Saturday, August 27, 2016

The Gift

My mother died two weeks ago today. I hadn't spoken to her in nine years. When I heard that she was ill, I was surprised to learn that she had recently moved back to Michigan after years in Utah and Arizona. She has asked some of my relatives not to say anything to me about the move. I visited her on Friday the 12th, and she died as I pulled into the parking garage at the hospital on Saturday the 13th. That may sound quick, but I assure you that it wasn't. My experience with cancer to this point involves the victim writhing in pain for days until they die. My father died that way, and my mother's last days were no exception. I'm beginning to think that the cancer deaths I have read about from other survivors about their relatives dying peacefully in their sleep are complete fiction.

My mother and I were estranged for several reasons. First, she was an alcoholic and inflicted emotional pain without a second thought. If she felt wronged in any way, she would hit you where she knew she could do the most harm. She wielded the precision of a surgeon. I swore, in writing, when my wife and I adopted our daughter that my mother would have no contact with her. Second, she was a gambling addict. She once borrowed $500 from me and then filed bankruptcy, listing me as a creditor. How did I find this out? Via a letter from her lawyer. Third, for five years she allowed me, from ages 7 to 12, to be beaten by a man that she married without lifting a finger to protect me. He beat me, punched me, kicked me, and once pulled my fingernail off with a pair of pliers. And that's just the physical abuse. She at least did me the small favor of allowing me to go live with my father after my 12th birthday, because, in her words, "I thought he was going to kill you." I'm going to spare you the most gruesome details. Just understand that I (and my brother, too) went through things that no child should ever have to experience, and no child on my watch ever will again.

Although after I went to live with my father my life was relatively normal, the effects of abuse are long-lasting and if they're not dealt with, they will come back and bite you. I grew up cynical, sarcastic, unwilling and sometimes unable to trust people, especially when religion was involved. The oft-quoted, "Spare the rod, spoil the child" was one of my stepfather's favorite lines. Every day, I fight a war inside myself. So far, I've won most of the battles. The ones I have lost have been costly, especially in terms of friends and family I have alienated. I can't overemphasize how important my friends are to me. Those of you who've stuck with me have my most heartfelt thanks. You have no idea of the depth of my fondness for you.

Now, my mother's house is my responsibility. No one else wants to deal with it, and it falls to me to see that her heirs receive fair shares of whatever is left of her estate after her creditors have been paid. There won't be much, but I'll be darned if I'll just let the bank take everything. So far, I have gone through all of her papers, finding no will. I've sorted through photographs and every shred of paper that my late sister ever touched. My mother kept everything to do with her and her youngest son. There was nothing among my mother's things to do with my brother or me, her sons. We found a few scraps among my sister's things. That sounds about right. Yet here I am, doing my familial duty. Would that my mother had had that same sense of duty.

In the past few years, I have been at peace with my childhood. I have worked to become a positive force in my classroom. I wish I had been for more of my career, but honestly, I did the best I could. Being a father forced me to take a good, long look at my behavior and make a big adjustment. I wish I'd done it sooner. Am I a great teacher/person? God, no. But I do okay with the tools I have. Every day I reflect on the stupid and careless things I have said. I never let anything go. I hold onto every mistake so I don't make them again. I know I'm supposed to forgive myself. Trust me, I know how that's supposed to work, but that's not how I'm wired. I was conditioned from age seven to not make mistakes for fear of being beaten. It's a survival instinct developed over a long period of time. It's not going away. I just make do as best I can and for a while, I was doing okay.

All my thoughts of progress and well-being went out the window the day my mother died. Going through her house with the stench of cigarette smoke and cases of beer still on the dining room floor and finding gambling receipts and photos of the man who beat me just sent that feeling of accomplishment right out the window. For the past two weeks, I have dreamed every night of that time. I wake up in cold sweats, and actually have to remove my soaked t-shirt so I can go back to sleep for a little longer. I've been averaging six hours or less for a while now. And tomorrow, it's back to that house again after a week away. I have to take care of it until it's sold. We're going to have an estate sale next weekend to clear out the garage sale crap that she filled it with. Whatever doesn't sell goes to Goodwill or the dump. We have the important papers and family photos. I hope to hell the place sells fast so I can put this behind me again and get back to what's important. That's an equally frustrating part of this. I haven't been able to focus on my comics work while this has been going on. I'm hoping I can learn to compartmentalize it so I can keep making progress at least.

My brother and I have had a running joke for a while that the abuse we suffered is "the gift that keeps on giving." I could have done without this final gift.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Batman v. Superman

Oh, the feels. That's what the kids say these days, isn't it, when they're talking about powerful emotions? Because that's what the Batman v. Superman trailers have been bringing out of me.

There are many, many reasons why Batman and Superman are important to me. I've written about it numerous times here on this very blog. They were childhood heroes who served as role models for me when I had none in the real world. They were like surrogate fathers. Maybe that's a bad thing, or maybe it's good. Even though I don't care for this phrase too much, it is what it is. I understand there's room for more than one interpretation of iconic characters. But seeing them on the screen this way never fails to make me mourn for the way they used to be. And seeing fan reaction so overwhelmingly bloodthirsty and hungry for violence between two beloved characters makes me feel very old.

I've written a number of times about how comics kept my hopes alive during the period in which I was abused, but I don't think I've committed to writing how they helped me come out of it. I went to live with my father during the Christmas break immediately following my 12th birthday. My mother gave me the choice of who I wanted to live with because she (and these are her words) thought that my stepfather was eventually going to kill me. It took 0.02 seconds to make that decision and looking back, I probably hurt her feelings with the speed at which I blurted out, "I want to live with Dad."

A few weeks later, my stuff was packed into a few boxes (we lived in a trailer; I didn't own much) and we were driving to the lower peninsula to move me in. My dad had said that he was living in a bi-level house with his new wife and her two daughters. We had the address and we looked up and down the country road that it indicated, and found no house. Eventually, we stopped for directions at a cement block basement with no house above it, protruding from a hill. It had lights on. Turned out that this was it! My mother looked around, and was mortified. There were few windows, no carpeting, but a few area rugs scattered around. None of the rooms had doors except the bathroom, but all had simple curtains drawn across the partitions. She was angry at my dad for lying, but turned to me and whispered, "Are you sure you want to live here?" I nodded quickly, hoping she wouldn't change her mind. In my head I was thinking, Are you kidding? I'd live in a rabbit hole if it meant not getting beaten every day. And so, life began again. I was away from my little brother and sister for the first time since they were born, but I was looking forward to a new life without being hit.

It took some time getting used to a whole new family. My new stepmother was interesting. She was generally pretty nice to me. She had four kids. Two daughters who lived with her, ages 17 and 16, and two sons who lived with their father, ages 14 and 13. So I went from being the oldest in the family to being the youngest. One of the first things I did as a symbol of my new freedom was buy comic books. If we behaved in church on Sunday (which I always did, being eager to please) we received 50 cents, which we could spend at the small general store in town. My stepsisters always bought cigarettes (I told you my stepmother was interesting) and I bought my first comic book ever with my own money. It was a tough choice that first time out, but it was a choice of simple economics. I bought Justice League of America #140. It was a 50-cent Giant, and it had all of my favorite characters in one book. It felt like I was getting away with something sneaky, but it was also liberating because my dad fully supported it. The story had Green Lantern being captured by and taken offworld to face charges that he had destroyed a whole planet.

Of course the Justice League came to his defense. That's what they do. During their investigation in the following issue, Superman and Batman are paired off with one of the Guardians of the Universe, and while they're in space, the Guardian questions the pairing. Batman simply responds by saying, "Superman and I have been friends for a long time. We're the world's finest team."

I have one page of original comic book art left from my collection. That's the one I still own. It symbolizes freedom to me; vindication; a return to the way things should have turned out for me. I survived my abusive situation in part because of Batman and Superman, and they've been with me ever since. Over the years, especially since the Crisis on Infinite Earths and subsequently the Man of Steel mini-series rebooted the relationship between the two heroes, and Frank Miller's Dark Knight put them at odds, they've fought over and over and over again. No matter how stupid or contrived the circumstance, whether mind-control or Kryptonite or (shudder) politics, I just never buy into it. They worked together without incident for decades, thrilling millions of kids like me. And now it looks like they'll clash because Lex Luthor tricks them into it.

When someone tells the new audience that "this isn't your father's Batman and Superman," they're damned right.