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When I learned on a hung-over September afternoon that I was going to be a father, I thought about my own father and the year he chased my mother, my brother and me into an emergency shelter.
In the 15 years since that day, I’ve struggled between not wanting to remember that time and believing that the key to conquering this hereditary curse lies within the ashes and glowing embers of my flamed-out childhood.
I was 10 when we ran away from him. My brother was 12 and my mother a couple of years older than I am now.
It was sharply cold outside, October or November, the leaves auburn and crunchy beneath my feet when I walked the neighbourhood trying to make sense of things.
We’d got into this mess after my mother told my father she wanted a divorce.
He came by her workplace the next day to tell her he had bought a knife from the Salvation Army and was coming by the house at nightfall to kill her unless she reconsidered.
My father made good on his threat, though by the time he did – with an axe as well, which he used to destroy our starter home from basement to attic – we were halfway to my aunt’s house in Saskatoon.
Though I’d witnessed years of abuse and raging paranoia, it was not until we returned from Saskatoon three weeks later, and I saw our ruined house, that I began to appreciate the real danger we’d been in. Until then I’d blamed my mother for moving us out of home.
Once the truth sank in, nothing could scrub the fear and rage and mistrust that followed.
The maddening nature of unpleasant memories is their lack of full reveal. The truth at their centre remains elusive; I can never grab hold of them, turn them over like a stone and read what’s written on the underside.
I chase them anyway, hoping to trap them in a dimly lit room and beat them with the Yellow Pages until they grant me freedom.
The one memory I have managed to catch – was, in fact, forced to for a pre-sentencing report when I was facing an assault charge at 17 – was how bewilderingly lonely and shameful it felt when we lived in an emergency shelter after finding our home destroyed.
I felt everyone knew that we were forced to rely on municipal charity, that my father was crazy, that there was a fundamental badness inside my family, inside me. I stacked lies on top of lies trying to conceal my circumstances from my friends and classmates.
The feeling of being a fundamentally evil, contaminated person never left me even after the rage and pain faded.
I worked on myself for over a decade before arriving at the relatively well-adjusted space I am now.
Doomed and tragic relationships littered my 20s. I left many people who loved and cared for me lying bare on the scorched terrain I blasted through.
I haven’t let anyone get close to me; the notion of doing so fills me with dread. If I let anyone step too close, they will see who I really am.
But I won’t be able to hide from my baby the same way I do from others – at least I don’t want to.
It is precisely this that makes me so apprehensive.
Growing up in an abusive home forced me to cope, ignore and endure in ways that don’t always make me appear the warmest person. I can be cold and withdrawn, and have been told I’m incapable of showing positive emotions. I maintain a distance from others.
These defences may have helped in those brutal years, but they might also prevent me from having a close relationship with my daughter in the great years ahead.
Even worse, she might adopt the mannerisms I’m still too damaged to shake and find herself at 20 as miserable and anti-social as I was.
I will never stop worrying that the DNA my daughter shares with me could doom her out of the gate; that she doesn’t stand a chance with genes like these.
The thought is a terrible but dogged one. I couldn’t forgive myself if she were to battle pain, mistrust and depression.
I only had to look once at the grainy ultrasound screen as she kicked, turned and brought her little fist to her mouth to realize that I loved this girl desperately and helplessly.
I’d do anything in my power to keep her from harm.
But I can’t protect her if it is already coursing through her veins, waiting for a mysterious trigger to detonate a decade or two down the line, a tragic gift from her paternal bloodline.
How do you protect a child from an emotional virus you yourself gave her?
The baby will be born any day now, and my heart will break every time she cries inconsolably or falls into a funk she cannot shake, no matter how routine these may be for a child.
I live with my baby’s mother – we moved in last February – but we haven’t talked about my past. She knows I am apprehensive, but doesn’t know why.
I will keep this torment to myself, as I’ve taught myself to do.
Derek Murray is a pseudonym. The writer lives in Calgary.
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