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“To strengthen what is right in a fool is a holy task.”
I-Ching

The Father and the Mother Make a Cage for the Boy

The Boy had had two Fathers and at least two Mothers. The Mothers were so erratic, he’d not know which one to expect when. The Fathers were reliable as clockwork: one before 7pm, the other after. The Daylight Father signed his correspondence simply with his surname: Ohn. Not too big. Not too small. It signified the presence of a clear and contained if somewhat eccentric individual. He was the one to turn to when one of the Mothers demanded gratitude for the food she’d burnt or blackmailed everybody present with her tears at the regular “family conferences” to resolve some minor detail of the politics of daily life. Yet, the Mother was a lightweight compared to the Dark Father who sprawled his jagged signature – Dr. C.A.N.T. Go-Ohn – across the full width of the page like some seismometer reflecting the imperceptible tremors of the shaking ground they lived on.

The Boy had seen other people change under the influence of drink. They’d go silly and tell jokes. The Father’s breath would smell the same but what would come to life in him was not his funny side. His daily decent into personal hell began at 6:30pm with a shot of ouzo straight from the freezer in the cellar. He’d return to the kitchen with a large bottle of beer or two which he’d briefly rest on the counter top to strengthen his resolve with a shot of one liquor or other from the floating shelf above the breakfast bar. Beer was swiftly followed by wine. The time of the evening was indicated by the position of his spectacles on his nasal ridge, the gradual loss of dexterity and his withdrawal into misery. The day of the week was told by the balances of the liquor bottles.

One evening, the Father had gone to bed. The Boy was a young man by now but he was very much still a boy. He had dropped out of studying psychology in a far-away city after only a few months. When he returned home, the Father congratulated him on his mental recovery in the offhand way of the Father. The Boy had not managed to make his finances work. This was because the Boy had spent too much money visiting the Girlfriend, the Mother convinced herself. The Boy was planning on studying medicine and living at home to help with his finances when, that evening, the Father had gone to bed.

The Boy and the Mother stayed up. The Boy was working at the dining table. The Mother was sitting in her reclining chair by the bookshelf, talking at the Boy. The door opened. The Father stepped through, his face as red as the flannel of his dressing gown. His dishevelled hair was matted to his sweaty forehead. His glasses had slid halfway down his nose. Above the rim, his eyes filtered the scene slowly for the props required by his inner theatre to expose the usurper and put himself centre stage. The weight of the script made the Father sway on his unsteady legs as his gaze settled on the Boy.

“What are you doing in my living room?” the Father said to him.

“What do you mean ‘your living room’?” asked the Boy. “This is a common space in the house!” he snorted. “I’m sitting here doing work which I need tomorrow.”

“I don’t like you being up after I go to bed. I don’t want you talking to my wife late at night,” said the Father.

“What?” the Boy erupted at the Father. “Your wife is also my mother, arsehole!”

“If that is so, you will see what comes of it!” the Father threatened and turned around, scuttling back downstairs.

The Mother and the Boy looked at each other battling with a strangely stupid grin which had come over their faces as they tried to make sense of their experience. “He’s jealous again,” the Mother said, perhaps for once accurately choosing her favourite theme, when the Father reappeared in the door frame. He held a glass of water in one hand, the fingers of his other tightly clenched around something else.

He glared at them both, then spoke. “That’s what you get for treating me this way: I’ll finish it now, once and for all.”

The Father fumbled the content of his fist into his mouth and washed it down with the glass of water.

He turned around once more and limped down the stairs. The Boy and the Mother could hear the bedroom door shut. Again, they looked at each other not able to comprehend whether what they were witnessing was actually happening.

“Do you think he really did that?” asked the Mother. “Or is he just pretending?”

“I think he did,” said the Boy and got up. He went down to the bathroom where he found that the Father had emptied his large supply of blood pressure medicine into himself.

He went back up to the Mother to tell her and then went back to the Father to measure his blood pressure and pulse. The Father’s skin looked white. It was cold to the touch. His breathing was shallow. When he tried to look at the Father’s eyes, the body rolled with little resistance. He shone a light at the pupils but there was no response.

The ambulance crew arrived with flashing lights, administered an antidote and took the Father with them to an ICU where he was monitored until he signed a form – the Boy does not know which of his Fathers was the signatory -, committing him to see a psychiatrist frequently for a longer period of time.

When the Father was taken away by the ambulance crew, the Mother and the Boy decided to wake up the Brother and the Sister and told them what had happened. The Siblings cried for a while and asked questions to which nobody knew the answer in the moment. The Boy could not sleep for he was hurting.

By the next morning, the Mother had restored order of one kind or other as she had become certain what had happened to the Father and what had to be done. “The Father has had a nervous breakdown. You must not say to anyone that it was a suicide attempt.”

This did not feel right to the Boy. Had the Mother not witnessed the same event as he only last night? Why would the Mother want to change what had happened? The Mother had spent so many hours talking to the Boy about all the Father’s many faults, how he had hurt her and then yet more hours explaining how his upbringing and the deep shame he carried explained it all, and then, after all that, how his intelligence and sensitivity made him the man he was and whom she loved.

With no one to talk to in his own language, the Boy hurt yet more. He rang the ex-Girlfriend. She heard him. They spent all night walking and talking. The Boy returned home just as the Father came down from his morning shower. He did not greet the Boy. Instead, his lips curled into a snarl and his nose twitched as he began sniffing the air. The Father walked up to the Boy, sniffing him as he circled around him. The Boy felt shamed and disgusted, but he didn’t know of what. His insides went faint and fuzzy. “What?” he asked of the Father. “What are you doing?”

The Father sniffed him more. He sniffed him for a while longer. Until, finally, he growled, “You stink.”

“What?” was all the Boy could repeat in disbelief.

“You stink. You stink of that girl. You stink of that family. You stink of the provinces where they live.”

“How can you do this to me?” pleaded the Boy.

The Father walked off to get dressed, leaving the Boy to reel.

The Father went to work and the Boy asked the Mother why the Father might do this to him. She said she did not know and that the Boy should try to speak to the Father. The Boy protested that he had tried to just hours ago and that the Father had only sniffed and insulted him but not explained his hurtful words.

By the early afternoon, the Mother knew the answer. She walked into the Boy’s room where he was with his now no-longer-ex-Girlfriend. Without delay, she marched the Girlfriend out of the house. “You are not welcome here,” she said. “I ask you not to come into this house. We do not want you here. It is too complicated.”

Then she turned to the Boy. “Now is the time to be with your family and work through what has happened. You cannot be with that girl who upsets me and your father.”


Indignantly, the Boy waited for the Father to return from work. “Why did you sniff me like an animal this morning?” he asked.

The Father replied without acknowledgement or greeting, “My psychiatrist says you need psychotherapy. She wants to see you.”

“Why?” asked the Boy. “How is that related to you sniffing me?”

“Because your moods are always up and down,” the Father said and the Boy him standing on the drive.


The Boy went to visit the Girlfriend to talk. As he walked through the little wood on the way, he saw the Mother on the bench by the stream, crying.

“Why are you sitting here, crying?” asked the Boy.

“Why are you hurting me so?” was the Mother’s reply. “Why are you hurting me and your father by being with the Girlfriend?”

“I am 20 years old. I choose my girlfriend. I choose my friends. It should not concern you this much. It should not make you cry. I am your son! Do you not wish me well?”

“That is why I am crying, because you are my son! She has stolen you from me,” the Mother sobbed.


“Thank you for coming to see me,” said the Psychiatrist. “Did your father tell you why I want to talk to you?”

“He said you want to see me because of my apparent mood swings,” the Boy said.

“Do you suffer from mood swings?” asked the Psychiatrist.

“Maybe,” said the Boy.

“Well, in any case, I didn’t say that.” She paused for thought. “You know, normally, when these kind of things happen to a married man of your father’s age, it is because something is not working well between the husband and the wife. But your father insists that everything is going very well in his relationship.”

“I beg to differ!” exclaimed the Boy.

“Uh-hum. Yes, well, I have spent quite a bit of time talking to your father about this and he insists that, instead, you are problem. Which is quite unusual.”

“That doesn’t make any sense to me,” said the Boy. “He’s my father. Why would he think this way of me?”

“Why don’t you tell me what happened that evening and also what has happened since?” she replied.

So the Boy described the moment the Father attempted suicide and blamed it on the Boy. And how the Mother had tried to forbid for it to be called a suicide attempt. And how the Father had sniffed him and told him he stank of the Girlfriend. And how the Mother had then barred the Girlfriend from the house, and how she had cried at the bench by the stream on the way to the bus stop and begged him to come home.

“Do you think your father has reason to be jealous of you?” she asked.

“He shouldn’t; he is my father, for god’s sake!” the Boy exclaimed. “But, whatever the reason, yes, I have feared his jealousy all of my life.”

“Perhaps he struggles with your relationship with your mother?” the Psychiatrist suggested.

“I feel sick,” said the Boy. He went on to describe how the Father would get drunk and lock out the Mother when she went out in the evening to her choir or orchestra; how he had thrown her on the bed angrily once when she came home late; how the Mother had thrown out the Father’s old girlfriend when she had caught them kissing in bed in the middle of the night in the family home with three small children asleep; how the Mother would spend evening upon evening in the Boy’s bed, sobbing about the problems in their relationship; how the Father would come to check on the Mother in the Boy’s bed; how the Mother had burnt the Boy’s hand by sticking it into the boiling porridge to teach him a lesson; how the Boy had found the Father’s pornography videos and strip poker computer game and how the Mother had enlisted him to help her hide them when he was only 12; how they had told the Boy he was grieving the wrong way because he was not grieving with them when the Friend had died when he was 18.

After a brief pause for thought, the Boy said, “Telling you all this, I realise how I end up feeling so ashamed of being myself. I try to make myself invisible so he can’t see me but it makes me resent him even more. Then I try to be what he wishes me to be, but that’s not me either.”

“What do you think you must do?” asked the Psychiatrist.

The Boy didn’t have to think. He’d prepared for this moment all of his life: “I was going to live at home and study medicine. But I can’t live there anymore, now. Not like this. They’re keeping me prisoner there. They’re holding me hostage. They have to sort out their own relationship mess. It’s time for me to move out and live my own life.”

That is how irony kissed the Boy right there at the Father’s psychiatrist: no sooner had he spoken his words in her kind and listening presence, that he could hear himself all the clearer and something awoke in the Boy. Something which previously had, unheard and unrecognised, spilled out of him only stillborn as rage and anger, which the Mother had called the Wild Dragon, woke up and filled him beyond his body and mind, not just as affect or emotion but as awareness of his situation and what he must do. He did what he’d known to do already as an eight-year-old now twelve years later: he packed his things and he ran, knowing that he had in him everything he needed. Not that this choice was the easier. It was the truer and therefore also the harder for, while it was without a doubt wise to get away from the Mother and the Father, to escape from such a cage as had been built for him inside of his skin, the running was no use. He took it with him, the cage of shame, which curdles self and freezes will. Yet, as some old wise Fool once said, every long journey begins with a single step.


Postscript

In the weeks that followed, the Mother wrote the Boy many letters and text messages telling him how desperately they missed the Boy; how he had hurt them by running away; by being with the Girlfriend; by taking a job they did not approve of; by wearing clothes they did not like; by driving a car which was not their kind of car; by being a way they did not like.

The Boy did not respond.

Then, the Mother wrote him a story. She told him of the Most Colourful Songbird who had the most beautiful voice in the world, and how he had been captured by a Wicked Witch who wanted to possess him for his beauty but who could not understand his many gifts and talents. And so the Wicked Witch ended up keeping the Songbird in a Golden Cage. Yet, by living in the Golden Cage and without anyone around him who could truly appreciate his song, the Most Colourful Songbird lost his voice.
The Mother concluded her letter with the words: “…and the talented, so gifted Colourful Songbird is of course you, my Boy, and the Wicked Witch who does not understand you and because of whom you have lost your voice, is the Girlfriend.”

It was at this time that the Boy was hospitalised with a severe headache and a dangerous fever which, despite a week of testing, could not be diagnosed. When he was released, the Mother was very upset with him for not having told her.

The Boy was still learning to walk on his long journey out of the cage. Yet, he made another small step forward by shutting the Mother and the Father out, for a while at least. This seemed to open a small doorway, but it also switched on some debilitating force somewhere inside of him. The harder he shut them out, the louder he could hear the Mother cry in her letters and in his head, the stronger the Father’s words echoed in his heart and triggered his shame.

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