This story contains sensitive content including substance abuse, physical violence, and mental health.
Ask anyone in town what I think of seventy-six-year-old Bonnie Jennings, and you’ll get a different answer each time, and each version is correct. I’ve always made my feelings for this woman quite clear, not in a look-at-my-hatred-for-this-woman sort of way but sincerely, honestly and openly. You see, to most people, Bonnie was the sweet little old woman next door. She was kind and thoughtful, and no one had anything bad to say about her at all. Sometimes I was looked at as a "snob" by some, but those didn’t understand my story with her. It dates back to a time before any of these people knew we existed.
I have a sister, who is three years younger than I am. To be completely transparent, I was unexpected, an accident. My parents weren't even married when I was born, but they were by the time my sister came along. Somewhere between the time I was three and five my mother completely lost interest in being just that, a mother. She was becoming more familiar with drugs, alcohol, she became verbally abusive to our dad as well as us, and sometimes she didn’t even come home at night. The last straw was when our dad was working the night shift, and came home to five, almost six-year-old me trying to feed my almost two year old baby sister. Our mom was passed out in the next room, suffering from an overdose; but we didn’t know that as kids. Mom just wouldn’t answer the door. He was furious, and called 911. The paramedics came and took our mother away to the hospital, later going to the county jail to face charges for felony drug use, and child endangerment. Our dad immediately filed for sole custody, and the judge taking care of our family’s case granted it to him. Our mom went to prison for a year, and we didn’t see much of her at all during our childhood. We were so much happier, though. Our dad made sure we had everything we needed, and love was in no short supply. I am grateful for our family and the positive influences we have had; but mostly I’m grateful for my dad taking us away from the toxicity that could have poisoned our lives and hearts.
I know, You’re probably thinking, “Gee, Alex, that’s a little harsh, don’t you think?” Here’s the thing: The pain she caused me and my sister was harsh, and very unnecessary. We lived life without a care in the world, until the day I graduated from high school. The ceremony had just ended, and I found my sister, Andrea, and our father in the sea of joyus love and laughter. We were talking, waiting for one of the photographers the school hired to come take our family photo when a short, thin woman emerged from the bustling group of bodies before us.
“Alex,” She said with tears in her eyes. “Look at you!” Her hands cupped her mouth, she was still teary-eyed. I knew immediately who this was, and knew I did not want to speak to her. I turned to our dad.
“Dad, can we go? I’m not feeling well.” I muttered quietly to him.
“Oh, yeah, sure, let’s go.” he knew exactly what was happening. The three of us turned to leave, when the woman shouted after us.
“Remember, You chose this, Alex! Andrea! I’m trying, here!” I suddenly and firmly spun around to face the source of my nightmares.
“No, you fucking chose this, Bonnie! You were the one who failed Andrea and I, and Greg, too. You were the one who bailed on us and made us feel inadequate.” Andrea tugged on my arm. I forcefully yanked it away from her, and continued yelling.
“I NEVER want to see you or hear from you again! Leave us alone!” I turned and ran through the crowd back to the parking lot, my sister and dad close behind. That day plays in my head on a giant tv screen constantly. I know it sounds horrible, and I’m sure any mental health professional would be concerned, rightly so, but it’s the truth. As awful as it was, it was yet another defining moment in the formation of my character. I knew I never wanted to be like her.
It’s been thirty years, and I haven’t heard from Bonnie since the day I graduated high school. I am married and have children of my own, now. Andrea just got married about six months ago, and we just found out last week she is expecting a baby! Our family is so thrilled, we just wish dad could have been here for it all. About ten years ago, dad died suddenly from a heart attack. It was extremely sudden, he was such a healthy man. Our hearts have been empty and hollow since the day he passed. I can’t speak for Andrea, but my children and husband have surely helped with the pain.
On a hot day in July, I had a strange urge that I can honestly say I haven’t had since before I graduated high school. I wanted to talk to my mother. There was just one problem, though: I had no idea where she was. To my surprise, we had ended up in the same town after all of these years. We both ended up in central Oregon where the views are beautiful and nature flourishes. I guess in the end we weren’t so different after all. I mentioned her name to one person, and that person thought they might know someone, and that someone knew this other person, and by that afternoon, I was speaking to someone at the supermarket who first-hand knew my mother. I asked her some questions, and gathered a very vague generalization of what her life looks like. All the woman could tell me was that she was unmarried, she didn’t have any kids, she was a very sweet old lady, and then she generously gave me Bonnie’s phone number. I carried that torn piece of brown paper bag everywhere with me for the next few days trying to decide if I really wanted to contact her again or not.
About a week after talking to the woman at the supermarket, I decided to call the number. I had so much doubt in my body, I was shaky, and I kept trying to practice what I wanted to say.
“Hi, Bonnie. It’s Alex I wanted to- ugh. No.” I paced around my living room.
“Bonnie, Hi, it’s Alex. How have you been?” I paused. “Stupid.”
“I know it’s been a while. It’s Alex, I was wondering..” I stopped, and slapped the palm of my hand to my forehead.
“Fuck it” I mumbled under my breath, and hastily diled the number. I was shifting my weight back and forth from each foot much like a wrestler getting ready to take someone down in the ring. There was one dial tone, two dial tones, three, four, then, a click.
“Hello?” A young woman’s voice called out. I was startled at first. Did I have the wrong number? The wrong information on Bonnie? Did she have a daughter?
“Hi, Uh.. My name is Alex. I’m-” The woman interrupted me.
“Alex?! Bonnie’s daughter?!” She excitedly asked.
“Yeah, I am.” I answered cautiously.
“Oh man, I’ve heard a lot about you!”
“You have? From Bonnie?”
“Yes! She used to tell me some amazing stories of you and your sister before she got sick.” The nurse said.
“Sick?” I asked.
“Oh.” She went silent for a moment. “You must not know.” The nurse baited me.
“What is she sick with?” I was now conflicted with all kinds of feelings.
“It’s dementia. It’s fairly progresive, too.” The nurse answered.
“What’s your name?” I tried holding back tears. Why was I crying?
“Sarah, I have an odd request. I wanted to try and reconnect with my mom, maybe even heal our broken relationship. Would it be possible to come by and meet with her? See if she remembers me?” I wiped away the wetness on my face left from the trail of tears down my cheekbone and jaw with the sleeve of my sweater.
“Oh, absolutely! Are you free this Saturday? She has a very strict schedule during the week, but on weekends we try to do different things. It helps keep her mind alert and focused, I’m sure you understand.” She giggled.
“Yeah, this weekend would be perfect. Around noon?”
“Sounds great! I’ll make sure to have lunch made for everyone. She’s going to be so excited! Have a good night, Alex! Bye-bye.” The phone line dropped to a dial tone. I sat there holding the phone to my ear long after Sarah had hung up. Some stranger was taking care of my mother. Feeding her, bathing her, cleaning her house. I tried to forget about the plans I made for the rest of the week, but the closer Saturday came, the more sure I was that I was going to cancel this meet and greet.
Finally, Saturday arrived. Sarah called me the night before to give me the address. When I finally arrived at the house, it’s exactly what I was expecting. A very pale, mint green house with white Barbie doll dreamhouse trim and shutters, hanging from the covered porch were baskets of flowers; all varieties. I walked up to the front door, and knocked. Sarah came into view just a few minutes later.
“You must be Alex?” Sarah started to open the screen door, reaching her hand out to shake mine.
“Hi, yes, I am.” I smiled, looking around the porch at the wicker furniture.
“Well, I’m still finishing lunch so let me tell Bonnie she has a visitor. Go ahead and make yourself at home!” Sarah let the screen door fall back into place, and I turned to go sit on the porch swing. Positioned at the end of the porch there was an old wooden swing with bright, shining metal hardware. I sat down and waited. The cool summer breeze brushed my neck and rustled the ends of my hair. What was I going to say? I had so many questions, but none of them were coming easy to my mind, now. A few minutes after sitting down, the screen door swung open, and stuck to the side of the house. It looked like someone put magnets on the house and the door so Bonnie could get through without having to worry about the door swinging back at her. After the door stuck to the side of the house, a walker with two frail hands gripping tightly became visible. Soon, the same small, thin woman that was standing before me at my graduation was even smaller, even thinner and her body was now failing her. She slowly made her way over to me with Sarah’s help, and sat down in the wicker chair next to the swing. I was in awe of this person, not for the reason you think, either. I was in awe of how she could walk away from two kids and a husband. How she could go gallivanting all over town with other people and not so much as think about us at home. Bonnie looked at me, and smiled.
“Hi! I hear you’ve come to visit me.”
“Yes.” I answered, wondering if she knew who I was.
“Well, what’s your name, dear?”
“Alex.” I stated.
“Well, Alex, It’s nice to meet you. My name is Bonnie Jennings.” She smiled. I looked up at Sarah who was starting to get ready to go back in the house.
“I told her who you were, several times. She seems to think you’re here to write about her life.” Sarah whispered and gave me a sorrowful look and headed back in the house. I sat thinking for a moment. Was this useless? I spent the next few hours getting to know Bonnie, and learning her view of things.
“Nothin’ I did was perfect, remember. But I was young and didn’t know what I wanted out of life.” She said multiple times. It was hard to tell if she was remembering things the way they really were or if it was her altered, demented state.
“Did you ever have kids?” I finally decided to test the waters. She looked at me, as if she knew who I was for a moment.
“Yes, I did.” She folded her hands in her lap.
“Where are they?” I knew, of course; but did she?
“My oldest is here in the same city. She and I like a lot of the same things, even if she doesn’t want to believe it." I smiled and nodded my head. "My youngest is in Seattle.” That was wrong, Andrea moved to Texas about four years ago, that’s where she met her husband. That must have been around the same time her mind started to slip. Safe to say she didn’t recognize me. We had lunch, talked for the rest of the day, and I found out some valuable information, even if it wasn’t the information I wanted.
Bonnie ended up doing some pretty fantastic things. She beat addiction, and spent most of her time in soup kitchens and shelters, volunteering. She eventually had her record cleared and was able to join the peace corps. She traveled the world and learned much more than she ever expected to.
“My mistakes were many, and I regret them daily. However, I think it was my purpose to find myself.” She stated.
I continued to come almost every day to see Bonnie when I wasn’t taking care of my kids or doing housework. Over time, we grew to have very fun and interesting conversations between us. Eventually, we had been seeing each other for months. As it seems, life has a way of interrupting your plans, and unfortunately life took away my time with Bonnie.
A couple of months after I made my hiatus from Bonnie’s house, Sarah called me. Bonnie was sleeping all day and not taking fluids or food anymore.
“Alex, you should probably come say your goodbyes.” Sarah sadly informed me.
That’s just what I did.
I went to Bonnie’s house and sat beside her bed, holding her hand while her little lungs fought to draw a breath in and out. They were shallow, short breaths. I stroked her hand, regretting the decision I made as an angry teenager and battled with myself about the words I spoke to her when she knew who I was. I then felt a squeeze of Bonnie’s hand, and looked up to meet her fraile, disappearing gaze.
“Alex..” She slowly whispered. I stood up, and came closer to her to hear her better. “I never forgot you or your sister, and I regret every day what I did to you two and your father. I’ve always loved you.” Her hand released, and her lungs exhaled. I was now parentless, again.
I have since decided to write about the adventures of my mother. A young troubled woman making the world her blazing trail. A harmless and honest homage, she has been the inspiration for my entire career. Bonnie had true and changing impacts on me many times in my life. However, I like to argue the last impression she made on me is the best and most unexpected: One of unwarranted love.