Progress with Kevin has been slow. He remains unemotional, distanced, reserved, and quick to criticize. For my part, I am often overly cautious, carefully weighing what I say, trying to avoid his attack, an attack which expresses the critical voice of the internalized father that both he and I carry in our minds.
Today, however, Kevin appears quite different. He is unshaven, dressed in shorts and a T-shirt and looks stricken. Even so, I’m reticent, reluctant to ask if he’s all right, preferring to wait to hear what he’ll say.
“I’ve had one hell of a night,” he begins. “My daughter’s appendix burst. She was screaming in pain. We had to rush her to the emergency room.”
“I’m so sorry, Kevin,” I say. “Is she all right?”
“Yeah, they operated on her and they say she’ll be fine.”
“It must have been terrifying,” I say, despite worrying that my expressing too many vulnerable feelings may result in a backlash from Kevin. But he feels so different today, so much more raw, that I’m willing to take the risk.
I’m still surprised, however, when Kevin starts weeping. “My poor little girl. She was scared and hurting and I couldn’t do anything! I don’t think I’ve ever been so terrified in my entire life!”
Images go through my head: the trauma of my own childhood tonsillectomy, the terror of so many of my late husband’s hospitalizations, the pain of watching my elderly cat become sicker and sicker. All images associated with despair and powerlessness. This is what Kevin is also feeling. But they are feelings quite alien to him and I’m still unsure how far he’ll be willing to go with them. I wait.
“I bet you never expected me to be bawling in here,” Kevin says, his sarcastic edge returning.
Despite the sarcasm, his vulnerability has made me feel less tentative. “How do you feel about your crying in here or, for that matter, crying at all? And how do you feel about the feelings you obviously have for your daughter?”
“I don’t know about the crying in here part, but I’m actually glad that I could feel so much for Tracy,” Kevin says, more softly than usual. “I know I’ve talked about my feelings about my kids, about how I wasn’t sure that I really felt what I should feel about them. Well, last night did away with that concern. I don’t know what I would have done if anything had happened to Tracy. I felt like my heart would break for her last night. And I was glad to be able to feel.”
“I’m glad you could allow yourself to feel and that the feelings were not only tolerable, but actually felt good.”
“I even felt closer to my wife last night. Beth was stronger than I thought. She didn’t fall apart even though I could see how scared she was and how much she loved Tracy. I don’t think it’ll fix everything between us, but it felt good, if only for last night.
“I had some other thoughts, too,” Kevin continues. “I thought about my mother. We don’t talk about my mother much. My father always seems to be in the foreground. I remember when I’d get injured playing sports, especially football. Once I even broke my arm. She did what she was supposed to do. She took me to the hospital, gave me my medicine, asked if I was doing all right, but she wasn’t there emotionally. I could tell how different she was from Beth or even from me – if you can believe that! Yeah, I could tell that I felt more on an emotional level for my daughter than my mother felt for me. That was a revelation.”
“So you had an angry, attacking father and an unemotional, distant mother. It’s no wonder that emotional closeness is so difficult for you.”
“Yeah, I guess that’s true. So am I cured, Doc?”
“I’d say that last remark is an indication of your beginning to feel uncomfortable with the closeness between us and your need to pull back.”
“Come on, now. I didn’t mean anything by that.”
“Think about it. What does it sound like to you?”
“I guess you’re right. It’s sort of a smart-ass, off-hand remark.”
“And that’s fine. You can’t expect that one experience, no matter how terrifying, no matter how eye-opening can make everything different. But it obviously has affected you and it will affect you and us as we go forward.”