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Vol. 15, No. 2, 2016
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surviving abuse



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.

This 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: “Good shot!”

Su 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. domestic. violence.

My father, 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.

“What 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.

A bad 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.

My papa 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 said. Goodbye.

Smoking 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.

My first 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.

As for 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.

Sex? 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.

I saw 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.

I was 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. Papa-oom-meow-meow.

My mother 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 into functional?

Accept, 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.

Stigma 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.

My father 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!

A biological 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 genome.

Together, 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.

Nevertheless, 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. . . .

The next 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.)

Mama's 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.

But on 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.

"She 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.

"We 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.

She didn't 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.

After 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.

"Mama 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.

Mama 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:

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.

Like 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.

The Notre-Dame-des-Neiges 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.”

With the other hand, I placed flowers on my father's grave.

Also by Raymond Filip:
For the Father I Did Not Kill



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