“Have you talked to your father lately?”
“No,” Aggie sighed. “You know how he is – he’ll answer when I call, and he responds to texts or emails, but he never initiates.”
“I’m sorry.” Aggie understood that Del’s phrase wasn’t about accepting responsibility; it came from empathy/sympathy. Of course she understood that: Del raised her.
“It makes me sad, Ma,” Aggie said. “I know Dad sometimes leaves the house to manage a job for Ali, but usually he’s home with Joy, doing just about nothing. He was into these intricate paper models a few months ago – even sent some for the boys, for Christmas, which meant of course I had to assemble them, but the boys watched and all-in-all it was a good experience. But he stopped that hobby a few months later. You know what? I just don’t think Dad ever realized his potential.”
“Tell me about it,” Del said. She and Hank had been close friends in high school, through college, and for most of their ten-year marriage, and she paid attention to him. She has always been astounded at the way he retreated from youthful gregarious creative activities into pre-middle-aged curmudgeonly solitude. The way Del experienced it, Hank morphed overnight from smiling youth to angry old grump, the winter he turned 31. She used to worry about Aggie’s brother Max, who took after Hank in several ways. But Max was part Del, too, and had a much better childhood than his father did. Max has made it half a decade past the danger age, with no signs of incipient misanthropy.
“I know I mentioned it before,” Aggie continued, “but I still can’t believe his social anxiety around Max’s wedding. He was uptight about getting to the rehearsal dinner on time and then inconsolable when we ran into the traffic and were late after all. He was self-conscious about his weight gain and nervous as a kid about speaking at the ceremony. I mean, I felt for Dad, but he was so extreme it made us uncomfortable.”
At that moment, the two younger of Aggie’s three sons entered the living room (the oldest, Charlie, was practicing tweendom and sleeping in). Philip and Ollie were both eager to play a board game, and Del agreed. She was staying the weekend with the family, as much to spend time with the boys as with Aggie. She took her coffee to the kitchen table while Aggie headed for her Saturday morning bath.
The boys selected Life. Del chose the green car and paid enough attention to keep the game going, but she kept thinking about Hank’s social anxiety. She was so distracted that she failed to choose the college path even though she’d advised her grandsons to go that way. In the course of the game, all three players married (opposite sex) and had four kids each.
It was the first time Del played Life to the end. She reached the finish line first, but that didn’t mean she won. They had to liquidate all their assets and tally their net worths. Ollie the youngest won. His brother Philip came in second. Del lost the game.
But she’d made some progress in her Hank-and-social-anxiety analysis.
She always knew Hank was a bit odd, but if anyone had asked her which of them suffered more from social anxiety, Del would have said herself. Then again, Del always thought she was a classic introvert (“gregarious loner” was her term), but she’d recently revisited the whole “extrovert/introvert” subject and realized that she needs people after solitude as much as the reverse. Then she took a couple of Internet tests, and saw herself summarized as “ambivert, tending toward ex.” That blew her away. Del thought she was perceptive, undeluded, articulate, and smart, but she was learning she didn’t know as much about herself as she thought she did. Or maybe she was a moving target: maybe she was changing – she believed in that and tried for it – maybe she needed some time to get to know herself.
Hank was odd. Del used to complain about how he never said goodbye. He was like a dog that way: friendly and even eager to greet a friend, but with no words or acts of farewell when it came time to go.
Or what about the time he invited her to a friend’s wedding, but neglected to tell the friend or buy a gift? Del was extremely embarrassed when she displaced a member of the wedding family at that dinner.
Or how about the way Hank always looked at her when he talked in a social situation, even though she’d already heard what he was saying and his words were directed at others in the room?
Funny: Hank was more normal than Del, fit in better than she, back when they met in high school. He was well-ballasted by buddies in college. He got along with others in the engineering job he took after graduation. Never did Del think Hank’s infuriating qualities were some sort of disability…
No, she had felt suffocated by Hank’s dependence on her love and his continual attempts to please and placate her. She reasoned and ranted about it to him, researched and raved, but she never considered the qualities as evidence of dysfunction. She wondered if…
Suddenly she smiled. Philip noticed. “What’s funny, Grandma?”
“Oh nothing, honey.”
“No. Tell me.”
Del took a thought break and offered a Lego suggestion instead. Ollie peeked over the manga book he was examining and jumped on that wagon. It wasn’t till after a Lego battle and the dog walk that the boys got some video time and Del could resume her cogitation.
By then she’d remembered a Q&A with a psychologist. Both of Del’s kids had required counseling. In Del’s opinion they were equally challenging, but the school administration viewed delinquency in a boy as much more serious than any such in a girl. Max made the rounds of three different “special friends” before they found effective Judy.
Del remembers asking about the play therapy. Max was nearly ten at the time; why were he and Judy fiddling with blocks and sand instead of just talking?
Judy explained. She told Del that in most cases, to the extent damage was done to the child or incorrect attitude was cultivated in the child, the precipitating events occurred before the child had mastered speech. They couldn’t be gotten at with words.
It made sense at the time. And it made even more sense at that moment. Del realized that the term “social anxiety” wasn’t in popular use when she and Hank were together (they divorced in 1983). Without the term, the concept had no existence either.
Del loves to be wrong. She achieves stimulation when she learns, and for Del learning is always preceded by wrongness. She left that visit stimulated, and she’s still enjoying it.