When I was a child, I waited for my mind to grow, for my experiences to accumulate and my choices to solidify, taking shape into the likeness of a person. That person, or that likeness of one, had belonged. I was of that mountain, the mountain that had made me. It was only as I grew older that I wondered if how I had started is how I would end—if the first shape a person takes is their only true shape.
As I write the final words of this story, I’ve not seen my parents in years, since my grandmother’s funeral. I’m close to Tyler, Richard and Tony, and from them, as well as from other family, I hear of the ongoing drama on the mountain—the injuries, violence and shifting loyalties. But it comes to me now as distant hearsay, which is a gift. I don’t know if the separation is permanent, if one day I will find a way back, but it has brought me peace.
That peace did not come easily. I spent two years enumerating my father’s flaws, constantly updating the tally, as if reciting every resentment, every real and imagined act of cruelty, of neglect, would justify my decision to cut him from my life. Once justified, I thought the strangling guilt would release me and I could catch my breath.
But vindication has no power over guilt. No amount of anger or rage directed at others can subdue it, because guilt is never about them. Guilt is the fear of one’s own wretchedness. It has nothing to do with other people.
I shed my guilt when I accepted my decision on its own terms, without endlessly prosecuting old grievances, without weighing his sins against mine. Without thinking of my father at all. I learned to accept my decision for my own sake, because of me, not because of him. Because I needed it, not because he deserved it.
It was the only way I could love him.
When my father was in my life, wrestling me for control of that life, I perceived him with the eyes of a soldier, through a fog of conflict. I could not make out his tender qualities. When he was before me, towering, indignant, I could not remember how, when I was young, his laugh used to shake his gut and make his glasses shine. In his stern presence, I could never recall the pleasant way his lips used to twitch, before they were burned away, when a memory tugged tears from his eyes. I can only remember those things now, with a span of miles and years between us.
But what has come between me and my father is more than time or distance. It is a change in the self. I am not the child my father raised, but he is the father who raised her.
If there was a single moment when the breach between us, which had been cracking and splintering for two decades, was at last too vast to be bridged, I believe it was that winter night, when I stared at my reflection in the bathroom mirror, while, without my knowing it, my father grasped the phone in his knotted hands and dialed my brother. Diego, the knife. What followed was very dramatic. But the real drama had already played out in the bathroom.
It had played out when, for reasons I don’t understand, I was unable to climb through the mirror and send out my sixteen-year-old self in my place.
Until that moment she had always been there. No matter how much I appeared to have changed—how illustrious my education, how altered my appearance—I was still her. At best I was two people, a fractured mind. She was inside, and emerged whenever I crossed the threshold of my father’s house.
That night I called on her and she didn’t answer. She left me. She stayed in the mirror. The decisions I made after that moment were not the ones she would have made. They were the choices of a changed person, a new self.
You could call this selfhood many things. Transformation. Metamorphosis. Falsity. Betrayal.
I call it an education.