“I don’t think you are that lovable. When I think about it, no one will ever love you the way your father loved me. You’re already too old for someone to love you that long during your life.” When she said this to me, my father had died less than a year ago. Clearly, he was the only parent who had loved me. If, that is, I am indeed lovable at all.
There is a long list of things I wish my mother had never told me, all of which have been divulged in the time since my father died. No, I’m wrong already, she has been giving me these small jewels of information for years, I’ve just been sheltered in how I have translated the information.
Like so many children, I had an idealized perception of my parents’ unending love for me. I faithfully believed that my parents would always support me, that there was always a safety net called “home” to cradle me in times of dire need or desperation. That belief began to puncture around the same time my mother’s cardiologist recommended she drink one glass of red wine a day. I’m not sure it still qualifies as one glass when the goblet holds the contents of two-thirds of a bottle of Merlot.
“It’s not my job to take care of you, or any of my kids. You are all adults and I’m not responsible anymore for caring about you. Everyone tells me so.” She slurs through her proclamation in the weeks following my father’s heart attack. While I’m sure the statements from her friends and family involve some comment about how we are adults and my mother should practice self-care, what she has heard is that she is alleviated fully of any responsibility to monitor our emotional welfare following my father’s sudden demise. She locks herself in her bedroom and wails, glugging down additional glasses of boxed wine, which she stores under her bathroom sink along with a half-empty handle of Smirnoff.
I’m not sure when her glass of wine a day became a problem, but my sister, a decade my junior, relays that this is the only mother she has ever known. We’re lost now, or lost again. Adopted children, maybe, always remain orphans a tiny bit. We will always be orphans now.
“Your dad, he wasn’t perfect. He did a lot of things wrong. He didn’t even try to be intimate with me for five years. But he loved me. He did.” Yes, counseling my mother through her own issues with feeling loved and wanting me to love her, despite her assertions that I, myself, cannot be loved, is perhaps the most trying element of those drunken conversations. She wants reassurance, she wants validation, that even without true intimacy, my father loved her. I tell her that he did, even though she wouldn’t remember that I said it later. Even one minute later, as we repeated the conversation verbatim. Yes, my father loved you.
It is not a lie.
“I might have to put the dog to sleep. Now I know she isn’t really in pain, but she’s just so much work, and she isn’t my dog. I never wanted her. Your dad should’ve taken her when he left.” She says this, as though in the midst of his heart attack, my father motioned to our family pet, who has been with us for over a decade, and asked her if she would like to die too. If the border collie had known that no human in the house would ever stroke her furry mane again until her own death, she may have agreed.
Years ago, I wanted the dog. I was moving out of state for the first time, and I thought the transition would be easier if I had the dog with me, the dog who adored me and always made me feel less alone. But my mother had refused, claiming I was selfishly stealing my sister’s pet from her. Yet now, it’s a threat. If I don’t take the dog, she will let her die. She didn’t do it right away. My mother waited a few months before she killed her. She called me three weeks later and nonchalantly mentioned the dog was dead. “I told you, didn’t I? Well, it doesn’t matter, she went in peace. We buried her by the side of a road or something. I don’t really remember. I know you said you wanted to cremate her, but that was too expensive, so we just buried her. In peace.”
We. My mother had been part of a we for so many decades that she had to replace the we. My dad died, and my mother “had a new love of her life within weeks of his death. It was obvious that there was no newness to the new relationship, except that it was no longer the “deep, dark secret” that she used to gurgle about when she was inebriated, now it was a public exhibition of her infidelity. He new love was uncouth, untethered, unconventional – a true opportunist. With a large house and a business to sell, my mother was an opportunity. Around this same time, my mother only took our calls by speaker phone and with supervision. Her new love answered for her, spoke for her, coached her responses. The script was always the same: she was having fun, we were selfish bastard children. I wanted to feel sorry for her, but it was easier to watch her trickle into yet another relationship where all of her thoughts were created by the other person.
When I was a little girl, my mother and I used to watch made-for-tv movies together, mostly featuring women making bad choices or trapped in bad circumstances. When women abandoned their children for flashy men, or refused to leave abusers and controllers who hurt their kids, my mother would proclaim gravely, “I would never choose a man over my kids; my kids are the most important thing in the world to me.” I’m not sure when that vow became a lie: the moment it left her lips, or years later, when it was no longer convenient and her new boyfriend told her that selfishness was the true path to happiness. “I can’t see you if you don’t want to meet with him,” she said though I had not spoken to her for a year. I extended the olive branch, offering to meet alone, without her lover as a chaperone. She refused to abandon him and chose not to see me. It was the anniversary of the day I was adopted.
“This isn’t home for anyone,” she said when she unceremoniously sold our family home. “I hope that you all leave and find your own homes.” She wanted us all to disperse, to find the wind and blow like leaves. We did. We weren’t meant to grow roots, only wings. She didn’t seem to notice or care if the wings had developed, if the others had the capacity to fly or not. She only cared that the nest was to be empty and she would be free to find flight.
Now she is a nomad, too young to retire, living off leftover money and waiting for my father’s social security. “He’d want that for me, to be able to take care of me,” she says, as I write checks for essential things and try to plan safety nets for my siblings. My mother used to say her greatest fear in life was that she would get old and that none of her children would want to care for her, would not welcome her into our homes, that we would let her die alone. “Even though,” she would say. “Even though I took care of you your entire lives.”
Life is a series of ironies, it seems.