WHAT HAPPENS WHEN THE TIGER LOSES HIS TEETH? – Sandra Winter
The other day I thought I saw Hank McNeil on Village Street. I remembered him from the high school. I was the school counselor and he was a math teacher, a coach and the most macho guy I ever met. I had several run-ins with him regarding his treatment of some young women in his class. His son played football and Hank was merciless. He humiliated the kid on the field in front of a bleacher full of people. So I was surprised that this person who resembled Hank looked so frail. He walked slowly and haltingly as though he wasn’t sure where he was going. Could this person be that same tough, aggressive man? As I drove by him, I thought: What happens when the tiger loses his teeth?
I thought of my father, in his day he was a tiger too and he had teeth. When I was in the third grade, he had all his teeth pulled out. He came home from the dentist one day with his false teeth and when he smiled, he didn’t look like my Daddy; he looked like a shark or a wolf with those shiny new teeth. It took me a long time to get used to his teeth and a longer time to be sure he was still really my dad. The last time I saw his teeth, they were in a cup by his bed in Room 376 of Beverly Hospital. His lips had collapsed over toothless gums. By then he had lost both his teeth and his bite. He couldn’t speak and his eyes brimmed with the tears of helplessness and fear. He knew he was defenseless. He never recovered from that stroke.
Frenchy, as the guys at the Charlestown Navy Yard nicknamed my dad, was a handsome, physically strong, silent guy. He would fight at the drop of a hat if his insane jealousy was aroused. My mother was the person who could incite that jealousy. One story that was told to me happened before he and my mom were married. They were riding on a bus; my mother sat by the window. A man on the street outside the bus did something or said something or made a gesture that provoked my father. He ran down the aisle, demanded that the driver open the door, jumped off the bus, ran back to the offending male and beat up this total stranger. I wonder now what that proved to my mother; that he loved her, that she better be careful? That display did not stop her from marrying him.
Later I learned that my father was terribly neglected, physically abused and rejected as a child. When he was a small boy; barely more than a toddler his mother abandoned him at the Home for Little Wanderers. My grandfather had no interest in being a parent to him. My dad had a hard time of it and I am sure his expectations for his life with his pretty young wife and his two children were good and noble.
I saw my father’s anger up close up just twice, but even once was enough for me to be afraid of him. I was careful not to show my fear to him. I was very good, I got good grades, I behaved, I was helpful, I was cheerful, I didn’t get angry, and I knew exactly what to do to avoid triggering his anger. I gained his approval when I learned to pour his Schlitz beer carefully down the side of the special pilsner glass to avoid putting a big foamy head on it.
I wonder, did my Dad ever suspect or know that his rage could push him to the verge of murder? Well, it did, on two occasions.
The first time it was directed at my mother. She worked nights at a restaurant and as her drinking problem progressed, she stayed later and later at work to drink with the other waiters and waitresses. One summer night, she came home in the early hours of the morning. My father confronted her in the living room and the shouting and accusations gave way to slaps and pleas. My brother and I were sitting on the hall steps; this was our breathless, invisible ringside seat to the family fights. The fighting scared me and I crept down the remaining stairs to peer around the corner into the living room. I saw only my father’s strong, broad, bare back. He was bent over my mother, who was on her knees in front of him, and he had both hands around her throat. He was squeezing and squeezing. I grabbed my mother’s brown fabric hand bag from the chair just inside the living room door and beat my father on the back until he came out of the fury of that dark fog. I don’t remember what happened after that.
The second time, my fourteen year old brother, Buster received the full force of my father’s rage. As I remember it, my brother was in trouble for skipping school and my mother had been dealing with it herself. She hadn’t told my father. Finally, exasperated that Buster was still skipping school and her efforts were producing no results, she told my father. Late that afternoon, while my mother was at work, my father cornered my brother in the upstairs hall. He trapped him against the wall and beat him with his fists. He hit my brother as if he was a man his own age. I saw the whole thing. My brother didn’t try to defend himself and to this day, when I mention it, he says: “I probably deserved it.” As my brother lay in his bed after that horrible beating, talking incoherently to himself, I waited for my mother to come home. I believe that was when my brother had both a mental breakdown and developed his own set of teeth.
When my mother came home she said to me, with a note of accusation in her voice as if I could have prevented this: “What happened?” I began to tell her. The next thing I knew, I was coming to on the bathroom floor. I had fainted; the one and only time in my life.
Several years later, my brother’s new set of teeth was nearly getting him killed in barroom brawls. His nickname among his Navy buddies was Mad Dog D. He has lost marriages and children because of his anger. Luckily, it didn’t take a stroke for my brother to loose his teeth; he voluntarily gave them up to Jesus in a soul-shaking conversion experience. I am glad. Just as I was always careful not to anger my father, I feared my brother’s anger too.
As I reflect on these men; Hank McNeil, my father and my brother I have to confess that I too was infected with the family virus. As a kid I beat up the other kids in my neighborhood. I was strong and once I fought a boy who was two years older and I licked him; I might have knocked out one of his teeth. I was proud! As I got closer to adolescence I learned that no one likes an angry girl so I wrapped it all up tight. I hid that anger under a veneer of jokes and humor. I thought it had gone away but real anger only sleeps or naps. Mine woke up when I became a parent.
I was astonished the first time I felt that hot surge of anger at my little girl well up inside of me. I assumed it had to do with the frustration she was causing me; that it was situational. I had no idea that the anger was a permanent part of me and that the stress of being a mother unleashed it. As I remember those sad and angry years, I recall the cycles: how the pressure built up in me, one day it would erupt. I hollered and screamed and ranted and raved and terrified my children. I felt enormous relief once all that pent up emotion was released. What I didn’t know is that somewhere inside of me was a slow leak and eventually there would be enough accumulated frustration and anger that could only be relieved by another explosion.
I hated myself for the fact that I was doing what I had promised myself I would never do: expose my children to violence. Yet, there I was, doing it on a regular basis. From hollering and screaming I escalated to hitting, slapping and even pinching. I controlled my son and daughter by instilling fear in them. And always I blamed the children for my irrational outbursts – if they only behaved better, if they did what I told them to do and quickly with no delay. I was only able to take responsibility and make amends for my own anger and violence years after the damage had been done. With help I learned to understand where the anger really came from.
When I had children, I was not conscious that I was exceeding the limits of my ability to cope. I know that it was never my intention to hurt my children. I didn’t know that the familial anger was a quiet ember and that under the right circumstances it would ignite. We all suffered. When I could rally my intelligent loving self, I was a good mother but I was inconsistent and that created other problems. The children learned to walk on eggshells and I was filled with shame and remorse much of the time. The kids never knew if they would get the screaming lunatic or the crunchy granola mother who baked bread. I didn’t know either.
What I eventually learned about myself is that I was an emotionally immature person. My emotional development was arrested early on. Hiding and covering up this fact created enormous low self-esteem and the feeling of being a fraud. I looked so competent and mature on the outside but inside I remained twelve years old for at least three decades. Through a series of auspicious events: a good therapist, 12 step meetings and a spiritual practice, I found the help I needed. For the first time I was able to be honest with another person. I was given valuable information that helped me understand myself and my behavior. I was given tools to identify and appropriately express anger. I stopped blaming other people. I was able to begin to change. Once I had that knowledge, the shame lessened. And I began to feel compassion for that poor young woman in me who tried so hard but was so limited. Leonard Cohen sings: “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in”.
Later, when I had finished graduate school and was in the counseling business, I had great success working with angry women who did not know how to express this strongest of feelings appropriately. I also had the privilege and redemptive opportunity to work with sullen, angry, often furious adolescents: both boys and girls. They expressed outrage at the injustices in their young lives. We worked together on managing that energy in creative ways. Sometimes I wonder, was that healing the anger or feeding and justifying it?
In recent years I have been taught “to hold my anger like a small child.” This is from the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh. The respected teacher of Zen Buddhism recommends sitting quietly with all strong emotions, holding them gently in compassionate awareness and watching them dissolve as the restless mind moves on to other thoughts. I learned to trust that these feelings would pass and that the clarity that comes from patience and non-reactivity would reveal whether some action was necessary. Powerful stormy emotions do not require expression at the physical level if I can develop the resilience to sit with them on the emotional level.
The so-called “proof of the pudding” is that now I am entrusted with the care of my grandchildren on a regular basis. I am given this privilege because my children have confidence in my ability to take very good care of their children. My daughter recently wrote in a card she gave me: “I cherish your relationship with my children.” In the times that I have to play with my grandchildren, to make up games, to be creative, to be patient and understanding, I can see the kind of parent I might have been. It makes me happy to know that I had the innate capacity to be a kind and loving presence in the lives of children but that capacity was embryonic and could not transcend the family legacy and patterns of violence without help.