Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The Whole Truth

Whenever I was around people who were close to my mom (there were many; she spent a great deal of her energy making sure people liked her; it was her main function in life), I have for most of my life, felt the need to defend myself to people who’ve never met me. It was either that, or I was compelled to apologize on her behalf. It’s who I became because of mom.  She was beloved by many. Even people she treated like shit; including me in some cases.

My mom gained their esteem and friendship by painting herself to be someone she never was. You see, my mom may have been one of the One Thousand Points of Light, and she might have advocated for the needy. She even got in trouble doing some work for the Massachusetts DHS, when she brought a baby home because the mother was neglecting it and she couldn’t get anyone to respond. It wasn’t unusual, as kids, to come home from school to find some random person living in our home; some young person she found panhandling for money by the metro in Brussels to fund their continued journey. She brought home Irish kids, Scottish kids, Americans, Brits… she brought them home like strays, and fed them, and cared for them, and sent them along with money so they weren’t lost in this world, or alone.  On the outside she was fucking amazing.

My mom also spent a lot of time telling people terrible things about us. Whomever was ‘bad ranger’ at the time, she would rip to shreds. So when we met her friends, whichever target child she’d maligned would be received with a sneer of disdain and disapproval from complete strangers.  This happened a great deal to me in these last years. All her little biddies, they glare at me because I am in their estimation, based on my mother’s words, the antichrist.  Yet this antichrist still marched in as much as she could to pay attention to the old lady, and spend time with her—and more importantly, to allow her to spend time with Alex.

One of the former employees of the care facility told me that I was her favourite. That she spoke well of me all the time, and not of my other sisters. But several of her senior friends had different opinions. So it’s impossible to tell. It’s impossible to know exactly what she said and to whom. It really doesn’t matter, but it is a mark of her character that has always irked me. All those people that showed up at her memorial adored her. They all had such nice things to say about her. Of course they did. She was who she wanted them to think she was.

But I’ve talked about the flip side. The stuff people don’t know about. And as I process the loss of my mother, I am brought back to those things; which, because of their negative aspects, arrive in my memory with clarity and vividness few memories share.  I had convinced myself at the very beginning of this period that I would let it all go with her. That it would fade away now that the source is gone. As if by clipping away the trunk of the invasive plant, its suckers would wither and die. But the truth is the truth. And I have to accept that my mother was not a good person. And I carry a great deal of guilt for feeling that, because of all the good she has done, and the moments she was good to us.

The last time I took my mother to visit my little brother John, this was just before my anxiety issues kicked in and I could still just drive wherever I pleased without having a nervous breakdown; my mother entered the residential home where my brother is cared for. He, as always, was slumped in a sofa chair, his thumb and index finger pressed firmly in his eye sockets, sleeping.  His hair, kept short and manageable, his clothes stretched across his round belly, his five o’clock shadow and thick eyebrows so reminiscent of my father. She went to him, and kissed his face, and he dropped his hand and looked at her. With a grunt of acknowledgement, he waved his hand and put his fingers back over his eyes. She’d spend about ten minutes telling the caretakers what sacrifices she made for him, and then turn to me and say: Okay, let’s go.  Then in the car, she would apply all the strategies for me to take her shopping somewhere on the way back.

John is a product of extreme neglect coupled with diligent care. As a child, my parents enrolled him in an intern program with the Belgian school system; where he stayed for two weeks, with a home visit every other weekend, and a parental visit on the others.  He attended a stellar school, with amazing teachers who were trained beautifully to work with severely developmentally disabled children and young adults. When he was there, he had structure, he was happy and he could communicate.

My mom never learned sign language. She never had us learn it. Nobody in my family did. Yet we have a brother who is deaf. He was absent more than he was home. Which was a good thing, because when he was home, my mother was in no way equipped to  provide proper care for him. She could barely manage her non-disabled children as it was.

When John got home, he was promptly locked in his tiny bedroom to spend the entire weekend in the dark, with only brief breaks for food and hygiene.  He was so frustrated sometimes, he broke things. Even windows. His room had been a nursery, so it had a window inside that was viewable from the corridor upstairs, and then an outside window. He smashed both of them. And they were both boarded up like a shanty house. He smeared his feces on the walls. He would scream in frustration and fling himself against the door.  As kids, we all had to listen to it, and feel the depth of misery for it, but were powerless to do anything about it. To this day, none of us can talk about it without a profound painful sense of guilt and anger. At ourselves and at mom. We were kids, we know it wasn’t our fault, but it doesn’t help to appease that pain.

My dad was noticeably silent on the matter. I don’t know exactly what he felt about this. But there were some pretty hellacious fights over him, many that came to blows. My father resented my mother insisting on having him, when she was presented the choice and told that the child was abnormal. She wanted her son. It was paramount to her, even if it meant she would neglect him for his entire life. When it came to the parental visits to my brother’s school on the odd weekends, my mother never went. It was my father who went and spent the day with him.

When my mother took up with her lover Omar, who would turn out to be my molester, there was one good thing that came from that, and that was Omar’s unease about this situation. Even a child molester couldn’t deal with it. So when my dad was working, or away, he was often there, and he would take John out of his room, feed him, play with him, and pay attention to him. Part of the reason why I accepted Omar to be how he was with me was because I loved him for the care he gave my brother. In a childhood where trusting adults was a dangerous game, there was this one little shimmering good thing next to so many terrible things.

When my mom decided out of the blue that she wanted to return to the US, a several years after Omar killed himself, she got my father to agree, and within a month of this decision, which was not imparted to anyone, even me until the day before the flight (not kidding) we were moving back to the states after 20 years. She left John behind. She also abandoned our saddle club with horses still in the stalls.  She abandoned a lot of things.

It took several weeks to even get her to acknowledge that something had to be done about John. She flew back to Brussels and disappeared for several more weeks. When I called the school, they said they hadn’t even heard from her.  Hunting her down was a task and half. I had to go through a friend of a friend of a friend, cross-Atlantic call after call. When I tracked her down, she was sofa surfing at a friend’s house, partying in Brussels and hadn’t even gone to see John. I talked to her briefly, and she finally said she was going to come home with John.

I was worried the moment we arrived in the US, because I was not familiar with the social services nor with what sort of options could be had for a young adult like John. I discussed it with my dad, who was ambivalent and unhelpful. And when mom got there, I started researching places, and her response was “I DON’T WANT HIM IN AN INSTITUTION!”  All I could foresee was a repeat of those weekends of John locked away in a room.  It was a worry that came to fruition in many ways.

While in New England, John rarely if never left the house. They took him to a doctor to have him medicated, and my brother spent his days both furiously bashing down the house or sleeping. His care became my responsibility on the most part. I lived in that house until I was 27—my entire life crammed into  a small bedroom with a locked door while my mom went around being one of a Thousand Points of Light, and spent her evenings carousing with a bunch of crusty old men at a membership club bar.  When my dad retired, he took over the medication and bathing of John, and I did the housework.  When I decided to move out and get my own life, there was a meltdown in the family that went as far afield as my eldest brother, from whom I had not heard for over a decade—he was sure to call and chastise me for ‘leaving daddy with everything’.

But leave I did. It wasn’t a total split, until I moved to Oregon. I still went there. I still cleaned the kitchen and did laundry or it would just pile up on the floor in mounds. I still cooked holiday meals. I still went there and put up a Christmas tree for John, because if I didn’t nobody would.

I often feel my leaving New Hampshire is what caused the final spiral of my mother and father’s home life.  Perhaps, I even took part in my father giving up entirely on everything. At least that’s my theory. Because the light in his eyes was so faded the last time I spoke to him face to face and he was lucid. There are members of my family who still think I was selfish to leave—spoken while they nestled in the lushness of their full and meaningful lives, jobs and families.

John’s care went downhill, naturally. My battle to get him cared for by the state was lost. My mom’s idea of feeding him a good meal was to microwave him a burrito or bring him Burger King. The laundry in the laundry room was knee high when my husband went to clean out the house. The place was disgusting. I cannot even begin to describe how disgusting, but if you watch Hoarders, the really dirty episodes, you’d have the right idea.

When she arrived with Dad, and dad died so soon afterwards, I watched John’s appearance worsen. His nails were like talons, his beard was like a homeless person; he stunk, she never bathed him. She would drug him with old, out-dated medications so he would sleep most of the day, and she would leave him alone there so she could go shopping. Her house quickly became a disgusting shambles. Her health failed.

She ended up in the hospital, and she would be there for some time. It was the opportunity I needed, so I swooped in with the county and got John into care. And from that point on, for the first time in many years, I was able to go a day without worrying about John.  I visited him to find him shaven and clean, he’s in a day program, he’s got a routine, he eats well, he’s in clean clothes, his nails are trimmed, he’s going to a doctor, he saw a dentist for the first time in his life, he is by all standards as good as he can be.  Some things are too late. Diabetes, the blindness, his failing body. But he is okay.

My mother loved to cry about how I didn’t take her down to see him. I did; many times. But it was never a good visit. It was tedium for her. I’d drive twenty five miles one way so she could say after four minutes of telling the caregivers how amazing she was for John, “Okay, let’s go.” I got tired of it. It was just a way to get me to take her to Marshalls or Ross or Payless. For her to add to her newly growing hoard, and to abuse me miserably with accusations and nastiness. 

Finally, last year, she was in a particularly rankled mood, sour as vinegar the moment I arrived. I said: “Hey, let’s go see John. “


“You know, your son…?” I replied, irritated. She sighed wearily and rolled her eyes.

“All he does is sit. And I don’t have money for shopping. Your sister never sends me money…” and she went on to talk shit about my sister.  At that point, I decided I was done with taking her to see John. If she had the desire to do it, she could talk to the facility people and arrange a ride herself.

John is only one of the difficult things I have to hold on to because of her. Her predilection to abandon things, and leave me with the detritus was another—and then her subsequent blaming of me for the failure. She did it several times before I was even 20. 

If I hadn’t managed her books and payroll at her ‘successful’ temp business which was recognized by senators and the like, she would owe Massachusetts so much money, it boggles the mind to try and even imagine how much.  When I left for Oregon and quit that job, she closed the business down a few months later, owing about $70,000 in taxes.

She liked the beginnings of things. She left the aftermath to me. I accepted it, why? I don’t know. For the vain hope that she would realize I was there for her and show me a little respect? Who the hell knows?

I have so much unresolved anger towards her. How tempted I was to just tell her all those things when she was half-paralyzed, but still there. I could have. But instead, I am going to try to kiss it all up to the universe as they say. Write it down, and put the truth out there, so I can know that at least someone knows she wasn’t by any means the saint she painted herself to be. That all those ‘sacrifices (sah-kree-faysus as she pronounced it)’ she claims to have made, were not by any means selfless. Everything came with a price. Psychological interest, as I used to call it.

Did I love my mom? Absolutely. Did she love me? I suppose in whatever capacity she was capable of, yes, I think she did. She even may have loved John.  But mom wasn’t really able to love the way normal people love. She did not love herself, and that is the root of it. Her utter dissatisfaction with her own being is what spurred her forward every day.

It's hard, but I try to understand her.  Her self-reproach, the way any criticism of her would invoke wrath and a lifelong grudge. The way she would write people off, good people, and give value to the biggest losers on the planet.  She was who she was.  She was good, she was bad, she was an asshole, and a glorious woman.

Once, back in NH, a little bit before I moved to Oregon, I was met my mom at a shopping center in Salem to pick her up and drive her somewhere. She pulled up next to me and parked, locked up her car and was getting into my car, when I noticed a couple of teenage girls standing by a car with their doors and trunk open. They were pulling out empty bags of junk food, cups, garbage and all sorts of other debris and brazenly tossing it onto the parking lot.

“Oh my god! What little assholes!” I exclaimed.  My mom’s small eyes locked onto them, her lips tightened into a straight, hard line, and she wordlessly slid out of the car and slammed the door.

I watched her blaze across the parking lot like a bull, and I could not hear, but I could see her just losing it on these teenagers. She stood there, all 5 foot 2” of her, arms flailing, hands slashing, and the girls cowering back with each spittle-laden expletive that came out of her mouth.

The girls, to my astonishment, started collecting their trash. They gathered it up and threw it back into the car. Mom stood by like this angry bastion until every last piece was back in the vehicle. She then remained until they got back into their car and drove away. As they passed us on the main road, they flipped her the bird, which she responded to by blowing them a kiss. I swear I saw their heads exploding. Well, maybe not, but still, it was possible.  She got back into the car, put on her seatbelt and looked at me expectantly.

“Well? What are you doing staring at me? Let’s go already!” she snapped.  I did exactly as she asked, and put the car in reverse. My relationship with mom was like that. It was a roller coaster ride of gloriously brilliant moments followed by belly-flopping pits of negativity.

At least she wasn't boring.

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