Tuesday, January 19, 2016

For Audrey, On Her Birthday

My dad had had a stroke some months before. My mother was sure that if she “allowed” him to return home, the house would catch fire, and she’d be unable to drag him to safety. Having spent his entire married life acquiescing to her, and wound up in the same squalid convalescent hospital in which my mother’s mother had died a couple of years before.

I drove down to Los Angeles to visit them. My mother and I were going to take my dad out for the day. We went to the marina because it was a gorgeous day and I thought Dad might enjoy breathing the salty air and hearing the seagulls sing. When I went to get his wheelchair out of the trunk, Mom was aghast. She didn’t want me to do it without help, though it wasn’t a problem at all, and I had a dreadful epiphany. She’d always wanted me to be less strong than I was, less brave, less a boy, and later less a man. On a subconscious level, I think she felt that the weaker I was, the closer I’d remain to her. I nearly burst into tears of rage right there on the spot. How I’d suffered for her trying always to make me weaker. How I’d hated myself as a kid for my reflexive passivity (which of course was so much like my father’s), for my cowardice.

My mother had cut herself off at the knees. As a boy, I may well have felt closer to her as a result of her having trained me never to dare, never to be strong. But as a fiercely self-loathing teenager and then young adult, I disdained her (and my dad too) for loving me. Were they blind and deaf? Mom’s strategy had backfired horribly.

As had another of her strategies. The farther I was from my dad, she’d always seemed to believe, the closer I’d be to her. With her tacit encouragement, I came early in life to treat my dad as disdainfully as she herself did. I can forgive the child who did that. I will never be able to forgive the adult. When he died, I lost both of them. Realizing too late how she’d turned me against him, how she'd emasculated me, I couldn’t bear the sound of my mother’s voice. And she imagined I’d been a horrid little shit to her in teenage and young adulthood? You hadn’t seen nothin’ yet, Mom. I’d been awful to my dad because…well, because I could be, and my being so seemed to please Mom, but now I was going avenge him, treating her as awfully as she’d always treated him.

I never saw my mother embrace or kiss my father. I never heard her address him lovingly. Not once. Against all odds, he adored her, and was as affectionate with her as she would suffer. His affection would invariably inspire her to make a small display of revulsion. They stayed together for me and my sister (and, of course, because neither could even begin to imagine an alternative). Lucky us!

It’s the 96th anniversary of my mother’s birth. I loved her, and I hated her. And I eight years after her physical death (she had dementia at the end, and didn’t know who, what, or where she was), I still miss her. I never phoned her without her seeming thrilled and delighted to hear from me, not even when I was busy avenging my dad. We laughed so hard together sometimes that we could barely breathe. She’d made me the best school lunches in the history of Los Angeles Unified Public School District. She loved the hell out of me, perfect bastard that I was to her at the end.

I’m so sorry, Mom.