“I walk on for a while and reach a round sort of clearing. Surrounded by tall trees, it looks like the bottom of a gigantic well. Sunlight shoots down through the branches like a spotlight illuminating the grounds at my feet. The place feels special, somehow. I sit down in the sunlight and let the faint warmth wash over me, taking out a chocolate bar from my pocket and enjoying the sweet taste. Realizing all over again how important sunlight is to human beings, I appreciate each second of that precious light. The intense loneliness and helplessness I felt under those millions of stars has vanished. But as time passes, the sun’s angle shifts and light disappears. I stand up and retrace the path back to the cabin.” – Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore
After spending nearly half a century in this life, I still marvel at the duality that occurs before me each and every day. The darkness that gives way to light, the silver linings that provide a sugar coating to even the most acerbic morsels. It is the yin and yang that provides some sort of karmic balance to life – the rushing in and recession of the tides, the endings that lead to beginnings balancing out the beginnings that ungratefully lead to endings.
And, while I know this duality appears before me daily, it is only on rare occasions that I stop to take notice. It is like a gentle tap on my shoulder reminding me to pay attention, letting me know that an important plot point is about to revealed. A gentle nudge as I doze off in the classroom that is my life, reminding me to take note for this will be on the final exam. This week, I was jolted awake as I sat on an airplane heading out on yet another journey. As I leaned back in my seat, closing my eyes to rest for a few moments as I normally do when the plane is racing down the runway, pushing the engines to launch the giant tin can into the air, I was reminded of the significance of the day. That day was my mother’s birthday. My mother, who has been dead for 2 years now. Or, is it 3? I have lost count. I could probably stop for a moment and try to remember if it was 2012 or 2013 when she finally departed but the time elapsed is meaningless. For, I did not mark the months with remembrances. I did not light a candle each year. I did not grieve as so many of my friends have, deeply mourning the loss of their beloved moms. Their supporters, their nurturers, the presidents of their fan clubs, their best friends. I don’t recall exactly which day she died and I was not there with her when she took her last breath. I did not go through the rite of passage that children are meant to experience when their parents take their journey to next life. I did not hold her hand or stroke her brow, reminding her how much I loved her or how we would all go on without her, missing her every day and feeling the void of her presence. I have no idea what the end of my mother’s life was like. I don’t know what she looked like, I don’t know if she suffered or passed with ease, relieved to have unburdened herself of the weight that she carried so deeply inside her. I don’t know if anyone stood by her side or if she drifted off alone and bewildered. And, frankly, I don’t care.
My mother’s birthday is also the day my oldest son was conceived. I know this because he was conceived at a fertility clinic. I remember the day, back in 2000, when I lay in the darkened room, after having been inseminated turkey-baster style, laying with my knees in the air for the suggested 30 minutes in hope that just one of my husband’s sperm would find its way to my lone egg that sat alone, hoping for some attention. Despite the efforts to pump up my hormones that would generate many follicles from which many eggs would spring, I produced one and my doctors, in their reassuring way, left me with the optimistic hope of “there’s always next month.” But, always the overachiever, I would not fail. I was confident that my solitary egg would find its partner and we would produce a healthy bundle of joy. And we did. And it all began on my mother’s birthday.
My mother died just days before her birthday. She never was honest about what year she was born so I suspect she was around 82 or 83 or 84, or something like that, when she died. I can’t remember the last birthday I celebrated with her but it was a long time before her departure. My mother left me emotionally and spiritually long before her body ceased to function. My mother forced me to remove her from my life to finally escape a lifetime of mental and emotional abuse. I believed that the day I shut that door for the last time, even though I may not have realized it had been closed for good, that I was releasing the toxins from my body. It felt like the beginning of the journey to recovery and that I was providing myself with the space and freedom to explore my pain and heal myself. I don’t remember how many years ago that was anymore. I try not to think about it. I suppose, as survivors, we are supposed to have psychic calendar notations that are engraved in our minds but, for me – someone who memorializes everything – these dates are fuzzy. The ink has bled and I can no longer make out the dates or the numbers. I simply don’t want to mark the passing of time. I guess I just don’t want to preserve them with the same significance as I do the milestones of my or my children’s lives. I want them to be erased over time. I want them to cease to exist. Perhaps this way it might all be less real.
It is not at all ironic to me that my motherhood began on my mother’s birthday. In fact, it is symbolically appropriate. It is the duality of my life. The beginning of this new chapter, the creation of my first child, was the denouncement of my victimization by my mother. It made sense. I would never forget the day and the two would be inextricably intertwined. Because they are and they should be. While my own mother tortured me, motherhood freed me. Motherhood saved me from my mother. Motherhood, over time, reaffirmed what, deep inside, I always knew to be true. Children are not supposed to be treated the way I was. I deserved to be loved and nurtured and cared for and respected and adored and cherished and encouraged to reach my full potential. I was not meant to be demeaned and demoralized and undermined and sideswiped and beaten and marginalized and penalized and tormented and hurt. I needed to see for myself that the natural order of things was that parents love their children – no matter what. I had to experience, first hand, that it is not a natural occurrence that, with frustration and anxiety, comes abuse. I could not survive unless I realized that I would not be the monster that I experienced my own mother to be. And my son, conceived on that cold day in February in Millburn, NJ, the same day my mother enjoyed another spin around the sun, and then my other son just three short years later, liberated me from the fear that I could never break the cycle of abuse and that perhaps, in fact, I deserved just what I got.
After my flight that morning was reaching cruising altitude, I opened my eyes and took a deep breath. The realization that today was that day, the mother of all dualities, I stopped thinking and decided to turn on my iPad an enjoy the remainder of my short flight listening to an audiobook. I had been waiting to listen to Not My Father’s Son by one of my favorite actors, Alan Cumming. There had been a resistance in me to start the book because I knew enough about the story to feel a sense of dread. Alan was telling his own story of abuse. He was sharing the outcomes of his journey towards healing and, without question, I knew I would experience disruption and dismay. But, today, it made sense. Today was the day that I needed to take this on. Sometimes you just know. It seemed fitting.
February is now this odd month for me. As a child, I worshipped my mother. I would lay by her feet and love on her endlessly. I would spend my weekends sitting in our kitchen, in our little row house in Queens, playing Rummy 500 with her. She never let me win but I didn’t care. I treasured those hours because she was peaceful and we were together, far away from the yelling and screaming, the hitting, the painful words, the outbursts, the overdosing. Those afternoons were quiet and calm and predictable and reassuring, filled with hope that my mommy really loved me and would soon stop being so angry with me. Every year I waited with anticipation for her birthday because I wanted to shower her with cards and gifts to show her how much I loved her. I felt certain that if I made her feel special that she would reciprocate, returning my affection with kindness of her own. But, just two days after her birthday was my parents’ wedding anniversary – a day that ultimately left my mother filled with sadness after she and my father divorced. It was a constant reminder to her of failure and loss and it often overshadowed the joyousness of her special day. And, like a sponge, I absorbed her duality and struggled to balance her yin and yang. I adopted her pain as my own. And February became a month of quiet conflict. Atop the normal mountain of malaise that many of experience in the period that lay between the holidays and the first chirpy songs of birds signifying the onset of spring, I navigated my own way through the murky waters of my mother’s disdain and disappointment. I fought her battle. And she never shielded me from the shrapnel that pierced my skin after each and every explosion.
I finished the book before I landed on my return flight home the following night. I couldn’t stop listening. In the gym, I lost myself in his story, so different in his homeland of Scotland than mine in New York, far across the pond. Yet, his words resonated with me. I felt the pain as he shared every blow he endured from his father who battled his own demons, releasing onto his children the pain that he could not process. On the plane ride home, I stared out the window, holding back deep sobs as I listened to him recount his indignities, recognizing, perhaps for the first time, that I was not alone. Hearing him describe his deep wounds, I instinctively felt my own scars and they nearly ripped apart, revealing the gaping holes that still lie opened inside of me.
The duality this week began benignly – almost with a hint of joy. The reminder of that day I sat in the darkened room filled me with joy. Seemingly a lifetime ago before I understood the restorative power that motherhood would offer me. Before I laid eyes on the beautiful boy who would grow into a tall, handsome young adult, all attitude and confidence and humor mixed with the expected level of obnoxiousness we have come to expect from teenagers. Before I understood that I was not meant to live inside a prison forever and would be set free to experience the euphoria of unconditional love towards and from my own children. As a child who grew up feeling alone and out-of-place, never truly belonging to a family or having an assigned seat at the table, the luxuriousness of looking at my children and knowing they were mine and I was theirs – that we were a family, with bonds that need not be broken – cascaded me into a sense of peace and serenity that never seemed a reality when looking at my life from the other side. The counterbalance of that day – the marking of my mother’s birthday also seemed benign as I have healed so many wounds and have forgiven her for all that she took from me and all that pain she bestowed upon me that was never meant to be mine. Yet, unbeknownst to me, this year, the duality would be marked differently. There are no coincidences and no accidents. Life takes us places that we sometimes don’t want to go and forces us, often begrudgingly, to accept those things we would rather ignore or reject. The duality for me this year was not the lightness and dark or the beginning and end. This year, the duality was the denial and acceptance.
I have accepted so much about the pain I have endured in my life and I have learned to nurture myself in replacement. Through no choice of my own, I became extremely proficient at tending to my needs and ensuring that I was able to move from one day to the next, as best I possibly could. I learned, regrettably, that I would have to care for myself because there was not going to be anyone else around who would take on that responsibility. For as far back as my memory will allow me to go, it has been me – all alone in the world – navigating the pathways and hoping for a positive outcome. That, in itself, has its own duality for it has made me strong and it has caused weakness in my foundation. I am closed and withdrawn at times, protective and defensive, fearful of intimacy that might cause me to drop my guard and stop protecting my fortress of solitude. And I have resilience and strength and power that allows me to sit on the front lines, sipping a cocktail and awaiting the next round of fire with ease and assurance that my line is protected. Yet, while I have accepted my fate and processed through the pain and disappointment of never having had the opportunity to be loved in a way that was my birthright, I have also spent a great deal of my life in denial. I struggle to accept how deep my wounds are, how painful the burn is, how limiting my existence can be. I force myself to look away when I am confronted with the loneliness and alienation and abandonment that resulted from ongoing and erosive abuse. Being told I am worthless and not a good enough person to be loved again and again finally sinks into your cells and it becomes part of your hard-wiring that no amount of therapy or medication or restorative affection can ever heal. Never having felt the safety and security that allows a child to mature into adulthood and endure the obstacles that are assuredly blocking your path with dignity and grace, creates a perpetuating stream of anxiety and self-loathing that requires a virtual exorcism to eradicate. One that I have yet to perform. By the end of that flight, after the last word was read and I was left to ponder my own experience, I knew, of course, the timing was pre-determined and the context was appropriately set. The scabs needed to be ripped off and I was meant to be catapulted back into space. It was time to embark on the next leg of this mission.
I am alone and I am frightened and, at the same time, I am secure in my ability to navigate my course. I hope that there is a day, some day in February in some year before me that I will look back and remember the day that I started to stop feeling so isolated and solitary and overwhelmed and insecure. And, I know that it may never be that way. For it is, perhaps, my destiny to live this life and endure these struggles for a purpose far greater than I will ever know. And the duality of my life is to enjoy the beauty that lies right beside the pain.