I don’t want to talk about the news today, or the spectacle of grown men vying for the presidential nomination who give the impression of never having really experienced anything, of having been incubated in some medium entirely devoid of pain. Usually, I’d be able to wring some grim amusement from it; today, all I feel is disgust. If you’ve spent a half century on this planet and been untouched by suffering (Kasich at least give the impression of having a heart), then you’re either a monster, a liar or a fool.
Time to give it a rest for a while. They’ll still be there, flaunting the stunted range of their sympathy, when I get back.
Now and then, to recall The Great Gatsby, I feel myself beating against the current. Lately, that current feels stronger than usual.
I know why – it’s not a mystery. In a few hours, as soon as it’s dark, I’ll be lighting a candle in memory of my mother, who died last summer. Her birthday is today. She’d have been ninety-one. I’ll put the candle up on the mantlepiece above the fireplace (where the cats can’t get to it), and it will flicker for twenty-four hours – unnecessarily, really, because I don’t need a candle to remember her – before it gutters out.
It’s hard to know what to say about Mom because hers was not a simple story and because I’ve spent the better part of my adult life trying to loosen the knot of love and rage that remains from our years together. I tried to write about her in a novel called The Visible World, then again, in another novel, Brewster. I tried it in a story called “Dog.” It didn’t work. It wasn’t until two years ago, when I ran into a wall of depression that stopped me dead, that I realized I’d have to write my way out. I did. The result was a memoir, Labyrinth of the Heart. However it fares when it comes into the world next fall (my books tend to come and go quietly), it’s done its work. I’m in the clear – if not entirely free of memories and dreams that pull for the bottom, then free enough. I’ll take it.
Here’s a true thing about abuse: it’s never one thing. It comes mixed with love, which makes things difficult: To resist the person abusing you, you have to hurt them, abandon them; often it’s easier to hurt yourself.
Here’s another thing: Cruelty tends to come back around, to repeat itself in kind. As was done unto you, so ye shall do unto others – unless, by some miracle of outrage and will, you’re able to break the cycle. Even then, you’ll carry the mark. Which is ok – scars give us character.
It was a complicated story – I can’t possibly sum up its darkness and light here - but stripped to the bones, it came down to this: My mother, who, like my father, endured the German occupation of Czechoslovakia, then survived (barely), the Communist coup of 1948, had been abused as a girl. She managed to keep that pain buried her entire life, but like most of the things we bury, it made its presence felt.
She and I had seven perfect years together before she began to go down, and since I was the one who’d been closest to her – her only child, her best friend - I was cast as Judas. I didn’t have much say in it. Growing up was my betrayal – a betrayal I couldn’t avoid. And so it all went sideways. My mother spent the rest of her life mourning the golden-haired boy she’d lost, raging at the pimply imposter who’d taken his place, and I spent far too long trying to get her to see that her son was still right there, standing in front of her, unchanged in all the ways that matter.
It’s hard being hated and not knowing why. If you’re not careful you can find yourself pleading guilty to crimes you never committed, sticking your head through the noose for the sake of clarity. Or, worse, to validate your accuser’s opinion. Worse still, to gain their love.
I don’t recommend it.
Can I explain her? Her capacity for love, her talent for joy, her genius for pain? No. I loved her, then hated her to escape the vortex of her descent – as she would have wanted me to - and now, at 58, I’m left with a sense of wonder, mostly. “I knew you,” I’d say to her tonight if I could, though I’d have to say it in Czech, because that’s the language we spoke at home. “What a hard and extraordinarily life you lived, and how deeply – for better and worse – you’re stamped on my soul.”
Was she bi-polar? Probably. Suicidal? Absolutely. Did the benzodiazepines, to which she was addicted for the better part of thirty years, play a role? I’m sure they didn’t help. Was it the toxin of abuse that finally brought her down, or the loneliness of exile? Was it depression, her marriage to my father, her nature?
Most things in life are multiple-choice questions. There is no answer key.
I just lit the candle – I can see it reflected in the dark window, as if someone were standing out on our porch with a penlight.
I have no nifty take-away I can offer here, no uplifting homily - just this, and God knows it’s little enough: That we may lose. That the time may come when we have to walk away from those we loved. But that until that day, we have to refuse to not care for each other; that we have to get up in each others’ faces, fight for each other, at whatever cost, to the last breath.
Happy birthday, Mom.