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  • Karl Thunemann

Estrangement Protocol—Part I

Weeks drag into months, threatening perpetuity as I have girded myself to address the most perplexing of my loving-kindness tenets. I longed to put it aside in favor of other epistles that seemed poised to write themselves, but obsession would not be denied. Indeed, this fixation dispatched a dream to assert its primacy. This is the dream, as I took it down:

Driving between Seattle and Portland, confused. Seem to be headed for Seattle, but the sense (as opposed to landmarks, which are absent) is of traveling toward Portland. I meant to be on the freeway, but this is an obscure road, paved but crumbling around the edges. Not quite two lanes—no center stripe. There is an ominous sense, underscored when I pass a clearing with a huge severed head—maybe four feet across—a white man with a beard and shaggy dark hair. So out of scale! I slow, hoping to catch a glimpse of the severed neck, but I can’t. Writing, I think of Charles Manson, but I am not sure of the connection.

I slow, hugging to the right. Other cars pass. This road is in very poor condition. I seem to pass other spectacles like the head, but the images are vague and fading. Now I am in Portland and think of my estranged daughter who lives there. Have I come to see her? Not clear. Aha! I must be pondering estrangement protocol. My daughter forbids me to contact her. I wonder if this ban extends to preventing me from passing through her city.

Now I’m on a different road at the base of a high bluff. I pull over and watch a passenger train, moving along the top of the bluff—headed south, like me. The train is noisy. The tracks seem to bob and weave, and I half expect the train to come tumbling down.

I required several days to connect this dream to what is going on in my life. And I am still astounded, because now it seems so self-evident. I am not certain how long I have been estranged from my daughter. The seed was planted many years ago when her partner banned me from their home. Nobody told me for the longest time, and once I was clued in, I began to realize that several decisions or judgments about me had emanated from that household. Word traveled slowly, by osmosis. Over the next dozen years the chill settled in, with a few brief remissions. Finally, I sent my daughter a card asking if she would like to make a fresh start. She shot back a terse email that struck me as cold, judgmental, and condescending. If I undertook an answer, she warned, I would only be demonstrating that I have no boundaries.

I still wanted to respond. Sometimes I would summon up her note just to pose this reflexive question: Why would I seek a relationship with someone who would send me such an email? Eventually, the note disappeared behind the veils of the great god Yahoo. I had not committed it to memory. For this, I feel grateful!

Suddenly, the dream made sense. I was traveling a dangerous road in my attempt to reach ‘Portland.’ If I took the train instead, it might jump the tracks. And that severed head?

My thinking had shifted in the weeks before my dream. Another younger woman in my circle seemed plagued by recurring instability. Were she my daughter, I surmised, I would feel guilty for what had befallen her. But as for my daughter, I was less inclined to cringe. From everything I hear from my wife, our daughter’s life is going well. Except, of course, for closing the door on her father.

Once again, I began framing a letter in my mind—not to make a case, but to let her know about certain elements in my life, especially concerning my health, that she might eventually want to know.  I told myself I would decide later whether to mail the letter myself or direct my executor to do so after I die. But this desperate dodge bore no fruit. I wrote no actual words—and made little progress—until I had this dream.    

Suddenly, the dream made sense. I was traveling a dangerous road in my attempt to reach “Portland.” If I took the train instead, it might jump the tracks. And that severed head? It reminded me of a counselor I saw for a while who accused me of living too much in my head and not enough in my gut or heart. The dream suggests that I may have sliced off that head, but I am still on the wrong road or track. I decided against writing any letter, Instead, I should try to establish a protocol to govern my behavior in estrangement.

I found precious little guidance on the internet. Lots of discussion of funeral etiquette should someone die in estrangement. My daughter will have to deal with that on her own. And lots of discussion of “parental alienation,” where one parent tries to turn children toward a dark view of the other partner. None of that here.

One writer blamed parents for refusing to respect their child’s mate. I have had plenty of difficulty with my daughter’s partner, who seems to view me as the poster geezer for privileged heterosexual white males. She’s entitled to her opinion, but this estrangement belongs to my daughter, not her.

I also came across the opinion that the person who invokes the estrangement is the only one who can undo it. This certainly applies here. It’s challenging to assert one’s ownership of boundaries when the mere fact of this claim offends the boundaries drawn by another. I decide that I will not write that letter. But I wonder if making the same points in this blog is anything more than a superbly passive-aggressive way of making the same assertion.   Maybe my daughter would never see it. (Do you know anyone who follows blogs? My principal reader asks. And of course I didn’t. But that doesn’t guarantee secrecy!)  I could take refuge in the fact that we no longer share a surname, but I have no way to keep someone who knows us both from forwarding it to her. So I can’t make a case for myself here. I will try only to explain how estrangement feels and perhaps to lay out a few gingerly steps toward establishing an estrangement protocol of my own. Baby steps.

For a time I was estranged from both my children. The sense of grief and powerlessness that enveloped me was more powerful than any I have experienced, deeper than what followed the deaths of my parents or sister, of my favorite aunts or of close contemporaries (one such loss came in my mid-20s, the other in my early 60s). Researchers say that in estrangement between parents and adult children, the former are likely to hope for reconciliation, while the latter are more likely to view the schism as permanent. Numerous well-meaning contemporaries told me not to worry—it would pass. But I could not muster any such roseate glow, I could not find it even in the “now” that my daughter attached to her repudiations. To me this estrangement still feels like the eternal now.

Still, I can see there are seasons and stages to this grief, which I discovered in my lengthy quest to find images to help illustrate this experience. First, I took up the image of two figures walking within immense traffic arrows, each diverging at a right angle. It invokes the aura of permanence and irrevocability. And then I came upon an image portraying people standing upon outcroppings far above a bottomless chasm. A terrifyingly inadequate bridge of ropes and wooden slats might connect them, but it simply suggests the ties and tugs that still draw them together are too fragile to be of use. Perhaps there is a third stage, where both parties turn away from the precipice, taking with them some solace in the recollection that once there was something that united them. But, ahh, so impossible to illustrate!

I must address my loving-kindness principle that is in play here. In response to the sense of alienation, it posits: May I be loved; may I BE love. It extends to May all who are or have been estranged be loved; may all who are or have been estranged BE love. I truly wish this for myself and for my child, as well as for numerous others—family, friends, and casual acquaintances—who might be soothed by such a benediction. In due time I came to see estrangement as an affliction of the soul. May all those who are or have been estranged find a path to reconciliation with the soul … may we be engaged in soul-building …may I be engaged in soul-building.

I can imagine my daughter sharply thanking me not to mess with her soul, but that boundary does not distress me. I assert this in kindness, recognizing that relationship to soul is an individual matter.

This is enough for today. I will take up further stirrings of an estrangement protocol in a future epistle—it is so personal—when the spirit moves me.


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