Blog

The Madonna Timeline: Song #75 – ‘Oh Father’ – Fall 1991

12madoh1

{Note: The Madonna Timeline is an ongoing feature, where I put the iPod on shuffle, and write a little anecdote on whatever was going on in my life when that Madonna song was released and/or came to prominence in my mind.}

It’s funny that way,
You can get used to the tears and the pain
What a child will believe
You never loved me…

A boy, who can’t be more than ten years old, is running around the house wearing five of his mother’s nightgowns, one on top of the other. Anything to lessen the sting, dull the impact. A silly child’s reasoning, whipped out of him soon enough – and a lesson that if you pretend enough that it hurts, it stops sooner. If you pretend the pain, it goes away. Sometimes, you don’t have to pretend. Sometimes the pain is only pretend because you no longer feel anything.

. . . . . . . . . . . . .

The years fly. I am no longer quite a boy, but nowhere near a man. I’m a petulant, trapped teenager, and we’re a dime a dozen, but I’m also different, and I don’t know why. On the mirror of my bathroom, I leave a note, scrawled in bold black marker, before I depart for the school day:

I WILL LEAVE THIS PLACE AND NEVER COME BACK.

It is my only way of survival. The thought of going away. The head game. It works. It gets me through the day. I return to find it there, still taped to the mirror. No one has seen it. I rip it down, and crumple it up. My body follows suit, crumpling to the floor, and I cry.

You can’t hurt me now
I got away from you, I never thought I would
You can’t make me cry,
You once had the power
I never felt so good about myself.

. . . . . . . . . . . . .

The day is dim. It must be November. The expanse of my parents’ backyard stretches out, running into a forest high with oak trees that have finally littered the ground with their brown mess. Piles of leaves dot the landscape, along with a scattering of filled bags like ghostly totems rising from the ground, but there is more to be done. I pause in my raking, surrounded by sudden silence in the descending darkness. I work alone. My brother is at some sports game or practice. I don’t play any sports. Looking up into the gray sky, I want to cry out. Under the burden of being a gay boy just coming of age, not knowing what the hell it was that I was feeling, what the hell might be wrong with me, I stand there in the darkening afternoon. The air feels like it might snow at any moment. My fingers grip the rake tighter. Anything to hold on.

What unnamed terrors lurked in the past to make me so weak? Maybe I was a sissy after all, maybe I was just a stupid faggot. When you’re a teenager, any of it might be true. All of it might be. You grasp whatever bits of flotsam float by in the most basic and desperate way of survival. You discard the rest, hoping you won’t need any of it later on in life. Who can foretell what kindness or cruelty will get you in the end, when all that matters is making it through the night?

Seems like yesterday
I lay down next to your boots and I prayed
For your anger to end
Oh Father I have sinned

Over the bathroom sink, my nose bleeds in torrents. Unstoppable blood flow, draining of strength, draining of worry, and some strange, sick comfort in the sight of all those bright red drops so vividly contrasting with the white ceramic sink. The taste metallic in my mouth, the liquid so ready to coalesce at the touch of air, yet not managing to clot on its own, on the inside, where I need it. I let it drip for a while, tired of trying to make it stop, leaning my cheek against the cold shiny veneer, and it runs down my face. I taste it again in the back of my mouth, gagging on the dissolving mess I have become. In the mirror, the watery, cracked vision of my face stares back, the eyes that will always look that haunted peer in on themselves.

You can’t hurt me now
I got away from you, I never thought I would
You can’t make me cry,
You once had the power
I never felt so good about myself.

It is strange the way we hurt each other, I think, the way that parents hurt their children, the way children hurt their parents, and how, if we’re extremely lucky, if we’re blessed enough to escape adolescence without serious harm or lifelong scars, we may find our way back to each other.

Oh Father
If you never wanted to live that way
If you never wanted to hurt me
Why am I running away?

There is so much pain in this world. How youth overcomes itself has always moved me. But in that time, at that moment, I couldn’t see that. The enormity of growing up is a burden that should never be placed on children. Such is childhood’s conundrum. It seems so unfair, and for a kid who never wanted to be a kid, doubly so.

Oh Father
If you never wanted to live that way
If you never wanted to hurt me
Why am I running away?

Some nights all you want is to be held and told that it’s going to be okay. That no matter how bad you’ve been, no matter what you’ve done, and no matter how little you might deserve it, that everyone will one day find their own happiness. Even if it never turns out to be true. But I didn’t have a voice to say all of that, or the ease of letting it out. I didn’t know how to put it into words, and boys didn’t say things like that anyway – especially if the boy is trying at any cost to hide who he might really be. From Father to Son we pass along the secret Code of Men. We don’t cry. We don’t talk about it. We don’t let anything bother us.

Maybe someday
When I look back I’ll be able to say
You didn’t mean to be cruel
Somebody hurt you too…

But there is secret sorrow then, hidden purging of tears in musty closets, in the woods behind the house, in the blanket-wrapped womb of night. Holding in that sort of angst, relentlessly pushing it back down inside, is a ruinous way to grow up. It eats you up. It hollows you out. It leaves you haunted.

You can’t hurt me now
I got away from you, I never thought I would
You can’t make me cry,
You once had the power
I never felt so good about myself.

I played this song over and over, daring my parents to listen, begging for someone to hear, to break through to me, to explain what was happening. I so desperately needed to be told that there was nothing wrong with me, but all I got – and all that I could give back – was silence. In the snowfall of that winter, when my best friend was halfway around the world, when I wasn’t speaking to my parents, a little bit of me died. I buried him beneath the frosty leaves, in the dark cold of the earth, where not even the worms nor the centipedes of centuries past dared to burrow. Sometimes, in the spring, beneath the snowdrops and the bloodroot flowers, I look for him there.

I have not found him yet.

The Madonna Timeline #75: ‘Oh Father’ ~ Fall 1991
Back to Blog
Back to Blog