A few years ago, when I lived in Southern Pines, I was seeing a therapist whose words--both terrifying and conciliatory--still hang with me today. I began seeing her for a number of reasons, but mainly because up until that point, from the time I was a small girl, I had sort of always been in therapy and during this particularly lonely and confusing time, I sought the comfort that a weekly session with somebody whose sole purpose was to help me better navigate myself provided.
At the time, I was struggling particularly with the ever-strained relationship between my mother and I. Friends who have known about our dynamic over the years wonder at the fact that I even still talk to her, and ask me if I wouldn't be happier to just let it go and let the distance between us become something too great to traverse rather than something like a river bed that swells and dries, inconstant, only sometimes providing nourishment and only sometimes providing passage. I keep her close enough to hurt me, they've said. I told my therapist that at times the burden of carrying this relationship with me into my life felt stifling and harmful and that I thought it hampered my ability to nourish and maintain intimate relationships. I lived on eggshells growing up and I didn't want to do that as an adult. Just when I thought things were okay, or that I was okay, and let my guard down long enough to be vulnerable to her again, something would happen to send me back into the cave I had begun diggings just as soon as I understood that my hands were more than shades; they were shovels.
They could hide things and they could make things and they could dig things up.
I told her I wanted to say goodbye and never turn back and that maybe I could rewrite the narrative of my life and anytime I met somebody new, just tell them that I had been orphaned or something. I could make up some story about how although there was nobody around to really love me the only way that parents really can love their children, at least there weren't people around who made me feel unloveable.
She didn't think this was a good or healthy idea. She said, "Unfortunately, you cannot remove yourself from the tapestry of your life. You came from something, from somewhere, from somebody, and you cannot erase that. You are genetically and spiritually linked to those who brought you into this world. To remove yourself from your pack is to suffer." My argument was that it creates more suffering to remain in a dynamic where you are always operating from a place of scarcity, especially if the things that are scarce are the types of things that combine to make a person feel safe, lovable, and capable. Isn't it better to reject the source of suffering even if the separation causes some pain in the process, than to continue seeking some sort of fulfillment where there can be none? Isn't the definition of insanity to try at the same thing over and over again hoping for a different result?
I was looking at information about Animal Mourning Rituals recently and this particular scenario stuck with me:
"Sperm whales form close relationships with the members of their pods, even following those who stray from the group so they won't be alone. If a member is removed from the group through death, the remaining whales become mentally agitated for long periods. Research shows that this turmoil is so far-reaching that the teeth of the animal will become weaker during these periods."
After reading that, I thought a lot about why it is that all these years after those therapy sessions I am still dealing with the same issue. I think I'm afraid of not being missed. It's awful to feel like I could say tomorrow, "Hey you, you who make me feel worthless and unimportant, I don't want to talk to you anymore because doing so just hurts too much, " and the response would be, "Well, if that's what you think you need to do..."
Sometimes I think about having children, and just the thought of something happening to separate me and my imaginary child causes a very real feeling sort of grief and I wonder how anybody could ever stand to live without their children near them.
My first boyfriend and I dated for about two and half years, from 16-18, and I knew it was over for a long time before it actually ended. He wouldn't break up with me, but he was just cruel enough to me that I was sure if I left he would say, "Ok, bye," and I'd never hear from him again. I couldn't bear to be faced with the truth that all that time together, while it meant so much to me, could just be thrown away by him, because it made me feel like I was being thrown away. Knowing that bred this fucked up kind of rebellion in me and part of me needed to stay, needed to make it work, until I could be sure that the whole thing wasn't just for naught and that he might actually miss me. I mean, we had been together through two suicides that year and survived a lot of other shit together and he had come to mean something to me, had become something, that was greater than he could ever really live up to.
It's sort of like that with my mother. We've been through a lot. I remember sitting with her at LoneStar before she started her shift when I was just three or four, and hanging out in a lonely booth while she worked, braiding her coworkers' hair any time they got slow, and I remember the shitty apartment in Durham with the shitty pool and the neighbor who always came back from business trips with jewelry for me, and I remember asking her if he could be my Dad, and I remember those parties she took me to because what was a babysitter anyway, where everybody was high and that one guy hung out in this closet/art studio all night working on this oil painting of the statue of liberty. I remember watching her fall in love with Rudi and asking if he could be my dad, and then the wedding in Virginia when I was five with the white slippers she sewed beads onto herself, and the ring he made her and the ring he made me, and the swing he made me that hung from the rafters inside the living room of the old house, and the dog they gave me so I felt I was gaining a partner too, and I remember her taking me to my Dad's house in Durham where she hated going but had to since the law said I couldn't be alone with him, and her having to sit there and stand him. I remember her calling parent teacher meetings and taking my side when she thought something unfair was going on, and buying me that little sewing kit in the truck stop gas station which was the beginning to this whole craft narrative that has run through my life, and I remember she and Rudi helping me build a wooden 'booth' where I could sell my friendship bracelets at the neighborhood pig-pickins. I remember telling her I never wanted to speak to my father again 15 years ago, and how she was the one who had to call and tell him because what was an 11 year old supposed to say, and how she made up stories with me about how we were just going to drive over there one night and egg his house and how that would make me feel better, and how that would really show him, except that it never happened, and I remember when she started looking at me differently and sometimes it felt like she hated me so much she wished I had never been born. I remember her telling me that sometimes she hated this life so much that she sometimes woke up and thought about just getting in the car, leaving me and Rudi behind to fend for ourselves, and never coming back. I remember her drinking too much and making fun of me in front of her friends, and telling me not to go to the police after that thing happened that made me scared to walk home alone at night because it might cause trouble, and I remember sitting alone after play practice in the theatre because nobody would come to get me and wondering what I would have to do this time to get a ride the 20 minutes it took in a car to get home.
I don't want my mother's story to be my own. I don't want my children to look back and have trouble remembering grandparents and feel lost, genetically, in the world. If she had had a relationship with her parents, I might have met my grandfather before I entered my 20's and I could have had some good man in my life so that the pain of saying goodbye to my father wasn't so great, but maybe he wasn't a good man either and that's why she didn't talk to him. I don't really know because she didn't like to talk about it.
It was this time two years ago that my partner, Tavis' father died riding his bike and I had to go with him to identify his body--this man who I thought might walk me down the aisle and give me away to his own son because who else would be there to walk me down the aisle and what other man would I meet who felt like family the way he did--and I remember feeling so incredibly devastated, like I had lost his father, my father, and the hope of ever having a father. It was my final semester in college and I was in the middle of the first draft of a terrible emotional creative non-fiction manuscript which focused on family and had to be completed in order to graduate, and I thought I just might not be able to continue. This man had accepted and loved me simply because his son loved me, and had expected nothing from me except that I just be myself.
I remember that 60 mile bike ride up the mountain on Thanksgiving Day and getting to that really steep spot and thinking I couldn't go any further and then all of a sudden feeling light. Tavis' father, Gary, had fallen back so he could ride beside me, put his hand on my lower back and pushed just long enough to let my legs rest before riding ahead again. In that moment, with the road still steep ahead, and two of the best men I had ever met in front of me, I knew what love and security was, and I felt like I could do anything. His love helped me to feel a little less like I had just emerged one day from a black hole, and I started to understand what it felt like to be a part of a family.
It's things like this that I think about when grappling with loneliness, vulnerability, and lamentations over a poverty of familial bonds in my life. Can you ever really just say goodbye, and, if so, how do you know when the right time is to do so? How do you even begin?