All we get to keep

by Brianne Benness

“It would be easier,” my sister hesitates, “if she just didn’t exist.” Although I know that this is where she was heading — it had to be — I’m still glad that it was she who said it and not I. It just sounds so flippant, so convenient. As if we are two petulant children wishing away our mother, rather than what we really are: a married 39 year-old woman with two children and a newly single 26 year-old girl (woman?), half-sisters who have both lost our fathers, who do not take the loss or dissolution of a parent lightly.

My sister’s father died on my 21st birthday. She found out an hour before we were to leave her home for a day of wine tasting in the Sonoma Valley. My father died a week after her first child was born. I didn’t meet my nephew until he was 10 months old because our accumulating grief prevented my sister and I from seeing what we might be for one another.

We are trying to decide how to talk to, live with, move past our mother. Neither of us has spoken to her in a year, but we still occasionally communicate with her by email. Communicate is an inaccurate term, really, since what happens is that we are lambasted, accused, excoriated. We are thrown off balance for days. This woman whom we are supposed to love — who is supposed to love us — is sad and lonely and raging and we have run out of salve.

It starts small. I don’t send her the money for my car insurance on time and she gets frustrated, angry. She feels unloved. She tells my sister how irresponsible and thoughtless I am. She tells me how snobby and irreverent my sister has become. I slowly lose track of my transgressions, but the conclusion still seems inevitable: I am mean, I am manipulative, I am selfish. I am inadequate; incapable of generating the love and caring that my mother needs from me.

I am eight years old, sitting on a bench with a friend at recess. My mother has just realized that she was sexually abused by my grandfather. I have some sense that she confronted him, that this is why we won’t be seeing her family for a while. I know better than to say this out loud, but it begins to punctuate my conversations. At eight, I don’t understand what sexual abuse might mean, but I carry a blurry vision of shame and hurt. Is this the moment when my brain first bifurcates? My friend asks me a question, and I answer without consideration, because I know that if I let my thoughts bleed into my speech then the secret and the shame and the hurt are going to come out. But it isn’t my secret or my shame or my hurt, so I charge part of myself with guarding them and part of myself with making sure that nobody knows what I am guarding.

I am eleven years old, trying to climb in through a ground-floor window of our old Victorian house. My mother and I have locked ourselves out somehow, and my stepdad is not around to let us in. He left earlier when my mother accused him of having an affair with one of her best friends, although she assures me that he will be back. My mother’s healing journey has brought her to a form of spirituality that I can only describe as new age. Her pendulum is her constant companion, a tool guided by spirits to answer any yes or no questions that she may have. The pendulum has confirmed my stepdad’s affair as well as her darkest repressed memories of growing up in a cult. In some people she sees her secrets and shame and hurt reflected back. She tells me who among my friends have been abused, whose parents are in cults. I try to be as understanding as possible about the shame and hurt that my friends must be experiencing. I know not to mention it to them directly, but I charge part of myself with guarding their secrets and their shame and their hurt and part of myself with making sure that they don’t know that I am sharing their burden.

She becomes obsessed with exorcising our home, our lives. Once when we move, she throws out many of my stepdad’s clothes because of their malevolent energy. The by-the-minute psychic that she calls when nobody is home tells her that she is going to win the lottery, so she takes the opportunity to replace the evil furniture in my bedroom and her office and the living room on credit. I have this sense that she is spoiling me with money that she doesn’t yet have, but am not sure how to ask if it’s ok. She tells me that we deserve nice things.

We start to see her family again. We form tentative relationships when my grandmother and then my uncle dies. I’m not sure which part of myself to give to these people. My mother and my sister are able to draw on their established relationships to feign some kind of normalcy, but at 11 and then 13 and then 16, I can barely feign normalcy to begin with. This family knows about the secrets and the hurt and the shame, but I’m still pretty sure that I shouldn’t talk about it so I just don’t talk about anything at all. My mother accuses me of not loving her family as much as I love my father’s family, of not trying hard enough. She is hurt and then angry when I say that I barely know them, that they don’t feel like family to me.

When she drives me to college my sophomore year, we don’t make it out of our own town before I call my stepdad because she and I are fighting so much that she almost hit me with her open palm and then almost hit a pedestrian with the van. He talks me down and somehow she and I make the two-day trip to school. A month later she calls to tell me that her biopsy results have come back and she has cancer. Soon she begins chemo and radiation and it is as horrible as the movies have led me to believe. I drink away most of the semester, and more secrets punctuate my conversations. When I walk past anyone on campus I want to stop them, ask them how their lives are proceeding so normally, yell at them that my mother was abused and her parents were in a cult and my stepdad had an affair and her brother died from cancer and now she has cancer.

Shortly after she goes into remission, my father is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. It feels to me like there are only so many memories and so many stories that we all must share. I’m not sure that I will ever get to know my mother because she changes with each memory that she uncovers. Her reality and her history have been evolving since I was eight years old, maybe longer. I’m not sure that I will ever get to know my father either, because he was already losing his memories years before I understood how precious they were.

When he dies, I can no longer contain my grief. I don’t have any more parts of myself to charge with this pain. I forget how to interact with my peers. I’m not sure how to have a real conversation, because I don’t have the means to cull the secrets and the shame and the hurt from the thoughts, feelings and ideas that I’m allowed to share. When I tell my mother that I cannot spend Christmas with her because I can barely get out of bed, she tells me that I am manipulative, that I am lying, that I am using this loss to my advantage. She tells my sister that I am possessed.

My sister and I have begun to catalogue our scars. For the first time we are able to talk openly about the secrets and the shame and the hurt that we have been harbouring for our mother. About the anxiety we feel about inadequately maintaining relationships. About how just seeing her number on call display can leave us reeling for days. Does everybody feel like this? There are days when I am sure that nobody calls their mother as often as she would like, that we are mining our childhoods for Freudian trauma to justify our callous behaviour. But there are also days when I’m sure that I have never been possessed, that my friends did not grow up in cults, and that I am slowly building and testing the new foundations of the reality where I will spend the rest of my life.