Content Warnings: Mentions of physical, psychological, and sexual abuse, depictions of spousal abuse.
Bloggy warning: This is long. There are no pictures. It’s angry and NSFW. Names have been changed.
When the phone rings at 7:45 PM on a Saturday, my stomach sinks a little. My mouth goes dry. No one calls me at that time of night on the weekends. I’m sitting at my desk with a blanket on and the box of tissues in my lap. The answering machine picks up before I can unload everything and get to the phone.
My sister’s voice is dull, hesitant.
“Rose, just…um. Call me back when you get this. Yeah, just call me back. I’ll talk to you later.”
By then, I’m crossing the threshold from my bedroom into the kitchen where the phone waits on its wire rack. I pull in a deep breath, let it out again, and ignore my racing pulse.
Joe must have overdosed. Or, no, maybe he just got into a fight or something. Jail fights happen.
But my mind is spinning out dozens of ways our addict brother might have scored heroin from his jail cell and killed himself in his desperation for the drug. I remember my friend Steve, barely 19, found dead of an overdose in a public bathroom in 1995. I think of Rick, my nephew’s father, who went out to score the day he came home from prison and died on his own front porch the same night. I shut it off, push the thoughts away. New ones surface.
Maybe it’s Grandpa. He hasn’t been doing well. It’s probably Grandpa.”
I’m calmer as I dial the phone, but there’s a running dialogue in my head.
How can you hope that your grandpa died? What’s the matter with you? How can you be relieved by the thought that he might be dead? He loved you!
And I love him, probably more than any other member of my family. He’s the reason I’m not terrified of men, the reason I can stand in the wake of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse by four different men who I trusted and still say, “”Yes, there are decent men in the world.”
But if I have to choose between my 87-year-old grandpa who’s been sick with dementia for years and my 33-year-old brother who has two young children, I will pick my brother. The grief and guilt stab into my gut and twist it all up around them.
My sister picks up the phone.
“I just wanted to let you know that Mom fell.”
For a second, I don’t know what the words mean. Then it registers, and I still can’t quite comprehend the problem.
So no one is dead? That’s good. Mom only fell. Wait, did she break her hip? She’s only 62. Is she old enough to have those kinds of problems?
“Is she okay?”
“The washing machine sprung a leak, and she was trying to clean up the water. She slipped and landed with her legs in a split,” my sister explains.
I wince, but I let myself feel relieved. It sounds harsh, but probably not that serious. Probably nothing broken, right? My sister is still talking, and the rest of the story comes out.
“She couldn’t get up. Dad was passed out on the couch —”
(Drunk? High? I don’t know anymore. He’s currently claiming he’s clean and sober, but this shit doesn’t happen to sober people, and I stopped believing anything he said a long time ago.)
“—and she had to sit there and scream for him, but when he finally got up, he wouldn’t help her off the ground or take her to the hospital. He wouldn’t even help her get dressed, so she had to get herself dressed, get down the stairs and drive herself to the emergency room.”
“What an asshole!” I hear myself saying.
I’m surprised that the anger comes so easily. I’m surprised that I feel anything at all. I’m not surprised about how my dad behaved. When I was a kid, he’d get shitfaced, pass out and threaten to “put me through a wall” if I didn’t stop trying to wake him up so I could go to school in the morning.
And don’t tell your mother about this. I’m sick of you trying to get me in trouble. You ‘zaggerate everything.
He sold my mother’s car for crack, stole my entire paycheck more than once, and will tell all his friends and acquaintances how he never laid a hand on his kids. Boot, maybe. But we won’t talk about that.
I remind myself that he’s also the person who taught me to stand up for myself against bullies, who gave me my musical education, who got me Hulk Hogan’s autograph.
Except I’m tired of that litany. It’s always the same. Any time he does anything, I resort to this chant of positives because otherwise I would genuinely hate him. This time I don’t care. I can see my mother screaming on the floor in a puddle, unable to get up. I remember so many times in my 20s — when my motor coordination was first starting to nosedive —trapped on the floor of my tiny apartment, alone, screaming for help. Sometimes it came in the form of a neighbor. Other times I would have to drag myself to a counter or the end of the bed and find a way to haul myself up again. I remember the frustration when I would almost make it, but my legs would slide out from under me again. That’s what I imagine it’s like when you’re sitting in a puddle and your legs won’t work.I would be so exhausted by the time I got to my feet that I could barely move. I would lean against whatever surface I’d just used, sweating and panting until I had enough strength to angle for the nearest chair and keep going.
I think of my father laying there on the couch, not moving while my mom struggled like that, and I want to put him through a wall. I want to make him pay for all the callous, cruel, selfish fucking things he’s done, and I don’t give a shit about some minor acts of kindness or compassion. The scale is tipping on the side of vengeance, but I know I’ll never get any.
“Is anything broken?” I ask my sister by rote. I want to scream and yell, but I can’t and it would do no good. It won’t make my mother feel any better.
“She has sprains in both legs, but she’s really mad at Dad. She was crying. Hysterical.”
I’ve only seen my mother cry once in my life. The day of our youngest brother’s funeral.
“I don’t blame her!” I say, trying to reconcile my growing rage with the bewilderment I feel at the image of my mother on an exam table in an emergency room, crying hysterically.
There’s not much more to the conversation. I agree to call Mom and check on her the next afternoon. Then I hang up and try to put my bastard of a father out of mind.
The next day, as agreed, I call my mother.
“It’s not that bad,” she says. “I just slipped on the water and sprained my leg.”
No mention of my father or any argument with him. I don’t push because I know there’s no point. If she was going to call him on his bullshit, she would have done it already. I disconnect my feelings, finish the conversation, and go back to work. What else can I do?
On Monday, I’m flipping through writing prompts getting more and more frustrated because every prompt seems to lead to some way in which my upbringing has left a cavernous hole in my psyche.
You wake up to find yourself in your five-year-old body and back in time. How do you spend your first 24 hours in this situation?
Back in time to when? My own life at age 5? With full knowledge of [everything that happened?] Dear God, I hope not. Back in time to yesterday? That would be even worse, I think. If it was back in time to yesterday, I would think about calling my mother, but then I would probably decide not to because I would be afraid that they’d make me go live with them and there would be very little that I could do about it.
If it was back in time to my five-year-old life, I would probably have some sort of anxiety attack and cry/hide for a long time, if not end up in the emergency room because I couldn’t breathe from a full blown panic attack. The main emotional response I have to this idea is one of panic and powerlessness:
“Oh, god, that means I’ll have to do everything again, and I’ll know it’s coming, but no one will believe or listen to me, so what am I supposed to do?”
I might have the presence of mind to get some paper and a pen and start writing down as much stuff as I could think of that I couldn’t possibly know about at that age. The mere fact that I was writing coherently on paper in cursive ought to have been enough of an indication to someone that I was remarkably smart all the sudden. That would change something…
I am a LUNATIC, let me tell you. Most people get a prompt like this and probably write some happy, bright “Well, I would play and go to the park and watch cartoons and meet up with my friends that I’ve lost touch with…” I go into survival mode and view the whole thing as an exercise in finding the best way to live through my life.
Write About Honesty
I don’t know much about honesty. My best friend lied to me for an entire year before I caught on. I always thought I had good lie radar, and I guess I knew something was wrong, but I never thought she’d full-on lie. And when I confront her, she says, “I’m not sorry, not going to apologize.” Fuck you.
Write about a favorite memory
Every memory I have is sad. Either I’m sad or scared when it’s happening or I’m sad and scared at the end because I have to go home or my parents find out and yell. Favorite memory? Being in my room, alone, with music on, reading a book. Hiding in the school bathroom so I can write where it’s quiet and warm. Fuck this.
What I usually think of when asked about a favorite memory is my grandparents’ house. The yellow linoleum, the screen porch with my grandmother’s plants. Snapping green beans. Potholders. My grandparents doing jigsaw puzzles on a board. Normalcy. But I hate those memories as much as I love them. I can’t let myself get near them, because I can’t feel them without the crushing weight of grief and separation. I can’t get a Christmas card or a birthday card from my grandparents without crying–without becoming that six-year-old who needs them so much and can’t express the fear and pain of going home without them.
Eventually, I give up. I read my daily quota of blog posts, comment on a few that interest me (recipes for pasta and pie, all research for a story.) but I’m bored and frustrated. I think of calling my best friend, but then I remember that she’s the one who lied for a year, and now she’s dropped off the face of the earth. The irony of the situation strikes me funny. I call another friend.
“I’m trying to keep my blog upbeat. So, I keep getting all of these depressing responses to writing prompts..”
“Well, writing usually follows how the author feels.”
“Seriously, the whole reason I write humor is to cheer myself up. I don’t want my writing to become an exercise in ringing out all of my angst. I mean, “write about a memory” and I get stuff about my grandparents, which is the last thing I want to put on a blog.”
“Because it makes me sad! It makes me angry!”
“Well,” he says, “At least you have this wonderful legacy they gave you.”
I don’t feel that way! I want to snap.
I bite my tongue. The strength of my rejection surprises me. Of course I’m glad I had my grandparents. Of course I’m grateful that they gave me someplace safe, even if just for a few weeks a year. But that doesn’t change how I feel.
I’m pretty sure my friend’s talking more about himself than me. I can’t explain what I’m feeling, I’m still groping for enough understanding, and I know that if I try to express my sadness, my rage, things will become worse.
I’ve heard it before.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you. I was only trying to make you feel better.”
You didn’t upset me. I was already upset. I don’t need an emotional balm. I need to express sadness and anger.
If I do, my friends walk on eggshells and avoid the subject altogether. I will only become more lonely, more isolated in a world that expects me to swallow every gag-inducing pile of excrement that’s been shoved down my throat because it “made me who I am today,” wrap it up in pretty gratitude paper and tie it with a silver-lined bow of positivity.
Fuck it, I sigh.
I listen to him talk about his parents’ deaths, let him tell me all about how the only way he could cope with his feelings was to think about the legacy they’d left him and all the wonderful things they’d done for him. I say, “Yeah,” and “Mm-hm, that’s true,” at all the appropriate intervals.
I hang up. I drop the phone. I double over and scream into my arms. I let the rage and pain swallow me. I sob until I can breathe again. Then I get up and do what I always I do. I find words.