by Sheryl Monks
One of my most impactful memories is waking before daylight to find my father, sitting alone in the dark, smoking, the only evidence of his existence the glowing ember of his cigarette and his heavy, animal presence, inhaling deeply, periodically lighting up the corner of the living room where he lay draped across one arm of the couch. It always worried me when I found him that way, which wasn’t often when I was young. Usually, he was a clown, a dancing bear, whose gusto kept our family from sinking under the burden of bills that couldn’t be paid. Mostly it was bills that kept my parents fighting. They fought constantly, so much so that at an early age I made certain vows with myself: One, I would never worry about money like that when I grew up. I would not allow bills to control my life. I couldn’t stand those fights, all that worry and anger and lashing out in fear. And two, I would come between them and keep the peace that we all needed if we hoped to make it. I knew we could make it, if only we hung together. And we did.
I learned empathy from watching my parents. Their life pain gripped me, maybe from the cradle on. They deserved better than what they were born into. They were good souls, hopeful, and very ambitious. My mother and her ten siblings grew up in Chicago during the 1950s when hillbillies were disparaged in newspapers across the city and looked down upon by their fellow Chicagoans. My grandfather had been a coal miner who’d fled West Virginia when the mines were mechanized and he and his brothers had subsequently lost their jobs. One by one, he encouraged his siblings and friends to join him. Many did. So many Appalachians poured out of the mountains that not even the vastness of Chicago could absorb them into its fabric. They didn’t acclimate, didn’t want to. They brought their culture with them and kept apart, never really joining. They drove back home to the mountains every weekend they got the chance. They missed the trees, the dirt, the creeks, the sky.
My father grew up in Maryland under even grimmer circumstances. He and four (out of nine) of his siblings were illegitimate. My grandmother took employment as she could find it, sometimes as a laundress, other times working in a factory. Together with these, her five youngest sons, she grew the food necessary to feed them each winter. Field work was brutally difficult, and the boys were small, but they worked like men. She made them; she had to. The level of poverty and its attendant shame that my father and his siblings endured are legend in my family’s mythology, worse even than my mother’s childhood in Chicago. Dad’s stories were so heartbreaking, I tended to them like broken birds, nursing them along in hopes that someday I could put them to flight. Over and over I wanted to hear them, though Dad was reluctant to tell them unless he was beating back the depression that crept over him all his life, beating it all back with a big happy stick. In that light, the stories were absurd, tall tales, jokes he made about being so poor, for example, that if one of his brothers got a piece of candy, he had to spit it into each one of the other’s mouths to share it. Stories that made me laugh and cringe and die a little inside despite the exaggeration. It was true, I knew, worse even than he let on.
Sometimes Dad would go off alone to his and Mom’s bedroom to smoke, his “think room” he called it. Usually this was after a fight with Mom and the whole house was tiptoeing around, wondering if he’d find a solution to whatever problem we were facing. These early “think” sessions were born of worry, but later in my father’s life, even after he had finally become solvent and dependable, he sequestered himself to mourn all the suffering that had been dispensed to him. He thought often of his eldest brother Condy, whose life had been cut short. I know because he spoke of him often. Surely, he must’ve thought, too, of his own parents, his father and his father’s legitimate family that lived in a working class neighborhood nearby. The older I get the more I can relate with this tendency to review one’s life. He continued to worry, about us mostly, my two siblings and me, as we grew up and took on challenging lives of our own. But the mourning was different. Worry has the feel of electricity to it. It courses through to your nerve endings, fires up your brain, tweaks your innards. Depression sits like a stagnant pond, festering, sinking with rot. One was as bad as the other, but the worry, at least, was something we all shared. Worry was something I could wiggle into and help defuse.
My own history with depression runs alongside my father’s. My mother worried excessively, more perhaps than Dad did, but I don’t think she battled depression the way he and I have. She would have occasional bouts when she thought of her deceased mother for very long, but for the most part, Mom was the tougher of the two. She could be meaner, her words barbed. She threw shit around the house, hoping to nail Dad with it. She screamed and released her toxins into the atmosphere, from which the rest of us breathed. Still, I empathized because Dad was immature and reckless, and he was, in fact, the source of ninety percent of our troubles. Even so, Mom’s attacks seemed vicious when I was a child. He was no match for her fighting Irish blood. Despite his obvious physical strength, there was something more fragile about Dad, something tenderer, something I needed to protect. We shared a melancholy, I now realize. He would bring home stray animals, anything he found wounded somewhere. He nursed chickens and horses and goats back to health. He surprised us with dogs and cats and rabbits, many of which he’d felt sorry for in some way. He gave things away to people he thought needed them badly. He pulled for the underdog, always, and so, too, did I. Dad’s suffering made me aware of the suffering of the whole world. He was lucky, he insisted. Look at those poor bastards, he reminded me. But growing up there was no happy for me unless he, too, was happy.
People who don’t know me well are often surprised at how dark my writing is. What they see by my exterior doesn’t seem to match what bubbles up from the interior. Lately, I’ve taken to describing myself as part cheerleader, part gargoyle. The cheerleader, I’m learning, is a powerful avatar, although that’s not to say she’s phony. She isn’t. She’s the genuinely hopeful, peace-broker part of my personality. She sees the world democratically; it’s flawed, yes, but it’s not without beauty. She kicks the gargoyle’s ass. She’s tough as shit, whereas the gargoyle is fragile. The gargoyle sets the bar too high, and as a result, the world and the people in it disappoint.
Many of the writers I know share this dichotomy. We tear ourselves asunder. Social media has made it sometimes painfully apparent. I feel deeply for my friends who struggle, as I do, courting the gargoyle. It’s become more cliché than I care mentioning that writers and artists do what other, more practical (sane?) people dare not: We fetishize our demons. We love them, won’t let them sleep. As much as we want happiness, it’s in the having it that we feel it eludes us. That cheerleader sickens us, we self-loathing gargoyles. Without the world’s misery, there can be no joy, nor none with it either. This we know. The gargoyle, even as is threatens our ruin, saves us from the unbearable emptiness of being content in a world of suffering. Somewhere along the razor’s edge is the sublime, the only thing that’s real.
“Writing,” Dubus says, “is a sustained act of empathy.” I don’t think this is true for all writers. Many, I think, have very little empathy. But I do believe that lots of us come to writing as a sinner seeks salvation. Without the writing, we cannot bear the melancholy. Even with it, we sometimes crack under its enormity. For men (and women) like my father, who never thought of writing or even talking openly about their problems or their depression, their only recourse maybe is to wield a big happy stick.
But writing is inherently an act of defiance, I think, hope against hope. Who knows why some of us are born with the all-seeing eyes of gargoyles, but thank God for the writing. Though some of us may stick our heads into ovens yet or wade into water with stones in our pockets, at least we have this thing, the writing, to which we may cling and maybe make some small sense of it all. It is, as they say, a gift. It’s our job to tell the ugly truth, to dispel if we can some of the stigmas. And if we are truly empathetic, let us hope that our gargoyles will look upon us with equal understanding and compassion.
Sheryl Monks holds an MFA in creative writing from Queens University of Charlotte. She is an editor at Change Seven Magazine. Work has appeared in The Butter, Revolution John, Black and Grey Magazine, The Greensboro Review, the Writer’s Chronicle, Midwestern Gothic, Night Train, storySouth, RE:AL–Regarding Arts and Letters, Backwards City Review, Southern Gothic online, Surreal South, Fried Chicken and Coffee, and elsewhere.
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