Land Mines

2022 Barrett Winner

2nd Place Ashley Trent

The light in the kitchen doubled as the door eased forward and the scent of my father’s cigarettes filled the room; he was home from work at the usual time. He carried a garment bag over his shoulder, smiling sheepishly at me while clutching his cigarette between his lips. “Why are you just getting home now?” I asked, the confusion apparent in my voice. His mother passed away that morning, and I received the call seven hours earlier. I stood with the entire room between us, my feet rooted but prepared to retreat, not yet sure of the mood he might be in.

“I had to go buy a suit for the funeral.”

He was too calm, too cheery for this occasion.

I had long since grown accustomed to trying to make my way out of the house by four o’clock each afternoon in anticipation of his typical state of anger. I had observed his explosive temper for fifteen years, and although I had learned to take it in stride, it was still something I feared being faced with.

Once, when I was nine years old, I spilled a glass of water into the carpet in his bedroom. He exploded with fury, his hand connecting to the side of my small head with the full force of his stocky, six-foot frame. Bright white flashes burst across my vision as my head rocked to the side. My hair flew in different directions, and tears ejected involuntarily from my eyes.

Many days brought him home from work, angry and looking for a fight. He might bellow over a single cup or dish sitting in the sink, with words such as “lazy” and “stupid” flying toward my ears with force comparable to that of his hand.

Other offenses worthy of this treatment included (but was far from limited to): not moving furniture to the basement (including a couch—not that I’d been asked beforehand), not understanding my math homework, receiving a grade less than a B on my report card, not knowing the answer to a question he asked, not sorting and preparing the bills properly, or not washing dishes precisely the way he did. Many times, if something was going wrong for him, such as an endless line of cars when we were already late to a family gathering, I caught the back of his hand just the same as if the traffic had been in my control. When Child Protective Services were called, I faced his wrath and spent a weekend anxiously cleaning the house to a pristine state before their home visit.

On days when I was angry enough to fight back, demanding to know why he would say such cruel things to me, it only got worse. His fury would skyrocket. His screams bellowed past his lips like a crazed Grizzly bear. A foamy spit would fly from his lips as he flung words which bit and tore at my heart:

“You’re a fucking bitch, you know that? No one is ever going to love you.”

“Stop crying! You have no idea what pain is! You have no reason to cry!”

“You know I have high blood pressure—do you want to make me have a heart attack and die?”

His fists would pummel the wall, the cabinets, my head—always the head—until I would break down and lock myself in the bathroom—my only safe refuge—hyperventilating through my sobs until he retreated into his bedroom.

Sometimes, my father was my best friend and everything I hoped to become. We would talk about philosophy, music, politics, and the state of humanity. We would make jokes, engage in sarcastic and witty banter, and laugh to the point of tears about puns. In times like these, he was my favorite person in the entire world. I knew this to be the person my father truly was. This was the person I had known as a very young child. This was the person I missed daily and would do anything for.

His outbursts were land mines, and some days I knew where they were and how to step around them. Most days, I did not. I began to look for signs this might be a screaming and hitting day. Eventually, I could tell by the feeling hanging in the air when he came home—if it were light, I would probably be okay. If it hung heavy and burdensome, I was most likely in for it and needed to hide to keep myself safe. The afternoon his mother died, he stood utterly calm. I asked him questions about how he was feeling:

“Are you okay?”

“Do you need to talk?”

“Can I do anything for you?”

He cocked his head, smiled warmly at me, and said, “You’ve already been through this. You lost your mom years ago. You are so strong.” I knew he meant it. He wasn’t angry.

This was in stark contrast to what I was used to. At eight years old, I lost my mother to suicide. Though I tried desperately to talk about it with him in the beginning, he would become sullen and bitter, telling me to stop feeling sorry for myself and to suck it up. I ultimately dealt with the loss by sitting alone on my bed each night, wailing and screaming at God for taking her from me, at her for leaving. Eventually, my sob-worn body would crumble into a pile on the pink carpet as my father snored loudly in the next room. Now my father was suddenly interested in how I felt about it for the first time in fifteen years.

As we spoke, he lowered himself into one of the chairs, resting an arm on the weathered wood of the kitchen table. The conversation was light and polite. His interest was genuine.

When the tears started, they were his. I threw my arms around his broad shoulders as comfortingly as I could. Sobs racked his body as he removed his glasses to wipe the tears away.

“I’m so sorry, Ashley. I tried.”

“I know, Dad, it’s okay.”

He began telling me the details of the night she died that he had never shared with anyone before. My mother had called him from a motel room. She had with her a loaded gun, lots of Xanax and alcohol inside her, and she said she wanted to die. He found her pulling out of the motel parking lot and followed her several miles. Any time he would come near her, she would point the gun at him threateningly. He reminded her of all she had to live for, and she countered with reasons to leave. This continued for hours.

Just when he thought he had her calmed down, as my stepfather told her how to re-engage the safety through the phone, the gun fired a bullet into her chest, severing her aorta. She dropped her half-smoked cigarette on the floor. She was gone before the ambulance reached the hospital.

He told me what it looked like: the scarlet spread across the chest of her white shirt and the way her pupils dilated across her eyes as her head fell backward. I didn’t want to know any of this, but I knew he needed to get it out of his long-tortured heart.

I implored him to seek professional help, but he said it was too late. In his mind, there was no point. I could only hold him until his tears stopped.

A month later, I found him in his bed. He was cold, stiff, and silent. His heart had finally stopped breaking, but only because it seized. He was finally at peace.

After my father’s death, I held so many feelings inside that I was numb for a long time. I was angry at what he allowed himself, myself, and our relationship to become. The years of abuse and neglect I’d had to endure. And his insistence that he was utterly alone and misunderstood in his pain. He had been blind to my presence at his side the entire time, waiting for him to see that we were a team. I had done all I could to help him see this, but he either didn’t listen or couldn’t hear me. It should have been he and I against the world, at least in my mind.

Some people, including my therapist at the time, offered the theory that maybe my father’s absence in my life might be for the better. I never kept the way my father treated me much of a secret, and even if I had, his land mines had gone off enough in front of my friends that it would have been useless to try.

After he died, I spent countless nights stewing in my anger and hurt – or doubled over, tormented by the pain of imagining what my father must have gone through the night the love of his life and mother of his child took her own life before his eyes, despite his efforts to save her.

This empathy helped me forgive my father, even though the apology could never come to fruition.

At some point, the realization struck that I could carry my anger and resentment, my guilt for his unhappiness and death, my pain for what had transpired in both our lives, and it would wear on me forever—or I could let it go, forgiving him so I could finally be at peace as well.

I realized the truth was my mother took more than just her life with that bullet; she took his as well. The man who was my father died that same night in 1995, but somehow his body kept going until 2010. That snarling Grizzly was not my father, nor had he ever been. My heart will always ache for him, but I have set us both free from my resentment for how he responded to his own struggles through these realizations.

The land mines, after all, were perils for us both.