"There's a bit of magic in everything, and some loss to even things out." -Lou Reed

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Finally Found You, Part 2

From the moment her information appeared in front of me, glowing on my computer screen, I knew that I would call her. I knew I would hear her voice, and learn things, whether she answered my questions or not. My mother’s best friend and my aunt were both shocked that I was prepared to be so brazen; concerned about who this woman was, and what I would learn. There was no choice for me. I had to contact her.
That didn’t mean I wasn’t nervous. My hands shook and I paced in my tiny apartment for almost a half hour before I got to courage to sit on my bed, pull the phone from my nightstand, and dial the numbers. My heart was pounding. I didn’t know what to expect, but I had to know something.
Someone once told me that it’s the unknown things that tear you apart. You can deal with what you know- good, bad, horrible- you can find a way to make it through. The unknown leaves you no path, no light at the end of the tunnel. That made sense. The need to know. The need to fill in the missing pieces of my father’s life, the mysteries of his anger and dependence on alcohol. Dialing those numbers felt like I was turning the dial on a safe, getting ready to pull open a heavy door that would help me understand.
What I didn’t know was that I was opening a door to 30 some-odd years of existing on secrets, lies, and facades. I didn’t know that opening the door to the truth could shatter my foundation instead of strengthening it. I had no idea.
I was ready for her to answer the phone. His mistress. One of many, I suspected, but the only one I knew of for sure. The only one that was real to me. The phone rang three times and the voice on the other end was not at all what I was suspecting. A small child sang the word hello to me, dragging out the multiple syllables while rustling the receiver. I froze. I asked if his mommy was named her name. He answered yes, and told me she was in the next room. Should he get her? Yes, I answered, listening to his clomping footsteps carry the phone to her. In that moment, I was counting the years back to Atlanta and the years in between, trying to see if the age was right. Trying to reconcile the fact that I might have been speaking to a half brother. Still digesting that, I heard her voice.
Very southern. The unmistakable drawl of well-bred, old money Atlanta. Now in Florida.
“This is (I said his name)’s daughter.”
Her response was all I needed. It told me everything.
In a panicked voice she asked, “Is he alright?!? Is he OK??”
Not the response I expected. But what had I wanted, really?
Did I want her to say Who? Whose daughter? Who is this? Who is he?
Did I want to then wonder if she was just a good liar? Or did I really not want it all to be true? In theory, that would be great, but then, what would that mean to everything I thought I knew? All the hunches, suspicions… and all the fallout of living with a father who had chosen someone else and something else instead of being with his family. Really with his family.
No one asks if someone is alright like that unless they care, unless they are involved.
I assured her he was just fine. So was his wife.
She was momentarily stunned, which didn’t seem to be a far distance for her to travel. Not speaking out of ill will, just the facts, she was not the sharpest tool in the shed. I remember picturing a younger Rose Nyland from the Golden Girls in my head as I talked to her. Only maybe not so innocent. Or maybe she was.
I clarified a few things for her. He had another daughter (she only knew about me). He was not single, he was still married. He was not the age she thought he was, he was about 10 years older than that. That seemed to be the thing that concerned her most of all, but none of it seemed to really be getting through. It just seemed like new information, nothing damning to her, nothing that really changed anything.
The damning things came from her direction.
How he spoiled her. How he drove to her house to pick her up and wouldn’t ever let her walk to the car, he had to carry her. How gentlemanly he was, opening doors for her, taking her places. I had to lay down. I was nauseous. This man she was describing, at great length, was a man I had never met. And my mother for damn sure had never met him. Never once, ever in my life would I describe any of his actions toward my mother as spoiling her. This was a man for whom I had to buy my mother’s birthday and Christmas gifts, handing the greeting cards to him for his signature. This was a man that never, ever, thought of my mother first, or celebrated anniversaries or special occasions unless friends prompted and arranged everything. I was seething and sick at the same time. She continued to blather on, Rose-Nylund style, seemingly oblivious to the fact that she was giving details to the daughter of a married man she was sleeping with, details she shouldn't be sharing. Details that were turning my insides and breaking my heart.
“STOP!” I said, louder than I meant to.
She did. Sensing I was now upset, she began backpedaling, saying it was over now, and had been for some time. I told her I found that a little hard to believe since my father was now moving to Florida, her state of residence. She stumbled and made explanations, assured me I was wrong.  When I asked when it had ended, she couldn’t answer, laughing nervously and changing the subject. She wasn’t quick enough to answer my accusations. She didn’t need to be.

I ended the call, hung up the receiver and stumbled to the bathroom to throw up.
My mother’s face kept flashing before me. I should have told her years ago, back in Atlanta. It had gone on forever. I never imagined he was having relationships with these women, real relationships. I didn’t know he was capable of it. Only, he was. Just not with his wife. Not with his family.
Not with us. Not with me.
My mother’s best friend reassured me about my decision not to tell my mom years ago. She knew why I had made the decision back in Atlanta. Even though others didn’t know for sure about my father’s infidelities, there had been suspicions. My mother was always so fragile and innocent, so dependent on my father. I had tried in the past to ask her about their relationship, even broached the subject of him cheating. She would not discuss it. Not in an angry way, she just changed the subject and slipped into the comfort of denial. It was maddening. No matter how you pushed, she blankly stared back, refusing to acknowledge any words she didn’t want to hear.
I had a new decision to make now.
It was one thing to live in denial, to make choices based on turning a blind eye, but it was another to be pulled from everyone and everything you know and be taken somewhere strange and new for someone else’s selfish reasons. I imagined her withering away, being abandoned even worse than before. I had to tell her. I had to make her listen to these words, to what was happening. Jolting my mother into reality wasn’t going to be easy. Or without pain.
I took a few personal days from work and made the seven hour drive home, practicing my speech along the way. My father was going to be out of town working, and she and I would be alone. No plans, just a visit, I told her. She was thrilled that I was coming to see her, to spend time with her. She always was. It broke my heart.
I was struggling with everything, but at the same time, I felt so strong. I thought that maybe, for that for the first time in my life, I might be able to change the family dynamic- extract some of of the dysfunction somehow.
I imagined my mom on her own, finding strength she never knew she had, surrounded by friends who would support her and love her and help her build a life she could count on. I saw her living in the present instead of in denial…nothing to hide or be ashamed of, no secrets or betrayals.
But, I knew her, I knew how emotionally frail she was. I knew how devastating it would be to hear this from her daughter. I knew how private she was and how this would feel so invasive.
Usually, the seven hour drive home seemed endless. This time, it was too short. I was pulling into the driveway before I knew it. Sitting in my car, hesitating to go inside.
How do you begin the conversation that will change your mother’s life?

For Part 1 in this series of posts, click here.


Monday, October 15, 2012

Finally Found You, Part 1

For most of my life, my mother’s happiness was my main concern. I have fretted over what she doesn’t have, what she has lost, and what I wished for her. So much so, that I ended up sacrificing my own happiness at times. In the mixed-up maze of my family background, I felt the only way I could come out safely on the other side was to see her happy.
It’s not her fault. She didn’t set out for that, it wasn’t her goal. At times, she has asked too much of me, but only because she has felt so little true love in her lifetime. She cried out for me from a place of great loneliness and disappointment.
I have always tried to answer. Only when the weight of everything threatened to drown me did I finally realize that the balance was truly off. I always thought making your mother happy couldn’t be wrong. It wasn’t wrong, it was just overwhelming. Too much. Too much from a person whose own sense of being was hanging from very delicate threads.
My mother married at 16. In the photos I remember of her wedding, the photographer is too close to the bride and groom, obviously cramped in a tight space--the tiny living room of a relative. Their faces are blurred, too indistinct to see their expressions. My mother wears a simple dress, my father in something like a suit. The flash is too bright, the images overexposed.  They are figures in a room of onlookers, taking part in a sweet ceremony somewhere in the hills of rural Kentucky—coal mining country—where marrying at 16 wasn’t unheard of, or even unusual. They had no money, no idea what was next.  My father was 20 years old and became my mother’s future in that moment. For better or worse.
My destiny was also carved in that tiny living room. Their paths created mine, setting in motion years of pain they couldn’t imagine, standing there taking vows, ready to escape their own histories and lives of poverty and longing.
None of the pain was planned. No one like this sets out to hurt everyone, to abandon their vows and promises. No one strives for alcoholism or regrets. Yet, choices are made and the line between destiny and choice grows blurry. What kind of fate has this kind of outcome? Whose destiny does this all benefit?
My mother is now heading into her seventies. Her hands look frail; her eyes look tired to me. She still carries a beauty with her that I would be grateful to see at her age. She still sees only what she wants to, deals only with the superficial, and somehow looks the other way when something too painful to handle occurs. I marvel at her denial, and at times rage against it, demanding that she admit to me that she remembers things that haunt me in dreams and waking hours. These things truly happened, but somewhere in the world she lives in, they are locked away permanently. It took me so many more years to heal because of her locked away secrets. But, it is also the only way she knows to survive.
In my first years out of college, I finally landed in Atlanta, Georgia with a real job and hopes of a career future. The distance from my family-about a five hour drive- had honestly been good for me. I was finding my own way, still uncertain, so much more to figure out, but I had a little space to clear my own path. My father’s job led him to Atlanta from time to time, and he called while he was in town, and occasionally, we would meet somewhere for dinner, usually under my mother’s encouragement, both of us only getting together because it made my mother happy, and quieted her demands for it to happen.
A new feature was being introduced in the market where I lived for residential phone service. It was called Caller ID. My apartment complex was taking part in being one area of a test market. The little cumbersome box sat next to my phone in the bedroom, the readout offering the end of the mystery of who was calling. The phone rang, and instantly, the caller’s name and number appeared.
My father had arrived in town one week, and my mother had let me know he would be calling me on a Friday morning. Around 8am that morning, I was still in bed, and the phone rang. I picked it up, and heard my father’s voice, but saw a woman’s name scroll across the caller ID screen. I was distracted, and my father’s words pulled me back to the conversation. I hadn’t heard a word he had said, and I interrupted. “Where are you?” I asked. There was a pause. “I am at the Holiday Inn in Buckhead”. My turn to pause. “Can you call me right back?” I asked.  He agreed.
Maybe this Caller ID thing was faulty. Maybe it was a glitch.
The phone rang. The same woman’s name appeared. I picked up the phone and acted as if nothing was wrong. He planned to come by my apartment that day. Mom had sent some things for him to deliver to me. We settled on a time, and hung up.
I laid in bed for a moment, and then went searching for my phone book. First, I scoured the hotel listings and called every hotel in Buckhead, GA after not finding him at the Holiday Inn. No one with my father’s name at any one of them.
Then, I grabbed the Caller ID box and scrolled through the names of recent callers. I settled on the woman’s name, and scribbled it down on a piece of paper along with her phone number.
I turned to the residential listings in the phone book and found her. Right there, staring back at me. Her name, her address.
When the time came for my father to visit, I was ready. Palms sweating, heart racing, but I was ready. It was no secret to me that my father wasn’t faithful to my mother, but I had never had any kind of proof. It was always just something I sensed, even when I was little. Even before I really understood what it all meant, something in me just knew it. It was never spoken about or discussed. But I knew.
Even though a large part of me still felt fearful of my father, I felt a need to do this—to confront him. To hear his answers. I was ready for a fight. I was ready to remind him that the betrayal went beyond his marriage. He was also betraying me—our family.
He arrived and I didn’t even let him set the bag down that my mother had sent. I asked him where he was staying. He responded with the same hotel. I told him I had called there, and everywhere else in Buckhead. He didn’t miss a beat. He almost looked amused. His response was that he traveled so much in this area that sometimes he forgot where he was. He said it was a Holiday Inn in a different location.
I said her name.
I asked who she was.
I expected an explosion. I expected him to be defiant and tell me what was and wasn’t my business. Instead, he fell into an abyss of a million excuses. She was the girlfriend of a friend, he was staying at her house with this friend to save money. He asked me to please not tell my mother, she didn’t like when he and his friend did things like this.
I bet not.
He had only stayed there last night and would get a hotel tonight, he promised.
This new side of my father was hard to take in. I had never seen him weak before me, but my ambush and information had caught him off guard.
He mumbled a few other excuses and promises and got out of my apartment as soon as he could.
I remember that I had a date that night. A second date with someone I liked.  I had contemplated cancelling, but had waited too long to decide. He showed up a few hours after all of this had taken place and I was in a fog. In a weird (for him) scenario, he showed up to take me on a second date, and I blurted out everything that has just happened, warning him I might not be myself for the evening. Great set up, I know. Predictably, the evening was short, and I was home, still in my fog, by 9:30pm.
I called a close friend and updated him on the events of the day. I told him I wanted to go and drive by the woman’s house. Just to see, I wasn’t sure why. He offered to go with me. I told him I wanted to go by very late, like 2 or 3am. He was in.
We took the phone book page with us in the car, and drove around, finally finding the neighborhood she lived in. My hopes were dashed when I realized she lived in a gated community. We sat in the car, staring at the gate, with an attendant inside. Somehow, my friend came up with a story to tell, and a few fibs later, we were through the gate.
Her house was on the back end of a cul-de-sac. It was massive-- a huge, gorgeous house in one of the most exclusive areas of Atlanta. And there, at 2:30am in the morning, in her driveway, sat my father’s car. The house lights were dark. No other cars but hers (with Georgia plates) were parked near the house. I knew the friend my father had spoken of, the one who supposedly was the real reason he had stayed at this house. I knew his car. It was nowhere in sight.
My friend reached over and took my hand. “I am sorry, Kim”.
Me too.
In the strangeness that is my mother’s mode of survival, in the weirdness that you can only understand if you come from a family where alcoholism, codependence, and denial are considered “normal”, I didn’t say a thing to my mother. Or to anyone else in my family. I knew my mother probably already knew. If she didn’t, it wouldn’t change anything. She wouldn’t leave. And to be honest, I didn’t know if she could handle knowing that I knew. It may sound bizarre reading those words. I can promise you that it is even more bizarre writing them.
Years passed and I moved a few dozen times—all across the country and back. Every time I unpacked, I came across an antique wooden box where I kept a few special papers and mementos. The page from the phone book was folded neatly and tucked inside. Every now and then, I would pull it out and look at her name. It wasn’t circled or marked, but I was drawn to her name every time. That phone book page was a symbol to me of all the things I had guessed but never been sure of, all of the things and people my father chose over my mother and our family. At least I wasn’t crazy; I hadn’t imagined these things were happening.
Fast forward seven years. Abruptly, out of nowhere, my mother and father announce they are moving to Florida. What might have seemed like a normal migration after retirement rang false with me and my mother’s sister and closest friends. It was normal for my mother to follow suit and do whatever my father said, but my father’s choice to move was odd. He was desperately close to his two grandsons, my nephews, really playing the role of doting father in their lives. My mother had a job and a close, protective circle of friends. It was hard for my mother to make friends due to her shyness and insecurity, so the few close friends she trusted were precious.
I spoke with my mom’s best friend, whom I was also close to, and we fretted together. We worried about the real reasons behind the move, about how my mother would fare in a place where she knew no one and had no real outlet to meet and befriend people. We worried about her moving to a place far away from everything and everyone she knew-and where my father was truly her only lifeline.
Something in my gut told me there was more to the story. And somehow, instinctively, I went to the antique wooden box and pulled out the yellowing, tattered phone book page. I went to my computer, navigated to Google search and typed in her name. Her name from all those years ago in Georgia. Her name and information magically popped up. Her new phone number and address, readily available on the screen.
It was too easy. It was too awful.
She now lived in Florida.
To view Part 2 in this series of posts, click here.

The artwork featured in this post if from the Family Chic blog. To see this piece in more detail, visit Camilla Fabbri's blog by clicking here.



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