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The Circle Broken

I got the call around six.

My mother, in Florida, crying over the phone. She hadn’t heard from my sister in weeks. Please go find her. “She’s fine,” I said. My sister was addicted to crack cocaine. Crack fiends are like cockroaches: she’ll be just fine. Not good enough; mom insisted I find her. Make sure she’s all right. So I get a gun and I get Sammy and we’re driving around to known crack houses in Queens at night looking for my sister. I leave Sammy in the car because I might have to do some things he doesn’t need to be a part of. The pistol is under my shirt, but I discover crackheads are actually quite hospitable and rather indifferent to strange men simply barging into their crack dens. Two or three houses in I find her in a basement. She weighs maybe 90 pounds and she’s pregnant with my nephew. There are broken pieces of mirror everywhere I look and she’s trying to make small talk while smoothing her hair which hasn’t been combed in days. I’m furious at her. I absolutely can’t stand her. “Call your mother.” The pathetic, co-dependent, lost soul was her mother. The strong, independent, proud, refused-to-go-on-food-stamps woman was my mother. I looked around once again, then at her. “What are we doing here?” I asked her. “You don’t have to live like this.”

Less than a month later my mother came secretly to New York and took my sister with her back to Florida. I warned Mom against this. I was emphatic about it. Both my sister and my adopted brother were addicts. I’d had a lot of experience with them. There is no helping an addict until they want to be helped. This, I told Mom, was a he mistake. She’s not ready. Mom wouldn’t listen, “You’ll understand when you have children of your own.” I wanted to tell her I’d never have children of my own. Because of her—my sister. There’s no guarantee my kid would turn out the way she did, but there’s no guarantee she wouldn’t. I’d seen the sacrifice, the punishment to her body, my mom went through to shelter and feed that girl who eventually came to routinely curse her out and hit her. Mom couldn’t protect herself from my sister, let alone protect me. There was no safety, mainly because Mom lacked the will to come to terms with the fact the girl needed professional help. She was out of control, and Mom had a responsibility to her other child. It traumatizes children to learn they are not safe. A parent is the ultimate authority figure. A child should always feel safe around their parent. Watching my sister beat my mother, I knew I wasn’t safe. Mom was too weak, physically and emotionally, to stand up to her own child, a girl I’d have killed in her sleep if I were brave enough. Fair or not, this dysfunctional household boiled down to a choice, and Mom chose her. Every time. Both our lives were continually derailed by my sister’s selfishness, immaturity, and probable bipolarity, and we were both stressed and miserable because of her.

When my mother came and got her, Mom was living in a newly-constructed house and driving a new car. Less than three years later the house was foreclosed upon and the car repoed. How much of this, if any, had anything to do with my sister is left to speculation because neither woman can open their mouth to me without lying. Lying to me is all they do. Maybe half-truths and omissions, little lies, rounding the edges off the truth like I’m some emotionally fragile child. Their repeated claims of love, along with pressure for me to come down there or even move down there, just seemed odd to me. This is not how you love somebody.

Mom showed up on my doorstep unannounced.

She’d applied for her nursing license in Colorado, and seemed intent to camp out at my place. I was 35 years old. I wasn’t about to start living with my mom. I’m sure she intended the visit to be sweet, but what she didn't realize, what my sister never realized, was their failure to get the message was forcing me into a corner, into a place where hurting their feelings was all I could do. I knew, from the moment I discovered her standing at my door, that before she left Colorado, I would make this woman cry. And I resented her for that, for her lack of discipline. For her weakness and inability to accept the truth: she’d made her choice. Now live with it. We crawled through three very painful days with me trying to find things to say to this stranger. I had no idea who she was anymore, and she had no idea who I was. And she wasn’t trying. To her, I’d had some kind of psychotic break and was now some invented person. She struggled to put the toothpaste back in the tube.

“What is it you hope to accomplish, here?” I asked her. “What do you want from me?” She rambled on a bit, not actually sure. I told her this wasn’t love. This was stalking. Selfishness. If I wanted to see them, I knew where they lived. But things had gotten to a point where it was no longer healthy for me to pretend, and pretending was all I’d been doing for decades: showing up because that’s what sons do, that’s what brothers do. But I hated being around them because I hated the resonance of a terrible past.

Looking at my mother, whom I’d now crushed, I was angry at her for making me crush her. We had a polite but distant relationship. It wasn’t what she wanted, but it was the best I could manage. Now we wouldn’t even have that. For me to be in her life meant I’d either have to buy into their lie--that my experiences were neither valid nor real, or continually do this—hurt her feelings. Which made me feel terrible. This woman had rode a bus 60 hours cross-country just to make me feel terrible. And maybe this is what parents do: the bond is so strong they can’t help themselves. But it’s not love. Love wants what’s best for the object of that love.

In that moment, I could actually hear my ex-wife asking me, “What must I do to finally be done with this?” If I didn’t get it before, I certainly got it then. It wasn’t that I didn’t love these people, but that I didn’t love the lie I had to live in order to be around them.

Listen To The Stories: Richardson-Whitfield and Todd in I Will Follow.

What is Family and How Did We Lose It?

A Christian counselor explained it this way: a toxic relationship is still toxic, even when it’s your own family. My choice was simple: go on pretending just to keep from hurting their feelings, or live with the guilt of shutting them out of my life. This is how emotional blackmail works. These are deeply self-absorbed people who, while claiming to love me, know nothing of love. Mom coming out here was about her, not me. It’s what she wanted. My sister’s ridiculous, selective memory is her reality, not mine. Other people don’t get to decide, for me, what my experiences were. And, having been confronted with those experiences, having shared with this woman who claims to love me, my sister instead digs heels into her denial, presuming I’ve gone crazy. She doesn’t remember anything of the events I describe. I’m just some lunatic inventing things.

This is precisely what abusive people do: deny the abuse, blame the victim. In 50 years of knowing this woman, not one time have the words, “I’m sorry,” escaped her lips. If I had been the older sibling, and a nutcase, if I had dominated her childhood beating her, screaming at her, taking her things, lying on her, beating her mother, derailing the family finances, if my selfishness forced us to leave a spacious, four-bedroom home in suburban Louisville and move across country to a one-bedroom basement apartment where the three of us and my baby were crammed into a tight space—would she want to be around me now?

It’s interesting to me that the only reason any of this is a struggle is because of their gender. If this were my father and brother, instead of my mother and sister, there’d be no struggle, no conflict. You go your way and I go mine. But we are hard-wired to love our mothers, to cherish our sisters. And I do. But this is a toxic relationship, and I’ve seen no signs that either of them have grown in any way or take any responsibility at all for the distance between us. There is an emotional cost to being around these people. Real love is emotionally expensive. The best way these specific people can demonstrate real love to me is to leave me alone.

After all, I was alone when I was with them.

Less than a month after writing these words, my mother went home to be with the Lord.  I am grateful to God that she is no longer struggling. She is no longer weary, no longer sad. I know, for certain, that she is finally free of her burdens and that she is at rest and in a much better place. I also know, for certain, that she is still with me, that she lives on through me, and that someday I will, I assure you, see her again.

Christopher J. Priest
27 November 2011

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