It was summer vacation, a sunny but cool day. The atmosphere in the house was oddly peaceful but with an overlay of tension hanging in the air. My mother had gone away. Again.
Her disappearances had become increasingly frequent, as had her paranoid fantasies. She would leave in a rage, and return when she decided it was time. We never knew where she went, only that she would always come back, sometimes calmed by her absence, other times with a new rage spilling over.
On that day, she stormed into the house unannounced, seething with anger. The scene is frozen in time, with her standing in the living room in front of me. By that time, at age 16, I towered over her, taller by five inches. But the strength of her outbursts surpassed her physical presence.
The scene that unfolded is silent in my memory; I have no recollection of her words, but I can still see her countenance, eyes cold and glaring behind her glasses, dyed brown hair in her characteristic perm. As she blistered me with words unremembered but nearly irrelevant, she dramatically reached into the purse she was still clutching. In that moment, my heart began to pound and time paused. I was certain that, this time, she had a gun, and I would be hit, point blank, with a weapon much deadlier than words. A second later, relief washed over me as she pulled out a pack of cigarettes and I realized I was safe – for today.
My father was chronically unable to deal with my mother; for me, he was an emotionally supportive presence who deeply regretted her actions but failed to intervene. He remained in an adjacent room, listening but feeling powerless.
My mother soon left again, bound, as usual, for places unknown. In my 16 years with her, I had endured her verbal abuse, suicide threats and dramatic actions, but I had never before feared for my life. It became clear to me that my mother’s overwhelmingly irrational behavior and my father’s equally overwhelming passivity were leading to a dangerous downward spiral.
For the first time in my life, I fully felt and embraced my power and position as the only functioning adult in the family. I told my father that simply waiting for her return was no longer an option. It was time for us to go. He agreed, and we were able to find temporary quarters in the home of a vacationing aunt.
The conversation that occurred that day – if it can be called that – was the last I had with my mother. Despite her repeated subsequent efforts to contact me, I avoided being sucked back into the dysfunction. She had nothing to offer me but more pain, and I wasn’t buying.
In time, both my parents found new partners while separated, and at my urging, my father filed for divorce. My mother quickly remarried when the divorce was final. I went away to college, and to my relief, she dropped her efforts to contact me. Life was good, and for the first time, I was free to find – and be – myself, while still carrying the scars and burdens of the past.
Four years following that last encounter, as I was celebrating my last final exam, my father called me to tell me my mother had died. After 60 years of life, many loaded with turmoil, her heart had simply and quietly given out as she sat in her apartment. Her second husband, hardly my stepfather, contacted my father and asked to speak to me. I returned the call, and he told me that my mother had requested that just he and I attend her funeral. I have never regretted my response – that I had ended my relationship with her in life and had no desire to rekindle it at the time of her death.
As time has passed, my memories have taken on the unreal quality of a long-ago tale, largely bleached of emotion. I’ve come to agree with Robert Frost: “In three words, I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life – it goes on.” And indeed it has. The strength I discovered and my overwhelming sense of responsibility have proven to be both my greatest assets and my heaviest burdens. Through many subsequent chapters, I have gone on to moments of soaring triumph and heartbreaking angst, broken by periods of plodding normalcy. But I’m a survivor, and life has gone on.
Siri Espy is retired from the corporate world, where her writing included two books, numerous articles, and innumerable reports and bullet points. Her varied career included stints as a psychologist, market researcher, college instructor, consultant and health care planner and marketer. The mother of an awesome daughter, she lives in Greenville, North Carolina with her tolerant husband and three crazy cats. She is delighted to rediscover her creative side.