It has taken me a long time to recognize how my mother’s leaving impacted my life. I knew it was painful and that it affected me somehow, but I think it has taken becoming a mother myself to recognize how profoundly it marked me. As a mother, I’ve always felt like I was performing the job with significant impairments. Something felt missing, deformed, less-than-whole, broken….and I wondered why is this so hard for me? So many others seem to do it with such ease. Why has this role left me feeling like I’m limping and dragging my way through something that comes so naturally for so many others? I had a vague notion that some of it connected to what happened when I was younger, but never a true understanding of the depth and scope of it until recently. One day I sat down to write and this is what came out:
It was as if the living and breathing organism that was our family had swallowed a time bomb. Maybe someone should have heard that suspicious ticking and done something earlier to disarm it. Probably an adult should have. But instead, and I guess I can’t even say “all of a sudden” because it was a time bomb after all, one day it finally exploded and what-used-to-be a-family abruptly became a collection of pieces, bloody bits of flesh, splattered across the pavement. Individually we were still alive, throbbing and warm, but the family as a whole was a gruesome disaster and no one could bare to look, it seemed.
One by one we realized that no one was going to scrape us up and put us back together. No one was going to rush over to take our pulse or assess the damage. Eventually and separately, each fleshy and mutilated member just slowly started scrunching and writhing its way along the road in different directions, trying to get somewhere. Just trying to get anywhere but there, where the fires of the explosion still burned. We were all reduced to raw, disfigured members ripped from a previously living body, trying our best to just survive on our own.
Where were those spectators you always hear so much about? The ones that just have to look at that train wreck, that can’t peel their eyes away? We belonged to this community of people, a tight knit fellowship of Christians who met in each other’s homes and let the kids play night games together under the warm glow of the streetlights outside after dark. And we belonged to a large extended family who gathered on our porch to play jubilantly in a pots-and-pan band or swapped cousins for summer vacation. But either the mess was too horrific or the people, those people that were supposed to be “my” people, were too polite to stare at our disaster or too clean to get involved in our mess because no one ran towards us to help us scrape up the pieces of us that might have still been salvageable.
Maybe it wasn’t an accident at all. Maybe my mom had served the family that time bomb, hoping it would launch her into a whole new place. After all, she had traveled down that isolated road and made her way through the doors of that sterile, new apartment before she let everything explode. Had she driven away to a place deserted of everything and everyone familiar precisely because she didn’t want anyone else to witness the grisly and lurid dismemberment of our family? My dad later told me that when my mom became obviously pregnant, people had started to show up unannounced to admonish her for the affair. Part of the reason she had moved away was to escape those prying presences. But what she had done to spare herself the public shame had instead compounded the injuries inflicted on each of us by isolating all of us from any other whole and familiar body of humanity that might have offered a transplant, an infusion, a graft of something living and healthy when we were all mortally wounded.
I now wonder what would have happened if the pieces had been gathered up sooner. If a trauma team had shown up to see what they could save; to help us stitch together the places our flesh had been torn apart. Even if the family didn’t survive, perhaps each of us would have fared better. It might have been like those medical miracles when someone is able to carry a dismembered hand in a bag of ice to the emergency room quickly enough so that it’s still viable. Some genius doctor manages to sew it back on and reconstruct it. Or at least salvage part of the arm and put on a good prosthetic. Instead, each of us left too long to ourselves, we all suffered internal bleeding, infection, gangrene set in. The longer we were left untreated, the worse it all became. And as the years went on, the more we were expected to just perform like everything was normal, the more obvious our injuries became to each of us. Yet the more aware we became of our mutilation, the more desperate we acted to hide it. The deeper we buried our wounds, the more hazardous the infection became. Because we didn’t take the time to assess the damage and clean out the wounds, we ended up with even worse long-term damage.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. When it happened, I think that our parents very much hoped that if they just smoothed things over, everyone would be fine. If they didn’t say it out loud, maybe we wouldn’t notice it was happening. As if trying to address what was happening by talking about it- by trying to offer explanations, definitions, a sense of direction, would be like putting up road signs or caution tape around the scene of an event and would just draw more attention. Very quickly we were given the impression that everything was supposed to be ok. Look! No bloody carcass here! Everything is very neat. Very sanitary. We never talked about the dirty details, the specifics like the decline of the marriage, parental neglect, the affair, the abandonment, divorce….We talked about “what happened when we were little” in broad terms in passing, but never named it out loud and never ever, ever dwelt on it. The entire time, my parents did the best they could to avoid any outward appearances of trauma. As years passed we would spend holidays all together, both parents and their significant others whenever possible. My parents never argued in front of us. If we brought up the topic of what went wrong, it was quickly dismissed. It was obvious to us that our pain, our wounded selves, could make other people uncomfortable, angry, sad or even repel them. It was almost as if we had stuffed the remains of that exploded organism of a family into a very pretty box. Eventually, when we were together we could talk about the box, but never about the rotting flesh inside. And certainly we should never mention it to someone else outside of us.
My siblings and I spent the next several years after the explosion as walking wounded. The members of the family, all of us missing bits and pieces here and there but still alive, found ways to reconstruct ourselves in whatever way we each could to survive. I felt so horribly disfigured, so bloody and raw inside, I couldn’t bare to have anyone really look long enough at the real me me to notice the damage. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d never be whole again. I’d always be this person, permanently scarred, disfigured in places that I was afraid to let the world see. So, I did what I could to build an armor around my marred flesh. I adorned myself with pretty accomplishments and shiny achievements that might make me less offensive to gaze upon. With no rational adult brain to help me frame the situation, it was up to my not yet fully developed gray matter to make sense of it all. This wasn’t that big of a deal, I reasoned. Divorces happened all the time. Adultery was not rare. Lots of kids lost parents permanently, so losing mine sporadically shouldn’t be that big of a deal. This was not the deterioration of the rainforest, genocide, human trafficking….I had no right to feel sorry for myself. In fact, this is what most adults were saying about this whole phenomenon of families splitting. What happened to me was nothing special. It was the story of millions of kids. Kids were resilient. We’d be just fine.
I was just fine. It would be fine. Everything would be fine. “Fine” is what comprised the battlefield stitches applied so that I could go on in life without bleeding all over everyone and everything I came in contact with. If sometimes I bumped up against a raw spot, wincing as an unexpected emotion flashed into view, I’d hastily add another stitch: Come on, buck up, I’d tell myself, You’re fine. If I forgot about the injuries and exerted myself in a certain way, I’d mention the curious painful sensation to someone in the family and they’d remind me: Don’t be dramatic. You’re fine.
But they didn’t always stick, those stitches we applied. Sometimes they’d tear open and someone around us would notice raw and damaged flesh. One rare friend I acquired in high school, one friendship I thought was true, saw something oozing from a wound, and got scared away. She ended our friendship by leaving me a note at the main desk letting me know she couldn’t be around me anymore because I was “too sad all the time.” By then, I’d convinced myself that I didn’t have any good reason to be sad. What was wrong with me? Better work harder next time to keep it all together, to push it all neatly back inside. Another time an English teacher read depression in some poems I had handed in. I didn’t realize not every other teenager i knew didn’t feel like an empty, unlovable, unworthy abyss. She reported me to the counseling department who notified my parents. My dad and mom were both there to meet me after school. They were angry I had exposed family issues. I was reminded that this wasn’t my story to tell. I had neglected my job of protecting my mom’s story from being exposed. Their lives were hard enough without me leaking some messy emotions.
To this day, twenty years later, we still have not talked about the demise of our family in any real detail, except recently in brief and hushed conversations, one-to-one. Sometimes when we’re together in a group we delicately touch on the topic, refer to it in passing, kick that pretty box a few time to see if it’s still in tact. But we never open it up all the way. I think we’re all too afraid at what we might find after all these years. What gruesome parts of ourselves we might discover. Or worse yet, what beautiful parts we might have forever lost.
What moment in your life has left you forever changed? Did you know it at the time?
NOTE: I wrote this piece several weeks before the events in Boston on 4/15 and coincidentally planned to publish it this week. I hope that the analogy does not offend any who might be affected by that horrific event.