A Family with Ballast

Photo by Irene Kredenets on Unsplash

All of us are born into a family situation – we do have two parents even if they do not survive, or even if they don’t stick around to care for us. And that family nucleus is the most important factor in creating a sense of self, of identity, of being loved, of being valued, of one’s intelligence – so many things are put into play by the accident of one’s birth. I was both fortunate and unfortunate. Born into a large family, I was the sixth child, with two loving parents and 5 healthy and intelligent siblings: 3 brothers and 2 sisters. But when I was a baby, my father, who was 16 years my mother’s senior, suffered his first stroke. Six months later, my mother, a trained teacher, returned to the classroom, as my father’s deteriorating health was a warning bell to her that she needed to act to ensure the family income. My father, a successful and hardworking farmer with an engineer’s mind, was told to stop working on his farm. He did not choose to stop. Rather, he was given my care and continued farming also. 

Thus, from age 1.5 until age 6, I was cared for largely by my father. This relationship became foundational to my personality, and to my thinking. Continuously out in nature for those 4.5 years, I developed an affinity to the natural world, and an equally deep attachment to my father. Our relationship was largely silent, but calm and purposeful. I became a keen observer in his company. My father taught me how to read – books – but also how to read my environment. He did not speak much, as he had several smaller strokes through those years, each of them having a growing negative impact on his health and on his speaking abilities. By the time I was six, I remember him having trouble teaching me how to tie my shoelaces. And that summer he decided that he could not contend any longer with faltering abilities, and the fear of a stroke that could completely trap him within his body. Suffering from intense depression, he took his own life late that summer. I was six years old.

My mother, at that time only 42, and two months pregnant with her 7th child, found my Dad that terrible morning – obviously a deeply traumatic experience for her. But because of her pregnancy, and her distress and trauma, and everyone’s trauma, everyone in the family, after the funeral, stopped talking – completely – about my father. This had, as might be expected, a devastating effect upon me, as the youngest daughter who was so close to him. His death had a terrible effect on each of us, all of his children. I was not told until I was 12 that my Dad had “committed suicide”, those stigma-inducing words. I remember feeling a terrible anger upon learning this at 12 – not with him, but with my mother for not telling me sooner. I understood more clearly later how hard this was for her – how, at the time, when my Dad died, suicide was held in a completely stigmatized light. A failed life. Of course, my father had much more than his death to his life, and was not in any way unsuccessful, but he was denied the accolades simply because he became ill and chose his way out rather than suffer humiliation and dependence upon others, something he could never tolerate. Even as a youth, I fully understood this mindset. But it was also true that he was acutely depressed and not taking his medications; his decision-making was, therefore, not from a “normal” frame of mind. 

Another tragedy followed shortly after my father’s death, when I was eight; a horrific event that also defined/framed my childhood. The family next door to us for the 21 years of our parent’s marriage was murdered by the father of the family, a farmer whom my father had deeply disliked and had broken with a decade previous to this. All but the eldest child were shot – four “children” aged 19 down to 8, as well as their mother. Familicide – and this man’s final act was to take his own life. The eldest lived only because she was not living at home, and did not return that night as expected.

This catastrophe afflicted our family – deepening the trauma already there – as already there was a troubling silence surrounding my father’s life and death. However, following that unthinkable familicide, there was a tomb of silence built around any dialogue or mention of that family or of my father – this was the strictest of taboos. My Dad’s memory was pushed even further from me due to this insane act perpetrated by clearly an insane individual – who to my adult mind was operating on a wholly different malevolent level to my father’s – whose decision was rational – to end his battle with his health before it fully incapacitated him. There was, to my mind, no correlation to these two events – these two breakdowns of two men who had lived side-by-side and yet who had not seen eye-to-eye. Most assessments of the relationship made posthumously by my own family members have perpetuated the notion that my father should never have stopped talking to this person, this next-door neighbour that he suspected of an infuriating dishonesty and disrespect. Yet, to my mind, my Dad was right to have chosen not to endure the company of someone like this. Perhaps my father had understood just how disturbed this neighbour had been. 

Both events have had a significant impact upon my life. I have written a book entitled Freight, a compilation of stories, that explores the theme of trauma, including suicide, familicide, even genocide. 

Therefore, my beginning in life was both special [that emotional closeness to my Dad, a large and loving family, an ambitious and talented mother, a secure environment], but was also a life indelibly touched by tragedy. That beginning, however, was also in part what later rendered me an artist with an unusual lens for seeing and understanding and describing my surroundings. My serious interest in story, and in perspective, has never abated.

By Kate Orland Bere
Copyright 2023