My gawky legs wouldn’t carry me fast enough. When did that walk become such a long one? Could she, would she? How was it going to feel if she had? She’d talked about it for years, but this morning there was an excited certainty replacing the helpless desperation I’d heard in her voice so many times before.
Mom hadn’t gotten up with us in the mornings for what seemed like years. I couldn’t remember the last time she’d made breakfast. When she was up and dressed before school this morning it was clear something was different.
I’d listened to mom’s infrequent pleadings about how unhappy she was, how she was going to leave someday. They seeped into late night talks like the sharing of confidences between old friends. I’d heard it enough to assume the day would never really come. Maybe I hoped listening was enough or maybe I was too young to comprehend. For sure my baby sister couldn’t understand. Mom’s talks of leaving seemed more frequent after her arrival six-years earlier, perhaps feeling more trapped by another pregnancy. She never said and I’m glad she didn’t.
It wasn’t so much what mom said as who she’d become that cemented the truth of her longsuffering. We knew how hard dad was to live with, no one had to tell us kids that and in many respects dad treated mom like a kid. Given her withdrawal from us as a family, I’m not sure why I felt such sympathetic loyalty to mom, I just did. I would grow into quite the suffering martyr for many an underdog and maybe mom is why.
Mom tried to prepare me in an awkward, unpleasant sort of way. But that was mom, a cut-to-the core woman. “Here’s the way it is, deal with it.” Her method of teaching us to swim was to toss us in a lake and stand protectively nearby waiting for a head to bob and figure out the rest. She was a great cook. She started writing out recipes for me to learn, but she was rarely there to guide me. Naturally I took no pleasure in learning that way. To this day when cutting potatoes for scalloping her few words of personal advice still roll through my head: “It’s important to cut each slice the same size.” A mother’s words last forever.
On this particular morning mom echoed those all too familiar phrases about leaving but now she seemed invigorated by hearing herself say them. I don’t remember any special hugs or tender kisses or sign this was something difficult. Maybe she was trying not to upset us. Maybe she thought we didn’t care. Maybe she was so relieved to finally figure it out she didn’t care. Maybe dad had dictated strict orders how she was to handle it, which was just as likely. Among whatever other chatter took place, the only words I do remember are, “I wanted you to know, I won’t be here when you get home from school today.”
Mom’s forewarning replayed in my mind on that long walk home. It seemed unnatural I should have to make that taunting walk alone; that no one was there to console or occupy me, to talk with me, to help me know what to do or how to feel. What parent leaves their 12-year-old child to handle this adult stuff? What am I supposed to feel in what I knew would be frozen moments of time? Am I supposed to cry? Will I cry? I wanted to want to cry, but my heart refused to give-in to the uncertainty.
More than anything I wanted to believe this was just another of mom’s misfires. Surely dad would’ve picked me up from school or had someone there to meet me if it wasn’t. Surely they both wouldn’t have left me alone with my own devices to confront something this life-changing.
We lived in a long ranch home and I entered the back door as most everyone did. I didn’t take time to look around the “breezeway,” a large family area where mom did her creative magic. It was always in some new disarray. I had a plan, though, and that was to ease straight for mom’s bedroom closet. That was the only sure way to know. But that was on the other end of the house and there was a lot of territory in between.
Maybe mom would be in the kitchen on the other side of the door.
The kitchen and living rooms were divided by a brick wall and the moment I stepped into its split entry an eerie pause overcame me. A stark, unfamiliar living room wall glared back with some hideous clock I hadn’t seen in years, half of its decorative pieces missing. The house looked oddly, emptily unfamiliar. It wasn’t the home I’d left this morning, but I still wasn’t convinced.
I rushed through the kitchen, down the long hall to mom’s bedroom on the far end and struggled to pull back her closet’s heavy hanging solid wood doors. Mom’s closet was bare except for a simple plastic rose. I’d never seen mom’s closet empty. All of her beautiful shoes and flowing skirts were – gone. She’d done it. She really had done it.
Trying to figure out what I was supposed to feel, I picked up the plastic rose and sat on the stoop twirling it in my fingers, wanting it to mean something. I was ashamed I couldn’t cry and even more ashamed that what I felt was relief. Maybe I felt it for her as much as I did for me. I was angry she’d left a stupid, ugly plastic rose. What was that for, anyway? She’d taken so much to change our lives, why leave that stupid thing? Maybe she wanted me to have it? I thought about keeping it. I held it to my nose to smell her life, but it didn’t have any life. It was just a stupid plastic rose. I tossed it back to the floor and never opened that closet door again.
They say divorce is hard on kids because they feel it was their fault. That’s not true. I never felt this was my fault. Never. I knew whose fault it was.
What’s hard on kids are the splintering fragments, the life shortcomings that keep shattering into smaller and smaller pieces as parents pick up new pieces of new lives for themselves, scattering the family-gone-asunder as if cremated remains until every residue of cohesive identity the child ever knew disappears. There’s not even a grave to visit and the last thing new arrivals care to hear are utterances of sadness for its demise. The child is reduced to little more than an unpleasant reminder of who they are.
If there is any undeserving guilt it’s the guilt a child is dealt by everyone else renovating their lives into some unrecognizable image of what the child’s used to be … then resenting the child for being an unsavory reflection of their own short-lived happiness.
I never knew that twelve-year-old again. The more time passed the more her life pieces were splintered off until there was barely enough left to differentiate she being left behind from that lifeless plastic rose. The 6-year-old baby sister suffered similarly, considerably more. Her living never had the chance to reflect its spirited potential. She would die long before her natural time.
Love is patient, love is kind … When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me … And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. [I Corinthians 13:4-13]
Mothers leave for their own survival and that doesn’t make them the selfish one. I know the insufferable battles my mother fought trying not to leave. I’m surprised she managed to stay as long as she did. The years that followed her leaving were not kind to mother, but she did it her way and there’s something to be said for that. When she was a mother at home she was a highly commendable one. I prefer to remember her that way and I love her for that … because that is who she really was; because she was my mother; because she deserved better. Because we deserved better.
I think my mom loved me. I’m pretty sure she did. A child of any age deserves to know this.