I stumble through superficial conversation with her even though that’s the only kind we have.
We always trudge through the surface-level basics: “How old are the kids?”, “How is your wife doing?”, “How many years you got left now [in the military]? I don’t ask questions beyond how are you or followup questions to her responses. I don’t want to know too much. I don’t want to know if she’s not ok. I don’t want to know that she’s giving into vices or self-destruction or that she’s working a job different from the last one she had the last time we talked or one different than the time before then. I want to know – I always want to know that she’s doing well.
I dial her number. A ring. I tell myself I’m fine. I’ll be fine. We’ll have a healthy conversation when she picks up. Two rings. Good, she might not pick up. I won’t have to hear her voice sound differently – more worn than last time. We won’t have to pretend that we’re not both extremely sensitive people who’ve mastered cloaking our vulnerability even to each other. Why do we do this? I know this woman, don’t I? She carried me. She’s known me since before I knew me. How have we become strangers?
A professional would say unresolved issues with my mother are responsible for my approach to and maneuvering of long term relationships. An amateur like myself would simplify the explanation to say ‘what long term relationships?’. I have no sense of permanence about any connection to another person. I expect them to leave. I wait for it. I might even be guilty of manufacturing some of those exits. I keep one foot out the door, so maybe the blow will hurt less. I think it’s naive to say any one thing has such a significant impact, but inside this aging shell, I’m just a boy with 1000 questions. I believe a singular event is the cause of my emotionally keeping people at safe distances. I do.
For years, I’ve dreamed about having the conversation with my mother. THE conversation of conversations. The one that answers questions only I care about and that her alone can answer. Was it love or despair or both lead her to sending me to a new life with my father?
I was most bold in my teenage years. The connection was more ripe back then, but I would’ve asked her for answers that I’d already given myself. I would’ve received answers I didn’t agree with not only because they didn’t match my perception, but because I wouldn’t understand the answers. I wouldn’t want to understand them. I’d want it to have never happened. I would’ve attacked her in a tear-filled rage. I would’ve judged her screaming into the phone, sucking in more air than my chest could handle. Everything around me the color Red. I would be more angry at her after, and I would’ve completely disregarded what she would feel on the other end of the phone. I would’ve hated my younger self later. I would’ve thought of better things I could’ve said. I would’ve wondered how I could talk to her like that – talk to “Mommy” like that. I’d wonder which of my parents I channeled to let so much anger come out of me. I might’ve carried that shame for decades apologizing to her telepathically and to God as often as I thought I about it.
Later in adulthood, I started answering my own questions, because that’s who I am. I find the answers, and everything has an explanation. The brain works that way, not just mine: if you think of the brain filled with pockets, each time you learn something a pocket is filled. If the brain receives a question and it doesn’t have a pocket with the information, it fills in the pocket with some combination of similar information from memory, logic, and imagination. Ergo, I made up answers. I told myself she loved me and would never choose to have that distance between us. I believed she felt she was inadequate a parent. She wanted to see me do well in life on a different path. I believed she was overwhelmed by her problems, her demons and that she wanted to be done needing or asking for help. Maybe she wanted to be all or she wanted to be nothing.
After I became a parent, I stopped asking questions and only made conclusions. A child’s life is fragile and is influenced by everything they’re exposed to. I told myself big picture things like their life is your responsibility until they can fend for themselves. They need the best care that can be provided for them. My father could provide me better care and a better quality of life. She did what she had to do.
I don’t tell people this level of my back story. When I get a where-are-you-from question, I say “I lived in Hartford, CT until I was 9, then I moved to AL.” (Roughly, 5% of the time, I get those questions, because I look like someone that watches sports. The other 95% is because I said a word or phrase that sounded off from the rest of my speaking.) I almost always leave out the part where I had mom this half and dad the other[half of childhood].
Everyone has a story. Naturally, the first response to this one is empathy. After empathy comes either compassion or pity (a law of nature truer than gravity). What anyone sharing deeply personal things doesn’t want or need is the latter. Someone offering you their history might not be doing it to trigger as useless an emotion as pity*. Consider it a section of marked up road map to better understand how they became the person you’re talking to. We’re molded by our experiences.
It’s not fluff or BS that psychologists start with your childhood. My point is to take this – and anything else I write standing in front of a mirror – as a snapshot of my psyche. A free tour.
I want to say I can’t imagine what my mother could’ve felt or the things she told herself, but I can. I can imagine that to keep my children near me I would beg or borrow or take. I would sit in a crowded shelter, so they would have a hot meal. We’d spend nights at my parents’ home, at an aunt or uncle’s house, or in the truck if we didn’t have a place to stay. We’d do whatever it took, because I would tell myself that no matter how bad off we were, they should be with me. Their dad.
If I were the custodial parent, I don’t think that I could accept giving them up. On my own, I don’t think I could gather that strength (writing this now I’m shaking my head). I don’t think I have it in me. Understanding the strength it could take to survive mentally after giving up your only child having been his primary parent since birth, is enough proof that my mother has a will in her that I couldn’t have understood until now – 27 years later with diving deeper into my history revisiting emotions I avoid and dissecting the path my life’s taken.
I always ask myself when I call her if she’ll be ready to have the conversation with me. I think she would be willing. I just want to know that she would be ok after the talk. On second thought, it’s a conversation we should have in person. Seeing my mother talk to me about it, I would know that we’re both going to be alright when everything is out on the table.
Honestly, part of me considers the answers insignificant, and I’d love to wake up one day feeling like I no longer need to search for them.
*On pity: I don’t consider it completely useless if what follows is some altruistic behavior or benevolent exchanges.