“I’ve started going to therapy,” my mother says quietly, looking at her hands. They are clasped together on the table, her thumbs mindlessly picking at her nude fingernail polish. Flakes of it lay scattered on the dark tablecloth, their stark contrast like a sprinkling of snow on pavement. This is the first declaration she’s made since entering my home a few minutes ago. I look at her, quizzically, unsure of what I’m supposed to make of this comment. I don’t feel any pressure to fill the silence, so I just wait. I don’t owe her anything, I tell myself.
“I’m just saying because, of course, you come up a lot. Constantly, really… I’ve been thinking a lot about what happened… How I handled things.” She looks up at me now, her eyes shiny with tears. All I can do is nod. It’s a little late for that, I think neutrally. Her display of emotion makes me feel awkward, and I wonder briefly if she’s only tearing up to gain sympathy. Unlikely, I think, but it does spark the question: Do I sympathize with her? I consider it, rolling it around in my head, my eyes glued to a painting on the far wall as she snivels in front of me. It’s a piece my husband picked out, painted by a local artist. It depicts a ship in tumultuous waters, the crew scrambling to keep it afloat, with the sun setting behind it. There are dark clouds perched in the sky. I think it’s rather fitting that it has caught my attention at this moment. I know I’m avoiding eye contact because I don’t want to see her crying. I don’t want to be faced with her pain, when all I’ve considered for the past twenty years was my own. After a few moments of deliberation I’ve decided that it’s not sympathy, but pity that I feel for her. It can’t be easy trying desperately to reconcile with an apathetic child you haven’t seen in over twenty years.
“I just… I couldn’t cope.” Her words break the silence and interrupt my thoughts, reminding me that she’s still here.
“I didn’t know what to do. The love of my life was gone…” she trails off, taking a deep, ragged breath and looking around the room anxiously before fixing her gaze back on me.
“I was only twenty-two.” She says this with a tone that implies twenty-two year olds can’t be trusted to appropriately deal with grief. I feel my chest tighten with defensiveness and resentment. She knows that I, myself, am older now than she was when she left me. She must think that I can relate, that I can empathize now because I have a child and a husband. I wonder if this is the reason she chose to reach out, if my marriage status made her think I could more easily put myself in her shoes.
Naturally, it is something I’ve thought about. There have been many nights I’ve lain awake, staring at my husbands face, trying to consider what I would do if he had died in his sleep. If I had to arrange a funeral and explain the concept of death to my four-year-old, who is a self-proclaimed daddy’s girl. In those moments, with my mind simulating the experience of telling my daughter that her daddy isn’t going to wake up, seeing the confusion and gut-wrenching pain on her angelic face, I can empathize with my mother. Yet I know, deep down, truer than I’ve ever known anything in my life to be true, that I would never abandon my child. No matter the circumstances life threw at me, I could never exist in a world where she grew up in the care of someone else and I lived my life as if I hadn’t caused it. Not just caused, but chosen it. And that is where my empathy for my mother ends.
A soft noise from across the room brings me back to reality and I look over at my daughter, laying peacefully on the couch, not quite asleep but almost there. My heart lurches with the mere thought of existing without her. My mother is staring at me, and I can tell by her facial expression that she probably just tracked a good bit of my train of thought. I assume that is what makes her feel the need to continue talking- to justify her actions.
“Of course I loved you.” My face must have given away my distaste, because she corrects herself, “Love you. Of course. But my grief was too big, too all consuming. I didn’t know how to be a mom anymore, he was always better at the parenting thing than I was, and—” her voice breaks and she wipes the tears that have begun falling with the back of her hand. “and I thought you’d be better off with someone else. Someone who wasn’t sad all the time. Someone who could be happy with you. You were such a happy little girl.”
Before she arrived today I told myself she didn’t deserve to get a rise out of me after all these years, to know how much she’d hurt me. But I can’t help it, the words are out of my mouth before I can even think about them.
“I was. Before my dad died and my mom left me with a practical stranger.”
I watch the venom in my voice hit her and I can tell it had its intended effect. She shifts uncomfortably in the wooden chair she’s perched on, and nods. To her credit she doesn’t rebuttal; she doesn’t tell me that my grandmother was hardly a stranger.
Instead she says, “Right. That makes sense.” And then, after a moment, with an exhale, “I’m just trying to tell you my perspective. I want you to understand… I thought I was doing what was best. For you. But I never stopped thinking about you… Loving you.” I nod in response again, and realize that my entire body is tensed up. I’m not sure how long I’ve been sitting like this, with every fiber of my being on high alert. I picture my cat, responding to any perceived danger with bristled fur and a puffed-out tail. That’s how I feel in this moment, like I’m bracing myself for battle.
I think about something my husband said before he left for work this morning. I’d been venting frantically about how anxious, and mildly annoyed, I felt about seeing my mother again after all this time. I think I said something flippant about not thinking I could ever forgive her, so what was the point?
“Hey,” he said, his brown eyes locking with my own and a gentle smile playing on his lips, “don’t assume to know how you’re going to feel when you see her.” I rolled my eyes, and said, a little too aggressively, “but how could I feel anything else?” He’d shrugged and said, “It’s a complicated situation. Just be easy on yourself, and on her, if you can.”
In the moment I’d felt indignation, my ego telling me that he was the one doing the assuming. Assuming I’d feel anything other than resentment towards her, which seemed impossible at the time. But now, with a reminder to myself, and my body, that I’m not in any physical danger, I try to unclench. I consider that instead of battle, I’d been bracing myself against any kind of connection.
I look at my mother, now in her forties, bearing little resemblance to the woman I remember caring for me when I was a small child. She is still beautiful, but looks as if pain has aged her. I realize there is so little I know about her. Aside from the yearly birthday and Christmas cards she sent me (which more often than not, I threw directly into the trash) I’ve had no contact with her. The few times she tried to call, I refused to talk to her. I told my grandma never to mention her to me. I built up a wall around my heart, and told myself I would never give her the opportunity to hurt me again.
And yet, when she’d called last week and begged me not to hang up, asked to come talk to me, told me that my grandma gave her my new phone number, I wasn’t disgusted or furious. Tentative, definitely, but I’d agreed nonetheless. When she asked if Wednesday at noon worked for me, I gave her my address. I must have wanted to see her, or I wouldn’t have let her into my home.
I stand up, suddenly needing to move around. I’m not sure what all of this means for me, for the woman sitting at my kitchen table, who claims to be the one who birthed me. I shuffle towards the stove and put the kettle on.
“I’m going to make some tea. Do you want any?” Her face softens and I can tell she thinks, or at the very least hopes, this is a sign I’m warming up to her. I’m not sure if I am, not yet. I still don’t know her, who she is as a person, besides the decision she made twenty-four years ago, which I let color every possible understanding I had of her.
“Yes, please.” She says. The tears have stopped falling, but her eyes remain red. She pushes some of her graying hair away from her face, tucks it behind her ear. I consider this simple gesture, common really, but in it lies the first bit of objective humanity I’ve allowed myself to see in her since she arrived twenty minutes ago. I consider the way I tuck my daughters hair behind her ears, or how my husband does the same for me.
I almost smile.