As I neared my fifth decade, I began to read more accounts from people of a certain age, who were taking chances and living their best lives and grasping onto really profound thoughts. They were driven by a sense of urgency and pushing past boundaries. They were attempting to live authentically and with purpose. The idea that one has less time left to live than they already have lived is sobering as fuck. I shuddered, at times, thinking that it all sounded pretty scary and daunting and more than a little depressing; as if I needed more of that particular element in my psyche, right?
Before I entered my fifties, I went through a divorce and remarried, became a grandmother, finally allowed myself to admit that I wasn’t mentally stable, and then my mother died. That event added little nuances to everything, it seemed. Forget the fact that I still had one living, breathing parent – and I use that term in the loosest sense of the word – I still felt like an orphan. Thus began two years of the undoing of my brain, when I blindly pushed forward, trying to right wrongs, do things, prove her wrong. And yet, she has been able to reach out from the grave occasionally and remind me that I was an option, not a necessity, in her life.
She never had any expectations of me, you see. She was unable to cope with a smart child with a high IQ who looked her nose down at this town and everyone and everything in it. I had deep emotions – so many of them! – tied to music and art and the written word and nobody got me. My singing, art, and writing was not considered important. The awards I received for essays; all the solos I was given in musical programs; prizes and accolades in art class; all were dismissed in an offhand way. I struggled to understand what it was that I needed to do in order to gain her approval. I wish that she had told me, back then, what she did shortly before she died. I had made the observance that nothing I had ever done was good enough for her. Her response was quietly honest: “No, I suppose it wasn’t.”
At least there was that mystery solved. Had she waxed poetic and told me she was proud of me, I wouldn’t have believed her, anyway. There’s just some shit you can never fake, and my mother was nothing if not totally, unabashedly disappointed in me.
I think she truly loved The Male Sibling Unit in a way she never could me. I was that thing she did to get my dad. It failed. He was that thing she did that ended up looking just like our dad. In a way, she won, that time. When his developmental delays were discovered, I really think that something inside her rejoiced, because now, she would never lose him. She could care for him in a way my father rejected. I know; this sounds like a sick, Shakespearean play, but wasn’t Shakepeare’s writing simply observations of reality, fleshed out onto the stage? Life itself is Shakespeare. I, for one, don’t enjoy Shakespeare, but I guess that’s because it’s just a little to depressingly real. The prose is fucking irritating, too. “Methinks the lady doth protest” packs much less of a wallop than “Woman, all you do is fucking bitch!”
Lately, since entering this oh-so-giving of decades (giving of new aches and pains, giving not one single fuck about anything, giving of courage, and of realism) I have wondered what it might have been like, had she loved me the way she did him. His life was fraught with so many obstacles in the beginning that we sort of joined forces to make things good for him. Education, special outings and programs, toys, foods, you name it. He enjoyed the sort of childhood every parent wants to give their child, because it was crucial that he fit in as much as possible and that every opportunity be given to him. It was important to enrich life and to show him how valued and cherished he was. There was no obstacle he could not overcome.
In his own way, he has become exactly what one wants to be: uniquely and unquestioningly himself. He has enjoyed every opportunity and lived quite a full life for someone with his disabilities. He has been fortunate in that he knows he has disabilities, but they are in no way limitations. He lives his life brazenly, out there and with no regrets. He has love, and social enrichment, and everything he could ask for, materialistically. He has a good life; indeed, he expects it.
I envy that.
When I was in the 9th grade, my best friend talked me into trying out for flag corp. This was a division of the high school marching band, which was, back then, nationally-acclaimed. I was not a “joiner” in the literal sense of the word. I did things my way, listened to my own music, followed my own beat. I had friends, but I only let them in so far. My bestie and I were as close as two girls could be, even though her family was well-to-do and mine wasn’t. She never judged me, and I learned that it wasn’t always good times just because one had a mom and dad and a nice house and some money.
We sweated and worked and practiced for four days, learning a routine to Styx’s “Rockin’ The Paradise”. I was never a dancer, or graceful, and it was quite a momentous thing for me to memorize a flag/dance routine and not look like a fumbling, stumbling idiot in the process. I was taking quite a chance, socially; I had yet to make my mark on my classmates as that dark-witted, sarcastic side-talker who ridiculed teachers under her breath , but managed to be an amazing writer, singer, and artist, got good grades, and lived in the Explore Room most of the time. I was yet to be the girl just a couple of votes shy of being voted “Funniest” in my Senior year.
When the team was chosen, I was on the list of two alternates, should anyone drop out. I knew I’d done my best, mostly for my friend, because she really wanted to be a part of marching band. Did I ever consider myself good enough? Not at all. I wasn’t “one of them” and had pretty much made my peace with that. I wasn’t going to be able to go on band trips and eat out at restaurants and come up with spending money for big city excursions. I had to save every penny I made babysitting to buy my own school clothes. This was a pipe dream my secret, tucked-away self harbored; not the solitary, resolute hardass who didn’t give a fuck persona I put out there to avoid the pain of rejection. And so, life went on.
Until a day, about a week later, when the flag corp advisor called and excitedly offered me a spot. Someone had declined. I was in! Inwardly, I rejoiced. Put-away girl opened the door a crack and looked out, hopefully. Was this finally going to be the key to being accepted by someone bigger – an important entity in the community – than myself?
Then, the list of requirements arrived. Uniform prices, out-of-pocket things like certain Nike sneakers, shirts, socks, costs, and the list went on. At the time, it was about $150 in stuff. Today, that’s not a large sum, but, back then, it might as well have been $150 million. I showed it to my mom, thinking she had to be proud of me for getting an opportunity to be in the band, who had marched in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade and gone to Disney World. I was only marginally good enough, but still! I would work hard and get better and be good enough. She had to be so proud of me!
“I don’t know what you expect from me,” she said. I stammered, “Well, I’ll work hard, and I’ll babysit more, and get a job as soon as I’m allowed. I’ll pay you back.” She fairly seethed at me her answer.
“Your brother has school clothes he needs. He grew out of everything. And I don’t have the money to waste on this stupid idea you have. You’ll never be able to go on trips. We don’t have the money. Forget about this. You’re not privileged like those other kids are.”
“I hate you.” I managed, and retreated to my room, where I turned the metal up as loudly as I could to drown out my angry tears.
I composed myself and called the advisor back the next day. “I’m sorry, ” I said, distantly and with a coldness I didn’t feel, but hoped to convey with my voice, “but I have too much going on at home and I’m committed to babysit nights for someone. I can’t accept at this time.” I’m sure this wasn’t the first time some poor girl had to decline, so she probably saw right through me. No matter. With that one phone call, something in me turned to ice, and stayed that way, for a long time.
Had my mom congratulated me, assured me we would figure it out, and allowed me this one chance to blossom in a normal way, who knows what might have happened for me from there? Maybe the mistakes I ended up making after that – in spending my entire first year of college drunk, and dropping out to marry a monster who scarred both me and our children, and all the years of poverty and suffering and his control, squandering my gifts and letting both my mother and him convince me that I was, indeed, nothing special – maybe I would still have made them. Maybe I was irrevocably damaged even before that flag was placed in my hands and I learned to wave it around. There is no sense wondering what if, and I always insist that I regret nothing, but that shit is partially a lie. I do regret some things. I regret not using that dark, angry, pissed-off girl as a weapon to save my children and myself sooner than I did. She resurfaced with a vengeance when I finally left, but she grew out of control because she was out to prove she was bulletproof. And she was not.
I am not.
What advice can I offer to anyone with kids, or deciding to have kids, or finding themselves totally befuddled by the mystery that is their teenaged spawn?
Don’t fucking do any of that shit to your kid. Seriously. Don’t be an asshole, and then unleash another asshole on the world. That asshole will spend decades trying to figure out why he or she is an asshole and, in the end, you’ll get the credit you so shamefully deserve. Let’s hope that, if you’ve already begun to make a clusterfuck out of your child’s life, you STOP. I mean it. Stop.
Now, a year into my fifth decade, I want nothing more than to wipe all traces of a painful past from my consciousness and to focus only on the good stuff. I want to spend my time loving who I love and welcoming beauty and grace into my life. I want to continue to make sure The Male Sibling Unit continues with the charmed life he leads, but I would like a little charm to bleed into mine as well. I can’t cast out my living dead girl; she is me, as sure as my eyes are black. But I can let her laugh. And I can let her be brave.