CHAPTER 2: EIGHT

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Dad died and chaos ruled.

One night I woke in the dark, scared. A shadow at the end of the bed moved towards me. Breathing halted. I had night terrors before, but Daddy wasn’t there anymore to carry me around in his warm arms, calming me as I slept. Was I dreaming or awake? The specter slunk around the bed, creeping closer silently. It was black, quiet, crouched and coming for me. Iced with fear and still half-asleep, I couldn’t even scream for my mother.

When it slipped gently onto the edge of the bed, my terror immediately abated; air once again filled my lungs. I knew who it was: not a phantom but Danny, a brother I loved and trusted. He sat lightly next to me, his face hidden in the dark. I had known his voice for my entire young life: familiar, soothing, very kind, and the last thing I remember.

Softly, so tenderly, the words dripped out of his mouth like warm syrup and melted butter, “We’re going to play house,” he whispered. “You’re the mommy, I’m the daddy.”

During my next bath I began screaming as if stabbed and dying; that’s how much it hurt. The soap seared my vagina as if a sharp hot blade pierced me, though I didn’t know the name of that part of me yet. Danny’s twin Don, the ‘good one,’ came running, his eyes wild with fright for what he might find. When I told him through my tears that the soap hurt, he seemed disgusted and left the bathroom as quickly as he had arrived.

Though the pain ebbed along with the suds trailing down the drain, the terror of living in that house did not. The next day, Seth walked by my bedroom.

“Danny fucked me,” I said.

Seth said nothing, but his eyes glazed through me as if I were stabbed with an arrow. His nonchalance quickly disappeared, immediately replaced by a laser of revulsion. My bravado and confidence in telling big brother, who I knew would save me from the nighttime monster, vanished in an instant.

The look in his eyes became etched on the slate of who I was to become. Those eyes emptied me, devastated me. That moment shaped my core, shame the bedrock I grew from. I don’t know how I knew the word “fuck.” I don’t remember Danny saying it, but I know that he did. The memory of the attack still hasn’t surfaced. I am not ready for it, and may never be.

Once I had been a child who spoke the truth; it was part of the canvas that was me. I was born with it. I am not that woman today, though I look for her. Seth told Mom what I said. That was the first time she became aware of my vulnerability, but not the last. I didn’t go to a doctor. I was left on my own after attacks to my body, like a dinghy cut loose from the main ship. I have felt alone ever since.

The fat that accumulated immediately after Danny’s attack became a permanent addition to my skinny kid frame. Mom loved to cook. She fed me, I ate. She didn’t keep him off me, nor her other sons, but she loved me with food. Once a slim child who ate only when hungry, I transformed into an eating machine who devoured food for other reasons. Waking in the night, sick from the day’s eating, I went to Mommy for help.

As she lay there sleeping, I laid my hand tentatively on the cool sheet over her shoulder. “Mommy,” I whispered. I’m going to throw up.”

Half-asleep, she rasped, “What do you want me to do, spit straw?”

I went to the toilet and threw up. I kept eating and throwing up, my little tummy unable to contain all the food needed to numb out the nightly attacks, to feel loved, to survive. Some part of me believed a fat body was an ugly body, so safer, anything that would keep him away. It didn’t work. And maybe, as who I was slipped away, growing a bigger body kept me from disappearing altogether.

 

CHAPTER 1: DADDY

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Dad died in the winter of ’62, just before he was to take office as District Attorney. Mom was playing Bridge with friends at the Country Chicken restaurant, but some of us eight kids were home with him: Stevie, only five, and Seth, six years older than me. At eight, I didn’t understand Daddy’s unusually short temper, restless as he paced between the living room and his office in the small adjoining room. I lay on the scratchy couch, its tiny bumps of fabric sticking into my skin. Stevie played with trucks on the floor.

“Daddy, can we go outside?” I dared ask.

I knew even at that young age that this wasn’t the same Daddy who would smile happily at me when I followed him around the yard like a shadow on his days off.

“No,” he snapped back. “Turn down the TV.”

He went back into his office, this time closing the door behind him. Quieted by his anger, wondering why he seemed so mad at me, I combed my dolly’s blond, silken hair while Seth turned the volume down. We heard a terrible thud behind the office door. Seth ran to the door and yanked it open. Daddy lay very still on his back. Seth went quickly to him, kneeled, and placed his own mouth over Daddy’s, trying to push breath into his lungs. A reflux of vomit went from Daddy into Seth. Seth rushed to the kitchen sink and splashed it out of his mouth.

I stood in a stupor, Stevie nearby. Daddy lay unmoving. What was going on? I stood frozen in one spot, watching the whirling lights outside and the seemingly sudden presence of so many people. Daddy left with the whirling lights, taken by stretcher. He would never return, but Stevie and I didn’t know that when a family friend, Mrs. Nielson, took us into the back bedroom and told us to pray. On our knees, we put our hearts into it, believing God would make it right.

Scared and confused, I dutifully prayed, “Bring Daddy back. Bring Daddy back.”

Later we were allowed to go into the living room after Mommy returned. We sat by her side as she held our hands, but she seemed distant. Daddy lay flat the next time I saw him, so still, waxy, and pale. Approaching the casket slowly, I studied his face. It looked curiously pocketed with dips and curves of skin, not the smiling lively face I had known and cuddled up against with warmth and love. I had been warned before stepping up to the coffin about what I would be seeing.

“Your Daddy’s sleeping,” an adult voice whispered, her lips brushing my ear in a hushed voice. But I knew it was more than that, something sick and queer. Someone sleeping ought to move. Someone sleeping would come back home to us.

“Now I lay me down to sleep,” Stevie and I prayed, kneeling beside his bed, our bedtime ritual. Our nightly mantra with clasped hands included blessings for Mommy, each of the seven brothers, the dog Sneakers, and most importantly Daddy who watched over us from heaven. Then came our song together, “Silent Night.” Mommy seemed hard to reach, far away, so I comforted Stevie, reassuring him that Daddy remained close by even though we couldn’t see him.

Stevie asked, “Where is Daddy?”

Mommy didn’t answer, but I always did, “He’s in heaven watching over us.” I smiled, adding, “He’s not gone, he’s everywhere around us.”

I needed to believe it as much he did, yet the feeling a part of me had been severed never left. Goodbyes of any kind became grief- colored endings. I would experience grief in a million different ways because I did not fully grieve Daddy’s passing, comforting my little brother instead. But maybe what came next obliterated all the rest.

Reflections on Last Chapter

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After some thought, I decided to continue sharing my book with new survivors along the way, of which unfortunately, there are many. If only there had been more literature when I started my journey. But at least I found a tiny woman’s bookstore in the city where I purchased a few books detailing the horrors of childhood sexual abuse. I was not alone. (Voices in the Night) 

So I share on that note. You are not alone. This is the last chapter and coincidentally also posted on my 12th month since beginning to blog. It’s been an experience of going deeper which is odd because the people I connect with I have never met, yet feel more intimate with than just about anyone else. And that is because only when one is hurt on such levels would they truly understand the depth of pain and injury one has to fight, claw and climb out of in order to survive. 

I can say I don’t wish to be somebody else as I once did, wishing so hard I am surprised I did not morph into the person I was wishing to be. I do wish still to be more lighthearted, less serious, more carefree, so I’m still wistful when around others like that, my friends for instance. But I embrace me, wrapping my arms around who I am, some that changed irrevocably because of what was done and what I survived, then worked to rise above. I am still learning to appreciate what that took, and the beauties, talents and gifts that lie within. 

I am thankful for my blogging friends, whose courage and stamina propel them forward in life with hope, instilling hope in my days too. Thank you!

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CHAPTER 24: GHOSTS

It’s hard to get close. Keeping quiet, pretending nothing happened, fractured me. The deal: keep a family, stay silent. Shame silenced the roaring rage. I spent much of my lifetime smiling at those who used me for pleasure and as a dumpster for their anger. Silence erased me.

My job now, each day: accept who I am and what happened. Stop wishing to be somebody else. Since I do not possess the fiber to pretend it didn’t happen, and lack the grace to accept what occurred without extraordinary effort, the wish remains. But the beckoning voice, which once bellowed, has quieted to a whisper, pricking softly and less often. Slim girls do it—make me envy their slimness, their smiles, raised happy, loved, whole, or at least safe. Why not me? I have yet to figure out how to be slimmer and feel safe. Being taught to allow such crimes, to love the criminals, caused breakage difficult to repair, impossible to restore to what would have been. So I work with what is, or try to.

Discovering a voice, my center, takes patience and time. The voice beneath the excess pounds of flesh hides, even from me. I work to connect parts of myself foreign to me, hidden by the other voices clamoring in my head.

Every day they haunt me, the voices, sometimes at three or four in the morning, but that’s a normal occurrence for many women over fifty, so I am not alone. Sleep usually comes again after a stumble to the bathroom. The voices lay in wait till morning to begin their yammering. “You failed. You’re not good enough. You did this wrong. You should be ashamed of yourself. You’re fat. You’re ugly. You’re not normal. You’re a bad mother, wife, sister, friend…you are bad, bad, bad, undeserving of life.”

The voices are relentless, insidious, almost soothing in their familiarity and brilliantly, creatively destructive. As a little girl abused, I believed all living things in human form thought me to be as dirty as I felt. The family system supported my badness to survive, even if unknowingly decimating my ability to grow and mature naturally, as if pulling a plant out by the roots. I find myself at the cusp of sixty with an eight-year old heart, still yearning to please so you will not leave me. That’s okay. Moments of peace, internal connectedness, and the late blooming birth of self-acceptance make aliveness worthwhile.

Though I know they originated outside of me, the voices of my childhood became my own. There’s plenty of blame to throw around, if I choose to be stuck burning in rage, but I choose relief, a better way, another way, to find the real me. That is the work. Confront the voices.

Some days are harder than others, and it is hard work. There are many voices, or one voice repeating the soul-breaker over and over, “It’s your fault, you said something wrong, did something wrong, felt, thought, acted, looked, saw, blinked, turned your head: wrong, wrong, wrong.”

The work comes with the comfort of knowing that I did not lie down and take it, not as an adult. After leaving home for college at eighteen, I began the long journey of coming up from a very dark hole, a crevasse immeasurably deep. And every attempt afterwards, successful or not, proved courage, persistence, and a strong will to live, because it took years to stop telling Samuel, “I wish I would die.” How do you trust again after you’ve been shattered? But I kept going, trying, working, and found many along the way who cared, helped, and were trustworthy.

Sons grew strong, despite the breakage. Friendships, like trees that live past the span of our own lives, are mine. Risk, take a leap! Unlike the squirrel jumping skillfully from branch to branch, I often fell, and fell hard. It took many failed friendships, wrong friendships, bad choices, and most of middle age, but I found them. They were right there all along, but I wasn’t ready. I chased after what I knew, and what I felt accustomed to.

It took too long, from college, where the opportunity to make friends spilled rich and ripe, to well past marriage and having babies, when isolation descended without the energy to combat it. Soap opera stars were my best and only friends. Morphing through the screen into their intimacy, I felt closeness without pain. Socialization came with the weekly trip to the grocery store and a few moments with the cashier.

I finally opened to those who would not take advantage of me. I kept taking risks, painful as the many failures were. The risks, each time like stepping off a cliff, allowed others to see what lay hidden beneath the wreckage left by the hands of brothers. Yet I did take steps, baby steps at first, often more steps backwards than forwards. But as I found myself worthy, so did others, a person worthy of life, living, and breathing. I don’t have to do anything to prove it. I am, and it’s okay.  

CHAPTER 23: BUDDHA

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I headed to the Zen Center for a one-day introductory workshop. Ex-therapist Matt had described the center before I quit seeing him. Going there had seemed to help as he struggled through his divorce. I thought, Why not? The bouts of depression and anxiety from years of untreated post-traumatic stress had continued unabated, ramping up rather than calming. I was apt to try anything if it would help find a new way of being. The only way I knew how to exist was by zoning out (don’t ask where I go, I don’t know, just not here) or feeling anxious when I’m around others except Samuel, my kids, and cat, Polly. Out of the four, Polly wins the “most-trusted award.”

We live in the country by a creek. Samuel drives to the city nearby every day for work. I rarely travel there, yet took on the adventure excitedly. The city was foreign territory but I eventually found Harold, a quiet little street lined with trees. The homes sat at varying intervals back from the road, most hidden by more trees and shrubbery. Finding the house, I slowly pulled into the compact gravel parking area nestled under the shady greenery out front.

There’s calmness, a feel about the place that enveloped me like an embrace. My school bus yellow car looked out of place among the trees that formed a natural canopy, their branches shielding occupants from the hot sun. My love of bright colors lightens a tendency towards sadness, so clothing gravitates towards gaiety along with vividly splashed color on a few walls at home; not too many, Samuel, a quiet, conservative man, can only handle so much of that. The Zen Center felt like an oasis hidden amidst the chaos of the city, cement, exhaust, buildings too close and traffic too fast. I sighed, expelling the city with my breath.

As I was about to knock on the door, it opened to a smiling face.

“Hi, welcome. You’re here for the workshop?” the greeter asked, opening the door wide.

“Hi, yes!” I replied, noting the casual dress, relieved with my own choice of khakis and light top.

“Come in. There’s tea on the table. Help yourself. And sign in please. Once everyone’s here we’ll start.” She led me to the sign-in book, then pointed towards the tea table.

While she left to receive more guests, I made a cup of tea and stood near the wall watching the others. An eclectic mix of souls were gathering, maybe wondering “why” like me, searching for truth, or hoping to become one with themselves. Clothing ran the gamut from suit jackets and dresses to decent-looking jeans, shorts, and pants. The expansive entryway retained a simple charm, unpretentious and functional. The wooden walls and planked floors gave the space an earthy feel, helped by the slight hint of incense in the air.

Though alone, I didn’t feel out of place. There were small groups, couples, and other singles. Finally the foyer filled and the group moved to a spacious area down the hall large enough to accommodate forty or so. I chose a seat near the back. This room also had unvarnished walls, earth-toned with a large window behind the speakers‟ podium looking out to the backyard gardens. The lighting was soft, easy on the eyes. Milaca introduced herself and absorbed the audience; the lilt in her voice sounding slightly British. Later I learned she had traveled from Australia and would return to start a center there with her husband. Though the receptionist greeting guests at the door wore street clothes, Milaca looked monk- like with a long drab robe and a sash gathered around the waist. The extra cloth signified high ranking from years of practice.

The Zen master entered the room and took the podium. When he spoke, the group became quiet and attentive. He seemed kingly, resembling the lead from the movie “The King and I,” but more because of his regal carriage than his clothing. His words were clear and simple with a surprising addition of humor. He told a story of how Buddha began his quest. Buddha, who searched for the meaning of life, started as an angry young man. Maybe there was hope for me.

I longed for peace, for calmness, for whatever it was I saw in others who seemed to have it, who seemed to digest each moment one by one, slowly, not speeding past it. Full of anxiety, I withdrew to a place only I knew to feel safe from the present and the people in it. Yet those weren’t thing I could put into words. I didn’t know what I longed for, just anything different than what I had known. Moments of connectedness within, a calm interior: those miracles were to come. And since I didn’t know them, I couldn’t name them, just that there must be a better way to be.

After the morning’s introduction, we toured the kitchen where the cook prepared lunch and happily greeted everyone. Downstairs a room held cloaks which were offered for meditation, but not required. The cloaks were intended to cut down distractions while meditating so one’s eyes weren’t diverted by clothing colors. A smaller room off the side with little cubicles housed extra pillows for supporting knees and elbows if needed.

We were then led to the room where meditation took place: the zendo. The guide talked in a hush as if in respect of the room itself. The feel of it captivated me, quiet and serene. The only windows were up high near the ceiling, with the sound of birds drifting in from the trees outside, safe from the rush of the city. The smell of incense intensified. A large, almost life-sized gold Buddha sat at the front. Four rows of wide built-in counters, where you sat cross- legged, spanned the length of the room. Anyone sitting at the outer two rows faced the wall while meditating. Before the start of sitting, helpers put up temporary walls along the inner two rows. If you felt sleepy during meditation, by prompting the monitor with your hand by a signal behind your back, you’d receive a slight wrap on the shoulder with a stick. I definitely would not be doing that.

The guide added, “Anyone who experienced physical abuse during childhood or later on, would probably not want this form of prompting.”

After careful explanations about the process, the group broke for lunch, then returned to the zendo for afternoon meditation. Here I would have my first taste of relaxation. A brass gong clanged at the start and I eagerly found a spot. Breathe in, count one, breath out, count two, and so on until you get to ten, then start over. Come back to the breath; find your true nature…

Sounds easy, but too often I lost track of counting, my mind whirling with other thoughts, and suddenly the count was eleven, twelve, or thirteen. Counting to ten with the breath took practice. The gong struck again, signaling a walk around the room with eyes slightly downcast, then more sitting.

My knees ached, throbbed really, but I was determined to be like the rest. There were chairs set up at the outskirts for those with knee, back, or any other problems that interfered with sitting cross- legged. I wasn’t connected enough to my body to realize I was causing further injury to already arthritic knees. I would have been too shy anyway to take a chair and risk being different. So I sat cross- legged and almost cried with the pain as sweat beaded up on my forehead.

Still, even through the pain, something of value happened while sitting silently among a roomful of people. I quieted. Maybe I felt it only a moment or two, relaxation around others, my insides untwisting, but it was enough.

Shaking hands with staff, we said our goodbyes and I headed home, continuing with what I had learned, committing to a half hour a day. And over time, with practice, change occurred deep within.

The first year I set up a pillow as they had shown us, with extra support under the knees. It faced a white wall in a little room off our bedroom. The cross-legged position ended after knee surgery repairing a torn meniscus. Trying to be like everyone else, forcing my knees to bend and overextending the joints, probably caused the tear. Though it sometimes takes a big message, like surgery, for me to pay attention, I did change my position while meditating.

Practice continued by lying flat with a cushion under each elbow, my hands overlapping each other lightly across my lower abdomen, called the “hara”, or spiritual center. Using a thirty-minute timer, my cat curled up and purring on my stomach, my thoughts quieted as I concentrated on my breath. A peaceful interior began to grow, a connectedness within, and the ability to be present, unafraid.

More than all the years of therapists, money, time, and effort poured into feeling even a moment of peace, this one thing helped me find what I had been looking for: myself.

CHAPTER 22: SHATTERED

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Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or more commonly PTSD: I wondered if that applied to me after years of overly exaggerated responses to everyday encounters, like my kids, husband, or anyone coming from behind or around a corner. I feel a rush of terror, let out a scream and jump away from the perceived threat as if my life were in danger.

Kids thought it funny and scared me purposely until I turned on them, snapping, “That’s NOT funny, stop it!” I attempted to explain, “I get scared very easily and become extremely frightened when you do that.”

It began to sink in that others don’t react as I do; my responses are out of whack. I read about trauma and its effects. Could this be it, so long after childhood?

Trauma causes post-traumatic stress, and one symptom is an exaggerated startle response. That must be it, but what’s the timeframe? I didn’t read anything about how long it lasts. A lifetime? Mine does. I read about veterans returning from war, the suicides, drinking, and the inability to hold down jobs or their marriages. I have deep empathy for them. But I wouldn’t compare myself to them. War? I can’t imagine what they saw or experienced. It’s no comparison. Or is it? I underestimate what was expected of me, how I was trained to feel, which wasn’t what I really felt. I was trained to act like I loved my attackers, so I lived in terror but had to hide it, even from myself.

Like leaves in the wind, parts of me scattered to places I couldn’t reach. How much energy does it take one’s psyche to repress a violent traumatic event, or more than one of them? I became two selves: one that cannot remember, and one that remembers but remains inaccessible. I broke in two, leaving fragments along the way, hard to pick up and paste back into one, not the same one anyway. I am not the me that I could have been had I stayed whole and safe from attack. Our psyche protects us by splitting our spirit or soul apart from physical and emotional trauma. But then we are left that way, broken, with no clue how to put ourselves together again, like Humpty Dumpty.

Could that explain why I don’t have the energy others seem to naturally possess? Repeated and excessive bursts of the hormone cortisol, meant to give us sudden energy quickly, to move us away from life-threatening danger, would spurt through my veins daily, depleting precious reserves. And draining that substance, which was meant to be used and resupplied much less frequently, took a toll on both my nervous and immune systems, burning them up. Chronic fatigue became normal. Though my body’s systems have healed somewhat, full recovery seems unlikely. The glands under my neck, and most likely elsewhere, pop out after very little stress. If I don’t pay attention and go at my own pace, I could weaken what’s left and cause even more damage. But it’s unfamiliar territory, respecting my own needs, because I tend to compare myself with others, and compared to them, I appear like a slug.

Energy used to protect my inner self from annihilation taxed my emotional and physical being, especially during my years as a nurse. But that didn’t stop me from trying to keep up with everyone, if that’s what it took to be “normal.” Being on edge, watchful, crouched internally and cowering in a defensive position for the next attack, exhausted my already limited energy supplies. Just carrying on a conversation with anyone who felt threatening permanently weakened resources over time—and nearly everyone felt threatening.

I craved social outlets, connections, and closeness, but when around others I buzzed anxiously. That feeling, like the excessive speed I experimented with in college, took precedence. I feared connections, yet needed them. I spent much of my adult life split, pieces flying about me like busy electrons, a carnival game trying to catch them and make them stick in the holes. Meditation began to bring the parts together, the feeling of wholeness brand new and magical, even if only momentary.

Meditating doesn’t take away pain, but rather takes me into it. Creative solutions to everyday dilemmas often occur. There’s new evidence suggesting it can help heal a brain damaged by PTS,1 but I knew none of the latest research over ten years ago when I began practicing meditation. 

                                                             1 See Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom by Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius for more information.

CHAPTER 21: MATT

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Therapy with Matt began the same spring Mom moved to the city. His office happened to be very near her new apartment. Over summer, during my sessions with Matt, the tearful well emptied. With the support therapy provided, I found employment as a nurse again. I stuck with Matt six years, the same length of time I worked as a nurse, and not coincidentally. I needed someone in my corner to handle the stressful job, but during the course of therapy both the job and Matt became liabilities. I finally mustered up the gumption to tell Matt over the phone I wasn’t coming back.

“I don’t want to compete with your cell phone anymore,” I barely squeaked, calling him to cancel not just the upcoming appointment, but our whole arrangement.

“What?” he said.

He couldn’t hear me? Or he heard me but couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t possibly be speaking up. I had locked myself in the bathroom away from my kids and husband. This was private, and a big deal, huge, pivotal. I needed to be alone when I finally took a stand. I felt embarrassed I hadn’t already.

“What?” he asked again, sounding shocked, not sure he had heard right.

Even after a long year of interruptions, as he went through a divorce, once taking a call from his car repairman, I kept quiet. I needed him. Without him, I knew I couldn’t continue with my job which stretched me to the breaking point and beyond. He knew it too.

Our call continued awhile.

“Margaret, a few doors down, is a very good therapist,” he suggested. Instantly I knew why he had suggested her, but I didn’t say it.

I felt restless in the little bathroom, going around in a circle, finally putting the lid down on the toilet, then sitting, agitated, as if the seat was searing hot. Yeah, you would recommend her, someone who, if I leaked out your unbelievable treatment, would know what you’re going through and understand. You’re having a difficult time, so of course it’s okay to interrupt every ninety dollar an hour session with phone calls from your lawyer, kids, and goddamn mechanic! My anger rose as these thoughts ran through my head, stuck in my belly, and clogged in my throat.

The only thing escaping my lips was a barely audible whisper: “I don’t want to compete with your cell phone anymore.” It was so quiet I might not have said it at all.

But I did. And he heard me. I felt his fear prickle across the phone lines. He knew he had done wrong and didn’t want anyone else to know. His defense? He probably believed he provided a great favor sticking by me, despite the interruptions, because at least he didn’t abandon me. The imaginary conversation that I should have had—needed to have—repeated over and over again in my head like a rat stuck in a wheel.

I answered his protests of the imagined rally. “I never left you,” he would object.

But you did abandon me every time you took a call! And each time you answered your GODDAMN cell phone, getting up, leaving me, going down the fucking hall, with me sitting alone, twiddling my thumbs like an idiot, waiting for the GOD of therapy to return. The very thing I was there for, working on, struggling with, SELF ESTEEM, plummeted, dropped to below zero, dropped to center of earth, to hell, every time you took a GODDAMN CALL!

Oh, how my gut ached to voice the necessary fiery explosions yearning, scraping, clawing for release, but couldn’t. The bars of childhood held firm, locked tight.

The things that needed to be said, the anger that needed to be expressed, remained unsaid. And like most things unspoken, hungering for expression, they lay waiting instead, simmering, repeatedly turning over in the brain until the lava cooled or another drama took its place. 

I spent the weeks between therapy wiping up the spills of his arrogance, or dragging myself up by the scruff of my neck telling myself it was okay. At least one of us thought we were great. I made excuses for him, and for me, especially for me, because I tolerated it. Too long I did this, making it hard to live with myself. I kept my job because he stuck by me, but lost self-worth, or the tenuous, tiny amount I possessed. As a child I had no power, but as an adult in therapy? My need for him and what I permitted tortured me. After the repairman call, I knew I had to go, but it took another full year. I let go when I could.

He did warn me. But an ethical therapist wouldn’t just be clear about the intent to frequently disrupt therapy by accepting calls. An ethical therapist would have ended sessions; because it did end when he gravitated to his phone, more present with the device attached to his hip than the therapeutic hour. I became his therapist. He should have been paying me; I became his crutch, the tree that money grew on. A cash cow.

I listened to stories about his new dating scene, every nuance, his newfound “love,” the nights out dancing, and on and on, too many details about him, thrilled that my hotshot therapist confided in me. But all the while I piled on weight, gaining back a substantial amount that I had lost and kept off for ten years. Forty fucking pounds. It took a lot of poundage to keep “it” down, my rage at him, my fear.

When I first began seeing Matt, a crucial red flag rose that I didn’t pay attention to. I needed him too much even then to walk out. He didn’t have time to read the literature I offered from my weekly weight loss group that helped me not only lose seventy pounds but keep it off.

He said, “Those groups aren’t the way,” tossing the pamphlets down like trash. “I won’t have time to read them anyway.”

I felt shocked. “What?” I asked. “The group teaches me so many things…” My voice trailed off.

I looked at the parcel of information timidly handed to him, lying on the table where he had casually discarded it, as if discarding me. The group meant so much, a place where I fit in, a place where I found others who used food for reasons beside physical hunger. A place where, over time, I had succeeded at something I had long failed at. Being fat had haunted me since the age of eight after the rape, when my skinny kid frame blew up like a balloon. Fatty Patty became my name.

I stopped going to my group that felt like home, his voice stronger than mine, more important. He had to be right, I barely questioned it, ignoring a tiny voice inside that knew different, even as the pounds came on. His offhand rejection of my tested, successful weight loss group zeroed in as if he were a learned man in the subject and I knew nothing. But his thoughtless off-the-cuff remark, became the truth I had yet to discover. It solidified as the way to be that I had yet to become, like him, fully present, eyes blazing with life. He believed himself to be knowledgeable in all areas. I believed it too.

His cavalier response exhibited knowledge and experience, but really pertained to lack of time. I sensed it, but disregarded the repeated protests arising, unused to listening to that flicker of instinct, “Look at him, skinny as a rail since birth. What could he possibly know about fatness and what it takes not to be?”

He had other more important concerns that I didn’t know about. I didn’t know until that last year what he had undertaken when we first met. His wife had contracted a chronic debilitating disease. They had discussed how to keep their house, because she could no longer offer therapy in her office down the hall from him, where they had first met. They talked about what to do when the expense of owning a home in their posh neighborhood became too much on one income. They wanted to keep the house rather than move to a lesser one. He would take on more work, up to ten clients a day, as many as he could. Time between clients was not spent pondering how to help them, but looking for more.

And being just one more, of course he would not read pamphlets or have time to think about me from one week to the next. I was one of too many, aware of something not quite right, but not heeding the warning. He took on the load of two therapists, a sick wife, and two daughters.

And then the divorce; she was leaving him. I heard all the details about the therapist he began seeing after his wife left. “Start dating, have fun” was the motto from his therapist. Had he heard the term “counter-transference,” where the therapist lays his own burdens on the client? He had no clue why she had kicked him out, but if he treated her anything like he had treated me, it was easy enough to understand. He took precious time from my sessions describing it thoroughly, her rage, and his wonderment at her rage with no reason why she wanted to leave. He came across as the victim, pleading innocence, looking for comfort while talking. I gave it the best I could, poor pathetic Matt. At least his therapist got paid.

Another component of my regretful weight gain came from the change in him. Upon hitting the dating scene, sexual energy emitted from his being like an open fire-hydrant, as if I’d been sprayed with his musk. Being near him started to scare me. Piling on pounds with no conscious realization of doing so, or why, made me feel safer from his newly awakened sexuality.

I hung up the phone after finally cutting him loose. Dignity slowly crept back into me. I contemplated the fuller feeling: relief instead of the loss I thought I would feel. I collected paper images of cell phones from magazines and made a mobile of them, hanging it up in the breezeway window. I had stopped the abuse, cutting my noose.

Cory noticed the dangling mobile, looking at me thoughtfully, then asked, “Do you really want to remember him that way, Mom?”

At seventeen, his perceptions went deep, more balanced than mine. I took it down. What appeared to be easy for others, saying no, made me fear I might be physically harmed or worse, abandoned. I feared him or even his physical nearness. But over the phone, in a whisper, I finally said, “No!”

CHAPTER 20: DEPRESSION

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When eating didn’t suffice to stuff my anger, depression helped. I’ve lost count of how many. But after Raymond left, I managed to survive, surprising myself. I finished that last year of nursing school, passed the State Boards, and landed a job as a newly registered nurse at a psych unit in a nearby town—all without him.

It was night shift, and it fit me well, the quietness. But the next morning, even with thick homemade curtains blocking out the sun, I slept only three hours tops. Maybe I could have lasted longer if Louise hadn’t become the new supervisor. She worked days at a hospital in a neighboring town. That psych unit was somewhat more progressive than ours because they had recently incorporated ECT or electroconvulsive therapy, not something I felt in favor of. It scared me. I knew only the movie, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” and what it did to the boisterous character Jack Nicholson played.

Louise introduced herself. The interrogation began.

“I work at Springtown,” she said, puffed up with pride as she added, “and we’ve instituted ECT.”

She immediately noticed my skepticism, not the expected response, as she bragged about the new equipment at her unit.

“You’re not in favor of it?” she asked, already on the attack after I frowned, the edge in her voice pointedly sharp.

I raised a white flag, suddenly fearful of her hackled, compact body, which seemed to have curled in on itself like a porcupine ready to throw a quill.

“I really don’t know much about it,” I answered, backing down too late.

I didn’t want to make an enemy of my new supervisor but the damage had been done, not by my words but with body language.

She lunged into me. “For a nurse, you ought to know better,” she lectured.

I cringed, quietly looking at her, moving back slightly. I didn’t like her or her banty hen stature—tough, small, and overly proud. The way she carried her body, a defense in itself. Things between us didn’t improve.

Her presence made some of the patients uncomfortable too; the worst acting out occurred after she started. One patient bit her and pulled her hair before the three of us could pull her off, the Psych Tech, me, and the security guard, hands tangled so thickly into Louise’s scalp that a clump of hair came out. The smile I must have felt, had I been connected to my humanly emotions, stayed hidden. I had been taught to be ashamed, but there had to be a smile swimming around inside somewhere!

When speaking up in any way but meek or dutiful as a child, Mom contained me. She had to, instinctively, without premeditation; she didn’t think that deeply about things to have controlled me consciously. She had to silence me in order to protect the family’s image of goodness. I had to be manipulated, and much more so than brothers, because I held the secret to their sins. They wouldn’t expose the truth. She needed to work diligently in shaping me. It’s not hard to silence a child. Just threaten to abandon, not in words but in actions. Do this, you’ll be loved. Don’t and you’re not.

The message hit home over time. It took repeated lashings of, “You should be ashamed of yourself” to brand that scar into me, burned so expertly into the template of who I was to become that shame replaced wholeness like a headstone. A death knell, part of me incinerated into ash, blown away to the far winds forever gone.

A natural reaction to Louise’s hair being pulled, only days after her lecture, would have been satisfaction. Why not stifle a smile and forgive my human frailties? Life’s little justices need to be savored, even if guiltily. But I had been trained to feel shame, not pleasure. The sweet guilty reward of her receiving some payback went unacknowledged.

Most nights Joel worked with me. Joel was a Psych Tech, but also my friend. He had been the one to show me the ropes from the start.

“Here, use my hand!” he volunteered, when I needed three successful attempts before drawing blood from patients.

And during my first assessment of someone in crisis brought into the hospital’s emergency room, Joel was there waiting, staying just long enough to tell me, “You can do it!” beaming with assurance.

It took only once, someone who believed in me. After that, I excelled at assessing patients in crisis.

Two RNs were always on duty, even overnight, one as charge nurse, one as PAO, or Psychiatric Assessment Officer. If a crisis arose on the floor, the charge nurse handled it, which meant giving a calming injection in the butt. No wonder no patient took one willingly. They had to be held down by staff, including the security guard who came running from another part of the hospital. If a crisis arose in the emergency room, the PAO assessed the patient, then woke up the psychiatrist on-call at home to relay the assessment and determine whether to admit or not.

One evening, Louise said, “I’m going out to my van to sleep a few hours. I had a hectic day at Springtown. You wouldn’t believe what a day! Make sure you wake me an hour before day shift arrives or if a call comes in the ER.”

Assigned charge nurse that night, I thought, “Are you kidding?” but knew already not to cross her. Nodding my head in agreement, I looked at her steadily, feeling sick to my stomach at her audacity and complete lack of character. My first impressions of her of a cocky, bold rooster dropped to that of a fat, self-serving slug.

Joel, a more agreeable sort than me, said, “Sure,” but gazed at me with a tweak of the eyebrow that said, “Wow, can you believe it?”

Joel went out later to wake her and she chastised us both for waiting too long. She could sink no lower in my estimation, but I never reported her. I should have, but I didn’t know how. I could advocate for my kids, but not myself.

Weeks later, she accused me of being insubordinate and recorded a curt message I had left when I could not fill in for someone who had called in sick. She gathered evidence, tidbits of my disrespect. I did not realize how negatively I had affected her.

More because of my inability to sleep than Louise, I decided to leave the job and put in my two weeks’ notice. Louise arranged an exit meeting with her and Mary Ann, the superior to us both. I guess Louise needed her say, and I knew no better than to do what I was told, so attended it. Louise spewed out a list of complaints, turning the ‘exit’ meeting into something quite different. I needed to agree to several demands if I wanted to stay. But I had already decided to leave, so it made no sense, and I walked out confused about what had just happened. Though churning inside, I remained disturbingly quiet.

Because Louise had orchestrated the entire meeting without so much as a peep out of me, I became a puppet used to quell her need for vindication. Did her hate for me arise because I couldn’t be controlled, or because I looked beneath the person she attempted to portray and saw the real person? I left the meeting and the job dazed. I never said what needed to be said: “How can I respect her when she goes out to her van to sleep?”

It was the same hand that wove its death thread through my family, the needle sewn through my soul. Blame and shame, all mine, and only mine. What happened in that meeting felt familiar. And so in life, the role given to me as a child followed like a dark shadow, tamping down my spirit without mercy or justice. Louise was rewarded with vengeful vindication, and my spirit became so villainously extinguished it would be hard to find and reignite. She was rid of her antagonist, besmirching me in the process. Meanwhile I took the pain deep inside where it festered into Christmas and over winter.

Spring came, but the usual uplift that accompanied it did not. I followed Samuel into the woods behind the garden. The day sparkled, cool, clear and sunny. But the swirling mass rocking in my gut darkened all splendor. Feelings agonized for expression with no release, locking me up completely as if I’d closed all the shutters. The only emotions able to leak out were sadness, tears, and seriousness, robotic and repetitive. I had shut down.

I tagged along behind him while he poked the ground with a stick, looking for the source of the wet earth, hoping to have a spring dug there. I felt desperate for relief from my pain, which made it hard to move, think, breathe, or smile.

“I don’t know what to do! I feel so bad,” I beseeched him once more; too many times to count over the endless winter months.

“Enjoy the day!” he answered.

Was that disgust in his voice, I wondered? I moved slowly away through the trees back toward the house. Why couldn’t I enjoy the day like he did? I knew I was in trouble; I had been there before, a depression so deep I needed help. Raymond. I needed him. Entering the house, I went upstairs and pulled out the drawer in the nightstand by my bed where I kept precious mementos, cards and letters. I shuffled through the papers and found the short list of names Raymond had given me, noticing the one circled.

After pressing Raymond who he recommended more highly than the others, he had replied with some reluctance, “Maybe Matt.”

Studying the neatly typed list, my hands smoothing the crease gently, caressing the white paper as if the movement brought Raymond closer, I placed it back in the drawer. As March melted into April and my birthday arrived, I called Matt’s number.

That began the first of six years of therapy with him. It took many months to stop crying, each week, each entire session. I just cried. Tears flowed down a face already hot, red, and blotchy. The salty tears scalded my scarlet cheeks. The internal lava crushed into silence by rocks of undeserved shame finally found release, erupting in a safe place, flowing each week till the next; tears of failure, loss, rejection, and grief for the voice that had been taken from me as a child.

CHAPTER 19: SUGAR PLUMS

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Stevie and I were excited; a mammoth understatement. I was nine and Stevie, only six. Though Dad had died the year before, kids recoup, and Mom agreed to our usual tradition. We were allowed to sleep on the couch, end to end, one night before Christmas watching the tree lights with “visions of sugar plums dancing in our heads.” 

In the sunken living room, called that because it took two steps down to get into it from the dining room, the Christmas tree stood in all its splendor, smack dab in the middle of the gigantic picture window that looked out over the flower garden and driveway. The thick, floor-length curtains were closed, keeping out the dark chill, but the room sparkled with glowing colors from the fat bulbs twirled round and round the tree. Tinsel sprinkling from branches swayed lightly against the tops of presents.

 We knew there’d be more. Santa hadn’t come yet, Christmas was a week away, but we were thrilled as each day brought us closer. And now, to our delight, we were to sleep right by the tree, Stevie curled up at the other end with the pillow he brought from his bed and me at my end, both with our own blankets. The long couch cradled us comfortably; I didn’t even feel his feet. And the tree! So pretty! How could sleep arrive when I was so full of excitement over the coming holiday, thinking of each gift I’d made for every brother and my mother?

 After inspecting the pretty packages one more time under the tree—we’d already memorized to whom, from whom—we hopped back under our covers. Nothing new, we knew them by heart, heavy, light, shakes or not. The only thing left to discover was when they were opened, the culmination of all the weeks leading up to the big day. It’s no wonder we didn’t drift off to sleep till well after the rest of the household.

 Stevie fell asleep before I did. Except for the tree lights, all the other lights were off and everyone had gone to bed: Mom, Tommy, Don, Danny, Seth, Chet, and Paul. “Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.” Tommy, the eldest at twenty, and the brother I looked up to most, was home from college on Christmas break. We were all together! Somehow, finally, my mind fell into happy Toyland slumber.

 Something woke me. It was dark, the tree lights were off, but something wasn’t right. Something was very wrong, but felt so good, confusion anesthetizing all ability to speak or move. My child’s mind couldn’t make sense of what felt so dreamy tingly down there but seemed so abhorrent. Was that my adored, eldest, most loved brother’s head between my legs, sucking and licking my peeing spot? Not a sound was heard. Santa spoke not a word either, but this wasn’t Santa. It was so quiet, and though bewildered, I didn’t cry out; my body became mesmerized by the very pleasing sensations yet disoriented into petrified stiffness. Then his head just disappeared. Up the chimney he arose? He must have crawled off.

 Stevie and I awoke the next morning, hungry for cereal as if nothing had happened, full of kid energy for the day. But something had happened. Something had permanently altered within me, dimmed, unsure of myself or the world around me, my mother and the brothers I loved so dearly. They were my world, but it all shattered. I shattered. A cataclysmic shift, an avalanche had occurred with the nighttime brother, inside my belly where the edges no longer met, couldn’t meet, there would be no more crossing, no making sense of it and no telling. He made sure of that. 

Tommy changed. With the morning light, I lost my brother. Malice and anger filled the eyes where love had once been. I knew not to tell from the frightful mix of menace and hate, and I didn’t. What could I say? What words would I use to describe what my little girl brain couldn’t comprehend anyway? And maybe what I perceived to be as hate was fear, apprehension of my telling, not that it made any difference. 

Being the oldest carried weight in the family. We looked up to him, the only one besides me to have his own room, the first to do things like dating, working, then going away to college. I only wanted to please him, to make him love me still, though he didn’t anymore, or didn’t seem to.

I tiptoed around “it,” afraid of waking the beast because Tommy could get very angry. He had snapped at me before just for tugging at his sleeve during a phone call. Though in his defense, the phone call had been of utmost importance for a student home on holiday. It had been to his new love at college who later became his wife. But the sinister being in the house that morning was not Tommy, the brother I would do anything for. He had become something else.

 The earth split; his eyes pierced me with a spear of hatred, but only me. I fell through the crack, falling, falling, then steadied when his voice softened with apparent kindness, sweetly toned toward Stevie, until Stevie left to get dressed. Then the thing, posing as Tommy, turned again towards me, reeking of malevolence which shed off his body like dried snake skin. The hissing, threatening eyes never matched the syrupy smooth words.

This dissonance of tone and action became a pattern, a way of life; the beast changed colors like a chameleon, but also changed shape depending on people and circumstance. I never got a hold of the real Tom again. Others did, but not me, and no one else noticed the schism or the way he played it to perfection.

 A child grows though, and the sister he had power over and controlled by the use of psychological force found a partner outside of the so called “family.” His sweetness became so thick it couldn’t be stirred and sat in my stomach like cold hard stone. Samuel came with me to Tom’s house in the city for fancy dinners he and Tara cooked, elaborate and expensive. But it was too late. No longer a child, in my early twenties, I watched him. I observed it all, sensing the phoniness, feeling it, seeing it, yet never knowing how to make it real between us again. 

Being the eldest, starting college when Dad was still alive, he received a solid start financially. He passed each hurdle, every year in college, one after the next. The entire family flew to New York City to see him graduate cum laude at the Waldorf Astoria, a huge undertaking for Mom. The expense of flight tickets and hotel costs for all eight of us must have been substantial for a woman recently widowed. But he was her firstborn and Dad would have been proud too. Tom followed Dad’s footsteps into the legal arena. 

He continued on to law school, graduated, then passed the Bar and was invited into a prestigious law firm where he later became partner. The rest of us struggled with college and several didn’t make it, some only through a semester or two, one not managing life at all. But Tom succeeded with honors and aplomb.

 A person could go insane with these thoughts, secrets, and memories. I try to imagine myself at twenty going after a younger sister sexually, or any child. I just can’t. Is it possible males aren’t accountable because they have such irresistible urges? Or because our double standard doesn’t hold them accountable?

 Tom and I attempted to talk about the past on the phone in my late thirties. To explain, he said, “I was so young then.”

 Not ready for excuses and a long way from forgiveness, I screamed into the phone, “You were twenty, home from college, you could have been prosecuted!” 

Crushing the receiver down so hard it rattled the wall, I rushed outside for air and release, whacking at a tree with a bat till some calm returned and the red blackness of rage lifted. We didn’t discuss it again.

 Years passed and we attended some of the same functions, a funeral, a wedding, but I wouldn’t talk to him, I couldn’t. The fight for my life continued. And there was no winning against an intelligent person slyly looking out for himself, only the loss of my own dignity and worth. Tom belittled me with comments interspersed so cagily that no one else in the family noticed, but the effects of his disguised put-downs on me were disastrous. His method reduced his crime to less than nothing; if I’m looked down upon as inconsequential, a sister unworthy of love or respect, then what he had done was no big deal.

 And in my family system, it seemed to work. His diabolical, unrelenting manipulations hurt more than all else endured. I was stomped upon so repeatedly I couldn’t get up, yet did anyway, bruised but persistent. I felt trapped alive in a coffin with nails hammered down, scraping and clawing for a way out, fighting for a life with my head up and heart full.

 He garnered sympathy from other family members because of the way I treated him, ignoring him, stepping away from his attempts to hug me as if he were dangerous. In the reception area at Shasta’s wedding, we gathered, sipping drinks, several siblings and their wives. He moved back from the group so I felt comfortable. It may have been the first time I allowed for the possibility that he possessed genuine empathy, not selfishness, but hope springs eternal. The deferential movement made him look magnanimous, more likely the goal.

 There was a point, as I approached fifty, when we tried again to reconcile. We met at the old building where I took pottery courses.

 He helped move my stuff that needed glazing to the back room and told me, “I used to teach a class here,” paused, then added as if with humility, “Just one though.” 

And I thought, So you surpass me once again, here at a place where I found joy, my hands happy in the wet earth with women who laugh and play with me.

 Our plan was to go have coffee together. I hopped into his little sports car and we zipped off to a coffee shop closer to his neighborhood. Though he owned a snazzy, expensive car, it was messy, with paper coffee cups strewn about, food wrappers, and books he moved so I could sit. We were lucky to have made it alive. I didn’t realize how nervous he was and we almost creamed into another car. Shaky, questioning doing this, we got out and he helped me negotiate our way into the place he frequented.

 He seemed generous and expansive in his willingness to buy our coffee. “Want a pastry?” he asked, a little too eagerly.

 “No, coffee will do,” I replied. We sat and chatted for half an hour or so before running out of banter.  At my request, we didn’t talk about the past. I had wanted to begin where we were now, yet what he did seemed like it had happened yesterday. Why? I want to know why? There’s no hope for a connected, close relationship. 

The ride back was calmer and without incident. He dropped me off. I watched him go, but felt empty.

 Sometimes I feel pity. I replayed what he said once when we tried to reconnect, something about having the sister he wanted. I immediately thought, That’s not your choice, it’s mine. You lost that right to choose; it’s my choice now, under my control and you’re not ready, you may never be ready. Remorse means true sorrow, not concern over what your law partners, friends, and family would think if they knew what you did. You worry about you and your reputation, not me. And family members do know and don’t seem to care.

 I don’t see him anymore since Mom’s gone. There were occasional get-togethers for brunch at her apartment and then times during her decline when we’d be together, sometimes for long periods in the hospital and that last night of her life. It seemed okay, like no rift existed, and during these emergencies, when life or death decisions had to be made, Tom was the steady voice of reason while my anxiety over losing her made me frantic. And though my biggest fights with her were about Tom and her wish for our reconciliation, there’s sadness in the loss of hope for closure for us both. 

She was right all along, and not just for his sake. A victim as a child, I then became a victim of rage. I have luckily lived long enough to quell the fires and know what a peaceful moment is. And through meditation, my broken brain mends. Life is for giving, yet some things are unforgivable. Still I try. I forgave Tom for using my child’s body for lustful sexual pleasure. Harder is what came after. Dismissing me like I no longer mattered or existed killed something in me, or quieted it for a very long time. She, the essence of me I barely know, slowly comes out, showing her face in small doses to those I love and trust, a select few. 

During my sessions with Raymond, I relayed my perceptions of Tom’s treatment towards me. 

Raymond said, “If it’s true, that’s psychological abuse.”

 If? 

Though I’ve thought of ways to torture and dismember Tom, and more him than anyone else, it’s in the past. I do not wish revenge, just peace. Though rage sputtered into ash, it reignites. I dance with her ghost shells, blowing away the swirling smoke, tamping it down, remembering its unwanted vapory clutches.

I impulsively sent a Christmas card to Tom the year after Mom’s death, the first in over thirty years, and a birthday card the summer after. And the very last communication since was a phone call where I apologized for ostracizing him, for not letting go sooner. I felt peace, felt all ties, even unholy ones, unravel, dissolve, evaporate. After fifty years, I have myself back again. I did what I had to do, what he does is up to him. The craving for a family will never go away, but lessens with time and the acceptance of what is and was. I long for a family, any family, just not mine. 

CHAPTER 18: GROCERIES

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I came in breathless from carrying bags, plopping them on the little island in the kitchen. Her favorite psychologist, Dr. Laura, was on the radio telling people how to live their lives. The so-called doctor had some bizarre answers too. The little light over the stove gave a soft yellow glow to the pottery bowl hanging lopsided from a macramé hanger, filled with salt and a miniature spoon.

“Hi,” she said, moving toward the bags to inspect whether or not I’d brought what she requested. She’d reached a point where she was unable to go with me or ride the small bus with the other seniors in the complex because the electric wheelchair, along with her weight, made it too heavy for the lift. She could no longer negotiate a plain wheelchair even for the purposes of just getting on and off the bus. That loss hit her hard. She had been quite the speed demon with an electric shopping cart.

Watching Mom in one of busiest grocery stores in the area was a sight to behold. Stand back; she took no prisoners. I cannot believe she didn’t hospitalize someone with her speed cart. She focused on finding each item as if other shoppers were mere apparitions, brushing by so fast that they must have felt her tailwind on their behinds. I stood in horror, relieved when she gave me other things to find in the store, because my stomach couldn’t stand the lurching excitement of so many near-collisions.

The muumuu of the day was a silky number with gold, brown, and black stripes, like a tiger. Somehow she made a shapeless dress look stylish, adding a hand-strung necklace and chunky bracelet, her fingernails freshly polished and neatly filed. As she worked the walker sideways towards the island, a little sweaty from the effort of dragging the oxygen tube behind her, I absorbed the scent of Mom, Lair du Temps. It was distinctly her. The gift set I bought at Christmastime with perfume, powder and lotion had been a success.

“Let’s see, did you get the capers?” she asked, because unloading each item and quizzing me was especially enjoyable since she couldn’t shop anymore herself.

But I was tired and grumpy, hating the inquisition each time, and snapped at her, “Go sit down while I unload.”

She moved away, trying to act happy, but I’d hurt her and knew it. When I acted up as a child, she’d say to me, “There’s a girl with a curl in the middle of her forehead. When she was good she was very, very good and when she was bad she was horrid.” I knew which girl I was being then.

Once I finished, she risked returning to the kitchen. I sat down on a high stool on the other side of the island. We chatted about things, mostly her asking the questions.

“How’s Samuel?” she asked.

“He’s fine,” I answered, not one to elaborate much.

Though exasperated by my one word answers, she kept trying. Then she added, “Can we sit down?” Her breathing became labored as she took the tube from her nose and placed the nosepiece directly over her mouth, pulling in as much oxygen as possible. Just standing for short periods became difficult; obesity and twenty years of her four-pack a day Benson & Hedges habit had taken their toll. She had emphysema. She perspired even more as she pushed the walker slowly towards the couch. I focused on her face, hoping she sucked in enough of that precious gas so her face wouldn’t tinge blue like it did at the craft store.

On one of our outings, she happily picked out stretchy necklace cord for the beads collected from her broken jewelry. She would make them into new pieces of jewelry, like the necklace she wore. It was the last time I’d take her out in the car and we argued.

“I’m all right,” she said as I opened the car door for her, wondering how I’d call 911 without a cell phone, having to ask the cashier to call, picturing an ambulance coming to the Beads & Buttons craft store.

“Mom, you can hardly breathe. You’re sweating and you’re blue!” I sniped.

Her face seemed to splinter, brokenhearted; she was at my mercy and gave up, knowing I meant it. All I felt was mean but it was the last time I took her shopping or out to lunch, though I did do dental or doctor appointments when Don couldn’t. I felt guilty, again, a common theme. Krista took her out now and then. I’m sure Krista believed me to be a lazy, thoughtless, reprehensible daughter—because I sure did.

I never said, but thought, “But do you know, Mom, how much it takes to load the walker, unload it, bring it around, open doors, then do it all over again on the way out?”

I’d done it every week for many of the ten years she lived there. It was worth it, we had fun, but that day was the last; it had become too much. I wimped out after seeing what a toll that last shopping trip took on her. I couldn’t stand to see her like that, though I could break her heart, let her down, disappoint, and ground her.

“How’s Cory?” she asked. She needed to hear stories other than what her friends talked about, which too often centered around disease and dying. Moments of clarity cropped up like white flags of surrender amidst my chronic anger. I realized she’d made all new friends in the big city of Chester, but they were old like her, and she slowly lost them to sickness and death. My heart ached for the reality of where she really lived. Beautiful, brand new, with a pool she adored down the hallway, but her new friends became sick as she knew she would…and they died.

“Oh he’s great,” I said.

And he was. My youngest had graduated valedictorian though I don’t remember him reading one book except for pleasure. Shane had to work harder, studying late into the night, but also graduated with honors and scholarships.

She was proud of them, and me, and tried to relay it, exclaiming, “You were always like a tiger with those boys.” 

I wondered what she meant, and after hearing that description more than once, I asked her to explain—not something we usually did, go deeper.

“You mean I jumped on you if you tried to tell me anything about how to raise my kids?” I asked.

But I already knew the answer—I had, and with vehemence. I wouldn’t allow her any chance to have a voice, or any opinion at all, not about my kids. She had plenty of opinions, and in spades, especially about me, but about raising my kids? None she dared speak of. She kept them to herself, except this newly repeated theme, “You were always like a tiger.”

No way was I going to pass on to my children the neglect I felt I’d endured. I worked diligently and persistently to keep both sons safe and their feelings about themselves intact. I didn’t always succeed. During my biggest downfalls, I glimpsed how it felt living with the knowledge of not protecting one’s child, living with it for life. That’s a burden too, a terrible one. But I didn’t know this then. I knew mostly anger and I blamed her.

“No, you were a great and wonderful mother, always doing what was needed no matter who you had to fight or confront,” she said without pause or question.

And I knew she meant every word. But it surprised me. It was mostly her I fought. Things were slowly changing between us. These compliments, once rare, came more frequently. It could be out of need as her body broke down, or maybe when finality stares you in the face, you want to say the things that haven’t been spoken before it’s too late. I felt I had the upper hand and didn’t want it, or partly did, but feared abusing it. Or maybe for the first time, I felt on equal footing and didn’t know how to proceed or how to handle that feeling.

I didn’t want her to be so sick but liked this new, softer side that gave compliments.

During one visit, while unpacking groceries, before she needed oxygen and the hated electric wheelchair that no skilled driver could master, when she could still get on her scooter without the O2 canisters, she had something big to discuss. I hated it when something “big” was coming. It didn’t work out; any discussions other than the kids, the weather, or food led to trouble.

She prefaced it by saying with too much drama, “I want to talk to you about something.”

My gut curdled as if I’d guzzled a glass of milk with lemon. Oh my God, no, I thought. Keep it on topics that are safe and we are sure of. I dreaded her next words.

“Why can’t you and Tom…” she said, and kept talking, but I didn’t hear the rest.

Tom was the first son, my oldest brother. I’d been the recipient of her advocating for Tom at other times, too many of them, but every time she spoke his name, fury erupted as if a molten iron block landed in my belly.

“Why can’t you forgive Tom?” she repeated, noting my blank look and shocked, frozen mouth.

She was almost in tears and shaking with emotion, and over Tom? What about me?

“He’s fun,” she explained. I understood the much needed comic relief and his ability to make her laugh about her infirmities, but I felt furious as if my insides exploded. 

Is he some kind of baby needing his mother to make peace with me? I wondered, enraged, because speech escaped me, though I did manage to spit out something nasty. It wouldn’t be the last time she’d attempt to make peace between Tom and me.

I stormed out spewing words like daggers through lips pressed tight, but never the words that needed to be said—what her son had done.

I muttered, “I got to go” and left.

CHAPTER 17: MOM

shattered-small title

There’s a hole now that she’s gone. No one loves you like a mother, even mine, maybe especially mine. We lived close by all my life except for brief periods like college, Army commitments, and for a short while after marrying Samuel when we moved to the Adirondacks. But that only lasted a few months—not a lot of ways to survive in the Adirondacks unless you trap animals, fish, cut down trees, or are on welfare. We moved back and stayed put.

We’d always been close emotionally too, so close I’d describe our connection as a bug living off a large animal. I was the bug. But I did learn to break away, live my life, bring up a family, and stop leaning on her for gifts. Her charitable spirit held trappings of other things—being bought, being owned, selling out. I learned to live with what we had, which wasn’t much, but more than enough because it belonged to us. I didn’t owe, and especially not to Mom.

At eighty, keeping a home became too much. Don managed to excite her into selling it for a move to the city and a brand new senior living complex, still under construction. The big seller: an indoor pool right down the hallway from her new apartment, so her 6 a.m. swims at the high school across from her house could continue with the added convenience of not even having to brave the elements to get there.

Luckily Don had the presence of mind to look out for her that way. I didn’t. I struggled running my own life. At that time I felt caught once again in the middle of a bad depression, this time from quitting my first nursing job, one I somehow managed to feel fired from. It became a depression of clinical proportions that took therapy and a year to get out of. But I managed to give my two cents‟ worth of demands to Don.

“Make sure it has a pool,” I offered, my only tidbit of advice in the life of Mom, all the concern, trouble, and work falling on Don’s shoulders once again, the only one who seemed willing and able.

Mom and I took a drive to see the construction in progress. She tried mustering enthusiasm for the big move, but it meant leaving friends and a lifetime of connections behind, along with a household of stuff. There wasn’t much to see from the car, and still a lot of work to be done. We looked at each other, and then back out the car windows at the large piles of muddy dirt, the heavy equipment quiet under thick clouds on a grey Sunday, but we didn’t say anything. Driving there made it more real. A large pond had been dug greeting those at the entrance gate off the busy highway, and a white picket fence surrounded the complex, pond, and gazebo.

“Mom, you’re being put out to pasture,” I said. My attempt at humor sounded tinny in the tight space of the car, hanging in the air like a bad fart. Her barely-there smile faded, fake and forced.

She began planning and shopping for furniture. I’d stop for a visit and find her and Don bent over graph paper discussing room dimensions, what fit where, the size of a new couch, bedroom set, dinette set, the shopping to be done, thrillingly endless: towels, linens, and on and on. He did the math, I helped her shop. We were like kids in a candy store. For two foodies, shopping came just slightly below eating on the “fun things to do” list.

I prodded her into buying a thirty dollar lamp shade that happened to match the flowery new bedspread. She put it in the cart, giggling. At that point she still walked, bent over the top of the cart for support. It made the best story to tell and laugh about, our weakness for simple pleasures, and what her daughter talked her into. We split the cost of a plastic talking hot dog that opened its bun, offering trays for assorted toppings, and sent the contraption to my brother Seth in California.

She decided on a first floor apartment so she could have her flowers. There would be a tiny patio large enough for an outdoor furniture set and gobs of flower pots filled to the brim with whatever plants she could get her hands on. She bought three chairs with comfortable padding and a small circular glass-topped table to go between two of them. The padding was pink, not bright pink or horrid pink, but a splash of muted flowery colors that resembled the bedroom left behind. Mom leaned towards the feminine side more than me. Anything pink, lacy, or involving curls and frills turned me off, but not her. I must have made a disappointing daughter after so many boys, once old enough to pick out my own clothes. All tomboy.

With all the angst between us, the patio was where we put down our swords and enjoyed time together. The water I’d spray in her pots would ooze out on our hot bare feet, cooling them along with our tempers. Many, many happy times were spent resting there after groceries were put away, chatting, or just quiet, breathing in the fresh air of spring, summer, or fall. And the endless supply of bubble-blowing wands, with a quart or two of sudsy liquid in bright colored bottles tucked under the table, kept us surrounded by sparkling floating orbs, tinted by sunrays as they wafted out from the patio into the glare.

She blew and blew until the time came when the list of losses included her breath. But Don’s daughter Krista found a battery- operated bubble-blowing wand that needed no blowing, so our porch delight and laughter continued. Even during my deepest depressions, I could relax with Mom on her porch and find respite.

Though she had a car for a while, I drove when we went out. We shopped, shopped, shopped, and then had lunch. We ate at countless restaurants we’d never been to and had fun. Mom made it fun. How she did that despite a daughter that often showed up angry, sad, or tired, and despite a failing body of her own that eventually needed a scooter, then wheelchair equipped with oxygen, I don’t know. But she did. She knew how to have fun, life-loving and adventurous, a hellion. She and her sister, Aunt Jean, loved nothing better than to hop in the car at the sound of a siren and chase it down, following the fire truck to the fire. But that had been before all Mom’s babies. And I learned from her how to love the feel of dropping on a hill in a car. While most people brake on a hill, fearful of feeling out of control, I take my foot off the gas and let the car go on its own, the weight building momentum like a roller coaster. In her day, she may have slipped the car in neutral to add to the effect.

There came a time when she couldn’t go out unless she absolutely had to for medical appointments. I brought groceries and lunch to her, or she cooked for us, tempering the tendency to embellish foods to the point where I wouldn’t eat them, instead sticking to basics like simple grilled chicken and vegetables. Often I stopped on the way after therapy, bringing lunch from a nearby restaurant. One most memorable: Chinese food served in pineapples. She never forgot that day, our heads bent over the carved-out fruit on the glass-topped table, worth the struggle to the patio with her walker where we ate al fresco. Autumn beckoned. The hot sun mixed with the bite of its approach. The quiet brought by fall was interrupted only by our laughter as we poked chicken out of pineapples in the cool shade of her porch.