And I owe it all to you.
“Rock Bottom Riser” -Smog
“Get off the computer, mom. We’re going for a drive.”
I was irritated. She pretended to not know why. Dad had called me in despair over his ‘failing marriage.’ I figured that meant mom had gotten to him again.
I let her talk first. “I don’t love your dad. I never did. I never wanted any of this.”
“Wow. Okay.” I paused. “How does that make what you’re doing okay?”
“You’re just like everyone else! Making me feel guilty for wanting a better life. I made one mistake a long time ago, and you want me to be stuck with it forever.”
There was no ‘everyone else.’ Dad was too proud to tell anyone what was going on, and mom wouldn’t blow her cover. ‘Everyone else’ thought things were normal.
“Oh bullshit. I don’t give a damn what you want, mom. Want whatever you want. But if you’re complaining about the consequences of your own decisions…” She cut me off.
“Fine. You want me to stay here with your father, unhappy forever.”
“Good grief. No one said that. If you’re gonna leave, go. Get out now.” She just looked out the window. “I have a problem with you sticking around being horrible to dad because he dares to take care of you. Go or stay, but grow up.”
We knew something wasn’t right with mom. When I would clash with mom as a teen, dad would look at me with helpless resignation and say, “Your mother is sick.” As if that explained something. As if that made it easier to bear. As if that would have to suffice in place of justice, in place of affection.
Later it was given a name: Borderline Personality Disorder. Until then, I spent my life trying to figure out if I was evil, or if mom was. Outside the family people thought she was lovely. Maybe I deserved it. Maybe I really was selfish and pathetic.
“You don’t understand,” she said, back in the car.
“I didn’t have anywhere to go. I had to get away from my parents. You don’t know what I had to put up with there.”
“I know you keep accusing them of things, but nothing seems to have actually happened.” One of her favorite tactics was to accuse others of wrongdoing that couldn’t be disproven. She could forever be the victim, and she would forever have power over them.
“You don’t believe me. I guess I don’t expect you to.”
“Don’t guilt me, mom. You’ve lied to me my whole life.”
“Your grandfather was abusive to me,” she said, ignoring my defense.
“Maybe he was. Maybe that’s where you learned it from, I don’t know. Why is that even what we’re talking about now?”
“I needed to get away. Your dad showed up and he wanted me, so that was the only place I could go.”
“So dad saved you out of a bad situation…”
She interrupted me again. “But I never loved him.”
“So you said.”
“Next thing I knew I was pregnant. My life was ruined. I was stuck.”
“Wait – so I ruined your life.
“Why do you think I didn’t get out of bed for two years?”
I never spoke about it back then, but those are my earliest memories. I remember mom’s absence like a fog, a nothing that affected everything. My grandparents used to pick me up for church every Sunday morning, since before I can remember, and I felt like I was so lucky. Church was where I experienced warmth, acceptance, brightness – both figuratively and literally. I lived in a tiny converted toolshed with no lighting. Church was an expansive space with white walls, large windows, a high ceiling. Everything was light. To this day, walking out of a church and being blasted in the eyes with hot sun is a religious experience, the too-muchness of the source of all life flooding me, preventing me from seeing, a presence too strong to bear. It was a stark contrast to the dingy, boring confines of our lonely, isolated home.
But church was also how I figured out something was wrong. “How is your mom?” someone would innocently ask. Shit, I don’t know. I didn’t really know what she looked like, just that she was always behind that sliding plywood door. “Where’s your mom at today?” Dude, she’s behind the door, like always. What am I supposed to say? Maybe that’s why I still hate small talk to this day. I remember the sideways glances of curiosity, or the adult faces turned downward at me, pouring out pity like so many pouting showerheads. What was worse was the unspokenness – the looks between adults, no one talking to me about what was going on, much less explaining anything to me. There was something unnamed and bad that came along with me wherever I went – it wasn’t me that was bad, but neither could I go anywhere without it. Shame, stigma, dark curiosity, fear, feeling bad for me. They pitied me – it was clear that despite their acceptance of me, we were not the same. Their pity reduced me. What I didn’t recognize in their faces then was the sheer helplessness. They didn’t understand, didn’t know what to do. Any of them would have helped me if they had only known how. I wish I could explain to them how they did help me! Their warmth and acceptance showed me a reality other than the one I knew. If only they hadn’t pitied me. If only they could have looked at me without seeing their own doubts and fears reflected back at them in my mother’s illness.
“You’re telling me you were depressed for two years because of me.” I have a way of remaining calm in the moment, even when things get really bad. All the emotion comes later when I think back over what happened. I knew one day soon I’d be feeling this one.
“Longer than that. That’s just how long the cutting and the suicidal thoughts lasted.” I assumed this was her typical hyperbole. Later dad would explain her cutting as a trick she used to shock and control him, not as a genuine expression of her pain.
“Great.” I drove a few minutes in silence. “I guess that explains a lot. You just didn’t want me.”
“I was angry. The doctors performed an emergency C-section without my permission to get you out alive because my body was killing you off.”
“What?” This didn’t sound like a lie. I would later discover this was perhaps the truest thing she ever said to me. A team of doctors decided on a Cesarean to prevent inevitable spontaneous abortion. That explained the long hospital stay afterward, why there were so many stories about me pulling out IVs, the nurses giving my dad the business for letting me fall asleep in his arms instead of making me feed.
“I told you. I didn’t want you so much that my body began rejecting you. The doctors saved your life and ruined mine.”
“Huh.” Like I said. I’m pretty calm under pressure. The pain of this moment would take years to process through.
“You’re the symbol of everything wrong in my life.”
“Okay. I can get that.” We rode along in strange silence, until I finally recognized what she was doing. “Here’s what I don’t get. You’re always the victim. You’re never responsible for what happens to you. Nothing is ever your fault.”
She said nothing.
“You act like you never make decisions for yourself!”
“I’m making one for myself right now, after all these years, and see what it gets me? Nothing but grief.”
“No. No! Even this decision to leave dad you’re making because you’re such a pathetic victim of circumstance. You make yourself out to be some kind of righteous underdog, but you’ve been running the show all along. You’re the abuser. That’s why you say you’re leaving but you’re still here. You’re not going anywhere! This is just to break dad down.”
“I’m not going anywhere yet because I can’t. Ziad and I are saving up money for me to fly there.”
“Right, because you have any idea how to survive in Lebanon. This is just bullshit fantasy for you, pretending some foreign man is going to rescue you just like dad rescued you. Are you telling him that dad is abusive, so he has pity on you? Have you told him about Idris? Mataar? Shahin? Does he know he’s the latest of a whole string of men you play pretend with?”
Later that night I stood outside the backdoor as my dad fell sobbing to his knees, broken from the years of manipulation and abuse. “I don’t know what to do…”
“I don’t know either, dad.”
“I feel like I can’t hold on to life any more. I’m too tired.” It’s not like I’ve never seen my dad cry before. He had always been comfortable showing his emotions. But I’d never seen him reduced to choking out words on all fours. I sat with him, without words, while he cried into the dirt. “How can she do this?”
I went into their bedroom where mom was sitting with a book. “So. Dad’s a wreck.”
“And you don’t care.”
She shrugged. I went back out to dad, who was stumbling over to his truck. I caught him, and he fell against me a bit, groaning into my shoulder. I held him there, leaning against his truck, as he ran out of tears and his nose began to bleed all down his shirt and mine. “Let me sit down,” he said. I lowered him to the ground and told him I’d bring him some water.
I went back into their bedroom, sat on the edge of their bed. Mom looked up at me with the same face she had when I was young and begging for candy. “Listen to me. If there is any kind of humanity in you, you need to knock this off. You don’t have to be sorry, you don’t have to feel bad. You do have to stop jerking him around.” She stared at me blankly. “Are you alive or not? Is there nothing in your head?” She flew into a pouting rage. She ripped her book in half, swept everything off her bedside table, and then began pulling handfuls of trash bags off a roll. She filled those bags with everything she owned, starting with her most valued objects, and her own creations. I recognized this move. This is the last ditch effort to make me feel bad for her, to get me to stop her from ruining her own things. I’d learned long ago that as soon as you feel bad for her you’ve lost, and you’re about to be hurt. I left her in privacy to continue her destruction or not, it didn’t matter.
I took water to dad and sat beside him. He was out of tears, out of sobs. He was just groaning and shaking. I was a little freaked out, but it didn’t show. “Dad, I love you.”
“I know. I love you too, son.”
“I’m going to lock all your guns in your cabinet, okay?”
“I’m going to take the key with me when I leave.”
“I love you.”
“I love you.” After some time he said he needed to go to sleep. No kidding. He went to get ready. I went to their bedroom again.
Mom was sitting in a pile of her trashed belongings, demanding that she be seen as the victim. I sat on the edge of the bed without a word. We looked at each other. I looked down at the spots of blood on my shoe. She looked away. “Goodnight, mom.”
I went into my old childhood bed and lay down. My heart was racing, I started to cry. I felt distant from my own body, watching myself lay there crying, knowing that I needed to just release some pressure. It was very matter-of-fact. Once the crying stopped I was left with the real emotions: fear, worry, despair. I named them each and nodded to them. I began to pray.
“God, you were handling this before I was around. You’ll be handling it after I leave. I can’t fix this. I can’t try. I can’t worry about it. I have to go back to my own life tomorrow. And I need to go to sleep. I need to know that you’re here with them, or it’s never going to happen.”
I closed my eyes. I breathed. I fell asleep.
That’s when I stopped going back there.
I left my mother
I left my father
I left my sisters, too.
I left them standing on the banks
When you pulled me out
Of this mighty, mighty, mighty river.
“Rock Bottom Riser” -Smog