An innocent email – an aside, almost – from my mother’s caretaker sent me into a tailspin.
Your brother asked your mother for your address, it said.
My hand froze over the mouse as I stared at the message.
It’s been more than forty years since it began. Time has softened the roughest edges: specific incidents blur, but the soft-focus impressions, the feelings of helplessness and hopelessness mingled with shame over cowardice, complicity, and weakness still burn, imprinted fresh and forever in my mind.
My mother knows. She knows. Shortly after my father’s death, I started to tell her. She countered: too quickly, defensive and shockingly unsurprised.
“It happened a long time ago.” And then she added: “Get over it.”
So I bit my tongue. I never related the whole story, one that wended its sordid way through my childhood and lasted until I was old enough to leave that house behind forever.
I live with shame: shame over being passive and weak. I learned long ago to play along, to give in. It seemed far better than the alternative, for any resistance led to rage and violence and pain.
I live with anger: anger at being unable to put it behind me. After all, the same passivity that shames me enabled me to escape, to survive. So four decades later, it should be no big deal. I should, as my mother said, get over it.
And then more anger: how could my mother dismiss what happened to me?
And then more shame: how could I be angry at my mother for what I allowed to happen?
The cycle feels endless and unbreakable.
I’ve always believed I turned out relatively healthy despite my challenging youth. I’ve enjoyed several long-term romantic relationships and two marriages, one that lasted almost 20 years (albeit 10 years past its expiration date). I have a healthy sexual appetite. I’ve proved to myself that at least physically I.Was.Not.Damaged.Dammit.
But as therapy has begun to peel back the layers of denial, honing in on the root of my pain, I’ve realized that, with few exceptions, my romantic relationships are overly dramatic and take a ridiculously hard emotional toll. In matters of the heart, I continually return to the source, back to what I know: the familiarity of giving in, of accepting others’ terms, of eventually feeling insignificant, justified or not. I acquiesce, I allow myself to disappear.
I’ve been working hard to effect real change, to find self-love and self-worth. In addition to therapy, meditation and a deepening yoga practice are slowly – achingly slowly – beginning to shift my thought patterns, to convert my long-repressed emotional confusion and hurt into something positive.
Or so I thought, until the email.
Get over it get over it get over it pounded in my head as wave upon wave of anxiety masking fear washed over me. It’s no big deal. But my body betrayed my agitated state: my throat tightened; my stomach knotted painfully, twisting biliously, nauseating me.
It seems my mother has no qualms about passing on my address, no concerns for my safety.
My father’s early death drew my brother and mother into a long term, unhealthy, mutually-dependent relationship that mercifully diverted my brother’s attention away from me and towards my mother’s money. The passage of time had made me complacent, for my brother had expressed no interest in my general whereabouts for seventeen years, let alone the particulars of where I lived.
So the email was a shockingly rude wake-up call: Why does he suddenly care? What does he really want?
Just knowing that he wants to know where I live…where my children live…that he could appear on my doorstep at any moment…fills me with unreasonable, blinding, sharply metallic panic.
It is no coincidence that I’ve applied for two jobs that would move me to another part of the state and one that would take me out of state. The need to run, to flee, to disappear into a black hole, has an unshakable death grip upon my paranoid thoughts. I know I am acting crazy, but I can’t rein myself in.
My mother’s voice over the phone is wispy, wavering. She’s just back in her room after a brief hospital stay and she’s particularly frail and vulnerable. She is reminiscing about the past, about our lives together, spinning a tale, re-writing history.
It was a good life, wasn’t it? We had such a nice family, didn’t we? Her tone is tentative, plaintive, seeking assurance.
Her aching desire for validation oozes through the phone, dripping with her need, enveloping my heart in a sympathetic film even as anguish squeezes me painfully. I close my eyes, take a deep breath and swallow hard. I want to scream: How could you fucking think of giving him my address?
Instead, as always, I answer dutifully: Yes, Mom, it was. Yes, Mom, we did.
When I hang up the phone, true to form, I berate myself for being weak and cowardly.
And then I cry.