I have been pondering a conundrum all day today. Technically, by definition, I would be considered an orphan. Both my parents are dead and the dictionary defines an orphan as “…a child who has lost both parents through death…” Despite the fact that I am an adult, I am also still someone’s child so the definition applies to me. The puzzling part for me is how I might have defined myself before my parents died. Could I still be an orphan with two parents very much alive but whom had emotionally abandoned me? Upon further investigation, orphan is also defined as “…a person or thing that is without protective affiliation; not authorized, supported, or funded; not part of a system; isolated; abandoned…” Those words certainly apply to my life. Yet, I struggle to consider myself an orphan because I worked hard to mask it all and lived a pretend life that seemed just fine to those on the outside. From the looks of things, all was normal. I had my own room, food, some clothes and was able to bathe daily and show up at school presentable. I was not the rough, scruffy, debilitated child we all think about when we think of orphans – at least not on the outside.
My family life was challenged. Despite having two siblings, we never really lived in the house together. My sister, significantly older than me, was sent away to live with my aunt and uncle shortly after I was born. My brother, five years older than me, was deeply troubled and he dropped out of school and left home at 16. I was too young to understand anything they were enduring or to recognize how truly dysfunctional this was. So, I was alone and had to brave my own path. I studied hard and focused on going to college. My objective was to stick it out in my house, a place where my father had left then returned multiple times but was a complete stranger to me. And my mother often regarded me as an intruder – an interloper into the life she wanted, a burden she reluctantly carried. With all the chaos around me, I fantasized about my escape and finally packed up my car and left for college armed with my milk crates full of my vinyl record albums and boxes bursting with cherished books. I imagined driving off into my future where I would be liberated of all the painful memories and embark upon a new journey filled with freedom and serenity. But, of course, I failed to understand that, in fact, I was an orphan for whom such fairy tales don’t come true. Orphaned children don’t have the anchors tethering them and, instead, they fear that they might simply drift away, lost forever. Orphaned children don’t enjoy the luxury of being loved and nurtured and, instead, struggle to find pride and confidence to carry them through their lives. Orphaned children are stressed and overwhelmed. They have attachment issues – they attach too much or never at all. They do not have the skills to navigate the complexities of relationships because the only thing they understand is abandonment. They are alone and they are scared every single day.
It has been nearly 30 years since I left my home in Queens, NY to go away to college in upstate New York. I left home foolishly believing that I was leaving all of the pain behind me and would have the opportunity to start a new life for myself. Escaping the abuse from my mother, who had long since emotionally abandoned me, seemed like the clear pathway to emotional salvation. I recognized that very first time I defied my mother – the day I looked at her and began to peel away the mask and illusion of the loving woman only to find a hard, cold, sad and broken cadaver – was the day my mother disengaged and left me at the side of the road. Like an unwanted animal, she practically tossed me from her car and drove off, never looking back. Metaphorically, of course. Time and again, as we battled and brawled, I was left feeling that young girl sitting on the grass alongside the road, confused and afraid, wondering what would become of her. The pain my mother inflicted brought me back to see that scared girl, desperate for someone to come to pick her up. Then I realized that no one ever would. For, she was invisible. She was voiceless. Her cries were only heard inside her head. She had no way of letting anyone know that she needed help, that she needed to be rescued, that she had been orphaned and was destined to sit beside that road until, possibly, her legs were strong enough to allow her to walk the long distance to find shelter. The masks hid her fears and pain. The veneer covered the fact that she was all alone so that nobody could lend her a hand. I watched her over my shoulder each time we drove by that road, through the arguments and the rejection and the silent treatment when I had committed some unknown crime for which the punishment was isolation in the hole. I was relegated to walk around my house being ignored by own mother, having her pretend that I simply did not exist. And it was always my fault. It was always my doing. It was always deserved. I made her behave that way. I brought it upon myself. I was made to see that little girl, scared and alone while my mother laughed and drove by even faster.
Ironically, when I packed my bags to finally leave for school, I had to listen to my mother’s sobs, her relentless reminders about how she was being abandoned and being forced to worry about how she might get on without me. At the time, I did not realize that she had secretly tucked away, underneath the books and the vinyl, a set of knives that would jut out when I was not looking. Randomly, I would feel the stabs and watch the blood flow but never truly understood where it was coming from. I struggled to understand why I couldn’t fit in with the other girls who were rushing sororities and going to parties and falling in love. Unbeknownst to me, they could see the blood dripping from my hands and ran away, not wanting to take on the task of bandaging me up and nursing me back to health. Who would? I was unaware that others could so clearly see carnage of little girl who had been run over one too many times by 18-wheelers who swerved a little too close to the shoulder when she stepped out in the darkness of night to see if, perhaps, today might be the day that she would be rescued. Others were afraid of me. They didn’t exactly know why. My masks were transparent.
Fortunately, I grew up and the wounds began to heal. When I was ready, I disconnected from my mother to try to break the cycle of abuse. Slowly but surely, the little girl shirked off into the woods where I could no longer see her when I drove down the highway but, of course, I knew she was still there. Every now and again, I tried to find her, ready to offer her a soft bed, a cup of tea, a pair of slippers to warm her feet. I looked and looked. Sometimes I would wander through the woods, getting nicked by the prickly bushes but I would not give up. Occasionally, I would catch a glimpse of her but she would run away, afraid to reveal herself – worried that her scars were too gruesome. She was afraid that her pain was too deep. She had lost her words. She had lost her sense. She would run away and I would return to my car and drive off, hoping that the next time she would feel more safe and come out to let me help her.
So, I guess, there really is no question, no mystery, no puzzle to solve. I am an orphan. For both my mother and my father could not provide the love and care that is required when you choose to bring a child into the world. They were not suited for the battlefields of parenting. They were not capable of loving something other than themselves. They were not even able to love themselves. Perhaps, in their own way, they too were orphans. Perhaps their souls were lost in the woods and they walked through life as zombies, searching for brains to nourish themselves to regain the strength to become human.
I still feel that little girl inside of me. Some days she is screaming so loud, begging to be rescued. Occasionally, I will see her and she reminds me through her strong gaze, through her longing looks, of her pain. She shows me that she is broken and she pleads with me to fix her. I have lots of tools and I have lots of love. But, I do need reinforcements and I am still trying to pull together my team to go into that forest and find her. I want to heal her. Right now, it is still mostly a solo mission. Every once in a while I let someone else sit in the front seat while I pull over and head out on my search. I let them see that there is a little girl lost in the woods. But, one day, I will let them see her face.