Over the past 19 years, I have often wondered if there’s a generational curse in my genes because abuse, alcoholism, codependency, and suicide seem to run in my family the way others inherit a history of hypertension and heart disease. At least three Bible verses say God will punish children for their father’s sins, and my grandparents were not good people. For example, my father’s sister, Betty, blew her brains out in the ‘80s, but his seven remaining siblings would tell you that my grandfather was “a mean son of a bitch.” Claims to fame include pushing Grandma out of a truck he was driving and beating his kids in the middle of the night a la Joan Crawford.
On the other side of the family, my grandmother grew up in an orphanage and learned even more about abandonment when she mistook sex for love, got pregnant at age 21, and the soon-to-be father left her. When his replacement began exposing his penis to my mom while driving her to school and holding a mirror to the crack beneath the bathroom door so he could watch her bathe, my grandmother decided that she would rather drink and ignore the problem than be homeless again.
One could argue that my predecessors and I just chose the wrong partners, but it’s been estimated that 96 percent of families are dysfunctional. In fact, during a sermon on how to resuscitate love, Pastor Kerry Shook said dysfunction follows the delight phase, or honeymoon period, as the second stage of every relationship.
“In marriage, we all bring issues from our family into the relationship. … We all have incorrect ways of relating that we’ve learned over time. We have to face them, admit them, and process them,” he said. If we instead choose to argue about the same surface issues time and time again without resolving personality conflicts and selfishness, the relationship will become diseased, we will become resentful, and everyone around us will see it.
Some will even capitalize on it.
“‘A house divided against itself shall not stand,’” T.D. Jakes said, quoting both the Bible and Abraham Lincoln in a sermon about the power of unity. “If you can come into agreement, you can do anything. … [So] the devil will always sow discord in your relationships. … The moment you get married, make a team, make a family, join a committee, join a church, Satan will send division. … [And] your Judas is always at your table.”
In my parents’ case, Judas laced up roller skates and lent my father 50 bucks.
Delight, Dysfunction, and Disease Exemplified
After getting married at age 19 in 1973, my parents moved from miserable homes in miniscule Pennsylvania towns to northeast Ohio, where my uncle got my father a job at Ford. Polaroids show my parents decorating for Christmas, playing with their dogs, and smiling.
My father never wanted kids, but if my birth in 1975 interrupted their delight phase, you wouldn’t know it. They spun me silly on the merry-go-round at the park, spoiled me with cute clothes and toys, and photographed my every move. According to kitchen wall calendars that my mom kept as journals, my father even took me to church every Sunday for years while my mom, who’d been molested by her priest during catechism, stayed home and cleaned.
The downward spiral began August 1, 1979, when my brother’s umbilical cord strangled him like a noose during his delivery. In an apparent panic, the OB/gyn, who smelled like liquor that night, squeezed my brother’s head too hard with forceps and caused brain damage. My brother suffered bedroom-rattling convulsions for six months before doctors diagnosed him with diabetes. My 26-year-old mom, who’d been a member of Future Nurses of America throughout high school but never imagined that she would have to administer medical attention beyond a Band-Aid and cold medicine to her own child, fell into a depression.
Instead of seeking help, she recovered on her own and learned how to give him insulin injections, test his urine for ketones, monitor his glucose levels, and feed him so that his blood sugar wouldn’t skyrocket or bottom out and cause seizures.
“As I sit here and look at his beautiful little face,” she wrote in a Critter Sitters notebook at his bedside, “I know there is nothing I wouldn’t do for him. So far, this has become an obsession with me.”
When she resumed nurturing the couple-that-plays-together-stays-together philosophy by playing racquetball and roller skating with my father and his friends, she injured herself. A doctor prescribed muscle relaxants for shoulder and neck pain and numbness along her right side.
A month later, as she continued to throw up from the pills, my father, my teething brother, and I got sick simultaneously. Overwhelmed, Mom had “one of [her] bad attacks,” according to the 1980 calendar. Instead of finding her a therapist, my father bought her red carnations and a card. “My love for him stopped me from killing myself,” she wrote.
That love did not prevent them from quarreling once a month, however. Mom never detailed what they disagreed about, but it’s safe to assume that some of the arguments were about money. First of all, every couple fights about money. Second, despite complaining about the price of groceries, my father displayed affection by bestowing gifts. Mom’s calendar mentions a Scrubby Ducky for me, baby toys for my brother, and a myriad of presents for her, such as perfume, a new set of dishes, Silverstone pots, an electric frying pan that she’d always wanted, and a $1,300 Wurlitzer organ that she didn’t think was a good idea. Meanwhile, my brother’s medical bills were piling up and Ford was laying people off.
“I wish I knew of a way to help,” Mom wrote. “I clean once a month for a few bucks. Big deal! I feel so worthless. I have no skill to do anything but be a housewife.”
By May of 1980, they had to sell their class rings and borrow money from my father’s best friend to layaway my kindergarten clothes.
Once Mom walked me to school that September, and I learned why my parents bought me all of those plaid skirts and Strawberry Shortcake-patched pants, I began screaming and refused to stop. As if she didn’t have enough to deal with between my tantrums and my brother’s recurring grand mal seizures, ear infections, and constipation that required X-rays and enemas, my uncle called to tell my mom that my grandmother was drinking again and that she was in the hospital after “going berserk.” Two months later, my drunk grandmother called to tell her that she didn’t want to live anymore.
“Naturally, I got very upset and started blaming myself,” Mom wrote in her notebook. “Well, the next day was very bad. I got very angry with Miranda and shook her. When I let her go, she fell and hurt her arm. I thought that I broke it. I almost fell apart. The real blow came when she came home from school and said that Miss Ross told her that if anything ever happened again, she was to tell her. I was humiliated and crushed. I never meant to hurt her.” Perhaps remembering Genesis 2:24 from catechism, she wrote, “That’s when I decided my life with my kids and my husband is more important than anyone or anything else.”
Unfortunately, my father, who’d gone to church for years and knew that he was supposed to love his wife as much as Christ loved the church, had already decided otherwise. He’d never wanted children let alone a mentally handicapped and constantly sick kid, a suicidal mother-in-law, and a depressed wife, so he spent every second off the assembly line sleeping, hanging out with friends, or restoring a series of muscle cars.
“I just need him now more than ever,” Mom wrote. “He doesn’t understand. I sometimes think if he could change my engine or put flares on me, he would love me to pieces.”
At some point, she began drinking. In 1981, my father walked in the front door and found her with his best friend.