No disrespect to Tolstoy, but I rather suspect most unhappy families exhibit as much banal similarity as happy ones. Grief and violence and thwarted desire and trauma echo down from one generation to the next. (And the next, and often the next beyond that.) While each scar scripts a unique memory, whether on body or mind, in the end they are all the story of some love failed. Of some child unprotected.
My father visited me recently, ending a long estrangement. We had not seen each other in over a year, nor spoken during much of that time, by my choice. I set my expectations for this reunion low enough to be sure I could call it successful in the end, almost without regard for anything he might say or do.
And then he surprised me.
It was brief, our moment of connection. But it was also full of possibility. Dare I even say: of hope.
He tells me he remembers a certain angry night,
and how he turned in silence to ascend the stairs.
He does not remember how he descended again 15 minutes later
nor the screaming hours that followed.
I tell him I have never not remembered.
Even our shared history is not shared.
He claims words:
For myself, I am letting words go.
I have let go of family.
Let go of love.
I want to let it all be simply as it is. To let go of expectation.
The future I want will not be found in words.
Perhaps in bodies?—
the clasp of arms, the head cradled on a shoulder—
but even in sobbing my frame does not release distrust.
What makes forgiveness?
At this distance, which of us am I asking myself to forgive?
He haunts the halls within me still, perhaps always,
ghosts of all the fathers he has been
to all the daughters I once was, and perhaps remain.
We have a moment. We watch it pass.
It takes effort to remember: I cannot save him from himself.
Only can, here in the eventual, save myself.
When next we speak, I hear it in his voice:
his head sinking again beneath peaking waves,
so certain the shadow he sees in the depths is my body
drowning. He dives to my imagined rescue
so certain this time, surely this time
he can breathe beneath the sea.
And the past can be revived
and be made—finally—
Enough. Forever enough.
I will no longer wait (Ophelia below his waters)
pretending his heroism alone must secure my survival.
I would leave in the past the moments when he broke my heart
my whole self shattered like a mirror dropped from the great height
of his insistence.
I prefer to hold our future, uncharted by dreams
his or mine:
a blank map extending whitely in all directions.
Perhaps this too is love.
Perhaps it always was.