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