The year my mother left, my father said, “You can’t kill yourself because it’s against Jewish law.” I had no thoughts of suicide, but the statement wasn’t for me. I was seven. This refrain exposed my father’s unhappiness. It guarded against his own suicide, a topic I heard about often. He did not care about how his words might affect his child, only that the words felt true to him.
He is still alive and repeating the same Jewish mantra of “Life, life, l’chaim!” while wishing desperately for his own death. Or, at least, that’s what his Facebook says. We don’t talk anymore.
But his voice still haunts me, still finds me in the quiet moments. I hear it in unexpected places of joy and – expectedly – in places of sorrow and anger. I watch my child unwrap her birthday gifts, surrounded by her four siblings. His words have become an unwelcome apparition, a nasty ghost that whispers into my ear.
“I love you, but you’re so useless. Why are you throwing your life away on these kids?”
“Don’t cry. I’m only saying the truth, you worthless idiot.”
By the time I was a teenager, I had learned to object. “I am doing my best! I am worthy!” But he would fight back. His love was a sword that could slice through any objection. His truth was a bomb that could scatter any fragments of doubt.
He is now only a ghost in my life. I have banished his physical presence. Yet, his phantom words linger, and I cannot fight against their intangible shadow. They form a pit in my stomach, repeating all the ways I am ungrateful, awful, and weak.
I am lazy, fat, asinine, stupid. I still feel his red hot anger, the spit on my face, and the insults flying toward me. The feelings and labels remain, despite going to law school, despite working hard every day, despite the fact that I am happy with the life I’ve worked to create. His ghostly words assure me I am still awful.
Last night, my sixth grader ran to her room and refused to do the dishes. She shouts it is unfair that she is forced to do everyone’s dishes when she only made a mess of one. She says that it’s unfair that chores exist in the first place.
She is angry about one chore. Silently I start to detail my exhausting day of parental chores – from answering 1,394 questions about distance learning to making dinner – and I feel my anger build. I am angry at her shouts of unfairness when she constantly benefits from my unending labor.
I am ashamed to find his words bubble at my lips. I want to storm her room and call her the ungrateful brat that she is.
That I am.
But I refuse to rush after her, brandishing hatred and anger. I take a deep breath, and when that doesn’t dissolve the rage, I give myself a time out. Even as it feels like swallowing lava, I gulp down the acrid sourness that almost came flying from my mouth. I ingest the hatred so that it cannot be used against anyone else. I refuse to hurt anyone the way my father has hurt me.
Her chore is still undone the next morning and silent rage keeps her from breakfast. I want to drag her from bed. I want to detail the exhausting chores of parenting, and point out her own ungratefulness. I want to yell the insults that I know from my childhood.
Instead, I hold an exorcism. I try to evict my father’s phantom words from my body. I take a deep breath and reaffirm the truth that I know. It is my job to help repair this broken world. Kindness and good deeds cannot fix my father’s ugliness or rid me of my anger, but it will help.
I go into my child’s room and tell her the truth. “I love you. Let me know if you need help. I am always here for you.”
An hour later, the dishes are done and my child apologizes.
I have silenced my father’s ghost for today.