It was a February night long ago when I gave up.
The straw that broke the camel’s back was no more than a straw, a brother’s birthday party at a restaurant. He had brought his girlfriend along. The hostess led us to a round table with a massive centerpiece. I happened to sit on one side of it, and the girlfriend on the other side. At some point during the evening, we put up our hands and waved to one another over the explosion of fake flowers that blocked the other from view.
I had just graduated from college in December, and lived in my parents’ house to help my mother who was recovering from a health problem. I drove her where she needed to go, lifted what she couldn’t, picked up my youngest brother from his elementary school, did all the myriad little tasks that require two hands and that my father wasn’t doing. I worked a part-time job at the local library and was putting together the ten thousand forms to become a substitute teacher.
The party ended and we went home. My bedroom door opened and my mother stormed in, incandescent with rage that I hadn’t spoken to the girlfriend over dinner. When I explained that she and I couldn’t even see one another without putting our heads on the plates of the people to the sides of us, she exploded. I was hateful. I was rude. And one day, I was going to push everyone away and die alone. Then she stormed out, and I realized that I was done. I moved out that night and left most of my belongings behind.
Like I said, it was a straw.
My mother had a fearsome temper, and chose circumstances in life that were sure to goad it into frequent explosions. She was accustomed to wealth and comfort as a child, and married a poor man without any ambitions for the thrill of horrifying her parents. Disliking that her lifestyle had downgraded, she nagged him viciously to earn more, work more, be more than what he was. He fought back, and the battle was on. She resented her children for how much time and money they cost, and then decided to have more of them. Her affection was incapable of extending to every child at the same time. We existed on the shaking precipice of her love with one or another of us always clinging by his or her fingernails to the edge. The smallest thing could knock me off. Something wrong that I had done in a dream of hers. A shoe that came untied on the soccer field. A mistake in a musical performance. A friend she didn’t like. A look.
A centerpiece on a table.
We were already on perilous ground by that point. Desiring to turn out a family of musicians*, she was aggrieved to see the oldest reach adulthood and pick another path. Upon learning my sexual orientation, she wished that there existed a prenatal test to determine homosexuality so that I could have been aborted. She was horrible to animals. She made up terrible things (as she always had) about my friends** in the hopes that the friendships would break and I’d stay home to be with her more. She didn’t want to share me, and at the same time, couldn’t stand who I was.
I was tired. I was so damn tired. I just wanted her to be happy, and I couldn’t make it happen. I was sick of the vicious, endless fighting between her and my father, which strung the children out between them and forced us to pick sides. I had dropped out of school for a semester to take care of her at her most sickly, covered up one of their affairs to protect their marriage, hidden credit card offers at her bidding so my father didn’t get us into more debt. I was sick of her threatening to commit suicide if my youngest brother didn’t do his homework.
I just couldn’t do it any more. I moved out. I tried for the next year to maintain a relationship with my mother***, and then gave up entirely and moved far, far away. I gave her no address or phone number, only an email. I couldn’t carry her insults into a new home. I wanted to start as fresh as a person can, not be steeling myself at every phone call and visit.
Estrangements are messy things. They horrify people. A father of a coworker kindly offered to call my mother and mediate a peace treaty between us. He couldn’t envision anything more crushing than his children vanishing into the world. People assume that I hate my mother, and that could not be farther from the truth.
Do I love her? I can’t answer that. But I don’t hate her. I hate that she makes one bad decision after another, and then wonders why things turn out poorly. I hate that she blames everyone but herself for her circumstances. I hate that she is so insecure that she told me as a teenager that she believed my father might have molested me as a child****, in order to make sure I loved her and her only. I hate that she can’t admit her mistakes, or even recognize them. I hate that my childhood home was a gladiator ring and I was at the mercy of her thumb. But those aren’t the same as hating her.
I pity her. So many years later, I still just want her to be happy. To find a good therapist and stick with it, to get the divorce she talked about for decades and move on to a healthier place. To send me an email that says she did some right things in bringing me up, and some wrong things, too. She’s sorry for the wrong things.
And I remember the right things. She’s a brilliant woman who drives herself hard, and I drive myself hard the same way. The two of us, we get things done. We strive for excellence in our respective fields*****. If there were a way to surgically tighten all of the loose screws in her psychological framework, she would be the most awesome person imaginable. I want to know that woman, the one charging down the freeway of life at a hundred miles an hour. But I have my actual mother, who bumps along on the crappy frontage road and misses every on-ramp to choose ramshackle detours that get her lost in the boonies and make her furious.
I wish that I could have been a child that made her proud. I will always wish that. As a teenager, I hunted for ages for the perfect Christmas present that would make her happy and keep her that way. I still come across knick-knacks in stores that I want to buy for her and put in the mail. This will do it. That will do it.
Nothing will do it. I can’t fix her. For my own sanity, I can’t be around her brokenness either. Occasionally I get updates from one of my siblings, and she’s only gotten worse. My father has, too. So I stay away. I don’t know what else to do. Every year and sometimes more, I review if this is the right decision. I analyze and reanalyze and end up in the same place. I don’t want to dread the ringing of my phone or the knocks on my door. I won’t be a troop in her battles against her husband and my siblings. I can’t listen to her insults and crazy stories, and she is incapable of giving me any support.
People chide that estranged children will be overcome with remorse when their parents die. I’m still waiting to see if that’s true. I think rather that I’m going to be mourning the person she could have been, and the relationship we would have shared. The mom who would have blinked in surprise at turning out a gay writer rather than a straight musician, but who said, “Well, you’re my kid and I love you no matter what. Let’s get some nachos and watch Hoarders.” The mom that I could have sent Christmas presents to in the hopes that she would enjoy them, not that she’d be fixed by them.
When my mother dies, it’ll bring to an end the admittedly miniscule chance that she could change, even just a little. That’s what I’ll be mourning. She walked away from me long before I walked away from her, and it will be too late for us to walk back to one another. The estrangement will forever be permanent then, the giant centerpiece between life and death shielding even the tips of our fingers in a wave.
* Despite the fact that none of us liked music, or had any talent for it.
** Strangely, she did the same thing with my brother about his girlfriend in the hopes that he would dump her. My mother hated his girlfriend. That made it all the more bizarre when she attacked me for the Centerpiece Incident of Mimi’s Café.
*** My father had by this time sunk into a mysterious world of conspiracies and other insanity, so I didn’t have much to do with him.
**** My very strange and occasionally violent father can be found on several pages in the DSM-V, but no, he did NOT do that.
***** I don’t always achieve it (why, HELLO, Graveyard of Bad Book Ideas), but dammit, I try.