumbo
marijuana joint toward my membranes, blowing O-rings like smoke
signals out of their oral cavities and nostrils. Not a peace pooper,
I inhaled the mighty spliff, then coughed. They giggled. Light
headed, I giggled along too at every bird that landed on every
branch, waiting for The Great Manitou to appear in the night sky.
So this was the "buzz?" This giddy yapping. I didn't
buy into this phony heightened consciousness. No deal. Drugs are
for the sick, or the pretentious. Cool as a corpse.
hangover occurred at the age of six. Wee wee, monsieur!
When I was knee high to a beer bottle, my tipsy papa had poured
Dow ale all the way down my gullet during an open-door party in
our French neighbour’s apartment. My brain cells can still
recall how my father had laughed in cahoots with his spluttering
pack of câlisse-enfant-de-chienne-suce-la-bouteille
beer breaths, as I spat and choked, and almost tumbled down a
flight of stairs, guided by nausea and hallway walls that swirled
around me. Abuse of alcohol. Was this the way to initiate a boy
into manhood? How puking stupid. A manly smoothie would eventually
become a staple of my wholesome lifestyle, or some shiraz and
jazz to accompany a fine meal. I’m just mad about moderation.
gambling, chuck that crap. I don’t even know how to play
poker. The roll of the dice just never appealed to my athletic
sense of kinetics. And I can still see my father kicking my mother
down a dozen warped steps into our backyard, as she fled from
him, calling her a “kurva,” because she had
refused to give him money to toss away, lucked out among a table
of losers. For risk-reward, I prefer the skill of smashing the
dimples off an expensive Titleist Pro V1 golf ball, and then holding
my breath as it soars over the water that guards the green, while
the wind ruffles the flag like a fluttering tongue, daring you
to go for it. Bingo, bango! The ball lands safely. Twirl your
club. You is the man.
Once, I spied my father snoring beside my mother, when the door
to our tiny one-bedroom apartment had been casually left ajar.
We had just moved from Ville-Émard to Verdun to try and
live together again. That sleeping arrangement lasted for about
a month. Getting even, one morning, strategically on the kitchen
table, my sex-starved daddy had placed a photo of himself in bed
with two girlies. A boobie trap. One floozy was chuckling, while
the other seemed to be pouting oooh, as my papa the pervert pointed
the tip of his lit cigarillo at her naked nipple.
my father sleeping with my sister, more than once. He would come
home and leer at his pubescent daughter who was jiggling away,
dancing the frug in front of the mirror, dressed in panties and
bra, exposing her sweaty cleavage. "Show girl," our
mother would shake her head, warily, foreseeing disaster. My big
sister wasn't exactly asking for it, acting out her go-go-girl-
in-a-cage fantasies. But baring her flesh to a European male of
my father's generation certainly placed her in the slut category.
If she had been rehearsing entrechats wearing a ballet
tutu, or even polkas in a Lithuanian folk costume, perhaps our
womanizing papa would have been less tempted to do the taboo.
the baby brother, too young, and too scared to say anything, as
my father fondled my sister, the bed sheets twisting tighter and
tighter against the mattress with her every squeal. Non-coital
cuddles. She was his sex kitten. Ann Margaret inside the covers
of my sister's teen magazines could have given him ideas too.
and I would pay the price for my sister’s post-incest syndrome:
PIS. That acronym alone, not a spelling error, prevented her,
I suspect, from seeking help on a psychotherapist's couch. I was
the messenger she had cursed after I had informed her that a term
existed for her maladjustments. Blaming other family members was
an initial symptom of the syndrome. Eating disorders, denial systems,
hardwired hostility, and games of domination/submission would
follow. "Don't tell me what to do!" We cut each other
apart, worse than the blades of a blender. Heart haché.
Pureed pain. My sweet sister would change into a blind character
assassin, oblivious to her own blasts. Her double-barreled contradictions
would even accuse me of being both "oedipal" and "neglectful"
in my dealings with our mother. How to swing from dysfunctional
confront, overcome: that was the challenge. In the future, no
matter how I would broach the subject of her syndrome, my sister
would explode into a tantrum, slamming the phone shut in violent
outbursts, just like her papa. His solution to family tensions
one night had been to shove his foot through the television screen.
During one suicide bluff, his trembling hand had pressed his security-guard
pistol against his skull, flinching, face as red as a beet, on
the verge. . . too vain to pull the trigger. My sister would lock
herself up in the bathroom, shutting us all out. And I would escape
to a parking lot down the street, pitching a ball against a wall.
Me against the world. Out of sync.
would also prove to be another immoveable obstacle. At school,
Mr. Beauregard, our Phys. Ed instructor, who had failed a tryout
with the Montreal Alouettes, selected me, one gym class, to be
the goalpost on a soccer field. (The other post had been hooliganized.)
Did Mr. Beauregard see me as some subspecies with a short arm?
A Cubist installation? A blooper duper? Sidelines everywhere,
eye contact nowhere. Hey, wasn't I made in the image of God too?
After school, I would break out of equal huddles with two or three
football pals, and make spectacular diving catches in the end
zone. Let me play the game, and we’ll win.
was definitely not a jock. His view of hand-eye coordination was
to unbuckle his belt, fold it in two, and then wallop my burning
gluteus maximus with more hits than Pete Rose. In search of role
models, sports idols substituted as confidence boosters. Rocket
Richard united Québec and Canada larger than life. My first
pair of skates were endorsed by his brother, a heads-up competitor:
“The Pocket Rocket.” And Dickie Moore rounded out
the “Richard Line,” winning the scoring championship
in 1957-58 while playing the last 30 games of the season with
his broken wrist in a cast. My hero!
father versus a sperm bank? Neither one comes with guarantees.
My sister and I didn't know the birth date of our progenitor —
not so near or dear to us — and we never considered any
gifts for him, not even on Christmas. What did he ever give us?
The strap. Bruises. Nightmares that would recur into adulthood.
My wife had to fend off several rude awakenings during the early
years of our marriage, as I would pummel her body during sleep.
“Hey! Hey! Stop it! Stop it! Is it your father again?”
Yes, it was my father, again. And my horrible jokes didn’t
soothe her soreness either. “I guess I’m turning into
a wife beater too.”
Thanks to my wife, and her Filipino family values, I now have
an image handler. She doesn't judge a book by it's cover —
and doesn't read my books either! Instead of words, she prefers
the achievements of a self-made man. She delivers the stability
that I have always yearned for. Her festive cooking every day,
her Santo Niño of Cebu, and her favourite show "Flip
This House," have shaped the sense of home encoded in her
we watched the Father/Son Challenge: "Where Victory Is All
About Family." Raymond Floyd and his son Ray Jr. caught our
attention, as my wife and I reminisced. We had planned to name
our son: “Ray Jr.” Unfortunately, three fertility
treatments, two fibroid operations, and one ovarian cyst removal,
had produced nothing but tears. That was our challenge, jinxed,
by a jest of nature, again.
we sleep well now. We have a talented niece who has adopted me
as her father figure. I am her "daddy," "uncle
dad," or "dad with the wad," depending upon the
circumstance. Her Filipino pop, a macho midget, ran away when
she was born. My "princess" and I run toward each other.
We also make music together. (Fourteen trophies sparkle on the
shelves of her room, awards for first-place finishes in the Fil-Can
Idol and Festival de Musique Jeunesse competitions in
Québec-Ontario.) We play golf together too. I took her
to the Nuns Island course, built upon the garbage dump that I
had gazed at across the St. Lawrence river when I was her age,
growing up in Verdun. On the first tee, a 150-yard par 3, her
12-year-old toughness managed to drive the ball a gargantuan 160
yards into — inhospitable grass. I cheered her on with a
paternal: "Good shot!"
I used to be an angry young bookworm. Now I’m a happy old
golfer. Two summers ago, the road less-traveled led me to the
Arundel golf course hidden in the Laurentian mountains. For physical
and mental balance, nothing beats this gentleman's game. The poetry
in motion, the rhythmic cadence of an iambic backswing and downswing,
plus the goal of one day shooting my age (before 80!), defies
oldness with boldness. At the demanding third hole, a 205-yard
par 3, I mishit the ball. It trickled up, slowly, toward the front
edge of the green. "Good shot!" Dickie Moore yelled
out to me. Yes, my childhood idol, and owner of the course, sat
in his cart, the kindest old timer with the bluest eyes. Hard
to believe that he had been such a fierce scrapper. We shook hands,
as he reached out and grasped my non-conforming "upper hand."
He treated every player, and every employee on his course like
a member of the family. Olé! Olé! Olé! I
drove home higher than the mountains, chortling hysterically,
while repeating the mantra: "Dickie Moore said to me: 'Good
shot!' Dickie Moore said to me: 'Good shot!'"
So I swing my kettlebell, and la vie est belle. Arms
crossed, I count my blessings: relentless good health; requited
love as a centre of gravity; family harmony that extends to four
parts of the globe; and a job that I adore as a tenured teacher.
For Mr. and Mrs. Status Symbol, bigger than my behind, I can point
to a four-bedroom house with a van and a sedan in the driveway.
The Chez Ray provides the heartiness of a home gym, a recording
studio, and an aboveground swimming pool. My students think I'm
39. My barber estimates that I am 52. And the calendar declares
that I am 65. Not bad for a creep without prospects. Where my
father failed, I succeeded. No, we never hit the golf links together
like Jack and Gary Nicklaus. But in retrospect, visualizing the
unfairness that he had to circumvent — war and discrimination
destroying his dreams — I can assume today that he had coached
me on, vicariously, the holler guy, to overcome all odds with
fortitude and stamina: "Su ana ranka."
What's my handicap? Other people. My mother's anxiety attacks
and my sister's syndrome were two hells, two hazards, more troublesome
than any of the sand traps and waste areas at Le Diable.
"Pttt." My sister would sneer at my struggles to save
her and my mother out of those squabble-gobbles. Mama found her
peace at last, when she was free from her daughter's PIS. At the
Hébergement de Rigaud, located on a street appropriately
named rue D'Amour, love surrounded her 24/7. She affectionately
referred to one special caregiver, Manon, as "my daughter."
Manon had checked out my mother's "histoire de la vie,"
and addressed her with the greatest respect. She harboured no
compulsive desire to transform mama into the ideal mom that she
wished she had, as my sister had tried during their mother/daughter
war of attrition.
My mother never ever spoke about my sister, or father, during
the happiest days of her life. She brightened up the atmosphere
in the nursing home, singing as she steered her walker down the
corridors: "Begit! Begit! Piemenelai!" (Run!
Run! Little lambs!") And the smiling staff would step aside
for her. She received balloons, kisses, a cake and a card from
them on her many birthdays there. Joie de vivre, a mountainside,
and a royal breakfast in bed, greeted her, a farm girl, every
morning, in a satisfying circle. On the bulletin board of the
main wing, a photo of my elegant mama, attired in a Lady Diane
hat and scarf, remains pinned in tribute to one of their most
memorable residents. I was there for her, at the hour of her death,
my right hand on her right hand. "I will love you forever,
mamyte," I assured her. She passed away peacefully,
her last breath, a quiet hiccup. I went to fetch my wife, as the
blackness of the night shrouded the picture windows along the
second floor at 1:42 a.m. My wife has witnessed many deaths during
her 18 years of working as a nurse's aide, and she has handled
many mortal remains. As soon as she entered the room, she noticed
a radiance upon my mother's face. Very rare. A glow of calmness
enclosed an innocence, the motherless child in her, merged with
the strength of a figurehead, unmoored into the afterlife. . .
task was to contact my sister. "I'm all cried out,"
her e-mail message confessed. Me too, sis. We collaborated on
a eulogy, and she surprisingly signed off with a left-over: "Su
meile." (With love.)
death was the game changer. As her faithful son, I had protected
my mother from her own daughter who would exploit her vulnerabilities.
Now, I could transfer my bipartisan weight to the other foot,
and step forward as a loyal brother. I congratulated my sister
for her recent accomplishments (one book every 65 years). Her
turn to sign autographs. She had become a grandmother for the
first time too. Awesomesauce! I'd have to stock up on shopkins.
I was glad for her. To celebrate our mother's life, and our reunion,
I invited her to stay at the Chez Ray. A warm family room awaited
her presence. My sister could make her peace with mama, finally.
"It would be so nice to see you and your sister riding in
the hearse together," my wife said.
the eve of the funeral, my older sibling started shoveling her
dirt from the past. Her language, predictably, was abusive. "You
shit on me." When? She didn't say. She had no intention of
attending the Requiem Mass for her mother. Her excuse? She was
limping, and in need of a cane. Her obese body had slipped on
some ice. (Airlines can accommodate passengers in wheelchairs.
And she had zoomed over to her book launch in Toronto, faster
than the turn of a page.)
"I said my goodbyes and I love you's already," she argued.
Sure, when our mother had been hospitalized in the middle of a
geriatric crisis because she had stopped taking her medication,
and had refused to sign a new lease with her landlord.
jumped out the window," my sister reiterated, gleefully.
Did that justify her decades of elder abuse? Yes, our mama, an
enigma, had experienced one spectacular fall, of many. An 80-year-old
pensioner, living alone, she had dropped two stories, sustaining
solely minor injuries, a fractured right wrist and dislocated
shoulder, narrowly missing an iron-spiked fence. A cranial MRI
had revealed no brain damage. No dementia. "I'm not crazy!"
My mother protested, as a doctor waved two fingers before her
eyes. Throw the DSM-5 out the window. "Man viskas susimaiše,"
(Everything got mixed up), my mother would explain to me later.
could have been a family," my sister shoveled away, the one
holdout. WE ARE A FAMILY! As plentiful as the petals of the African
Violet that thrived in our mother's room, and that continue to
blossom on my desk, caring condolences issued forth from Lithuania
and Rome. Masses in the Philippines, and in Cornwall, Ontario
were being offered for the repose of her soul. And the one nun
in our family, Sister Shirley in Pleasantville, New Jersey, had
sent her prayers. My mother's choir would sacrifice their Monday
morning to sing their last respects in Our Lady Gate of Dawn church
with lofty love vibrations befitting a head of state. My sister
didn't even have the decency to enquire about the cause of her
own mother's death.
get it. The same way she didn't get one shiny penny from my mother's
will in 1987, or the revised will in 2010, because of her non-stop,
verbal and financial abuse. A mature adult is supposed to care
for a senior parent, and not the other way around. My sister would
bleed the hand that would feed her, and then wonder why her mama
was so "miserable?" Never weaned from the womb, she
had absolutely no right to judge the way I had coped with the
pressures of placating our aging mother by myself. My lost sister,
a jobless secretary, stuck in a marital rut, had left Montreal,
but continued to inhabit Illusionville. Over 20 years behind.
Out of sync.
the funeral, she instigated another attack, dismissing her grieving
brother as "immature" and "clueless." Why?
Because I had politely informed her that my main concern had been
— (not her) — but the responsibility of organizing
the obsequies. No cash to cash, no ashes to ashes.
would understand," my sister comforted herself. Yes, mama
would understand her cheap wreath, her absence, her lack of remorse.
Her daughter had married a loser, despite her prophetic opposition
to the mismatch, until debt do us part. Mama had comprehended
intuitively that my father lay behind her mean demeanour. "Sugadinta"
(damaged) was the expression that mama would choose to explain
her daughter's condition; a "good girl" messed up by
two males, both a disgrace to their gender.
had also absorbed the shock of her daughter's consent to assault
and battery against her own brother by her jealous hulk of a husband.
He was a freeloader from out west who had no qualms about mooching
money off my mother, a poor cleaning lady on a fixed income. The
hulk would ridicule her cooking and culture. A zero on two legs,
he walked in ignorance, without higher principles, materialistic,
chronically unemployed, sick, plagued by feelings of inadequacy,
a wussy, supported by women, as useless as tits on a bull. My
sister deserved someone better, a good provider at least, who
wouldn't have dragged her dignity down so low as to beg for bucks
also, undercutting her kith and kin. My mother would regard her
daughter as "the stranger," the child she could no longer
recognize, in whom she had once instilled the importance of an
honest-day's work and spiritual capital. Yet, my sister persisted
in exalting her specimen of hubbyhood as her "rock."
A rock that was tied to a noose around my mother's neck. Their
so-called marriage had been a 40-year rescue mission by my mother,
the Bank of Bena, more reliable than an automatic teller. The
bum needed my sister, and my sister needed a butt-kisser: the
placebo effect for her syndrome.
Ah, our papa, long dead, still controls her mental blocks: a divide
more permanent than the Iron Curtain. Split bread in half, then
try to put the pieces together again. Financially and emotionally,
the more secure you are, the easier it is to forgive. My doors
will always be open, with two accepting arms ready to welcome
a familiar survivor: my sister. She could do herself a favour
by joining the paper jam of authors out there, and apply for a
Canada Council travel grant. My sister could make a valuable contribution
to the paucity of literature on post-incest syndrome. Go to Lithuania,
as I have done, and embrace papa's side of the family, a wonderful
we-were-here lineage, his bestowal to us. So much love and triumph
await her in our ancestral homeland. She could uncover her suppressed
selves like nesting dolls. Exploring ancestry has developed rightfully
into a growth industry: noroots.nodepth.com
My sister describes herself as a "late bloomer." She
may discover, too late, that life is too short for a marathon
grudge. Quality time means we could be swapping home videos in
sync. I have hilarious footage of mama waltzing with her cane:
"Krukis." And I hear that my godson, who would toddle
up to me, requesting helicopter hug after helicopter hug, is now
a proud father, whirling a baby on his shoulders. When I flew
over Alberta to play golf at Jasper Park, I thought of my sister,
an Albertan now. It seemed a billion-light-years ago when we had
enjoyed a few moments as brother and sister, fishing serenely
on Lac Saint-Émile, or getting showered with Pepsi and
7-Up by frenzied fans at a Rolling Stones concert. She never realized
that I had been toughest on myself, pushing the limits of potential
in all endeavours. Her conciliatory gifts, such as a pocket watch
for her brother, or a bouquet for her mama on Mother's Day, served
no end if she could not accept her syndrome.
father, like daughter: the deaths of their parents meant nothing
to both of them. Papa had also isolated himself from his blood
relations in spiteful delight. But my conflicted sister has admitted,
reasonably, in her final message, that her love/hate emotions
are on a "roller coaster." Proof that her cycle of abuse
is not broken. Accept, confront, overcome. Otherwise, papa will
lie dormant inside of her, right to the rumples of her deathbed.
It's time to conquer the past, to swallow her bitterness, and
to reinvent herself. Sadly, my sister's last words were a defeated:
"I'm done." She has locked herself up in the bathroom
again. Sealed her own casket. Rest in PIS.
cemetery is a busy place. All of Montreal seems to be passing
by in cars or buses, cycling or walking. Over 900,000 Montrealers
lie buried there with their stories. I too will join them, ultimately:
former mayors, friends, enemies, Rocket Richard, Émile
Nelligan, and one Father of Confederation: Thomas D'Arcy McGee.
In sync with eternal Sundays, my vision of peace beholds the living
ones bringing flowers for the remembered ones, while children
play Step on My Shadow. This spring on the first anniversary of
my mother’s death, I brought her white lilies. And not too
far from her tombstone, united on the same road but in a separate
section, I brought snapdragons for my father. I presume that his
harsh tone had been motivated by love: “Su ana ranka.”
the other hand, I placed flowers on my father's grave.