When that happened, we would run to Mother. There was no place else to go. She might try, but she was no match for him. Jo, as she liked to be called, was far too timid around my father. Even as a child I was acutely aware of this dynamic between the two and didn't like it one bit. I could tell that Mom was scared of Dad, which made me feel terribly vulnerable. Who would protect us? Eventually, that someone turned out to be me.
We all had our escape routes planned. Most of the time, whoever "got it" first was cooked, because the other two kids would run for cover, leaving the first victim to bear the brunt of my father's anger. Usually, that was my brother Jim. Dad always went for him first. I guess because he was the boy. That made Gayle and me feel horribly guilty. Boy, was I glad that I didn't have to bear the burden of being a son.
Facing the Dragon
Every time Dad lashed out at my mother, I flinched—it might as well have been me! I felt the need to vindicate her, but was helpless to do so. I crossed that bridge when I finally confronted my dad in defense of my mother, and this time he had to back down. I'll never forget that moment as long as I live. I was sixteen . . . and had had enough. We had just sat down for dinner when Dad began complaining about the casserole Mom had served. Suddenly, he picked up his glass of milk from the table and threw it right in her face. It was the worst thing I could ever imagine, seeing her look of shock, watching her sit there with her face and hair drenched and dripping, humiliated. I couldn't believe my eyes. All this over something he didn't like about the meal? My poor mother was reduced to a whimpering mess . . . defeated.
That was it. Tears streaming, I jumped up from the table and went for the fireplace, as he came after me. "Where do you think you're going?" he demanded.
"How could you?" I screamed, and picked up the poker from the fireplace and turned toward him, gripping it with both hands. I was pit¬ted against him now. "If you ever, ever do anything to hurt Mom again, I swear, I'll kill you!" I said, shaking with emotion. He glared at me and stood his ground. "Calm down," he said. I glared right back at him. Thank God, he backed away. I cannot believe I am telling this about someone I loved so much. Everything I did was to please him. But someone had to stand up to him. And as the oldest, that someone was me.
I remember vividly the adrenaline rush I got from walking up to the dragon and discovering that I was no longer afraid. That moment also included an epiphany about my father. I sensed his vulnerability. I could see in him the young man of seventeen who had come to this country from Bolivia with dreams of science, space, and aeronautics. I could see the man who had learned to speak impeccable English and studied engineering at the university where he met my mother. He had lifted himself up, lifting me up with him. I saw how his internal strug¬gle, his drive and his masculine pride had been tested to the limit, some-times to the breaking point, which accounted for his lousy temper. I didn't excuse him . . . but I suddenly understood him. This helped later when it was time for me to forgive.