I’m being as quiet as I can. The children are asleep in the next room and I don’t want to wake them. I thought of going to the office for a while, getting back before they wake up, but that’s hard to do; even when they’re asleep I want to be near them. The time together is so brief: one week each month. I keep thinking this will get easier. It does, in a way. We get used to everything.
I listen to their breathing, study their small bodies curved with sleep’s signature — Mara with one arm over her head, extravagantly trusting; Sara curled up like a flower that closes at night. Already, Sara doesn’t remember her dreams, or chooses not to tell them. I cover them with the sheet, smooth their hair, moving over them like a dream.
It’s been six years since their mother and I split up. At first I had them every weekend. She moved away, and I drove 700 miles every other weekend to be with them. Now they’re here one week a month. Missing them is as familiar to me as they are; I can’t imagine life without them, or without the pain of being without them. It’s as unarguable as breathing in and out. Yet sometimes I want to hold my breath, breathe in the smell of them, never let go.
All parents know the feeling: their child’s first day at school, their first night sleeping at a friend’s house, their first date. A goodbye is a goodbye. What’s different for me is that I say so damned many of them. The phrase “broken family” isn’t heard much these days. Joint custody, shared parenting — these are the euphemisms. But the human heart hasn’t changed. You can break a glass once. You can break a leg several times, perhaps. But the heart breaks and breaks and breaks; our capacity for pain, and love, is limitless. A broken family is a broken heart.
I wonder, eyen in the “best” of circumstances — a happy marriage, every kind of security — if there’s anything harder than being a parent. To be a friend, a lover, a husband, or a wife, these all raise us high and bring us low, unfurl the heart like a banner and snap it in the wind, but to be a parent — well, as our parents told us, you need to be a parent to know. Nothing calls to us so unmistakably by our true name, like a bell ringing in the mind, awakening us from our dream of self, forcing us out of ourselves, to give and give again and again, usually without thanks, but that doesn’t matter when the giving is real.
Is there anything that comes close for grief and joy? Only one thing: being a child. That’s the knot no one unties; no matter how old we are, we’re always someone’s child (and in whose presence, often, we seem not to have grown older at all, or certainly not wiser). If you want to know who you really are, just weigh what’s important: put race, religion, economics, I.Q. and anything else you can think of on one side of the scale, and your parents on the other; there’s no question which way it will tip.
How interesting then that this night, standing over my sleeping children, I’m standing, for a moment, between generations. My mother has arrived, for her first visit in more than two years. Suddenly, I am undeniably what I still sometimes pretend I’m not — her son. And I am wondering if this will be the same visit the two of us have had again and again. If, after Mara and Sara’s prodigious accomplishment in growing a few more inches has been duly marvelled at and praised; after the gifts have been opened; after the reminiscences; the stories; the gossip; the jokes; after the round of silly hometown boosterism — she, with her New York accent, telling me how great it is in California, where she now lives; me, with my New York accent, insisting it’s just as swell here — after all this, the table cleared, the novelty of being together wearing off, I wonder: will we face each other as strangers again? Will we argue, as we’ve always argued, about why we don’t love each other more? Will we eye each other with heartache and blame? And, because we never get anywhere, will we then ignore what was and wasn’t said, talk some more about the children, tell the favorite stories again, until it’s time, in another day or two, to drive her to the airport, time for another goodbye?
It doesn’t start well. My sister and her husband are supposed to drive my mother here from Virginia, where she’s been visiting them. When she comes East, she always visits my sister first, and stays with her longer. Do I still resent this? It’s like resenting a mountain; from the very beginning they were closer; it was part of the unquestioned landscape of my childhood.
How much else I took for granted! Starting out, we all do. Like children growing up in drought-stricken Africa, who have never seen rain, we know only certain weathers. I had two sets of parents, which didn’t seem strange to me. My father’s parents lived with us. The rivalries were ferocious, recriminations darkening the air. My grandmother ruled, even from her invalid’s bed. Proud, domineering, she was an old world matriarch; one moment she’d praise you, the next moment she’d bully and blame. She drew us to her like shadows, to protect her from the glare of her own pain. Long ago, she’d convinced my father he was responsible for her suffering; now, I was taught the same. With her raging diabetes and arthritic knees, she was dependent on my mother’s care. She resented her, belittled her; my mother had nowhere to turn. She felt duty-bound. Trapped. A victim. Even the joys of motherhood were denied her: she’d fill the bath and my grandmother would bathe me; she’d prepare the food and my grandmother would feed me. My mother says I was taken from her. Taken or given — for me, the hurt was the same.
When my sister was born, my mother decided it wasn’t going to happen again.
So where are they? I thought they’d be here early. Isn’t that what my sister said on the phone? They’re not, so we eat without them. We let the children stay up late. Still, no word. Finally, a call. They just got into town. Do we want to meet them for dinner?
Apparently, we’d misunderstood each other. I try to keep the disappointment and irritation out of my voice, but I’m not completely successful. My mother is hurt that I’m hurt. I tell her forget it, it’s not important.
We end up meeting later on, at her motel. Mara and Sara are obviously excited; I’m struck by their open-hearted acceptance of her. Perhaps I should emulate my children. I’m 39 years old. So what if I didn’t feel genuinely cared for as a child? After all, forgiving your parents is a measure of emotional maturity, a sign of spiritual growth.
But it’s not that easy. The fact is our parents are not just other people. We share with them a deep, intimate, and often painful history. Their confusions, all the shoddy deals they made with the world at their own expense, become our inheritance. As a parent, I know this; it’s humbling; I try to be a better parent. But whatever is still dark and unexplored in me casts its shadow over my children. It’s hard to face such a harsh fact. My mother can’t. To her, acknowledging this legacy, passed from generation to generation, is too painful. She feels blamed.
I understand this, too (it’s amazing how understanding I can be when I’m writing). It’s hard not to succumb to guilt when faced with our own frailties; being a parent, regularly failing, shows us over and over how human we are. It takes a big heart to love ourselves in spite of this.
My mother gives the girls their gifts: dolls, pocketbooks, stationery, socks — lots of socks, 30 or 40 pairs (she’s in the business). Her pleasure in giving them things is genuine; the problem is that after the gifts are opened, the excitement ends, and she doesn’t quite know what to do. They’re her grandchildren while they’re opening gifts. They’re strangers, really, when they’re not playing their role.
We spend the next day beside the motel pool, Mara and Sara in the water, my mother and I talking. Years ago, it was my habit to bring up the past; I was trying to unravel who I was; I imagined that confronting her with my hurt and anger would be healing, perhaps for both of us. I was wrong. Reconciling myself with the past doesn’t mean we have to agree on what happened.
But now she wants to talk about it. For several years, she’s had cancer; chemotherapy has kept it under control and there’s been little pain but emotionally it’s been a struggle. She’s about to begin taking the drugs again and she’s afraid.
She asks me to tell her that I love her, to show her that I do, so that I won’t feel guilty that I missed the chance while she was still alive. I don’t know what to say. The poignant scene she’s asking for isn’t in me; we never were very affectionate. She rarely kissed or hugged me when I was a child; when I asked her about this a few years ago, she explained, “I’m not a physically affectionate person.” I want to leap over my hesitation, reach out to her reassuringly and tell her she’s loved. But I’m walking on broken glass. I’ve swept and swept, and still there’s more. I’m somewhere between blame and forgiveness and that isn’t what she wants to hear.
Why do you still blame me? she asks. I tell her I’m trying to separate who she is now from who she was then. That’s okay, she says. I can take it. It doesn’t matter anyway. It’s obvious it does matter. I try to get her to admit that but she won’t. A moment later, though, she’s in tears. Her life, she says, has been full of pain. Why won’t I love her? It’s heartwrenching. I know what she’s asking for, and I can’t give it. I feel my guilt rising — this is my mother! how can I be so cruel! Then I remind myself I’m not being cruel. I didn’t create this emptiness in her and I can’t fill it. To try isn’t love, it’s madness.
Of course, I tell myself later, I could have tried harder.
This is difficult to write about. I don’t want to seem unloving; I don’t want to be unloving. Surely, amidst all the emotional lies and half-truths of my childhood, there were moments of genuine love. Why can’t I forgive her for the rest? Why can’t I hug her and say, with utter conviction, “It’s all right. You did your best. I know how hard it was. I understand.” Because I do understand — about her mother, who worked all day and didn’t have time for the children at night; her father with the wild temper who “prayed like a crazy person”; the poverty; the fear of men; the marriage that allowed her to escape — to another prison; the pregnacy; the twelve-hour labor; the little boy in her arms, crying, needing, needing what she couldn’t give.
I understand and still there’s this wound. The salves I apply — sex, words, spiritual accomplishment — don’t heal it. Yet if I blame her, I need to blame her parents, too. And their parents. And theirs. We’re all lost in our separateness. It’s the darkest, deepest well. The cup is passed from one generation to the next.
I was seven or eight and she was in her mid-thirties, just a few years younger than I am now. I remember seeing a photograph of her, a new one; I was stunned — the glow of her cheeks, her kind eyes, the flower in her hair (I’d never seen her with a flower in her hair). I thought she was the most beautiful woman in the world.
It’s one of many images of her I carry within me. Some are beautiful, and some aren’t. It’s ironic: the less I deny the painful memories, the more real she becomes for me, not just as an imperfect mother but as a woman rich in contradictions, exquisitely complex. This is what she wants, isn’t it? Yet she insists I skip a necessary step. I can’t. Whenever I take a detour around grief, I end up lost. Whenever I scold myself for not being more loving, I end up incapable of love. Forgiveness is important. But it’s not some accomplishment, some lofty goal at which to aim. I experience it differently; it’s what’s waiting for me after I’m done with all the blame and the pain, when I’ve exhausted all my “ifs” and “onlys,” when I remember that weather is weather: sometimes the sun shines, sometimes it rains. It waits for me like a mother with her arms outstretched. Only I can’t run to her. I must keep walking, step by painful step.