You’ll probably never be invited to our family dinners. That is, because they don’t really exist. Dinnertime in America and so many other cultures from Asia to Africa is synonymous with family bonding. Its purpose, besides the obvious fundamental self-serving nourishment, is to connect with those closest to you. Enrich your body, enrich your soul. Dinnertime used to be a big deal in the eyes of my father, but those eyes have changed drastically over the past decade. New family means new traditions and the exoneration of past activities tied to an old, unwanted life.
Everything came in twos. Suddenly there were two houses I had to live in. Two weeks spent at each before the cycle repeated. Both of my parents got remarried, twice. My father had a second set of children. And I was now secondary in his life. Numbers — we all identify by them — age, cell phone digits, social security number — and as far as technology goes, we cannot live without them. Yet the last place you should have to live as a number is within your own family.
But this is what happens when you’re no longer part of a nuclear unit. When that has exploded into a messy disarray. And suddenly you find pieces of yourself no longer fitting where they once bonded so easily before. When glue is not a permanent fix. When you realize that your mother can only support you emotionally, and your father can only support you financially. When you realize you serve as a reminder of a failed pastime, a mirror of your mother, an unwanted ball to juggle. It’s a lot like those 50,000-piece puzzles that no one wants to finish because it’s frankly easier to leave the difficult ones off the table completely.
So you turn to the artificial, the television. But there were no butterflies leading me to an adytum of refuge, no talking fairies flying me to an alternate carefree dimension. And this is where I wish someone would have warned me that Disney doesn’t always get things right, or “get things” in general.
Hakuna Matata — I used to repeat it over and over again. After all, it means no worries — for the rest of your days. But this sublime adage was met not by a dissipation of concerns like it purports to do. It rather came to symbolize another myth, lie, subtle lesson of my not-so-childhood.
I grew up fast, but even so, I couldn’t see then like I do now. It’s similar to that feeling of wearing contacts for the first time, when everything comes into focus, but you are still not able to change the way you were blinded before — by innocence, age or ignorance. I wish I could have gone up to my father and said stop, you’re going to hurt me, far more than you could ever imagine or ever intend. But he will anyway, because all along I was never enough, he always wanted more kids, a trophy wife, a trophy life.
And her. She came into my house as my babysitter, and a year later, she’s planning its demolition and reconstruction. And when she tore down those walls, the only walls that kept me safe, that gave me some freedom and distance and belongingness, she tore down the last piece of my puerility. I was a woman far before my body printed the words in red blood.
And that house, the money, the kids, all that wasn’t enough for her. So she let the liquid valor flow — from the bottle to her mouth, from her mouth to her words and from her words to my heart like arrows of ice, or isolation — and if that was her aim, she most definitely succeeded.
And this is what I call the onion life, and I quote from Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha “…peeling away a layer at a time and crying all the while.” One facet of life after the other, slowly being taken away. That is, until you’ve reached the lowest layer and realize you’ve just got to work with what you have left before it’s all gone. My rawest self, exposed, showing nothing but my bones, was my impetus to be better, study harder, and be someone important in this world. And gradually the worn away epidermis is built up once again, replaced with thicker, stronger, more resilient skin.
You slowly begin to laugh, instead of wince, that you have a nephew the same age as your half-brother. And you smile because you realize you’re not a house built on sand slowly sinking by yourself, rather you do have all of these people — however random and discordant — that support you. And you accept that your father is incapable of showing love but he means well and he’s slowly realizing his mistakes; he’s trying. Even though he cannot remember the title of your job and botches it on the Christmas card, at least you were in the card this year.
You move past the jealously blocking you from whole-heartedly loving your decade-plus younger half-siblings who get iPads for holy communions and laptops for 11th birthdays. You start to connect with your double-decade older step-siblings over surfing, tattoos and other things you thought they were too old to relate to. And sometimes it takes a death in the family or a serious health complication for you to see that it’s better to walk with these people in the dark than to walk alone in the sun.
You realize you didn’t ever want or need half of the things you were envious of anyways. You realize that without everything that life so violently threw at you along the way, you wouldn’t be where you are or who you are today. Your morals, your attitude, your direction, are all a result of the variables and numbers in the equation of your unbalanced childhood. You come to find you will attempt to solve for x or y or z your entire life — trying to fix the inequality, solve the problem. But it will never balance completely, because life will continually fill its spaces with numbers and letters, people and problems, but we change, we grow, we deal.