I stepped on the bottom stair and it felt as if it was going to give way: somehow it settled under my foot. I noticed the wear on the center of the stairs: carpet worn over twenty years of people going up and down.
I never lived in this house; it was built when I was in college. My brother only lived there for 6 months. When they decided to build, we asked them: why such a big house when neither of your children will ever live in it?
We should have known that the house was part of it, of course, how could it not be? But we were young then: I was 21 and my brother 18.
When my father died in November, my brother and I were working from an assumption that the problems were all caused by him, and therefore, upon his death, our mother would just calm down and seem better; maybe she would become the person she used to be before the last ten years or so. She used to have this smile that was so pretty and a glint in her eyes. Now the look in her eyes is of worry, judgment, or tears. I have a horrible photo of us from years ago. I must be in my mid-20s. It is a selfie from before smartphones and I am smiling with some crazy twenties hair-do, and my mom is pretending to smile with tears in her eyes. I hate that photo.
A few years ago, I wrote a post here entitled “My Mother’s House“, based on wandering through an old, huge, Maine summer house that she was selling. I loved the house and how out-of-time it was. As she was getting it ready for an open house, I wandered all its rooms and thought about my mother and her life and my life and the lives of all the people who had lived in that house.
That essay poem was written almost exactly four years ago. My brother and I have discovered that our assumption about our mother was wholly wrong. I would now like to adjust my earlier concept of my mother’s sense of self being divided into a series of adjoined rooms. It seems to me now that there is only one room and it is the room of Marriage.
I see marriage in the 21st century as a radical act, as it is not socially necessary and wholly driven by choice. Hopefully, the choice to marry is happy and joyful, and the relationship itself is based on communication, affection, mutual respect, and unconditional love. Marriage is hard, and even the great ones have difficulties. I cannot imagine being in a marriage for 44 years that was unhappy for the last 32.
Last week at the table in the kitchen, I sat with my mother and tried to talk about some of the elephants in the room. She told me last week that she thinks that they were happy until 1990, the year he lost his job. She said that they were fine before that, but since then it had been a neverending series of dramas, fights, disappointments, and financial recklessness. These elephants all have my father’s name stamped on them somewhere, but for my mom, too, there is this indelible stamp that says “Marriage” on it. Marriage as defined by social status, belonging, and that dirtiest of dirty words, should.
If you have been a reader here for a while, you know that I hate the word should; should only serves to make you feel guilty.
Like the carpeted bottom stair on the staircase that I noticed last week, my mother’s concept of Marriage is worn out. It makes no sense; the dead horse has been beaten and is now an unrecognizable heap. And yet, Marriage persists as a defining characteristic of her life. She said to me that going to England (a recent trip to do my dad’s ashes) was very emotional for her because it represented the End of Her Marriage. I felt bewildered: how could she want a marriage like hers?
It was then that I realized that she did want that marriage, that she had wanted it the whole time, that both of them had wanted it, and it was a creation of both she and him. We couldn’t blame him anymore: this was mutually assured destruction.
I don’t know enough about domestic violence to share psychological reasoning or meaningful quotes here. I am committed to reading more books about domestic violence and abuse moving forward. Here, I am confused and saddened and I am angry. I am angry at both of them, and one of them is dead.
I asked her why she stayed when she was offered multiple opportunities to leave and she said that “children need a father”. I said, “children needed that guy?”. I told her that lots of single moms do an amazing job raising kids. It was clear that it was not that we (the children) needed this father. My mother felt that she needed my father; which would be fine if there hadn’t been the years of consistent abuse, denigration, violence, codependency, financial hardship, and alcoholism.
When I think about the years of manic crazy fights that my father and I had when my mom and brother would just stand mutely by, when I think about all the times that my father was horrible to my mother and she would sit and cry and we would console her, when I think of all the times that my mother told my brother and I stories about their blowouts and we would listen and console her, I feel, at this moment, very very angry because it seems a very selfish path to follow by two people who supposedly really cared about their kids.
Sidebar: my parents care about us very much, don’t get me wrong. But just like the famous trial that we all followed religiously in the spring of 2022, the two parents involved had no business being together because their togetherness was explosive, damaging, and, seemingly, permanently harmful.
The lady who I traveled to England with, who I sat across from last week, is not the lady I remember from when I was a kid. She is a lady who has locked herself inside her Marriage. (I keep capitalizing Marriage because it seems that my mom regards it as this meaningful institution for her that demands capitalization due to its importance in the definition of her life. For me, I would use Friendship, Creativity, and Reflection as my pillars of identity, for example).
What to do when the guy who was abusive to you, and you in turn abused, dies quickly without saying he loves you? It seems the solution is to pretend that Marriage was exactly what you wanted, that you were both in love, that it could have been different but it wasn’t and you just have to “deal with it and move on” (one of my mom’s favorite sayings). The problem being, of course, that she is not dealing with it and moving on, because she has never dealt with her relationship and has never moved on.
I know that this is my mother’s work and not mine. I have to step away because she is on a journey and has to travel it herself. This reflection of mine also has codependency written all over it, and I am really working on stepping away from that tendency of mine. And I, who lives across the country from her, can do this with dedication and practice and forgiveness when I slip up and engage with her about it. I have my own complications to understand; the biggest one was realizing last week that it was never just my dad, but the issues that impacted me came from both of them. I know that their relationship was their choice, but it impacted me so much. In some ways, it created the sweet, good, smart, beautiful, creative, and sensitive person that I am. It also contributed to some major anxiety, trust issues, fear, hyper-vigilance, and some strange physical ticks.
I am fascinated by grief, which I will begin to write about here in detail. Grief is a strange thing; something that each of us will encounter many times in our life, and each time will be entirely different. More on grief later.
For today, all I can say here is that many aspects of my personality are present, and are quite shocked at the behavior of my mother and the realizations of myself. Little Patience is standing over in the corner with her mouth open in disbelief. Teenage Patience is standing next to her, smoking a cigarette and looking pissed. Adult Patience, present Patience, is standing tall next to them, remembering to breathe, trying to understand, and knowing that ultimately, everything is ok.