I remember learning the concept of catch-22 in junior high school when I half-read the novel of the same name, by Joseph Heller. I remember being surprised by how much it bothered me, though I couldn’t quite figure out why. Nobody in their right mind likes no-win situations. But for some reason, catch-22 resonated uncomfortably with me, striking a nerve.
Take my mother (please) for example. Of course I now know that everything that involves her is a catch-22. But specifically and most frustratingly, things that should have been so simple. Low hanging fruit like Chanukah, should have been so easy. Everyone in the spirit of giving and receiving. Such easy pure simple joy. But not in our house. When I was young enough to think “obligatory” was a big word, I once told her that I hated *obligatory holidays*. She laughed in my face. While most people enjoyed holidays and special days, I found them to be koans I could never solve, filled with esoteric rules I could not understand or follow. The pressure to be and do and give just the right thing in the right manner in the right time. I felt like my planets never aligned and disappointment was the only outcome. I dreaded obligatory holidays. And she has ridiculed me, taking any and every opportunity to mock me with those words, throwing them back in my face, ever since. I no longer think “obligatory” is a big word. But I still hate obligatory holidays. She ruined them for me.
Take mother’s day for example. There are so many ethereal rules, ephemeral in nature, about the fucking day, a veritable minefield for missteps, how does anyone get it right?! First, you must (obviously) adore your mother, worship her, love her, extol and hallow her name. She must be *the best ever*, announced and proclaimed loudly on this day. You must purchase a large, colorful, gaudy card (which gets pricier every year) with this sentiment embossed and or emblazoned on it. But you must add your own heartfelt affections as well. In my family a gift is also in order. And not just any old gift. And definitely not something gag-home-made-gag. This would be bordering on insult and would elicit only scorn and ridicule. The meaning drawn from a home-made gift is that the recipient mother was not worthy of having money spent on her. Or that you simply didn’t care enough to do so. And lastly, the mother must be feted lavishly. But most importantly this all must be done in grand fashion so that all may know (and be jealous of) the love, honor, adoration this mother is worthy of. Because, at the end of the day, it is all just a big show anyway.
While I understood all these lessons well enough, I still stepped in something (read that: fucked up) every time. The card would not be big enough, bright enough, say the right things in it. My own writing too sloppy, too rushed (looking), not reverential enough. The gifts of course were never right. Like the time I tracked down mugs she saw once in a restaurant that she coveted and said she wanted. This was pre-internet people, and she couldn’t remember the restaurant (of course). After some excellent detective work (if I do say so myself), I found them though, and purchased 4 of them from the restaurant. I was bursting with pride and excitement for her to open them thinking, “this is the time I make her happy”. But apparently any idiot knows you don’t get FOUR mugs. Six is standard. Clearly. So this became another derisory stupidity of mine she *teased* me about forever. Little mishaps like that always ruined the day for her. Completely.
I tried harder and harder every year to get it all just right. And then at some point I simply stopped trying at all. I got the same response either way really. Why knock myself out? Even though the poor reflection (of being a non-caring (dare I say mean) person) was on me. That part, I admit, did bother me. But the end result of her being angry and disappointed and it being my fault was a simple regularity for us.
For the last 12 Mother’s Days I was basically off the hook. We weren’t in contact, so I didn’t have to think about it. Although I knew on some level, in some universe, that I was being portrayed as a horrible daughter, I at least didn’t have to hear it or deal with it firsthand. That changed this year because we have had some contact. Though it had only been a gossamer thread of connection and even that had been severed in recent weeks, the connection had been made.
No one really understands the chaos that goes on in the head of anyone who has to deal with a Borderline. Not unless you have dealt with one can you truly fathom or appreciate it. Every action and interaction must be examined and re-examined, scrutinized, analyzed and dissected to make sure there can be no misinterpretation, distortion, misunderstanding or faux pas. You must be aware of all the ways a kind word can be misconstrued and twisted into vulgar vituperation. And any kind gesture contorted into a grotesque perversion. They are always the victim. Even of your kindness.
And so it was with this burdensome trepidation whirling around my head, that I approached Mother’s Day. No small wonder I had a headache all weekend. I was already too late to send one of the bland non-committal-type cards I used to send. I wasn’t up for the can of worms a phone call might oxygenate. And after much agonizing and considering the possible ire, hurt feelings and sarcastic retorts, I sent a simple text mid-day that said, “Happy Mother’s Day”. I breathed a sigh of relief. Not because I thought it would make her happy. Indeed, I knew it would not. And even from 3 simple words she could find infinite offense: Everything from the wrong font to the wrong sentiment to claiming intentional insult, disrespect and scorn. What did she have to be happy about being a mother for anyway?! With her son being a homeless drug addict and her daughter now being her son who still doesn’t want anything to do with her, what possible pleasure could she find in such an onerous title?! I envisioned her reading my text from inside the oven*. I didn’t have to wait long for her rejoinder. A simple, “And to you and Emily too.” I haven’t heard from her since.
Now I feel completely crazy. Why all the self-imposed angst and distress when her response was so simply perfectly reasonable?! I swear I feel like I make all this shit up. Which is exactly the joy(sic) of interacting with a Borderline. Happy Mother’s Day indeed.
*Back in the days when ovens were powered by gas with no chemicals to make it smell bad, a method of suicide was to stick one’s head in the oven and turn on the gas without lighting it. The reference to “I’ll just go stick my head in the oven” was a somewhat familiar “joke”.