I have been writing these particular words my whole life. The reality of them come to me in pictures and objects. It is difficult to create definitions of nothingness. Yet, here I am.
My oldest daughter took an art class this year (the girl has mad drawing skills). Her teacher introduced basic fundamentals. One of them was Negative and Positive Space. It is easier to show than explain for a non-artist like me. However, basically, instead of drawing a chair my daughter had to draw the shadows everywhere where the chair was not. So she shaded an entire piece of paper gray and carefully left blank white paper in the shape of a chair, however she never used a line in the shape of a chair. A cheat way would be to color in an entire paper and *erase* in the shape of a chair. That was negative drawing. Here is a good explanation if you wanna get geeky http://www.artinstructionblog.
com/an-introduction-to- negative-drawing-with-mike- sibley.
The concept of negative space blew my mind. I had never thought of it this way but as I mulled it, it felt familiar, like visiting a place you lived as a toddler. I know what empty space feels like, to be the space where something should be but isn’t.
When my oldest daughter was a toddler, my two best friends also had young children. We would talk about parenting and I saw something in them, I call it, cement. They each have this amazing strength, this ability to stand their ground under any situation. They take on mechanics, salesmen, coworkers. They are fearless. They tell people off and laugh at bullies. I was in awe. I just didn’t have their metal. For years I envied this skill and practiced it but failed over and over. People would take advantage of me, and they would shake their heads, bewildered at my inability to assert myself. We had so many things in common and yet I could not replicate their skills.
Finally, it hit me. Each of them were raised by *both* of their biological parents. For at least 18 years they each had a loving, devoted father who was involved, attentive and caring. Those two fathers poured concrete into two souls for nearly 2 decades and it hardened into a solid sense of self. My mom raised me, she is a lot like my two friends and taught me how to be like her. However, she too was raised by a loving father who poured cement into her soul. I had the knowledge, but no cement.
Neglect is defined as, “To fail to PROPERLY care for someone or thing.” In order to neglect something one must be given the responsibility of being in charge of it. Therefore, there is a certain expectation of care, a minimum amount of maintenance that is considered “proper” and necessary. Neglect is a LACK of action.
The definitions of abuse (there are quite a few) all describe an *action*. They all describe a wrong action, a *misuse*. Social Workers have evolved to include neglect in the definition of abuse with regards to child services. However, it is still not in the dictionary. Difficult to pin down. We often have to remind ourselves that neglect is abuse. It is a nothingness, and nothing is hard to see.
I was in my early 30’s before I realized I was profoundly neglected by my father. My mother had been so incredibly dedicated, I hadn’t felt overtly neglected. I knew my dad had been a cad. I knew he had not been there, a deadbeat. I simply never made the connection, that I was not only my mother’s responsibility. I had been his too. He had had a job with regard to me. He did not only do a poor job, but neglected it almost entirely. There had been an expectation that only he could fulfill, yet he left it unattended. A mother (or father) can do everything ever asked of her (or him). But if the other parent is not there, there is still a full lifetime of neglect. The child needs 100% from both of those parents. For one of those to be neglectful, missing altogether, it is catastrophically stunting. Like a tent with 4 pegs. Two on one side. Two on the other. If two tent pegs go missing, the tent’s function drastically changes, especially in bad weather…
Apparently my dad owned a store once that he named after me, “Heidi’s Clothes” or something. But it burned down when I was a year old or so. He has never mentioned it to me, but my mom did. Just before I turned 3, mom took my brother and I to stay with family because we had no heat or hot water. After that he rarely visited and when he did, he left me with his mother or girlfriend. He has never once spoken a harsh word to me. On the contrary, he tells me he loves me every time we speak. He has the warmest smile. Growing up, I’d go visit, one weekend in the summer and one weekend at Christmas. He would always give me a big strong hug and a huge smile when he saw me. Then he would (essentially) pat my head and go off to do errands. That’s the word he used every time. It’s the one word in Spanish I will never be able to disassociate from my father, errands. *Diligencias*. Ironically it’s strongly related to the English, diligent.
He lived 15 minutes away and saw me twice a year. If we spoke on the phone he swore he had birthday gifts for me that he was taking to the post office, “tomorrow”. I knew not to expect anything unless it was actually there. I don’t remember holidays much, falling asleep on the couch, staying up to watch the ball drop. Sometimes we skipped Christmas and went for New Years. There was one present I remember when I was about 8. It was a huge doll, about 3 feet tall. Loved it. Not that I played with dolls but whatever, I was an empty space. How could he possibly have known a doll didn’t go there? I remember the one shopping trip where he took us to get some clothes. I think it was like a birthday thing, except it was summer. I just followed everyone around, in awe we were together, anywhere. A few years later for Christmas he gave me an old leather jacket from the closet. It was stiff and stale and a weird burnt orange color, from the 70’s. I didn’t know whether it was a treasured hand me down or just something to ease his guilt. A couple years later for a birthday he gave me a lottery ticket, the quintessential promise. When I was 14 he married his pregnant girlfriend and decided to move to Florida. He never mentioned any of it. No phone call. No invite to the wedding. Some months later they stopped by on their way driving south to Florida. I was standing in the parking lot of my church, they had driven to where I was, a Wednesday night youth group meeting. We gushed over the baby for a bit, hugged and he made promises as usual while my stepmom gave me a pin with my brother’s picture. It was like when Matilda gets adopted by Mrs. Honey and Danny Davito and Rhea Pearlmen say, “I’m gonna miss you” and then drive away happily. That’s the majority of my childhood with dad.
I was an undrawn chair in the room. He did not create anything in me. I existed in his shadow of neglect. His lack of action created a vacuum into which my needs were sucked and obliterated, less than ignored. Abuse, overt violence would have at least acknowledged my existence. Anger, physical pain would have been some form of counterpressure for me to have pushed off from. I’m not diminishing abuse, just speaking from the void of interaction, invisibility. How does one draw oneself into existence? I was not there. He did not see me. He was the gray. I was anything he did not see.
I married Tim at 26 and we had a honeymoon baby. My husband was the stepfather to my oldest and a father to our 2nd daughter. Every day he would casually grab the baby and do stuff. Every morning he would take her in the shower because she had the habit of blowing out her diaper. So there he’d be holding her in the shower. Water would run over her face and I would fuss and he’d say, “she’s ok, she likes it”, and he’d be right. The next day he would do it all over again. The man kept showing up. Every single day. He would put her on his lap at dinner and she’d just be there eating off his plate and he’d talk to her, with eye contact. She existed. She knew she was there because he saw her. Every day. He even knew she liked scallops, before she could talk.
Week after month after year I have watched every tickle, every “can I go too?”, every “go brush your teeth”; as it pours cement into the foundation of my kids. I knew it was happening too because for 6 years before we met Tim, my oldest daughter had very little of this from her own dad. So when she went roller skating with my husband and it wasn’t a major event, it was just, “because here we are existing side by side”; I could suddenly see the void clearly, like seeing night sky after your eyes have adjusted. At first, nothing, but slowly stars start to shine and soon the black forms of the trees appear just below and if it’s only just past sunset, you see the glow on the horizon.
My dad and I talk about once or twice a year. Usually New Year’s and birthdays, mimicking our old visits. I went to Florida a total of 4 times, but haven’t seen him since my wedding since having kids. He has been to Philadelphia a few times but hasn’t bothered to come meet his 4 younger grandkids. He also can’t remember their names.
About 5 years ago my brother and father had a falling out. My brother stopped speaking to my dad for that time. A few years into it, my dad called me for an annual chat and started rambling about why he was right regarding my brother. He did that for the next couple years of conversations. I always encouraged him to apologize.
Not long ago my brother and dad reconciled. Dad called me for our annual chat and happily told me all about my brother. Then he proceeded to describe how he was going to visit with my brother since it had been so long. How is he capable of having a conversation with a non-existent person? Does he have short term memory loss? Did he forget that he hasn’t seen me in 10 years? Does he not remember he has 4 grandchildren he hasn’t met?
By asking a question with a double negative, I lose the power of the truth of the statement. Most would say, “Hell yes he remembers and he is a jerk.” That would take cement. That would take certainty. That would take being drawn in positive space. A blank white in the form of a chair can not exactly hold it’s space. A reflection of a shadow isn’t capable of that kind of certainty. There is no need to acknowledge an empty space where a person does not exist.