I just submitted this to my school’s Lit Mag. Wish me luck!
Children who don’t receive affection suffer. In extreme cases, they die. Very little is known about these so called wild children, because to do the research is considered inhumane. No human with a shred of compassion would knowingly deny a child love just for the sake of scientific discovery. Sometimes, though, all a researcher needs to do is look no further than next door to find a child being kept alive on an intravenous drip of affection. This child is merely sustained, existing on dribs and drabs of love doled out in strict measure. They subsist, they continue, but they do not grow or thrive.
Some of these children are obvious. Their bruises decorate their bodies like hostile punctuation marks. Their suffering is written in their eyes and across their souls in the indelible ink that is abuse. These children have entire governmental machines devoted to their protection, however faulty these structures might be.
There is yet another segment of child that suffers for the lack of affection. These children abound, but they can no more be studied than the wild child because society doesn’t acknowledge their suffering. Most have a roof, clothes, and food to eat. Their skin is unbroken. Their eyes burn, but not with fear. These children, the lost children, don’t even realize that they are suffering. For them, existing is all they know and in that knowledge they continue.
I was raised in a lower, middle-class family. My father worked in a factory and my mother babysat local children. To the outsider, we were very normal. My sister and I lacked for nothing in the way of necessities. We had clothes and food and played with neighborhood children. We went to gymnastics and ballet classes. We had sleepover parties and, to every outward appearance, a loving family.
Appearances were very important to my mother. Once we left the four walls of our suburban ranch house, we had very strict instructions. We were to obey her without question and never speak disrespectfully. Infractions were punished speedily and decisively. My sister and I quickly learned that what other people perceived was the most important thing. Outside our walls, we were the Brady Bunch. Inside of them, we were much more like the Bundy family, but without the love.
I have only one consistent memory of my mother. Every day, she would sit at the table eating fried potato sticks with a cup of tea – hot if it were morning and iced if it were afternoon – and read romance novels. Our house overflowed with them. They were stacked around our kitchen. Piles of pastel colored books with their brawny men and delicate heroines adorned the top of the toaster and every available bit of counter space. Down in the basement, they overflowed the book cases. My mother once boasted of her ability to read one, sometimes two, per day.
As an adult, I see the irony in being surrounded by stories of love while never once hearing those words. I can also see that my mother was feeding something inside herself that she clearly wasn’t getting in her relationship with my father. As a child, all I knew was that my mother read these books every day and left me to fend for myself. To a curious child who liked to try new things, being left alone was a boon. I read what I wanted to read. I did what I wanted to do and I lied when I got caught breaking the rules.
My father was just as consistent as my mother. He rose early, went to work, came home, disappeared into his home office, ate dinner, then watched television until he fell asleep on the basement couch. This routine only altered three times a week when he took a shower after dinner. My father was a fixture, kind of like the recliner in the living room. He took up space and on rare occasions we interacted with him, but for the most part he just orbited around my sister and I.
I thought every family was like this.
Two, sometimes three, times per year we visited my maternal grandparent’s home. Every year we spent one week in August and several days at Christmas at their small working farm in West Virginia. Raised in the immediate suburbs of Washington, DC, I thought this time at the farm was sheer torture and always resented going.
The rhythm of these trips was as monotonous as my daily life. We’d pile into the family station wagon and spend the next eight hours in silence other than the radio where my father played Italian tenors exclusively. Our stops were mapped out and never changed. Over the entirety of my childhood, we made the exact same stops each trip. The McDonald’s in Hagerstown, MD. The Shoney’s in Bridgeport. My father would switch places with my mother who would complete the driving at Bridgeport. There was a small metal bridge painted in peeling blue paint roughly two miles from my grandparent’s farm. The locals called it the Blue Goose. Every time we crossed over it, my father would say, “The blue goose. Two miles to go.” This was our cue to get our shoes back on and get ourselves together for arrival at the farm.
We’d bump down the gravel road raising clouds of dust in our wake. The road was lined with barbed wire fence and the countryside was dotted with cows, double-wide trailers, and rusted out vehicles sitting on cinder blocks. All the while, I’d be contemplating the week ahead. It never changed from year to year.
I’d spend the week camped out on the front porch glider if it was warm or the living room couch if it was cold reading my grandmother’s endless supply of Reader’s Digest. They wallpapered her paneled farmhouse, the way my mother’s romance novels did our house. I’d read one after the other taking breaks only to eat and sleep and to watch Wheel-of-Fortune and Jeopardy with Mommaw and Poppaw. At night, I’d go to bed early in order to get to sleep before the others because otherwise I’d have to listen to everyone snore as we all slept in a common sleeping area.
Soon enough, we’d pull up in front of my grandparent’s white, two-level farm house. We’d clamber out of the car and cross the large front yard. My grandparents would greet us on the front porch. My grandmother always wore polyester slacks and a short-sleeved blouse. Her thinning grey hair curled randomly around her leathery wrinkled face. She’d smile and wave as we approached. My grandfather would stand stoically silent next to her in his plaid shirt and overalls. His white socks would peep out at the ankles over his suede slippers.
We’d enter the porch, single file with my mother at the fore. My father would come next followed by my sister and me. In turn, we’d each receive a hug and a kiss. When my aunts and uncles came to visit the same ritual would take place.
This was the only affection I received during my childhood.
When I was thirteen, I decided to kill myself. A boy in my middle school had hung himself the previous summer. I was fascinated by this news. It had seemed like such a weirdly courageous thing to do. He’d taken control of his life. He’d ended his pain on his terms.
I planned carefully. I decided I’d hang myself as well.
Our house was built into a hill and our back yard was significantly lower in elevation than our front yard. My father had built a shed in a nook where our basement and our carport met. The roof of the shed was level with the floor of our carport. When I was looking to get away from my family members, I would climb out on the roof of the shed and spend some time thinking. My father had all the requisite tools I would need and I could tie the rope to the railing and jump off the shed.
With the plan set, I simply waited for my opportunity.
There is a peace that comes when a decision is made. All the questions and doubts fall away and you feel certain. That certainty brings with it a form of bliss. For those precious moments, you no longer doubt, no longer fear; you simply exist.
Suddenly, I could see things very clearly. My mother. Obese and unhappy. Reading about love when she failed to give it. My father, silent and isolated. My sister, angry and spoiled. I remembered a conversation I’d overheard when I was seven years old when my mother told her best friend that she hadn’t wanted to have me. I realized my mother would be happy if I were no longer around.
The night I’d decided to carry out my plans, I showered and noticed my crooked collar bone. Memories of the night my sister had thrown me from her bed and broken it flooded my mind. My pain had been intense, but my parents hadn’t taken me to the hospital until the next day. My father hadn’t wanted to spend the money, believing it likely wasn’t broken. Only my crying through the night had convinced him to take me to the hospital. The bone had already begun to set and remains crooked to this day.
I realized my father saw me as a burden. A mouth to feed and an unwanted expense. No longer having to pay for me would enrich him.
As these thoughts jelled in my mind, it became clear to me that no revenge would be had if I killed myself. I’d only be giving them what they wanted.
I dressed in my pajamas, put away all of the implements I’d gathered for my suicide and decided the best revenge I could bring upon them would be to refuse to give them what they so clearly wanted.
The summer of my sixteenth year my grandfather asked me to take a ride on his four-wheeler with him. By sixteen, trips to the farm were an absolute hell as I’d rather be at the pool with my friends or at a house party dancing. My mother had decided that I wasn’t yet old enough to stay home, so I’d been dragged against my will to West Virginia.
There was no respite from the boredom that year and the pattern of our trip remained unbroken until the day before we were scheduled to leave. Poppaw stepped onto the porch and said he was going out to check the fences around the cow pastures. He paused, inserted stick of sugar free chewing gum in his mouth and asked if I wanted to come along. I was surprised at the invitation, I couldn’t remember my grandfather speaking to me beyond the perfunctory courtesies let alone asking for my company.
Inside, I cringed a bit at the idea of spending time in such close quarters with my grandfather, however, with nothing to look forward to other than more Reader’s Digest and sweating through my clothes, I said yes. Anything was better than sitting on the porch reading myself into catatonia.
I settled myself behind my grandfather on the four-wheeler leaning back on the rear grill and doing my best to avoid all physical contact with him. As he slowly accelerated, I briefly considered jumping off, but soon he was going too fast for me to do that safely.
We proceeded at a leisurely pace around the perimeter of the farm. At first, I was bored wishing we could drive fast. I wanted to feel the wind in my face, but then Poppaw began to tell me about the farm pointing out the various sections and describing to me how he’d portioned it out. We toured the pastures where the cows grazed and the “back-40,” the rear acres which he rotated out as pasture land to ensure no individual section became over-grazed.
He took me into the pasture and rode us through the cows. He indicated each one and told me their names and how long he’d had them. He told me the story of the year he’d been out making steers by castrating the young bulls, and one had attacked him only to be thwarted by Jasper, his collie. He took me to Jasper’s grave. Poppaw had carved him a headstone and buried him in a secluded section of the farm next to a mountain stream.
As we wended our way back to the farm, he suddenly stopped and pointed out a fawn in a clearing just around the bend from the house. He cut the engine so that we could watch as the fawn grazed, unaware of our presence. As we waited, he regaled me with whispered stories of how the deer would come and eat the vegetables in my grandmother’s garden until he finally put up a fence. Before long, a doe and buck appeared at the far edge of the clearing and signaled to the fawn which bounded off into the woods with them.
After that, we returned to the house. It was only then that I realized the sun was setting and we’d been out for hours. Surprisingly, I hadn’t been bored. My grandfather had been good company and I was happy to have shared that time with him.
Six weeks later my grandfather was dead.
He’d had lung cancer and, while we were aware of his condition, we’d believed that the chemotherapy had been successful. I was the only one home when the phone call came that he’d passed. It fell to me to tell my mother that her father had died. She collapsed in tears while I remained dry-eyed. It’s hard to cry for a stranger.
To knowingly neglect a child for the purpose of research is inhumane. So is giving birth to a child you refuse to love. The results are devastating, just more subtle. We don’t carry the outward scars and broken bones that come with physical abuse. We don’t have the lingering traumatic damage that comes with sexual abuse, but we are no less scarred.
We are the adults who cannot form lasting bonds and deep emotional connections. We are the men and women who act the way society demands all the while never fully understanding what words like compassion, empathy, honor, and generosity truly mean. We are unable to maintain lasting relationships. We often bounce from job to job never truly fitting in. We are selfishly focused and self-centered after a lifetime of being taught that the only people who will look out for us are ourselves.
We are the sociopaths next door; you need to look no further than us to understand what a child who doesn’t receive love or affection looks like.