I have long found it interesting that when you search for blogs or posts about family, almost the only thing that appears are things on parenthood – mostly written by mothers, with a few fathers mixed in for good measure. I rarely, if ever, see anything relating to other family issues, and certainly nothing from the perspective of younger adults (late teens through early thirties) dealing with difficult parents (there are, of course, plenty of blogs about parents dealing with difficult teens).
Do we, the disgruntled children and/or siblings (etc) not feel the necessity, the impetus, to share our feelings and experiences? Or is it that we don’t feel we have the right, or the safe space, to do so? Do we all fear, as I often do, what will happen if/when our families see what we write?
I often joke that I could never write or publish a memoir about my family until after my mother has died. And that I would, of course, fittingly title such a memoir “Not Until My Mother Dies.” She will not appreciate much of what I have to say. My whole life, even when I was very young, my mother has been a very private and, I daresay, paranoid people. She has warned me constantly, ordered me really, not to talk about her to my dad (they’re divorced), my friends, or other family members. Throughout high school, she would make random (generally unfounded) accusations that I was saying horrible things about her to my friends. “Talking about her behind her back.” She has warned me against, and accused me of, talking about her on Facebook “because what she does is no one else’s business.”
This kind of privacy never went both ways, of course. Anything I did, or said, or thought was, of course, always her business. And she told my grandmother, my aunts and uncles, her co-workers, all sorts of random things about me and my brother without permission or thought.
As recently as last week she has approached me out of nowhere with the complete non sequitur demand to know what horrible things I’ve been saying about her to my friends. I learned a couple days later that the catalyst for this particular paranoid fit was a friend of mine who stopped by the house and didn’t think to stay and talk to my mother because, shocker, we were running late for a show we had tickets to. Because my friend (my friend, not my mother’s) had the audacity to just say “hello” and run, I must have said something horrible about my mother to make my friend hate her.
And, of course, anything horrible I could possible say would, naturally, be made-up or grossly exaggerated to make her look like an evil mother and to make me look like some poor victim or martyr. My mother is, after all, perfect and has never done anything deserving of censure or complaint.
Do I talk about her? Of course I do. What child, what teenager, what adult could completely avoid talking about (and whining about) their mother? Do I sometimes accuse her of doing things that I believe to be ill-advised, or unfair, or occasionally downright cruel? Yes. Yes I do. But I do not believe I have ever made anything up. And I try my best (though I no doubt fail) to represent her fairly and accurately, and admit when I might be culpable for some of our clashes. I think about the line: “if they didn’t want you to write about them, they should have treated you better” – I can’t remember where that quote came from, who said it. It makes a certain amount of sense so far as memoirs and creative nonfiction are concerned. But I don’t know for certain that it is an accurate summary of my situation.
I don’t know for sure that I’m representing my mother, or myself, accurately. I don’t know for sure when I’m just being whiny, or self-involved, or, as my mother has been wont to call me: “a cold heartless bitch.” Maybe I am a cold heartless bitch. I don’t know. The problem is, no one can ever know for sure. Some kind of invisible third party would have to be secretly watching our interactions all the time to determine that.
All I can say is that I try to tell my truth as honestly as I can manage. All truth is relative. Period. And this is mine. These are my feeling and my memories and my impressions, and that’s all anyone can ever expect.
In the meantime, we’ll just keep all this between us until my mother dies.
People walk away. I trail behind. People leave. I sit and wait. Always waiting, always falling behind.
All photos mine. Taken 2010-2014. (You may have noticed by now that I’m not much of a photographer. I just have my little Nikon Coolpix and I wander around and catch what I can. I have no training in composition or editing or any of that. So please PLEASE don’t compare me to any of the real legit amazing photographers who post on WordPress).
I’ve realized something about myself recently that makes me ashamed. It isn’t nice or fair to you, and I want to tell you something, but I want to explain it as clearly as I can, which is difficult. I swear that it in no way diminishes me friendship with you, or the fact that I trust you. I know you understand me more than most ever could how I feel and how hard things are, and I would probably share these things with you regardless. And this is not in any way a reflection on you, but only on my own secretive preserve nature, but:
I realize that in the back of my head one of the reasons (but not the only reason, I swear) I’ve been so open and honest with you about my depression and despair is that you don’t know any of my other friends or family, and so there was never any risk to me that if I said something that really worried you that would be able to tell anyone else about it. And that is completely not fair to you, I know. Not fair for so many reasons because it implies that I wouldn’t have trusted you not tell others even if you did know my other friends. But also because if I did say something that really genuinely worried you, you wouldn’t be able to do anything about it, and I know how horrifying and heartbreaking that feeling is, and I don’t meant to put that potential fear on you but there it is anyway.
And I’m saying all of this right now because I wanted to tell you something I can’t tell anyone else for exactly these reasons, which makes it even worse. And it’s such a horrible thing to do to a friend, and I’m so sorry. Because I’ve started cutting again and I don’t know why I should want to tell you this, because it’s the kind of thing I keep staunchly secret except that telling you is still pretty much keeping it secret, and see! That’s a horrible thing to think. And I’m sorry. I’m turning you into this repository for things I know I shouldn’t say or do because I know you can’t do anything about it. Because here’s the thing. I don’t want you to stop me, or tell someone else so they can stop me, because damn it, this is mine.
It’s midnight and we’re hunting again, my brother and I. We’re not hunting deer, or wild cats, or criminals, or unicorns, or holy grails, but something much more precious. We are stalking sleep, trying to chase it down to our beds and cage it there. And if nights of insomnia and glassy eyes in the daylight hours are any indication, we are poor hunters. Still, need spurs us on and we go just the same.
What we do is this: on nights when our mother is dead-asleep and will not awaken to find us gone or catch us leaving and lecture us on the dangers of wandering around at night, we step lightly down the stairs; and while Sterling quiets the dog, I silently slide the glass door open, and we slip out.
We never leave before midnight – midnight is the witching hour, the time of ghosts and demons, our time.
Once out, we simply walk.
It is a sharp, cold November night, and though the stars are partially hidden behind blurry gray clouds, there is no rain. But when it does rain, we are happiest. Walking in the rain is best, and we never miss a chance to journey through drizzle or mist or downpour. Rain changes everything, makes it all cleaner, sharper, more pure, more real. We wear only t-shirts, jeans, and tennis shoes, whether storms churn in the sky or the air is frozen like liquid nitrogen. We cherish the sensation of our skin peeling away until only the innocent center-point of ourselves is left behind.
But there is no rain tonight.
Laughing at our audacity, at our one short reprieve from that tiny townhouse and its reverberating walls, we leave the townhouse parking lot. Our stroll follows the road that transcribes a circle around the community. On our left, rows and rows of townhouses; on our right, pine trees. A blue SUV drives by rapidly and I wonder: late night working or late night partying? Either way he (or she?) is obviously eager to be home. We are eager to be away.
The curve of the black pavement, glittering like pyrite in the thin moonglow and thicker lamplight, eventually veers to the west. But our goal is eastward, so we turn, ducking beneath the low branches of pine trees. Pine needles brush against my face with a flash of stinging cold like rubbing alcohol – in the rain they carve icy tracks into my cheek, but there is no rain tonight and the sensation quickly fades.
Our trek takes us away from the line of trees, across a small field where construction continues to devour the grass and excrete dark wet dirt. A year ago the small field was a buffer between us and urbanization, filled with wildflowers and the occasional rabbit. Now, they are building a car wash beside the gas station and the Wendy’s, and a bank is scheduled to go up next. The tiny strip of nature that shielded us from Metcalf Road is rapidly disappearing, eaten by bulldozers like a salad.
Metcalf Road is our goal. It runs north and south, but we always go north – toward the shopping centers and stoplights, away from the empty stretch of darkness between 127th and 135th. I cannot say precisely why we avoid that small expanse between subdivisions and gas stations, where the air is dark as murky water and streetlights barely mark the passing seconds; why we are drawn to the lights that echo across the pavement in concentric circles around Target, Circuit City, McDonalds. Perhaps we are simply moths drawn to flame; perhaps we are simply animals like all others – instinctively (even despite our rational natures) afraid of the dark. Either way, it is toward the grocery stores and the fast-food restaurants that we turn.
Sometimes we stay on the south-bound side, too lazy to bother crossing the wide road. But on days like today we slowly glide across the six lanes like spirits, waving nonchalantly at the one or two cars that whiz past us, honking their horns. We smile and laugh at their vehemence, unconcerned. There is a reckless glee in the way we walk.
These are the moments when Sterling and I talk about everything – the crazy-stupid stunts he pulls in class, practically daring his teachers to kick him out; the way Mom has become so volatile, so dangerous in both her fear and her fury; the fact that we haven’t seen Dad in four years and we barely care.
I actually miss Laura more than I miss that bastard, Sterling speaks, the words squeezed from his tight throat. I add softly, well… and don’t forget Marcus and Maddie. Dad is always “the bastard,” but Laura, our step-mother, and Marcus and Maddie, our half-brother and sister, have kept us from breaking contact entirely.
We can imagine, in that Shakespearean darkness – where Ariel and Macbeth and the ghost of Hamlet’s father live – that sometimes… sometimes we see a tall balding man disappearing into the nearest empty shadow, and one or the other of us feels the need to point and ask: did you see–? But there is no one there, and the never has been, and there never will be, and we cannot finish our question because we both know the answer. We don’t like to say Dad – it is a lying word.
And sometimes when it rains, I see another man, veiled in silver aureoles that shimmer over his head, ring his hollow eyes, settle softly on his shoulders. His hair is dark and thick; his body, once like a leopard’s, is skeletal and pale. Blink once and he is gone. And I dare not utter a word to Sterling when I see this specter – Sterling does not know how our uncle, dead and buried in Texan soil, haunts me.
Think you’ll get any sleep tonight? I ask Sterling, and myself, and the ghosts pressing in around us. The answer is always no… whoever it is that answers. Our hunt has failed again. Yet still we try to deny that we are the ones who are hunted.
Stars struggle like children to be seen through the mottled clouds, and I wish it would rain – clouds flowering into glass petals that tumble down our backs. Glass petals that slice away everything, until we are cut clean like white scars against the black sky. But there is no rain tonight.
Beneath the maple syrup light that drizzles out of streetlamps, I hear the soft murmur of a song, and as it grows louder I realize that Sterling is singing. He does sometimes, like a release, like a scream, and without thinking I join in. Before long our voices ring out across the pavement, bouncing back to us from the invisible walls of the night. And I wonder about that as well: why do our voices come back to us as if the music is caged by the dark? I cannot answer the question, but I know why we sing. We are trying to drown out the voices of the ghosts that follow us.
Eventually, we pass Jason’s Deli. A lone car – green, I think, it’s hard to tell in the darkness – is still sitting in the back lot, the employee parking. Someone is waiting for a delivery truck bringing the week’s supplies, and they’ll probably have to wait there until one or two in the morning. Sterling and I used to work there, so we know the bone-weary exhaustion that comes from that kind of waiting. Neither of us recognizes the car so we wonder which poor bastard got stuck with the job this time. And we laugh.
The air is cold like an old man’s fingers now, tracing curls and lines up and down my arms. The wind is a dance without music that leads trees and leaves and litter into other dances. And I am content with this: my hands are stuffed low in my jean pockets; my legs cut a long stride into the sidewalk; the dark and the wind are pressed against my sides – to keep some things in, to keep others out; and our voices mingle with the wind, adding music to the dance.
But Sterling is always hungry. His anger boils in his veins and fills his body with steam – like a boiler, the pressure builds until it splits the boundaries of his skin and he explodes. His rage radiates out into the cold air, leaving him empty, starved. So he eats up the green glow and red glare of the stoplights; he drinks up the sounds of sirens in the distance; he swallows sweeping trees and chunks of pavement whole. And still is never satisfied.
A black hole is swirling in his stomach, devouring everything, leaving nothing left over for him. And I tell him, again and again I tell him, that he’ll learn to live like this. I try to force the calm back into his bones. But he will not believe me. He cannot believe that I have swallowed a black hole too; that I too know that slow burn, that restless chill, that electric organ screeching high-high C in my brain. I have simply learned to hide it better, keeping it covered with make-up and mantras that vibrate and echo in my metallic skull like tuning forks.
But Sterling will learn. Eventually he must learn to hold it inside. Or he’ll simply dissolve.
I occasionally wonder what we look like wandering the empty road at midnight. Will a cop ever feel the need to pull over and ask us what the hell we think we’re doing? Do we look suspicious? Or merely pathetic? No one has ever stopped us. No one has ever asked us what the hell we think we’re doing. They see a tall skinny boy filled to the tips of his fingers with electricity. They see a long-haired shadow of a girl who laughs at everything and nothing because she can do nothing else. Both with an air, simultaneously, of people who do not give a damn, of people who are haunted. Perhaps passers-by see what we see – that memory is hot on our trail, nipping at our heels. At night, as spirits press down on us, we become like ghosts ourselves.
What are we supposed to do with all these moments that haunt us? Awake, asleep, or dreaming, they chase us. And we have learned that life is just this: running every night, at midnight, through shadow and light and rain.
And still I wish it were raining tonight. If it was raining, maybe we’d be invisible.
For years and years I have been told: “it gets better,” “you’ll be ok,” “you just have to fight through it, keep trying, wait it out,” “suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” The platitudes accumulate and build up like gunk and gather dust and drag me down with hollow promises and misunderstanding. But I have waited, and I have fought, and it has not gotten better. It has only gotten worse.
Promises like that carry some weight, have some meaning, when you are twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen. But I am not eighteen anymore, and it has not gotten better.
I don’t know much these days, but these are some things I know:
I am thirty years old.
I have been on some form of depression medication since I was thirteen.
I have waited and fought and struggled and resisted all my life.