Thank you for letting me know what I did

Dear Reader, one of the things Howard Norman said to me in giving me feedback the first draft of the Mr Hyde chapter was: where is your daughter in this? What did you think she was experiencing, at the time? Your narrator is not simply a masochist. What, in short, was she thinking? He noted my tendencies to introduce and not develop matters that are indispensable to the fullness of the memoir.

In trying to rectify my tendency to abbreviation, I have to honour the painful truth of what my daughter has survived – not only with a father who developed early onset Alzheimer’s disease, but what happened before. So, here is what I am beginning to write about Before. It is raw, and is merely the beginning. But I feel it is important to share the messiness of this, this writing of lives. All the trigger warnings apply, as usual.

John and I, as adherents to attachment parenting, believed that so long as the first three years of a child’s life are full of comfort, reassurance, and the meeting of needs, they will be able to weather whatever else comes their way. John and I blamed our own anxieties on our mothers’ both smoking through their pregnancies, which reportedly caused anxiety through foetal oxygen-deprivation, and then failing to be available to us as babies and infants. So in this three year formative time, we made sure we were available to Annie. She breastfed until her third birthday at the drugs I had to switch to for rheumatoid necessitated weaning. She had co-slept with me. And, aside from when Annie had witnessed John throwing plates at my feet or heard him yelling at me, her life was generally filled with positive social interactions at day care, in the co-op, and home.

But as she grew, and developed her own personality, the endless patience with Annie John had had in her early years was replaced with something altogether different.

For example, once she was old enough to understand, he instructed her not to speak with him in the car, unless he asked her a question. He explained that it would be dangerous for her to ask him anything if he were crossing a road, or concentrating, and that because she did not know whether his concentration was required, she should remain silent. Because he drove her to gymnastics, to school, and to tennis, Annie was expected to be silent a lot of the time. She wasn’t allowed to have screens or her Tamagotchi or anything to distract her: she was just to be quiet.

There were only two problems with this. One, Annie was lively and energetic and talkative, and being constrained in a car seat was enough of a challenge without the requirement for her also to remain silent. The other was that John, if he was in a good mood, would chat with Annie as they drove, or they would sing to Daddy and Annie’s Favourites, mix tapes he recorded onto cassettes from a community radio show called Sunday Morning Coming Down. Once Annie was allowed to start chatting, she thought that she might be able to keep on. But then John would say, ‘That’s enough. I need to concentrate now’, and if she didn’t shift from chatty to silent immediately, he would – once on the other side of the intersection, or through the traffic jam, or the 40 kilometre an hour section – yell until his face turned purple, glaring at her in the rear-view mirror.

I knew of these events because if I was home, I would be alerted by the sounds of the car doors slamming with a particular force, and then Annie would enter, weeping.

‘I didn’t do anything!’ she’d protest.

‘Go to your room,’ John would say. ‘I told you. You were just shitting me.’

‘I wasn’t, Daddy!’

‘Go!’

Each afternoon, once she started at school, John expected Annie to tell him everything about what had happened during her day. He wanted to know who she had talked to, what she had eaten (to check she hadn’t illicitly consumed anything salty, fatty, or sweet), whether she had drunk her required volume of water, and whether she had worn her hat and sunscreen when she’d gone out into the playground.

And if she argued with him, or brushed off his questions, or didn’t immediately tell him what he felt was the whole truth, John would yell at her (see above), and send her to her room.

If I was concerned about the way John treated Annie, I told myself that she was as feisty as he was, and was tough in ways that I was not, as a child. She did not seem wounded by his yelling at her: she would yell back until he sent her to her room, where she would cry and then, later, they would make up. I felt, often, that I was watching a battle of wills between the two of them.

Sometimes, I would wonder to myself why John couldn’t seem to rein in his impatience or his frustration. Sometimes, I tried to talk him around: if I gave him my focused attention, if I asked for, or listened to, the full story of whatever it was that had driven him wild that day with Annie, he might calm down. Sometimes I delicately tried to suggest that with his manner with his daughter was not having the desired effect: perhaps giving vent to his frustrations through criticising her, through yelling at her, through monitoring what she said and ate and acted at every moment was not the best way?

But no matter how carefully I broached it, he would say that it was all right for me, being at work and away from it. I did not know what it was like, being with her all the time, so argumentative, so tiring: what was he supposed to do? It was all right for me, being at work, being among adults. How dare I criticise him, when he was doing his best in such a trying situation?

Once she’d stopped weeping and raging, Annie, confined to her room for hours, would make a drawing demonstrating her penitence, how sorry she was. She would feed it under her doorway, so it was visible in the corridor, and wait for John’s response.

‘Why are you sorry?’ John would say to her. ‘You’re just bullshitting me, you’re not sorry. You just want to get out of your room.’

So Annie began to add to her drawings these notes:

To Daddy. Sorry I ruined your day yesterday. I feel really bad. I was too wound up about that silly raspberry tea. I’m gonna give you some space this weekend coz I know and understand you won’t forgive me straight away until I prove to you I will be good. I hope this card has made you feel a bit better. Love from Annie.

Daddy. Sorry that I was being grumpy this morning. I will be more organised next time. I love you.

To Daddykins. I’m sorry for once again ruining your Friday. I was wound up in the car and today you were right and I was wrong and as you pointed out I said, ‘I don’t think so’ which said to Mrs Durack basically ‘No’. I have been thinking about it and did realise that you were right. I hope you know you are the best dad ever.

I’m so sorry Daddy. I know writing a note to you every time I go into my room might seem a bit suspicious but I just want to make you feel a bit better. I will stop with the attitude. I can get really grumpy as you know. We both do! If I’m feeling grumpy I will stay away from you, I promise. I’m really really sorry. I do know you’re sick and I shouldn’t be giving you a hard time. I will let you relax without me annoying you. Luv Annie.

To Daddy, I’m sorry I was difficult and rude today down at the cliffs. I know you wanted a relaxing time and all. I promise I won’t give you any more problems this holidays. Xxx Annie. PS I will give you time to forgive me.

To my dearest darling Daddy. I’m as you know extremely grateful to you for pouring your money and time towards my plate. You have taken me to the orthodontist god knows how many times so I am not in pain and you have been extremely sympathetic towards me when it hurt. I’m sorry I have been such an arse and I will go along with my punishments that I deserve and I will be a saint for the rest of me living here. I love you.

Dear Daddy, Sorry for talking over you today and not letting you finish your sentence. Love you lots more than anything, from Annie.

To Daddy, I’m really sorry that I was so difficult in the car today. I was very hysterical because I was excited to see Jaz. Now that I realise what I did I feel really bad. I can tell how tired you are from driving. You’re the best dad and I know that you’re really angry with me (I don’t blame you) and I really apologise for ruining your day. I love you so much about what I did you always know in my heart you’re the bestest dad a girl could have. I love you from your daughter Annie. I’m sorry.  Sorry Sorry Sorry Sorry Sorry.

Dear Daddy, I’m sorry I have been ear thumping today. I will never again insert a poo-bag down your checkered, red button up shirt (I think it is cotton). I love you and deep down somewhere I know you love me too. Thank you for letting me know what I did. Love Annie.

I began taking comfort in what I imagined would happen when Annie was a teenager. Once she was a teenager, she would argue back. She would not be shut in her room, then. Then, he’d reap what he was sowing. I could not fix this. But in time, Annie might.

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