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A Hard Man to Understand

I return from an extended – and unintended – hiatus. It was never my intention to be gone from this blog for so long. I had got wrapped up in the finishing touches of my undergraduate career. Three weeks ago, I completed my Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing. This is a milestone that, three years ago, I never thought I’d reach. And now I move on.

To Alaska.

I accepted an offer from the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, and this August will be relocating to pursue an MFA in creative writing, with a focus in nonfiction. I am both excited and nervous as I move on to this new phase of my life, but I figure that’s typical of anyone making a major life change.

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I’m not quite sure when my father died. I remember that his funeral was Memorial Day weekend, 1997. At the time I was in a haze of pharmaceuticals, intended to bring me down from what was believed at the time to be a manic episode but what is now understood to have been a severe anxiety attack brought on by the perils of trying to turn into a heterosexual within a homophobic environment. When I was 23, there was much I could not articulate to myself, let alone to the doctors, so they took their best guess based on the precious little information I permitted myself to divulge to them.

So, when I got the news that my father (whom I had not seen in five years) lay comatose in a Louisville hospital, I was already emotionally buffered by a medicinal regimen that had me sleeping sixteen hours a day. My aunt Joyce, whom I hadn’t seen since I was three, called one evening with news, flew me out to Louisville to see my comatose father. There, I met an entire side of my family who had had zero interest in my siblings or me until that point. They had to make a good showing of seeing their dying brother, even though several of them hadn’t bothered to tell their own spouses he existed.

What put my father into the hospital was tricky to unravel. Ostensibly, he had a heart attack, but the full story was more sordid. By all accounts, he had contracted an STD, and for treatment, he had obtained a topical ointment from the Amish neighbors his family has been friends with for decades. But my father, his mind muddled, took the ointment orally, which left him keeled over on the side of the road. Heart attack via poisoning. One of the teenage sons of the Amish family found him and arranged for an ambulance.

Thus I found him intubated in Louisville, surrounded by a family who had regarded him at best as a black sheep. My father was the only one out of the seven Baker siblings who was not sent to college; in fact, he was barely literate. Though I don’t know too many details, he was brutalized by his parents – my grandparents – growing up. As I’ve done some digging, I’ve discovered this abuse may have been a chief cause for his antisocial personality disorder.

I was once told that you can’t psychoanalyze dead people, but sometimes you don’t have a choice. My father was always resistant to treatment, because, as he put it, he was the only one in the world who didn’t have a problem. Yet when my mother, suffering a mental breakdown from his abuse, checked herself into the hospital, her doctor, after hearing my father rant a mere five minutes, deduced he had schizophrenia.

But, from all the digging I’ve done, I think that antisocial personality disorder is the most accurate diagnosis. First of all, my father seemed genuinely unaware of what a friend was, or how to make them. This affected my childhood greatly, since he didn’t allow me to make friends. When I was five, he bought me a dog because I was lonely, and when I was seven, he proposed that he and my mother adopt a child so that my siblings and I would have someone to play with.

He was also notoriously impulsive. In second grade, I came home from school one Friday to find that I was to get in the truck because we were taking a weekend vacation to Opryland. We kids crammed in the back, in the covered flatbed. When we got as far as English, Indiana, we picked up my maternal grandmother, who took the front seat whilst my mom joined us in back. The rest of the way to Nashville, my father cussed my grandma out in every way imaginable. We all crammed into our pop-up camper-trailer for the weekend. At Opryland itself, we didn’t do really do anything – my father ranted about the cost of concessions, so we didn’t eat or drink at the park.

On the flipside, he could be cold and calculating. When I was seven, I came home from school to discover that no one was there. This had never happened to me; there was always, at least, my mom and siblings. My father didn’t allow my mom to go anywhere but the grocery store, and he monitored the fuel gauge in the car to make sure she didn’t go anywhere else. I thought that my family had disappeared off the face of the earth and that I would be all alone in the world for the rest of my life. At seven.

They showed up an hour later. My father declared that he had just custom-ordered a brand-new Buick Park Avenue. (Custom-ordered mostly to get a Diesel engine, because my father, a truck driver by profession, stated that the only real automobiles had Diesel engines.) My mother was distraught; she didn’t understand how we could afford another car when we couldn’t afford groceries. She also didn’t understand why we couldn’t afford groceries. All she knew was that the grocery budget he gave her was getting smaller and smaller, eventually to the point that he no longer gave her money for food at all. She didn’t know that the money was going towards drugs and sex workers.

Now, this sounds pretty random and impulsive, right? To buy a car on a moment’s notice, when you aren’t exactly wealthy? Here’s the thing: he demanded that the car be put in my mom’s name. So, later, when he wanted to make himself look good to others, he would demonstrate his generosity by pointing out how he bought his wife a car, never mind that he forbade her to drive it. And if he wanted to make my mom look bad, he would tell people how she was wasting his money by buying a new car.

There were efforts at various points to get my father the help he needed. But antisocial personality disorder is notoriously slippery, for some of the reasons I mentioned above. As far as he was concerned, he didn’t have any problems, so he wasn’t about to pursue help for himself, even in the face of his obvious struggles in life. At one point, my mother, in fear of her life, had the police ambush my father when he came home from work, and they put him in jail for twenty-four hours for observation. But he was released on his own recognizance. They told my mother, “He’s high as a kite, but there’s nothing we can do about that.” And my mother, completely naïve about drug culture and possessing a singular grasp of the English language, had always thought the expression “high as a kite” meant “angry”, not “on drugs”. And when my father held up his fourth wife – the one after my mom – at gunpoint, he was put in jail for three months and then underwent a psychological evaluation. He was then released. He later told my mom, “They tried to put me away, but they didn’t know what they were doing. They had me checked out by a woman.” Implying that he knew his way with women, how to manipulate them to get what he wanted.

My mother barely escaped with her life when I was eight. My father (who, remember, was a truck drive and hardly ever home) was awarded temporary custody because he had a job and my mother didn’t. For six months he put us under the care of an estimated 20 random strangers. He offered a free home and generous pay to anyone who would take care of his kids. And he didn’t know any of these people because, remember, he had no idea what a friend was or how to make them. These were people he knew of second- and third-hand through work acquaintances and suchlike. Some were serious drug users who had no business around any kids. One couple had never been in a house with plumbing before, and didn’t understand how anything worked, including the thermostat, which they asked me to operate. I, at eight, thought you set the thermostat for the temperature outside, and we were going through a record-breaking heat wave. One was an eighteen-year-old with a one-month-old baby.

None of them were fit to take care of us, But they all quit as soon as they realized how dangerous my father was, he with the always-loaded pistol and the constant, very real threat that he’d use it. As far as my father was concerned, the only thing that mattered was that my mother not have any access to us, because that was the one thing she wanted out of life, and he was bound and determined to take it from her. After six months of this random, half-assed caregiving, my father broke his leg on the job, and “cared” for us the rest of the summer. I don’t want to say what all we kids went through because I don’t have the permission of my siblings to divulge some of what went on, and I likely will never get that permission. Suffice it to say that all four of us endured things no child should.

You would think the courts would have been more observant of what was going on with us kids, given the circumstances. But remember that my father “knew his way with women”. We were assigned a caseworker named Cecilia who was to come to the house once a week. And my mom warned Cecilia up front that my father would try to manipulate her, and would start treating her like his first wife Leila, who died in a mysterious motorcycle accident that many believe my father planned, but was able to slip through the fingers of the law by having the right last name in a small town. When Cecilia would come to the house, my father would ask her to make him a cup of coffee. And she obliged. And when the courts asked for follow-up on Cecilia’s observations, she merely stated, “Oh, he’s doing the best he can under the circumstances,” at which point she was dismissed from our case for loss of objectivity. She later confided to my mother that she was dead on, that my father was trying to turn Cecilia into Leila.

After nine months of divorce proceedings – intentionally dragged out by my mother’s attorney so as to get past my parents’ ten-year anniversary, thus qualifying us children for my father’s Social Security insurance – my mother was awarded custody. And my father began his slow drift from our lives. (At one point, he lived in Houston for five months without anyone knowing it.) He would drop by our home haphazardly, in bald defiance of the one-hour notification ordered by the court. He made such a stop one weekend towards the end of my high-school career. I was busy with extracurriculars that weekend, so I didn’t get to hear him declare that he didn’t love us kids and never did, that he thought he didn’t know how to love. It was probably the most honest he’d ever been.

The last time I saw my father conscious was at the beginning of my first year of Bible college in St. Louis. He showed up unannounced on campus with a hundred-dollar bill. (My father’s family only ever pays for anything with hundred-dollar bills. You cannot look poor.) He’d done the same after my high-school graduation, promising me a hundred dollars a month until I graduated from college. I saw the money three times total, the last being that visit the beginning of September 1992. That was the last I saw or heard from my father again.

The Amish family showed up at the funeral before the service began, but left before the actual funeral, because to stay would have been a violation of their faith. The only people at the funeral were his extended family; he died friendless. My aunt Joyce was selected to write his eulogy for the funeral director to deliver, because my father was the oldest and she was the youngest; thus, she knew him the least and was therefore the most likely to be able to say something positive about him. The best she could muster was that he was “a hard man to understand”. My father had grown so heavy, it took eight of us to carry his casket. When he was buried in the cemetery of Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church that Memorial Day weekend 1997, alongside Leila, his siblings remarked how odd it was that he was born on Veteran’s Day and died on Memorial Day weekend, yet never served in the military. The military was lucky to not have had him.

So, this weekend, as I am bombarded with the red, white, and blue of militarism, my thoughts don’t go to my culturally expected obligations to the relative location of the uterus from which I plopped, an obligation I will never understand. Instead, I think of the man who was hard to understand. I think about all the folks out there who need proper psychiatric attention and will likely not get it because of the red, white, and blue they plopped into at birth. And I think of how my goal in life ever since that weekend has been to be understood.

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Piano

Warning of abuse trigger.

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I used to be obsessed with learning how to play piano.  I would go to the music room at school during class time, and try to figure it out, and my music teacher would coach me a long as much as she could without exactly giving me a lesson, as she had her own duties to attend to, as well.  In high school, I had lunch right after orchestra class, and it wasn’t uncommon for me to pluck out chords and melodies well into lunch period.  My church held an auction, and was getting rid of an old, very out-of-tune piano.  I was going to use a $50-dollar savings bond that I had won in a competition to pay for my bid for the piano–never mind the fact that there was no room in my family’s apartment for a piano, that the piano was in desperate need of repair, and that I still wouldn’t be able to take lessons.  I ended up placing the second-highest of three bids.  Undaunted, I went to the church in my spare time, just to try to teach myself how to play the piano and write music.

Last night, I realised why I was so obsessed with playing the piano.

My mother’s only chance to escape my father’s abuse, and to treat her own failing health due to starvation and beatings, was to go to a hospital whilst my father was on the job as a long-distance truck driver.  He had forbidden us to go to the doctor, or to really carry out any business, in our own county, as a means of hiding the abuse.  It also helped him, in that he had often established local social contacts such that he had prejudiced their opinions against my mother before she had a chance to speak with doctors, psychologists, and such in our own town.  So, if my mom was going to get help, it was going to be one county over, a half-hour drive south of where we lived.  She checked herself into the emergency room, and they kept her.  She weighed barely 100 pounds, and had suffered extensive internal organ damage from beatings.

But, there were four children, ages five through eight, with an incapacitated, barely-alive mother, and a father working hundreds of miles away.  We were not in our own county, and there was no-one we could stay with.  (Another way my father kept us socially isolated was by making it known he kept a loaded gun, and threatening to use it on us or our neighbours if we made any social contact.  He acted so unstable that neighbours who wanted to help us out of our situation worried that if they did, we or they might end up murdered.)  So we were placed in emergency foster care.

That night, as they pulled my screaming five-year-old brother off my mother, we headed off to our new residence.  We had no idea who these people were, or how long we’d be living with them, nor did they.  It was a father and mother, with three children of their own, daughters age 9, 7, and 1.

I had never been happier in my life.  It was the first evidence that I had that a man, not only did not have to yell, scream, and threaten to murder his wife and her family, but that he could treat her with love, respect, and decency.  The children were bright and well-adjusted, and we had fun having other kids to play with.  (We were not allowed to associate with other children outside of school.)  And the nine-year-old took piano lessons.

The piano was in the kids’ playroom.  It had stickers on the keys, brightly coloured little monsters labelled “C”, “C#”, etc.  The daughter would play bits of her lessons for me.  And I fell in love.  From that moment on, I wanted to play piano more than anything in the world.

My mother, still in the hospital, regained enough strength to file divorce papers.  My father returned from the road, and he was to receive temporary custody, because he had a job–even though that job kept him away from us kids for weeks on end.  We left the foster family.  I did not want to leave them.

Curiously, when I started college, as a music major, I was required to take piano lessons, but I had none of the passion I had when I was younger.  Granted, there were many intervening psychological, social, and medical reasons to not want to practise the five hours a week required to earn an A, but there was still no more fire to learn the piano.  Perhaps it was because it went from being an internal desire to an external requirement.  Perhaps it was just a childhood fantasy I shuffled off upon becoming an adult.  Or, perhaps, the piano symbolised a place of peace, of love, of hope, and that symbolism was more important than actually learning to play.