For me, childhood was a broken constellation of discontent. I am still trying to piece together the shapes formed by the fragments of my memory. Thoughts come to me in bursts. Every particle of the story swirls around, shifts, changes form. Nothing is stagnant.
Our earliest ideas of love come from the people who raise us. The powerful sensitivity of words, the comfort of touch, the complexity of building a home together — these are things we can only learn through human interaction. Usually, it is our parents who teach us these lessons. And sometimes, what we’re taught gives us a strange conception of love.
My parents weren’t around very much when I was growing up. My mother was finishing her PhD and my father was busy with the family company. Caregivers came and went from my life. I had babysitters, after-school programs, grandparents, etc., etc. I didn’t spend enough time with any of the adults in my life to develop deep attachments.
From the ages of five to six, I wrote notes to my mother, nearly every single day. She has them taped up on the walls of her home office now, half-hidden amidst her piles of academic papers. She didn’t mention them to me for years. When I finally rediscovered my notes half a decade after the time of their composition, my mother told me, with an innocent smile, how much they had meant to her. How they had helped her feeling connected to me even when she wasn’t home.
Part of me is grateful she kept them. More of me is hurt, bitter, confused. If she had the time to decorate, why couldn’t she have said something to me sooner?
My parents used to call me “hugby” when I was a toddler because I liked to hug people so much. This will probably come as a surprise to anyone who knows me today. I am many things, but physically affectionate is not one of them.
I feared touch for a long time. Part of it may be a cultural thing. I grew up in Japan, a country not particularly known for its fondness of physical contact. Then again, I am half-American, westernized, non-traditional. There must be other reasons for why touch feels like a foreign entity to me.
I don’t remember my hugby days. In my earliest memories, my parents and I are already in separate worlds. I fear my father for reasons that will only become clear to me years later. My mother only pays attention to me when I disappear from the room. They do not kiss me goodnight. When they hold my hand, I pull back so hard that I habitually dislocate my arm. If I was born a hugger, what happened to me after?
The first and only time I tried to run away from home, I was seven years old. In my mind, I had it all figured out. I packed a few days’ worth of clothes, all of the money I had, a toothbrush, my DS, a flashlight, and my favorite stuffed animal (an anthropomorphic elephant wearing a plaid jumpsuit, very chic). I would pretend to go to bed 9 p.m., but then rise again at 11 p.m. to make my escape. Where would I head? A nearby tunnel — dingy but sturdy, able to protect me from the elements. I’d read a memoir about homelessness so I knew what I was about.
I couldn’t sleep that night. I lay in bed staring at the ceiling, counting down the minutes until I could make my way to freedom. As the clock finally struck eleven, I gently peeled off my covers and placed my feet onto the floor. I then tiptoed over to my desk and, as quietly as I could, opened one of the drawers to look for my keys.
“Hey, what are you doing?” A sleepy voice rang out in the darkness. I looked back. My half-brother had been staying in my room for the past few days. Apparently I hadn’t been quiet enough because he was now sitting up and rubbing his eyes.
“Nothing!” I said in a loud whisper, nearly a shout in the silence of night. I slammed my desk drawer shut and climbed into bed, cursing my unwise choice of day.
Normalcy is ill-defined. We call only what we have experienced “normal.” How many people must experience the same event for it to be considered normal?
I think I was eleven when I realized I had never said the words “I love you” to anyone. The realization came when I heard one of my friends talking to her mother on the phone. The one-sided conversation consisted mostly of uh-huhs and yes/no’s, but a set of words stood out to me.
“I love you too.” With that, my friend promptly hung up the phone. I did not even think to hide my astonishment as I asked her, “What? You just say that? Like, after the end of a call?”
“You mean ‘I love you’?”
“Yeah, I mean, it’s nice, you know, to remind each other of that.” Pause. “Don’t you do that with your parents?”
“No, I don’t.” Longer pause. “Is that normal?”
My first girlfriend was much older than me, older than I care to admit now. She kissed me first (my very first kiss), liked kissing me, at times very delicately and at other times like there was nothing else. I only remember kissing back a handful of times. Not because I didn’t like her but because I had learned a while ago that sometimes pulling away gets you more than remaining close. She let me stay over when I was too scared to stay home. I always left before morning so my parents wouldn’t find out.
I was fifteen when I decided that I wanted more of a family. It took hours of convincing myself and several deep breaths, but I managed to walk myself over to the couch where my father was sitting. He was watching a video on his phone, completely oblivious to me.
“Dad,” I said. He kept looking at his phone. “Dad,” I repeated. He waited several more seconds before pausing the video at an opportune point. He looked up, seemingly confused. I understood why. This didn’t usually happen, this whole me-talking-to-him business.
I sat down next to him. “Dad, I’ve been thinking a lot lately and I — well, I don’t feel like we ever really talk. And I’d like that to change. I really would. But I don’t feel like I can.” Deep breath. “So I was wondering if you’d be willing to try therapy. So we could, you know, learn to communicate. And all that.”
My voice sounded too staggered. I bit my tongue as soon as I’d managed to spit out the words I’d planned. My father remained silent too long for my comfort. But in the end, after a sharp inhale through the nostrils, he said, “I’ll think about it.”
An immense weight evaporated off of my chest. I smiled and went to bed happy. The next day when he picked me up from school, my father told me he’d decided that I was full of shit. The words “your feelings don’t matter” were thrown around at some point.
Secrets either divide or they protect. I have yet to figure out which of these statements is correct.
My grandfather died when I was sixteen. On the plane ride to the funeral, my mother finally clarified my past. “I know your dad only says bad things about his father, but his feelings are more complicated than that. Your grandfather was abused by his stepfather so that’s the only way he knew how to act. He didn’t know how to show affection in anything other than material presents, and he didn’t know what to do with himself when he was upset. But he really did love your dad, and I know it doesn’t seem like it to you, but your dad really loved him too. It’s just hard for people like them to express how they feel.”
She said more but I don’t remember. I just kept nodding.
Senior year of high school was the first time I ever heard the words used for me. “I know it can be difficult to live in a household with an emotionally abusive parent, but I want you to remember that it’s not your fault.”
I was sitting in my school counsellor’s office. It was a bright afternoon, too bright for the atmosphere of the room. I didn’t look her in the eyes; I couldn’t. I kept my focus on a spot of sunlight on the wooden coffee table in front of me.
I had opened up to a teacher about my home troubles for the first time. It was the beginning of the school year and I was trying to juggle academics, extracurriculars, college applications, and getting a license. I had to consult my father about my future, which inevitably resulted in tension. The previous night, he had told me to leave the house. Then he apologized a few minutes later. The usual pattern.
The teacher I had spoken to suggested I go see the counsellor, so there I was. It was harder for me to speak than I expected it to be. I’m a writer. Words shouldn’t be difficult for me. And yet.
It made sense once she said it, but I had never really considered myself a victim of abuse. I had made my peace with the fact that I didn’t have the best relationship with my parents, and I had left it at that. I never liked the word “victim.” It takes a certain amount of agency away from the person it refers to — someone that does not perform an action but is performed upon. It is a powerless position, an identity bestowed by others. I never wanted to align myself with such a term.
Just a few weeks before I graduated high school, one of my teachers told me something that has stuck with me. “You’re very emotionally aware for your age, and I think that comes from having to navigate a household you shared with someone who is quite the opposite.”
That one simple sentence turned the tables on the status of my victimhood.
I think that forgiveness is an ongoing process. It’s not about looking at the past, shrugging your shoulders, and going, “Well, that’s that.” It’s an active struggle to redefine how you see your own life. I think my childhood will always be a painful memory, and nothing will ever change that. But there is a reason why I describe this period of my life as a constellation: it is an object of projection and an arguably beautiful thing, because in the end, it is the place from which my strength of character comes.
My idea of love might be more broken than most. This I admit. But I would like to think that I am also more aware of my capacity to change than most. Because I have seen myself grow in the short time that has passed after leaving home for college. Every day I find myself flinching a little less when a friend lays an affectionate hand on my shoulder. Every day I find it easier to say “I love you” to the people I care about. Every day I feel a new sense of tenderness growing in my heart.
I wrestle with the stars each and every day. If they are the ones that spell out my destiny, then I will use every force in my power to move them towards a better future. Luckily for me, nothing in the universe ever stays the same.
Photos by Kaela Smith.