Quelquefois je m’avoue que ce qui me plait le plus dans cette idée d’éternité, c’est la chance accordée, en retrouvant les âmes chères, de s’expliquer à fond avec elles, et que cesse enfin le long malentendu de la vie. – Gabrielle Roy
1 Samuel of my father’s old Bible is riddled with little marks of his attentive reading. He loved David; he surely related to him. David was the runt of his family, like my father was the runt of his. To what extent, like David, did he feel overlooked and ignored by his own family, dysfunctional as it was with an alcoholic patriarch at its helm? What abuse did he witness? What abuse did he suffer? Nobody knows. He never talked about it. But it must have been bad. It must have looked like the anger he wielded on his own body for daring to sneeze or hiccup, at tools for not functioning quickly enough, at animals for being injured or weak: unpredictable, irrational, disproportionate.
“On a des petits sacs dans la tête,” says the psychiatrist to Riad Sattouf during his second consultation with her in L’Arabe du futur 6, and inside these little bags are the buried emotions we have not taken the time to examine. These emotions often date back to the earliest years of our childhood, when our parents constituted the center of our universe. “Pour l’enfant,” the psychiatrist goes on to explain, “tout ce qui vient de ses parents est vérité. Il se construit avec cette éducation et vivra avec s’il ne la remet pas en question. Mais si cette éducation a été défaillante, elle handicapera l’adulte toute sa vie et il la reproduira sur ses propres enfants.”
If my father were still alive, if he were willing to open up the little bags in his head, what emotions would he find inside them? And what about the education he received from his parents? It was clearly defective. Which of the truths gathered from it would he need to call into question? How did it handicap him? In what ways did he reproduce it on his own children?
In the first session with my shaman, he has me lay down on a table, on my back. He puts a heavy blanket over me, from my neck to my feet. He tells me to close my eyes, to imagine a hole in my stomach, to expel from that hole everything that hurts. He moves around the table, chanting. His hands hover close over different parts of my body, sometimes for a second, sometimes for a minute, sometimes forever. Despite the little voice in my head screaming that this is just a bunch of cheesy voodoo bullshit, I imagine the hole in my stomach. I even imagine stuff coming out of it. All these little bags. So many of them. And then, finally, the shaman’s voice: “I am worthy.” Three words. So simple. He wants me to repeat them, but I can’t. I’m crying too hard.
Standing atop the steps of the Amvets hall, just inside the door, my father cried like this. He wasn’t worth all the trouble his family had gone through to organize this party to celebrate his 70th birthday. He wasn’t worth the food and the cake and the cards and the gifts and the songs and the stories his children and grandchildren and siblings had written for him. After the tears, the alcohol. It was not his custom to drink in excess, but he didn’t know what else to do. All the attention, all the outward expressions of love; it was too much. He wasn’t worthy.
Everyone says I was your favorite, and we all know why. I was the runt of the family; you must have seen yourself in me. You called me Toothpick, and you treated me the way you must have wanted to be treated when you were a little boy. You listened to me. You laughed at my jokes. You read my stories and took an interest in my drawings. You let me style your hair and paint your fingernails bright red. You let me sit on your lap and steer the blue bomb to church. You let me climb all over you and hang off your flexed arm as if I were a monkey. You made room for me on the couch during your naptime, or in your armchair during the six o’clock news. You were kind and patient and protective; you were loving, affectionate and attentive.
In the little bag where I found the feeling of unworthiness that made me cry so hard in the shaman’s office is the story of the day we were roughhousing, and I kicked you right straight between the legs. The physical pain I caused you must have been extraordinary; I saw it on your face right before you turned to hobble away. But there was something else, something I couldn’t understand at the time: mum’s choice of words. She directed them at you, not me. “Ça bon!” she said. What, exactly, served you right, you who hadn’t done anything wrong? The tragic ending to a beautiful, playful and loving relationship? You didn’t deserve such a relationship? Was this one of the truths you learned from your parents, and that your wife’s words brought back to the fore?
You know how they say women marry their fathers? I always thought that was absurd. Until I started opening all the little bags. I did marry my father. But not the one I loved so dearly; rather, the one who emerged from the tragedy, the emotionally distant one who didn’t see me anymore. The one I thought was angry at me, and whose love, as a result, I didn’t deserve. Luckily, though, life gives us second chances. The man I love now is so much like you. The real you. The one who called me Toothpick. If you had anything to do with putting that beautiful little Lebanese architect on my path that warm summer day in Donigian Park, thank you, thank you, thank you.