Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Love Lost

When I was a child, there were so many things I wanted Anne to be. In my head she was smart, beautiful, and cool, the mother who would love me like my adoptive mother never had, who would take me out of my father's abusive arms and provide me with a wonderful life in which I wouldn't have to fear.

I don't know if she ever could have been any of that. I don't know if there was ever a glimmer of any kind of substance beneath the shallow pool of absurdity and astounding self-absorption that is my birth-mother. I don't know.

In my younger years it was easy to fantasize. Anne, tellingly, was not around (which by itself should have said everything that needed saying), but being tender and naive I imbued her absence with wonderful dreams about her rather than imputing to it the callousness and neglect it implied.

Since my adolescence I've come to know her better, though, and that process has inevitably involved outrage, a huge amount of disappointment, and, increasingly, disbelief. The disappointment and disbelief kind of feed into each other. I am astounded by the scope and degree of her failures, which in turn begets more disillusionment that further lowers my opinion of her and in due course compels a wave of surrealism.

To the elementary school me, she was a giant. She was everything. But she's nothing.

She's nothing and she's done nothing.

Her visit here one week ago confirmed that and emphasized all the things about her that I find sickening. To begin with, there was a considerable chance that she wouldn't be able to make it up. She is, as she has always been, destitute, and the $100 train ticket from Decaying State was a luxury item for her. The most maddening thing about her poverty is the degree to which it is self-imposed: she won't divorce her husband, who makes six figures a year and still lets her flounder, yet she refuses to buckle down and get a real job. Instead she expends an enormous amount of time and energy scouring yard sales and thrift shops for items to sell on eBay, in search always of the one big find that will pay her bills and fill her coffers.

It's been twenty years and it hasn't happened.

Instead of recognizing defeat, though, instead of putting this away and pursuing an actual career, she pushes on in wretched want. Her refusal to seek conventional success is deeply frustrating, if for no other reason than for the sheer number of opportunities thrown her way, opportunities that are all inevitably disregarded.

In December of 2010 a wealthy friend offered to take her in and give her the assistance her husband withheld. She moved in with him for a week only to sneak out in the dead of night and return home. In the spring of 2009 she was extended a $10,000 grant to go to school in Decaying State. She turned it down because my grandmother was ill and doesn't look back into it now because that money is "probably gone." When she was nineteen years old she was awarded a full scholarship to a prestigious Southern university. She rejected it because there was "a lot going on" in the family.

Time and time again, she's proven the most extensive self-saboteur I've ever seen.

She will then survey her privation, won by the dedicated labor of her own hand, and complain endlessly about what it means to be poor. Complaining is an extreme sport for her, and always brings her conveniently to her favorite topic: herself.

Anne really is the most incredibly self-absorbed person I have ever met. Of course, everyone is prone to self-centeredness from time to time, and, as one reader pointed out in the comments section of my last post, I am no exception. My self-absorption has bounds, though. Anne's doesn't. I have literally never seen her sincerely focused on something other than herself or her own problems, and in the rare moments when she pays attention to something beyond Anne she backslides quickly into familiar territory.

An example of this came in January when I visited her for Little Christmas. I was preparing to return to school after the semester I took off for American Idol and, typically, was panicked about how to get money for tuition as my parents had once again refused to pay. Frightened and unsure, I sought Anne out for maternal reassurance and guidance. I oughtn't have.

The conversation that I continually tried to direct toward my school worries veered like a heat-seeking missile back to eBay, where Anne is convinced other users are plotting against her.

Exasperated and tired of being subtle, I finally broke in, "So, yeah, I'm pretty much scared to death."

Her response was immediate.

"I've always been scared to death," she moaned. "And I've never known what's going to happen."

All I wanted was for her to tell me that everything would be okay, even if she had no way of knowing whether it was true. That's all I wanted. Couldn't she have done that?

It's beyond her, though.

When I get to the Selected Entries section for June of 2004 you are literally not going to believe some of what you read. I spent a month of that summer with her and left when a collapsed lung put my grandfather in the hospital and within weeks of death. I can still remember, with the same astonishment I had then, what she said to me when I told her that I wanted to cut my time with in Decaying State short to be at my ailing grandfather's side.

"You're supposed to come help me at the flea market this week," she responded after listening with an irritated expression to my request for transport to Native State. The flea markets were how she made her pitiful income even then, and she dragged me to them whenever she could despite knowing full and well that I hated going.

"I know that, Mom," I said. "But Grand Pa is in the hospital and it doesn't look good. Grand Ma's taking it really hard. I want to be there for her."

Anne huffed, her irateness increasing.

"You sure seem to care a lot about helping her," she said. "But not so much about helping me."

I can remember staring at her for a good five seconds straight and not knowing how to respond. Even at sixteen I was blown away by the level of apathy and selfishness in that statement.

"Well," I said slowly. "Her sick husband situation is a little different from your flea market situation."

That was Anne's cue to raise her hands in the air and begin screaming "I don't care! I don't care!" over and over as loudly as she could.

It would like to say that time has moderated her behavior. It has not. And if the previous anecdote sounds unbelievable, that's because it is unbelievable; her pathological egocentrism is matched only by a level of melodrama that is baffling, angering, and at times quite scary.

The last time Powell and I spent Thanksgiving with her, in 2008, we awoke one morning to animalistic shrieks from the first floor.

"WHAT DON'T YOU UNDERSTAND!?!" came the ear-splitting wails at seven o'clock. "I'M NOT YOUR FATHER! I HAVE NO FUCKING MONEY! I HAVE NOTHING!!!"

She'd forgotten a quart of milk behind the orange juice and assumed that my brother or I had drunk it.

I don't know why her visit here brought all of this into such sharp focus.

Maybe it was the frustration of trying to have a normal conversation with her and being unable to. Maybe it was her indignant response when I asked her if we could avoid discussing eBay during our dinner outing.

"Okay, then," she said, her self-righteousness prickling. "Let's make a list of all the things we're not allowed to talk about! How about we don't talk about your internship, or your job, or what you're doing with music! How about that!"

I don't see why she can't understand her role with me. She is my parent, and therefore when we interact the focus is on me, in the same way that when I'm home I allow the focus to fall on Thomas and Pie. The discourse I have with my younger siblings is not wholly one-sided, of course, but their interests and endeavors take priority over mine. That's as it should be.

Her failure to comprehend such a simple aspect of interpersonal dynamics is really frustrating.

Like I said, many things are possibly to blame for why I found my latest encounter with Anne particularly cringeworthy. It might have been just looking at her. In her blotched, sagging, lined brown visage there is barely a shadow of the woman whose phenomenal beauty lasted well into her thirties despite her alcoholism and heroin addiction. A healthy and stable Anne likely would have endured in stunning gorgeousness for a very long time.

Of course, a healthy and stable Anne also likely would have spotted the telltale signs of what was going on in our childhood home and moved to stop it. Instead, what happened happened, and every time I gaze upon her ruined face I see a hideous living emblem of drug abuse and poverty.

It was with relief that I deposited her on the train at the end of last week, and as we parted ways I realized I did not love the woman whom I'd just kissed goodbye. I did not, and do not, love the human being who carried me for nine months and then brought me into the world. Beyond that, I don't even particularly like her. It would be safe to say that I in fact actively dislike her. Her fate, unless I should stand to benefit from it (as would be my due), is inconsequential to me. I just don't care.

Now that I've acknowledged this to myself, I'm not really sure how to handle it. I feel it would be cruel to tell her the truth (not that I wouldn't be justified) and yet it seems inauthentic to go on pretending as if things are fine between us. I will never be able to accept or love her. Would it not then be fairer to cut her out of my life, inform her of my reasons, and be on with it? I don't know why I'm holding back from that. It's certainly not because of affection. Could it be fear of the confrontation?

It's all a bit confusing.


naturgesetz said...

Maybe it's avoidance of confrontation that holds you back from telling her how you feel and cutting her out of your life, but I think there may be more to it than that. You say you don't love her, or even like her. From what you've said, it's very understandable why you don't like her. But you don't have to like someone in order to love her or him. I don't mean love in the sense of warm fuzzies, but it the sense of deep down inside somewhere wishing for what is truly good for her — and you do: it comes through in your frustration at all the times she has thrown away opportunities for a better life. So as I see it, you really do love her in one basic sense of the word, and IMO that is a very good thing. Unfortunately, you cannot change her for the better, so all you can do is to keep on loving her as you have, which means as she is.

One jarring note, though, in this post was when you wrote, "She is my parent, and therefore when we interact the focus is on me, in the same way that when I'm home I allow the focus to fall on Thomas and Pie." You're both grown-ups now. The focus shouldn't be just on either one of you. Each of you should be focusing on the other. In other words, when you interact, the focus should include both of you. It's understandable and natural that you're annoyed that she doesn't seem interested in you. But think of it this way: scraping together the $100 to come to visit you shows that you are important to her at some visceral level.

Just me said...

I don't see why she can't understand her role with me. She is my parent, and therefore when we interact the focus is on me, in the same way that when I'm home I allow the focus to fall on Thomas and Pie.

What? No. You're both adults. There is no 'focus'. It's a mutual conversation. With a child, sure, you focus more on them, but you are not a child.

BrightenedBoy said...

I'm thinking maybe I should clarify what I meant by the "focus is on me" bit, since you both mentioned it.

I don't mean to say that I'm a small child and that we oughtn't to talk about anything pertaining to her. I am, however, a young adult, not yet established, and still in need of comfort and guidance. In no way am I an adult in the sense that a woman in her late forties is an adult.

So while I don't feel our relationship should be one sided, I do feel that priority should go to me, in this instance.

I consider Thomas a close confidant and ours is a fairly equal relationship, but when there is priority it goes to him.

Different things are appropriate for different people.

laura b. said...

She sounds, frankly, like a not very likeable person.
I doubt anything you say could really change her or make her feel regret for her behavior. Sounds like you have to be the one to rise above. When you interact with her, don't think of her as a mother who is going to empathize and guide you. Think of her as a lost soul with whom you are acquainted. Lower expectations = Fewer disappointments.

jo(e) said...

She doesn't sound like someone capable of giving you what you want or need. I'm so sorry.


Brigindo said...

To me, love is an action not a feeling. It includes respect, nurturance, caring, warmth, trust and honesty. There are also strong emotions associated with it (both positive and negative) but the emotions don't define love. I agree with jo(e), it sounds like she is not capable of giving you what you need but she may be giving you what she can. If you can't respect/nurture/care about/trust etc her, than perhaps it is best to put some distance between you. I'm also not one for never or always. What we feel and experience at one time in our lives can be quite different with a new context.

Anonymously Me said...

The part that struck me the most was at the end when you said, "I will never be able to accept or love her." I just don't think you should rule out the possibility of loving and accepting her, no matter how terrible she is.

Aunt Snow said...

Thinking, thinking....

First, you're an adult now. Sad as may be, you no longer need her to parent you. Plus, she really didn't before, so it is futile for you to expect more from her now that you're grown than you got from her when you really needed her support.

You survived without her parenting during the time you needed it; you can live without it now that you are an adult.

Second - you are stronger than she is. Although I can understand your longing, you are better equipped to care for yourself than she is. She doesn't even seem to be able to care very well for herself.

Third - live and let live. Just as she isn't responsible for you, you don't have to be responsible for her. She is responsible for her own troubles. It doesn't reflect on you, and you do not need to resolve them.

Fourth - You can afford to be compassionate to her. You can distance yourself from her without hurting her. You don't need to tell her "the truth" - it wouldn't reap any positive results for you and would only hurt her. So don't. It won't teach her anything and would only hurt her.

Fifth - If distancing yourself from her would be a good thing for you, just do it. But don't twist the knife by "telling her the truth". What good would that do her, or you? Just live your life. Don't invest in her, but don't shut yourself off from her.

Sixth - be compassionate within limits. If she needs the affirmation of knowing her son is a happy, successful person, give it to her. If she needs a yearly Christmas card or a monthly phone call - give it. It's not hard. Set your limits, but be generous within those limits.

Seventh - someday when the time is right, just listen. Pretend she's not your mother, but a neighbor. Or someone you're interviewing. Or a patient or a client. Let her tell her story to you someday - it may not be possible for another forty years, but be open to that.

I am 56 years old and have an interesting relationship with my mother. It's generally quite good, but there are areas where what you are writing about resonates with me. My mother has left me bereft in many ways, but sadly, I, too have left her on occasion. I'm trying to forge a stronger relationship. I have - hopefully - begun to find my balance. You will find yours.

Finally - just live your life. You have learned that knocking at this door (Anne) doesn't give you what you need, so stop doing it. Find the love elsewhere - and also give it.

You're very wise and mature beyond your years, BB - I really admire you and also I feel for you.

Sometimes we have to build the families that nurture us outside of our biological families.

Bless you, BB

BrightenedBoy said...

Brigindo: What you said about love being an action more than a feeling is so insightful. I've reflected on it often in the weeks since I first read it.

Sue (Someone's Mom) said...

I'm glad I came back far enough to read this. I really wish I had answers for you, I don't. I have to say that it sounds as if she has some mental issues that might need medication? Possibly years of drugs and alcohol did something to her brain? Obviously she lacks the ability to "mother" or the compassion to see outside of her own issues. I would say that the odds of her changing without some form of treatment or counseling aren't good. It is good that you recognize her for who she is, but it makes me sad because I think all children just want to feel loved by their parents, no matter how old they get.

As for cutting her out of your life...sometimes you have to do that with people. Sometimes you can just accept things as they are and stay in touch. I think you should examine how you would feel if she were to die and you never saw her again. Would you care? If not, there really is no bond for you. If there are feelings there-maybe you should stay in touch with her. I am sorry that this is how it is.