Anatomy of Shadows

by: Patrick J. Dalton

“At some point, we are expected to do the best with who we are with what we’ve got. When that’s either squandered or surrendered, we must own it…”


Seal the absence of my shadow.
All my dreams condoning arrows.
Killing my defiance and,
Unwind the broken wires in me.”

– Peter Dolving, 2004

Even after the lights come on, the shadows remain. In most circumstances, they’re permanently affixed. The glow that would generally diminish their presence isn’t guaranteed to come from within us, but from those amongst us, those who fear their own darkness and personified silhouettes, lurking above their prone, vulnerable form. Other times, these haunting voids of  emptiness taunt us for years, even decades, like smudged ink that’s permanently bled into our periphery, masking any alternative to a past transgression. We don’t emit a light of our own that would shrink the stains we ourselves didn’t cause, just as we’re not permitted to elude the dead ends which offer neither solace or solitude. Instead, our own crippling absence of light is often eclipsed by those shadows that frame our earliest memories and mold our own personal fears.

Most of us will try to ignore the dark blotches that threaten this paradisiacal view, donning blinders of myopia nailed firmly in place, conveniently stripping the shadows of all validity or pertinence. Others will absorb these cadaverous remnants into our very flesh, defeatedly handing them the reins which steer us, preferring the familiarity of our open wounds over the risk of washing them away.

The discrepancy between we who navigate through the shadows cast by others and those resigned to adhere to their nebulous projections is only as cryptic as ‘those who do and those who don’t.’ The willingness to rise beyond assuming a predetermined role of the powerless victim exists in us all, but the action of doing so may not be so universally obvious.

Those of us born sans nyctophobic shackles, generally don’t view darkness as anything more threatening than a spork. Rather, we who’ve acclimated to the aphotic welcome the clarity the darkness induces, as the absence of light wonderfully heightens the subtle yet soothing notes that otherwise go unheard. However, those who are predisposed to fearing the dark have either the option to learn how to conquer its grip or succumb to a life which entails nightlights, panic attacks and an endless, futile quest for comfort – at any expense. These very individuals tend to become objects of fear themselves.

I fail to believe any myth of “normality” in the context of anyone’s upbringing. We’re all the bearers of scars no matter the size or depth. Excepting those whom struggle with one stigmatized diagnosis or another, it’s our responsibility to drop the crutches of our youth and walk independently, no matter the ease or difficulty of terrain. Arrested development is an inexcusable result of avoidance, that at a certain age, becomes the formulaic impetus for defeated self-abuse with unfathomable consequences of the “domino effect” variety.

Accountability is as commonly learned during early childhood development as the basic uses of our spoken native tongue. Sadly, expecting this to evolve equally within everyone isn’t necessarily logical either, now is it? For logic to be applicable, reciprocation is required. Even the most basic fisherman applies bait to the hook prior to anticipating a catch, the stunted simply expect fish to randomly leap over the gunwale without a pole to be found onboard.

The very concept of liability is multi-faceted bitch that is understood instinctively through logic and experience. It is the result of decisiveness as mistakes – witnessed or committed – teach us to develop strength, confidence, and character. Those pitiful spectators awaiting their bounty to effortlessly materialize on deck tend to develop mechanisms of selectivity, which in their minds creates a shield that fends off the unpredictable shadows that accompany the unknown traits of reality. Shared, tangible reality, not the annotated and abridged interpretation they’ve developed; all night lights and perpetually breastfed lullabies.

“Average” is another overused term that I disparage as it’s never been appropriately applicable to any aspect of my life, of my being, or my experiences. I, just as millions of others, am decorated with a multitude of scars, both seen and concealed, resulting from being raised in the shadows of violence, abuse, and torment. Due to reactive rage being my earliest mastery, expectations of my having any success whatsoever or residing beyond institutionalized confines was nonexistent.

This stigmatized branding raining down upon me often left me to my own devices. Or in most instances, my own discoveries. Conforming to any of the imagined parameters that my caregivers had set became an impossibility, regardless of their twisted and fucked up aspersions.

Along for the ride, was my older brother whom was dealt an entirely different hand altogether. The image our parents, his mother especially, created of him was the exact opposite of their own warped depiction of me. He was trusted, unscathed, and lived without the burden of negative expectations. Or any expectations whatsoever for that matter. Unlike my own innate unfiltered tendencies, he not only concealed his transgressions effortlessly, but often passed the subsequent blame onto me. If I were to exhibit any devious behaviors, it was guaranteed they were not only acknowledged, but that I received due credit. Enduring the punishment was inevitable as I was held accountable for deeds that predated my own birth. Yet, my older brother was granted a perpetual “not guilty” verdict from the get go that carried no expiry date. Biblical parody at its finest.

Two kids who were raised by the same “woman” under the same roof, managed to experience two entirely different lives simultaneously. My brother wasn’t always protected from the atrocities he witnessed as he was the consummate spectator given the power to selectively acknowledge, stand in defense, or evade the ordeal entirely. He chose the option most familiar to his ilk, Door #3.

There was a period of time when my brother was also a target of our father’s verbal wrath, but never the wooden hanger, airborne cup of scalding coffee or any of his mother’s creative implements of “discipline.” Those were mine to endure and his to witness.

But merely viewing what transpired on a daily basis never inspired any intervention on his part as he faded into the nearest room to lessen the volume of obscenities, screaming,and pleading. At the earliest possible age, my brother had developed avoidance as skillfully as a toddler would self-soothing with a thumb lodged in its mouth.

When, at the age of fifteen, I was granted a transfer of locales via a surreal, violent afternoon that led to my father finally removing me and all of my earthly possessions that I could cram into a Hefty bag. I was able to breathe for the very first time, through the window of his car, speeding steadily out of reach of that sick bitch and the local cops en route to the house. Although the scenery, tension levels and zip code had changed for me, my bat-wielding brother remained in that hole for another decade.

Throughout the tribulations that awaited me, I was forced by adaptation to shed a lifetime of the tattooed layers of self-loathing, demonization, and nihilism. What emerged wasn’t exactly an Eric Carle creation, but instead the real “me” who was to beginning my life again at the bottom of a different mountain.

As my brother resided in that graveyard of shadows enjoying his destructive allotment of freedom, perceived superiority, and continued deficit of reality in a bubble, his mother continued to expand her influence and manipulation of any fact otherwise offered. She was the filter through which all things must have passed: our eschewed family history, ignorant and tasteless social views, obscenely inappropriate sexual innuendos, and the deep-seated hopelessness that the world had conspired against her, justifying her seething hatred that happiness itself was deserved by no one other than her. A smile was perceived as a threat and my brother was groomed to act accordingly.

The vast differences between my brother and I were easily noticeable as I had known that my own incarceration beneath her shadow was beyond toxic and life-threatening. Yet my brother’s own choice to remain became ironclad, forged by years of believing all of the falsehoods and bullshit that his mother fed him. His existence relied upon her every hand-fed syllable. This lifetime of illusory perception became the blueprint for his intentionally limited accomplishments, a system of beliefs that demanded that control belonged solely in the hands of psychotic women of sub-par intelligence and feigned affection. She would not only serve as his compass, but as master and commander as well.

Over the following two years, I was nothing more than a ghosted memory within those walls. I was thousands of miles from “home,” light years from flawless, and  an eternity from where I needed to be. I was on my own with zero direction from anyone known or trusted, therefore risk taking was in order to become decisive, to become independent. Safety nets weren’t only non-existent, but a threat to my survival. The situations I was thrust into ranged from the bizarre to the absolute nightmarish, including the nearly fulfilled promise of incarceration at the age of seventeen. Drastic change was necessary, time was limited, and my former doubts of an existing future were razed by a newfound desire to create one. If I didn’t do it, it wasn’t fucking happening. Not as if I knew what the best decisions were or even a clear concept of consequence, but what was known to me was that I either moved forward or not at all. This came from the lessons learned in Atlanta, Lafayette, and New Orleans. By the time I’d landed in Beacon, NY I had the necessary survival skills to seamlessly adapt to my destination above the shadowed alien landscape of West Harlem. While I had experienced countless names, faces, and timezones as I matured, my brother’s head had yet to even have know another pillow.

Before he’d dropped out of community college at the demand of the first non-maternal female to acknowledge him, my older brother had a relatively simple, obtainable goal since his first words: to join the ranks of the NYPD. Instead, he traded the one dream he’d ever known for the pointless approval and submission to another emotionally illiterate woman wielding an iron fist. This bitch was the successor to my former prison warden and her tactfully wreckless intent, molded his soft, malleable self, conducting his every opinion, and even influenced his already questionable taste in music. This was ruin. This was emasculation. This was what she easily convinced him what a’ ‘man” really was. So when my brother, born in one of the five boroughs of New York City, adorned his used truck with a sticker proclaiming “American by birth, Southern by the grace of God,” any and all resonance of individuality was euthanized, buried,and conveniently forgotten . there’s a bit more than a bumper sticker’s difference between someone raised below the Mason-Dixon line and an NYC-born kid whose vacations in Orlando, FL as a youngster with his grandmother was as southern as he’d ever get. This fact might not have exactly validated his affinity for the confederate flag and self-appointed moniker of a “good ole boy.” After all, this is the same guy who claimed that Jim Crow was a fine sippin’ whiskey.

The following decade for me was a blur of art school , rented apartments with sociopaths, working at record labels, performing and recording in a professional band I’d formed out of the ether, and a variety of female companions who defied definition. I was incapable of sitting still, risking everything became my familiarity;  recklessness by another’s definition, led to accomplishing things I still have yet to realize. I was consistent only in that making the snap decisions I’d made ensured that I was “living,” not merely existing.

These comparisons of strengths and weaknesses, values and imaginings of both the logical and absurd did not add up to a victory lap for me and definitely not a simple illustration of a pissing match between rival siblings. As the dawning sun signaled freedom from the dark for some, it was a reminder for me to seek the nearing projected shadows not for shelter, but for compromise. We’d use the light to manipulate spaces where we might simply continue to proceed ahead unencumbered. As our fear wasn’t absolved by nightlights, but by avoiding complacency.

Every shadow dodged out of fear or sought for inspiration, lingers throughout our adulthood just as they did in our youngest hours. However, if and when we become responsible for a child ourselves, we decide as to how to interpret the darkness and in doing so pass along a true and logical perception to our children.

When my brother and his betrothed master/ crutch had their son, he didn’t pass the torch of his own childhood, the one burning brightly of “the good son,” of the woefully imagined righteousness he’d been anointed. He did nothing even remotely as intimate. Aside from obligatory parental functions, he simply managed to assist in the re-creation of a tension fueled and volatile environment. And did so in the assurance that he was a man’s man. You know, a guy who believes only what he’s allowed to based on limited education, poorly obtained knowledge and remaining entirely absent from shared, tangible reality.

Just as he’d sacrificed his spine to his mother and his balls to his wife, my brother gave up on contributing to his own child’s development after a few years of awkward half measures. If he attempted to teach or share anything he had deemed substantial, he was blocked out simply by his wife’s sheer desperation for control and a nefarious, insecure need to remove any trace of his or his family’s identity. Her assertion of petty dominance destroyed their shared world and wounded any pertinent family members in her wake.

Five years and a dozen lifetimes later, my wife and I celebrated the arrival of our own son. Based upon cyclical statistics and my continued “loose cannon” reputation, I did what I was now inclined to; the opposite of pedestrian prediction. At six months, I assumed the primary caregiver role; setting aside my own identity to ensure that my son would be safe, happy and active.

When a year later he was diagnosed first with pervasive developmental delay, not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), and autism soon after, I had subdued any fears in search of understanding and proper care. I never once looked in the battered rear view mirror back at my own upbringing as my son was not only my primary priority, but I was able to perceive him as an individual, not an extension of myself nor a hindrance of any sort.

Given the deficits our son was born with, I adapted to his needs at the necessary times. I eventually put aside typical fatherly expectations and together my wife and I embraced his shadows. Although uncharted and unfamiliar at first, I welcomed the darkness of that myre, as it required a lifetime of scarred knuckles and first hand knowledge of being an anomaly to embrace and revere another.

I’m as flawed as ever, but that logic that is so slippery in the hands of most, was precisely what was applied and still continues to be the dominant catalyst of my son’s progress. Yet, my brother’s son, being neglected anything similar to what my own son received, is now a budding underachiever whose only known authority is an intellectually challenged little girl who exists solely in a shell of sub-adequate expression that places her own child beneath the narcissism impressed upon the fucking dogs that crowd their home. All due to the delusion in which my brother exists, the very one that claimed both his spine and testicles has been seamlessly reinforced since his earliest memories. What son would respect a less than equal peer? Karma may be vicious, but reality is relentless.

It’s the unspoken law of parenting that “nothing’s easy.” Well, anything worthwhile never is. But I often wondered what fighting chance my nephew may have had with parents who lived as logical adults and not as vindictive schoolyard failures. See, failure isn’t the lack of fortune, it’s the lack of ever having tried. I can’t blame our father for where he placed his expectations as being the cause. After all, a summer school recidivist isn’t an ivy-league candidate just as a reactive verbal assassin isn’t exactly customer service material. At some point, we are expected to do the best with who we are with what we’ve got. When that’s either squandered or surrendered, we must own it,

Generally, rectifying those shortcomings is expected, but only if those flaws are recognized by the one who is at fault. If that’s too much to ask from those balls deep in their own limited imaginations, then accountability, like any other “given,” is a lost cause.

For those who cannot “man-up” as a father, yet astonishingly measure manhood by their variety of firearms or the horsepower of their used testament to debt, basic definitions are as lost as those who suffer by relying on these “men” as role models. Mainly a kid like my brother’s, who as he enters his teenage years has sadly already developed the core of the person he’s to become. I doubt my nephew’s ability to challenge anything he’s been taught let alone the illogical indoctrination transforming him from victim to aggressor.

Aside from my nephew being pampered with space-devouring collections of toys in order to keep him preoccupied or “shut the fuck up” payments, he was still witnessing to the ongoing displays of the victim/ aggressor roles as portrayed by my brother and his handler. Although they occasionally swapped those titles – taking their fair share of turns at each – my nephew understood that whoever instigated conflict was usually the dominant of the two. And even at those earliest of stages, began to emulate his mother as she made sport of my brother’s humiliation.

As he rose in age, my nephew’s respect for his father didn’t grow as he’d openly laugh at my brother’s defeated rage, knowing that no consequences were to be faced when he dimly sided with the “winning” team. These misgivings as encouraged by his mother which all but guaranteed his total absolution from appropriate repercussions, are now bound to be his demise. As he is soon to learn that referring to the wrong peer as “stupid,” “idiotic” or worse will shatter his imaginary infallibility. Along with his nose and perhaps a tooth. It’s a safe assumption that she’s left those parts out of the equation; the ER visits, temporary disfigurement, and utter loss of self-worth all over pushing the wrong buttons at the worst times. Especially my brother’s.

My son’s natural demeanor isn’t so surprisingly the extreme opposite, however it’s amazing to know that his empathetic habit of comforting distressed classmates with hugs and verbal reassurances came from within himself. He’s half the age of his misguided cousin in years only, yet beyond even my own maturity in terms of awareness and the desire for harmony. My son is not replete with a halo or the accompaniment by the ethereal distant strumming of harps, he is however a reflection of his familiar environment.

It’s childlike foolishness to believe that the requisite of manhood involves the need of a holstered handgun to purchase milk from the local store or to find necessary an exhibition of sadism that somehow validates false dominance over others. No. The definition of being a man is providing sanctuary for my son where he feels entirely safe, where he’s told how very much he’s loved throughout each day, and where his talents, dreams, and ambitions are encouraged with full sincerity. Another facet of manhood – in shared, tangible reality – is the consistent display of respect for everyone encountered in each shared interaction as shown from spoken courtesies to holding doors for strangers while we’re out and about. It’s the respect I have for him, his individuality, his privacy and personal space.

But the most manly behavior and perhaps the most difficult in the basics of truly “manning up” is in my admittance when I’ve been wrong, when even I, my son’s dad, acknowledges my own need for personal accountability. It takes a stronger spine to admit my shortcomings to my seven year old than it does to lurk about with hollow pride merely out of the blatant disregard of a child due to their age.

Although I still maintain an orbit a hundred thousand miles or so from flawlessness, I know that as long as I’m cognizant of where I am, of my exact depth in the darkness, and what the potential damages are of not trying to lead by example, I’m much further from the shadow of failure than anywhere else. My son keeps me as centered as is possible by just being. The smallest measurement of our shared bond is worth more than anything ever known to me; to never have experienced this magic out of fear of another’s shadow is to have denied the very purpose of our own being.

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