There are betrayals of flesh and blood and they are the worst betrayals.
I am not alright: My sleeping is pocked and marred again, and not by dreams but by insufficiency. The result is a veil that positions itself between my deepest thinking self and the formation of words, the processing of numbers and their sense in context, the connecting of dependencies. I lose the next step in a simple process; this morning I have been unable to read paragraphs, I have misplaced my glasses repeatedly, I have stalled in the middle of a room, I have found myself standing at the stove unaware of what I’m doing there. I stared down at strange gray clumps of dust and some sort of fur around the floor vent in the kitchen, and I know I was there to do something but it evaporated, whatever the thing was that brought me there, gone, in those strange bits of fur.
I am seeing, but only glimpses of what is recognizable stretched back behind words. And so I must piece it all together. I am constantly looking to put pieces together.
If I can just make it happen.
Make it happen. Make it happen.
These are tatters. I am trying to see through tatters to the other side, and I imagine these tatters to be clothing on a line, drying slowly and with difficulty as there is no sun and the temperature has dropped. I see my grandmother hanging out the wash, pinning up her laundry, even as she grows older, beautiful and stoic, persisting in whatever must be done.
But I cannot see beyond the obstacles today because the haze is thick, because pushing through is nearly impossible when language will not cooperate, because my vision remains intact even though words desert: Each garment on the line has a name and I want to use the names but cannot find them, and nameless, they block my view. How do I call to them if I cannot do so by name?
* * *
Nouns are the first to disappear and leave me incapable of unpinning anything – to convey an idea, a need, my presence.
This is terror. To execute on sweeping away impairments of any sort requires language. Nouns. I must retrieve my nouns. Nouns are tools and I am powerless without my tools, knowing that only sleep will return them, but sleep has gone missing again. And I cannot pretend today.
* * *
I am staring at three stacks of bills on the table. This is not new, and each month I tell myself I will do better when I finally succeed at opening them, at locating my checkbook, at writing out figures, legibly. Writing legibly is harder now. My lovely penmanship is a thing of the past like so many other simple things, once possessed and taken for granted. Fear steals parts of the self, and stress takes the remainder, leaving you something of course, but together fear and stress combine into a cumulative and crushing force. Penmanship is the latest casualty.
I try to attack the stacks that I pushed aside at Thanksgiving so we would have a cleaner table at which to eat and feel grateful for what we have. Grateful. Yes, for my relative health. Yes, for the health of my sons. Yes, for how well they are doing – both of them. Yes, for the ability to still write, somehow, through good days and bad days, through sleeplessness and depression, through anger. Through rage.
But rage is a killer. It is white hot. It obliterates reason, twists and distorts, numbs capacity to love. I know these things. I have been the target of rage and I never knew why. I am the vessel in which rage coils like a snake and waits to strike. I recognize its venom even as it flows through me but has yet to poison me entirely. I trap it, close it away, put distance between its toxicity and my daily words, my daily acts, my daily parenting.
This morning is about exacting payment, about death and fatigue. And rage.
I am grappling for cohesive thought, anything I can hang onto, so I may tend to tasks. These bills. These damnable bills through tears, through fury that electrifies the surface of my skin and leaves me paralyzed and unable to open envelopes, write checks, be the adult. I cannot accept rage yet I must, and swallow it down so I can do my job of getting up, waking my son, making his lunch, sitting beside him as he learns to drive, and being here when he has a question he doesn’t even realize that he needs to ask until I create the space in which he can. There are lessons to teach, lessons without rage. And I must be here, without rage.
* * *
There are bits of fur and pine needles and dust around the vent in the corner of the kitchen and I believe it means death. Yesterday I heard squealing and scratching which I thought was a small animal that had fallen through the pipe that ventilates out through the roof. There was nothing I could do except feel helpless, and enraged – this one more thing beyond my grasp to fix or control, one more broken thing, one more uneasy thing to face alone. And so I raged, and raged, and wept. I buried my face in my hands and raged last night in my room, raged that I am without a man in my life, here, all these years after being left, here, still alone, and fully aware that as a woman growing older everything is beginning to empty out of me and so I raged at the loneliness and unfairness and I even raged at the need to hide my rage. Then I raged at my self-pity because I do not like myself like this. I know I need to focus.
There is a small animal caught somewhere in my house, and time is closing in.
* * *
Whatever was traveling through the vents must have crawled along a winding system of shafts and found its way to the grate in the kitchen floor. A squirrel, perhaps. I will need to find someone to remove whatever is in there. And then I think: Maybe it is still alive and only tried to escape. Maybe it is breathing somewhere, hoping to be found. And I cannot face it. The possibility that it is trapped and suffering and I am unable to rescue it. The possibility of a small dead thing, and I haven’t the courage to search for its little body.
So I take paper towels and clean up the clumps of fur and dust, as I needed to clean up the dog’s fluids and bile just a few feet away. That was two months ago today, when we found her dead. My son and I wept and held each other and have been more tender with each other; he lets me kiss him goodnight again before bed, as long as I do not linger. It was my son who did most of the cleaning up. But I lifted her precious face to wipe the blood beneath it.
Somewhere in the pile of bills are papers from the vet: There was a man whose features I cannot reassemble in my mind and he came when I called a number that I don’t remember looking up. She was a large dog, and he lifted her gently after we said our goodbyes. She was stiff by then and he took her out of this house to a place where they burned her with other beloved pets because we didn’t have the money to cremate her alone, and we certainly didn’t have the money to bury her. I remember that I asked how much, how much, how much and the least expensive was to take her away and burn her in something like a pyre with other dead dogs. I’m sure that is only the image in my mind. I’m sure the reality was something different. But I cannot bear to think of it.
Somewhere on the table is that bill I’ve yet to pay for taking our dog and burning her remains. I kissed her face and looked into her eyes before the stranger took her. I can see her expression, but it wasn’t her. Her body remained, but she was gone.
* * *
I tell myself that this latest possibility of death is insignificant, this tiny animal that is trapped and trying to free itself, or dead. Grief is sparked so easily now; one loss chains itself to another and then another.
The phone is ringing and I wish it would stop and it has been ringing relentlessly this past week – those soliciting year-end contributions, and of course the bill collectors. I do not pick up. And I realize: When the weight of not doing is heavier than the weight of doing, I gather myself up and do what I must.
I pick out the bills for the mortgage, health insurance, car payment, land line, credit cards. Just these, I tell myself. Go on. Just do it.
At least a dozen more remain.
One by one I write checks in a trembling hand, as something like four thousand dollars of borrowed money disappears. It takes me two hours to do this.
Next comes a harder task: I match up envelopes to checks and this is laborious because everything is in disarray; I sort, assemble, peel and stick liberty bells onto small squares that read place stamp here. I scrawl on the lines for my return address. I write the street, the city, the state, the zip. Not my name. I see no point. We are numbers now. We shed our names, our pride in names, our history of names, our identity in names.
* * *
Betrayal by flesh and blood can break you. It is a permanent rupture. You can heal from many things but not from this. You can live, but you cannot heal.
Betrayal of flesh and blood requires you to dam an artery, to reroute the flow through tributaries that are wretched, that are fine, that are fragile. You think you can make do by damming and redirecting, but it is not enough. It is never enough. There is collateral damage: holes to patch with gauze, gashes to stitch up. You wait for cells to regenerate, for tissues to reconnect and renew, one layer at a time. But the scarring is always there and you can feel it, though you know it may not show. You feel it, even when you reinvent yourself, and reinvent yourself again, and again. And you grow tired from reinvention.
Sometimes you rage uncontrollably, and if you’re lucky you do so in private, and you recognize it and throw open a window so you can feel air on your face and in your lungs, air without the grit of ash and bone, without the mother’s ash and bone, sufficient air to reassure yourself: I am not lost. I have only forgotten my name.
There are always children. We should be thankful there are always children. They need us and so we need them, even if we are only reconstructed. The children are our compass. The children are our purpose. We find our way, for them. But they do not heal us. It is not their job.
* * *
I lose my words. I rail against the process because they are dragged off against my will, feet first so I cannot see it coming though I sense it, trying to brace myself for the impact of emptiness. But the fight is so tiring.
Nouns disappear first. Perhaps it is because we learn them first. They dance with concepts and objects, emotions and dreams. When my nouns are dragged off, I rage. And I must rage without their assistance.
Verbs remain tenacious and I consider that a sign of health; verbs move us. I would say that they advance us but it isn’t always the case. We are as easily set back by their motor power as we are propelled along a positive path. Nonetheless, they own action, even action as sedentary and fundamental as thinking, seeing, breathing, waking, sleeping. We know we are alive because verbs pump blood through our veins, rally forces to cajole our limbs out of bed, to bear the weight of the body, to nudge it in a chosen direction. Verbs fire off cylinders to incite responses needed to attack and defend, even if rage is the catalyst, the source, the fuel that causes our thrashing, our screaming, our beating fists against table tops and doors and plaster walls until weariness overtakes emotion and we slow, at last, reining ourselves in, searching for our words again.
After rage, it is time to speak. To say yes or no. Both have their place. It is time to ask for help to unpin the clothing from the line and see what lies beyond the tatters.
Hope is on the other side. Verbs give birth to hope. Verbs hunker down. My verbs do not abandon me as easily as nouns.
* * *
I am too shaky to drive but the bills must go to the post office, today. They are late. I put on my heavy jeans and a black hoodie and pull it over my head. I am glad to be invisible like this. It is cold and damp and it takes twenty five minutes to walk to the post office and slip the envelopes into the box and return home. Then I sit and sob. I push away grief and it is pointless so I invite it in to wander the chambers it knows too well. And then I can begin. Then, I can write.
Writing stands up to rage. Writing rises up as fiery as any rage and I will write myself a weapon for myself, and for my sons.
* * *
Numbers begin to return. I am calculating in my head as I did when I was a child, to calm myself. Now I am calculating other numbers and trying to transform rage into anger. Anger is productive fuel. It does not debilitate. I am calculating the mere 15% contribution the father of my children has made toward the cost of raising them, to date. I am calculating the mere 10% of what he earns that is being asked of him, money he has and is not providing. I am good at resurrecting discipline through figures though these are only approximations. I am not in court and under oath. I only imagine I am in court again, fearful and small, impotent and bewildered.
Now memories are rushing back: scenes, conversations, acts of indifference, refusal to contribute in partnership, years before I woke to the carcass of a dead marriage. It was a quiet marriage with quiet scenes. It looked shiny from the outside, but it was a dead thing. I was trying to breathe inside a dead thing.
In the wake of its passing, one child ranted, cried, acted out, articulated his confusion, and then was better. The other grew smaller. There were nights of holding him and he said nothing; he could not speak his pain. He had no vocabulary to describe it. No nouns or verbs. So I sang, I told stories, I held him.
My arms remember his frailty as the words he does speak are repeated, twenty or thirty times daily: “I love you Mom” and he insists, plaintively, on hearing the words returned. I love you, too, Sweetie, I say. Others hear this exchange between us and feel free to offer their disapproval or advice.
I know my son’s heart. He is telling me what he needs, in his way. This is his mantra, his rope up from the depths of a somber well that requires 1800 days and nights of this same refrain until he nears the top, and finally climbs out onto even ground. These words are our song of loving, of survival; five years of them until they are absorbed into tissues and organs and a heart that is healing because between us there is no betrayal. This is our invocation, this miracle, these parts of speech, this most basic configuration: I love you, Mom.
And my response: I love you, too, Sweetie.
* * *
Whoever you are I will not let you get too close; there is a resemblance to closeness. A resonance.
Once, I knew intimacy with a man who also understood the betrayal of blood and how you must learn everything again. I let him in. He let me in. We understood each other and all our fractured selves, with or without words, and we were safe and loving together.
* * *
The anniversary of another death arrives tomorrow. Five years since my mother’s passing. I owe her my love of learning, my love of art, my love of language. I owe her my nightmares, my distrust, my rage which will not spill onto my sons. I will never understand her actions when I was a child, or when I was an adult. I do not know the source of her uncontrollable rages but I still live with their consequences. The worst was never the physical, but the verbal, the vicious stream of invective that brands a child’s soft and vulnerable core, words that poured out of her inexplicably troubled soul and covered my flesh like hot tar and stuck, burning and indelible. She was the monster, then she was the giver of light. Then she was the monster.
Her betrayal continued until her death. She took in my enemy and said “I believe him. You lie.”
I tried to build bridges, but then she died without a word, without “I was wrong” or “I’m sorry” and I remain in limbo, wondering why the woman who gave me language and learning – and life – assaulted me with rage.
I never speak of this. I did, once, to the man who was my husband, but he is like her. Without the violence, and far more clever. I spoke of these things to him, and he said: “You lie.”
They say we marry our abusers.
* * *
We love our monsters when they are our flesh and blood. We try to imagine a time before, a time when they were young, a time predating whatever shriveled and darkened and changed them.
Sometimes we spend years searching for explanations. I searched for a decade, yet I have no answers.
When monsters are givers of light, we are more confused. We grow a little bit mad. I had things to tell, to relate, to ask but could not, and so the only suitable answer was my silence. My silence for months, to heal myself through silence, though others were wary and afraid. I spoke when I needed to, and otherwise burrowed inward.
I was fully aware of my surroundings. I read. I functioned. I learned. And I needed my place of quiet.
This was before we used words like “abuse.” This was a different time. And who would believe me? Especially then? Everyone adored my mother. They found her eccentric, at times overbearing, but brilliant, imaginative, funny. And she was all those things, even for me. She was also the monster, if only for me.
I do not understand her rage, but I understand raging.
I do not know the source of her pain, but I understand pain.
I cannot forgive her, but I still love her.
I was not ready to give up my silence when I was forced to do so under penalty of removing the one thing I loved that I could count on – learning. So I spoke. I spoke, as the monkey performs for the crowd so I would be fed, tolerated, not punished further. But I was not done with the beauty of my silence, the power of my silence, the healing of my silence, even if it was enough to get by.
If only they had left me to my silence a while longer. To finish.
Now I see: This is what my child did. And I did not interrupt his healing for the benefit of my comfort or my schedule; I cradled him, we sang our refrain, he took his time.
* * *
My brother turned his back on me and more than once, my brother of whom I do not speak, my brother to whom I do not speak, my brother who lives a comfortable life thousands of miles away, my brother with his loving family, my brother who has worked hard for what he has, my brother who is not his sister’s keeper, my brother who does not speak to me, my brother to whom our mother left what she had, what there was, what she could give. And he had her burned. Perhaps because it was the least expensive thing to do. Perhaps because it was the kindest way to deal with her. Perhaps it lifted whatever crazied her, and she was ash and bits of bone and that surprised us both because bone does not incinerate entirely. She retained her heft, even in death.
I would imagine her on a pyre, but I cannot. She was terrified of fire. And my brother had her burned.
Yet I think she would have liked her relative lightness, the softened color she became, as though all her rage had been expunged. We scattered her in the middle of the night, our only act as siblings. We scattered her in three secret places that she loved, my mother transformed, my mother now handfuls of dust and bone, my mother floating in the bitter cold and a light snow.
But my brother is not his sister’s keeper. I am betrayed by flesh and blood. I cannot heal.
* * *
I am not doing well, but it will pass.
I am moving slowly, but I am moving.
Verbs are being joined by nouns again, labored onto the page through stubbornness. Or will power.
My arms are heavy and my eyes are burning and my legs ache, but the bills are paid for now and the rage is receding. Fatigue is reclaiming its territory and for that I am grateful. But I cannot pretend today.
My job is to find the light in my mother and bestow it on my sons. My job is turn away from whatever darkness grew inside of her and choose a different path. Whatever her demons were, I remain ignorant of their origins. My sons are the recipients of benign neglect from a parent who cloaks his actions in a hundred lies and behaviors that are tangled up with just enough truth and charm to keep everyone off balance. That is my interpretation. I will allow for others. Some are kinder. Some are not.
If that is the worst of it, then they will be alright and I am doing my job. I will not let the poison fill me. I will not let the poison touch them.
My child who is becoming a man will get off the bus in a few minutes and he will find me calm, dressed, my face washed, and on the couch. I will say I am tired, and he will accept that I need rest. His quiet will be at ease with mine. We’ve had many good days of late; he sees that I am here and up and about. I am a little more distant today, but with my sons, I am never cold and never too distant. I am respectful of boundaries.
He also knows that tomorrow there will be a candle for a difficult anniversary, and I will be quieter still. The refrain of nine words has returned in recent weeks, but it is I who initiate its usage. Once a day. Sometimes twice. I say to him, I love you, Sweetie. And he answers: I love you, too, Mom.