I often know when something is not going to end well, when an idea, even in it’s germinating state, is not a good one. We all do. Those are the moments when my inner voice urgently entreats, “no good can come of this“. Why I don’t heed this voice immediately I will never know. I must be some kind of special idiot. After more than a decade of absolutely no contact with my mother, I let her convince me that a teeny tiny bit of contact would be fine because she had seen the error of her ways and had changed.
I have always felt overly responsible. Whether it was last year’s drought in Somalia or the starving children in Burundi (who somehow were supposed to benefit from me finishing my dinner), things were either my fault or up to me to fix. That is as much in my genetics as my upbringing. I am a type-A personality and a Virgo through and through. But there is certainly more to my obsessive responsibility than nature.
Specifically and in general, I saw my mother’s state of un-well-being as my responsibility, if not my fault. My mother’s emotional instability ruled our house. Which meant we all lived in constant readiness (fear), waiting for that ever-present other shoe to drop. Just about anything could send mother over the proverbial edge. It was my role in the family to keep her from going over. If she couldn’t find something she needed, if she stubbed a toe, cut herself, or got a scrape; if there was a spill, unexplained rip, tear or stain; if something didn’t go according to (her) plan, I had better find it, fix it, set it to rights. Any of life’s little mishaps could set her off into paroxysms of explosive hysteria. The reality was that my mother was (and is) mentally and emotionally unstable and there was/is no such thing as setting her or anything in her world to rights. But for some reason I didn’t realize that. I thought other mothers behaved this way too. I honestly believed it was both my responsibility and within my power to calibrate her, regulate her, keep mother happy and calm and sane. Which I only learned in adulthood was a futile, hopeless, impossibility. Not to mention thankless.
It’s hard to describe, or sometimes even remember the tantrums now. It’s hard to explain to others how terrifying it was. An example that stands out in my mind: One time, she bought herself fancy glycerin soap. One of her many small indulgences. The first time she used it in the shower it slipped from her soapy wet grasp. When she bent to pick it up she banged her head on the faucet. When the soap slipped from her hand a second time and she bumped her ass on the soap holder jutting out of the tile wall all hell broke loose. She shrieked a blood-curdling howl that could have easily bested Jamie Lee Curtis. With the ululation still reverberating in the back of her throat, she tore the glass and mirror sliding-shower-doors from their runner, hurling them across the small bathroom, to shatter on the floor in millions and millions of tiny pieces and shards of razor-sharp glittering glass. More wailing and bellowing ensued, peppered with foul language that would have made a sailor blush, and palpable vitriol filled the house. I had to find a way to get her safely across the floor and out of the bathroom. Never mind having to figure out how to clean up that much glass. That kind of tantrum-induced destruction and carnage was common.
The tantrums were epic and horrible. But the constant threat of havoc hanging in the air was just as hellish. While my father and brother each found ways of physically escaping, I was paralyzed. I stood dumb, rooted in my place, like drivers on the highway unable to look away from the scene of an accident. The difference between me and the highway gawkers was that I believed the “accident” was my fault and the clean-up my responsibility.
I felt challenged as well as burdened by the task. I believed I could best my mother’s demons, saving her and us from the constant cloud of calamity that was ever-present. I just had to do the right thing, devise the right plan. I tried to predict, outsmart and head off any potential pitfalls and possible catalysts, that might let loose the impending doom. I followed and created rules by which to live in order to keep that all hell from breaking loose. I tried to imagine that the rules would keep me safe. Yeah, Sisyphus was safe too. But no matter how hard I tried to be good, to follow the rules, the conniptions came. I was disappointed in myself every time. Believing that if I just tried harder, if I were just a little bit smarter, better, faster, more well-behaved, funnier, craftier, I could have distracted her if not prevented it. It became clear to me that the failure and fault were mine. If only I’d done something differently…
As an adult I see that I was mistaken. The peregrination of my adult life has been trying to figure out exactly what is and what is not my responsibility. And that is a very hard thing. Especially if you’re me. As a child I felt both powerless and powerful. It was all my fault, all my responsibility, but nothing I did was right. It was so confusing.
In the few months I’ve been back in touch with my mother it has been an interesting game(sic) of who is responsible for what. I must say that I have handily declined responsibility for her not having a relationship with my children (her grandchildren). I have calmly reinforced the facts that had she been able to control her behavior or her temper she might have had a relationship with them, but unfortunately for her she had not. I have calmly and repeatedly stated that I am not responsible for HER behavior or HER losses. I’m definitely getting better at this.
Then her friend E (her only friend) died. Now, E became my mother’s friend back when I was in high school when my mother had an affair with E’s husband. No, I am not kidding you. As I have said many times, you cannot make this shit up. So my mother had an affair with E’s husband, which broke up their marriage. And then subsequently, when my mother broke up with E’s then-ex-husband, she called E to commiserate about what an asshole he was. This, of course, cemented their friendship (go figure). And E and my mother have been friends ever since. Regardless of the fact that my mother ruined her marriage, E was friends with my mother. Regardless of my mother’s antics and drama, E has been her friend. Despite my mother’s theatrics, and sometimes because of them (for the sheer entertainment value), E stayed friends with my mother. Over the last several years they haven’t been as close or in touch as often. But still, they were friends.
E died a few weeks ago. I’d seen her a number of times over the last several years as she battled cancer and was in and out of hospitals (including the place I work) as both an old family friend and as a chaplain. When my mother texted me to tell me E had died I had just found out myself. A brief text interchange took place. My mother told me in no uncertain terms that she was devastated. I thought about calling her all that day or texting to see how she was doing, just to check in. But I didn’t.
The next day I got a text from mother basically telling me I was a piece of shit. She said I was a horrible person and a mean rotten daughter to have done nothing – not so much as a stinking text inquiring how she was, knowing she’d lost her only friend in the world. After all the shit I had dumped on her these last few months (I have no idea what she was referring to, though I can only assume it was the the *burden* of telling her than I am trans), the least I could have done was to attempt to console her.
Well well well where do I even begin? I know I am not responsible for her feelings. Nor am I responsible for taking care of her or even comforting her. But I like to think I am at the very least a decent human being. Had anyone else lost their only friend in the world I most definitely would have (at the very least) checked in with them, sent condolences, blown them a kiss via text. I feel badly that I didn’t even do that much. Not that I am beating myself up for it (which is a big step for me in the right direction). Instead I sent her a response text saying: I’m sorry you’re in pain and that you lost your friend. For what it’s worth, I’m sorry I didn’t check in on you yesterday to see how you were. It would have been kind of me to do so. I am unclear however, why you need to lash out and spew anger or why you think that is an option. It is neither an option nor a need. Please choose another target.