Saturday, 5 December 2015
Ten Years of Farewell
The following years billowed with the winds of change for my family. While living and working in London, my parents made the hardest decision of their rural life- to sell their farm which my step-father had purchased in 1969. Though this was equally painful for both, my step-father did not recover from the loss of his favourite horses, the woods he had lovingly cleared, the house which he decorated with his past. Shortly after their move back to the house we had originally moved to, he contracted ALS. My mother basically took over the running of things and quietly celebrated her return to the mountain top. This house was much smaller, more manageable and had a very special place in her heart.
It was during this time that both she and my step-father thought that it would be nice for her to visit me in London. My step-father, though coping with the beginnings of ALS, felt that he could manage and my mother made sure that he was surrounded by helpers and friends at all times. We did have a tremendous time in January, 1998, but by the autumn, my step-father's condition was both critical and without hope. Mother suggested I return home in late September and the three of us had two weeks together. My step-father died on the 9th of October, 1998, thus unleashing deep grief within myself and the seismic shifting of my familial underpinnings. Because of her personal issues and ever-present angers with my step-father and his family, my sister did not wish to attend his funeral. Of course, this made the event so much easier for all of us. From what I remember, she remained fairly quiet and was of precious little support to my mother. Mom was both lost and exhausted. She was also afraid of being left on her own. After a couple of weeks of private grieving and spinning in overwhelm, she picked up and travelled to Georgia to stay with a childhood friend. Numb and deeply confused, I returned to England where my life began to unravel in salient ways. I stayed in close touch with my mother throughout. I gathered that my siblings offered her precious little support and consideration in these intervening months. My sister was nursing herself and my brother, because he hadn't been included in my step-father's will and feeling such hurt and resentment from this, rarely corresponded with my mother. I felt somewhat hurt as well, but I understood. I would have loved a book, a small treasure-nothing big or financial. But my step-father had already invested so much time, energy and financial support throughout our lives that nothing more could have been expected. Added to this was the continual draining of his resources to pay for my sister's professional care from the day my parents got married. Of course, I am unable to speak for any of these souls because my step-father's passing brought up such complicated histories and exceedingly painful dynamics. From my point of view, being more forgiving was likely made easier by the fact that I was particularly cherished by my step-father. I was the daughter that he never had, we shared France and much more. He was also present when I was born in Boulogne. My brother and sister had more years and previous experience of living with my father which could not have been easy at all. What I witnessed after my step-father's death was a familiar chaos with nothing to heal each person's wounding .
What also added salt to our wounds was the presence of Mother's childhood friend- a man whom she had gone out with in her private school days. And it was to this uncomfortable environment that I returned. My brother was slowly re-establishing contact ; my sister concentrating on her life and needs from my mother and myself at very loose and frayed ends. My mother was at a loss with the slow and unpredictable nature of dealing with my step-father's estate let alone her deep-seated sadness and conflict which arose out of her wish to start a less burdened life. I wished to support her as much as I could but her choices sometimes seemed unfathomable to me. Not only did my sister remain unhelpful in the background, but Mother's choice of companion seemed to make matters only more unstable and painful. Of course, there were happy moments between them that I most likely never knew about and this man offered my mother a presence, a point of focus outside herself that she desperately sought. But this friend was a total opposite of my step-father and, worse, resembled my sister in his behaviours, habits and demands on my mother's time and energy. He was a tough-talking eccentric with plenty of life education and experience but with none of the subtlety and intelligence of my step-father. He was also a serious alcoholic and his condition absorbed my mother's attention and concern. He had to have her attention at all times and, if he didn't get it, he would disappear and go on a binge. Very frequently, he verbally abused my mother and treated her badly. Does this sound familiar to you? The echo of experience was so loud for me and I almost despaired. I didn't understand what is was within my mother that caused her to live this way, why she chose a man who simply wound chains around her, why she continued to help my self-centred sister to the exclusion of her own health and happiness....I frequently had the image of my mother being that of a strong black horse being brought down with ropes into the sand of a corral and never being allowed to stand. And there she was to remain.
In November, 1999, a routine mammogram caught a growth in my right breast and it was decided that I have a surgical biopsy at the local hospital. It was to be a day-long procedure and Mother and I tried to alleviate our mutual anxiety by taking long walks on narrow dirt roads or sitting by our small pond staring at the mountains. My mother's friend would either disappear to the guest cottage to sit and drink or numb himself in front of a loud, disruptive television. The peace of the environment that Mother and I had so become accustomed to was broken and the sensation of change sank ever deeper and heavier in our hearts though my mother insisted on being this man's carer and companion. The night before my biopsy, Mother's friend disappeared with our dog. Once again, my mother was caught between the unhealthy needs and behaviour of a loved one and the attention she wished to give to other family members. Around 8h30 pm, the phone rang and it was the local police. Mother's friend had been arrested after totalling his car in a drunken stupor. Within an hour, a local officer accompanied this man to our door stating that he would have to make an appearance at the police station on the day of my biopsy. Well, my body cells were drowned in floods of emotions, new and very old. This episode was also very reminiscent of an event with my sister when I was 8 or 9. My grandmother was visiting the family during the summer holidays. One night, my parents needed to attend a college event and asked if she could be with us. I don't remember what distracted her attention, but it wasn't for long. My sister had raided the liquor cabinet and disappeared to the guest cottage blitzed to the extreme. Not wishing to leave my brother and myself alone, my grandmother took us along the path to the guest house and we found my sister sprawled on the ground almost unconscious. What happened next remains a blur, but the emotions were indelible. The past was imposing itself upon my present in the heaviest manner possible.
I got through the biopsy fine in the company of my overwhelmed mother and a very contrite man. While I waited for the results of this surgery, I moved to my step-father's library. An invisible, murky bubble had been formed around my mother and her friend and I didn't want to be a part of it...It was unreal, unhealthy to such a destructive degree...I always welcomed my mother whenever she stepped out of it , but she seemed hypnotically drawn back into it after brief spells. With my step-father's nephew, we did wrap up the remaining details of a huge and unwieldy estate and I prepared for another escape, this time to the south of France. Suffice it to say that , after 6 weeks, I boomeranged back to New England after a lower back injury and flu. I did not want to return to our home and stayed at a motel for a week, then for a month with my amazing godmother. Being my parent's closest friend, she was well aware of the in's and out's of my family and she too was experiencing a painful re-adjustment caused by the heavy and drunken presence of my mother's companion. Having spent her youth with an alcoholic father and dealt with the long-lasting effects of her upbringing, she had difficulty with the toxic atmosphere and my mother's trance-like isolation with him. Their close relationship was shifting....not ending, but certainly redefining itself. I met several times with my mother and I sought to become independent for both of us. Carrying the colossal weights of my sister and her friend, I felt the pressure and wish to lighten her load somehow...At the end of this soul-searching month, my brother sweetly drove me back to the Berkshires to pick up the healing I had begun almost 10 years before.
From 2000 to 2003, my efforts to stand on my own were determined yet clumsy. Within the recesses of my psyche were still anvil-like bundles of resistance, anger, fear and guilt that impeded my forays into adulthood. Plus, I was about to make yet another change to my career-that of artist. I had taught language for over 10 years, worked as an arts and culture administrator for two and had launched myself into acting for the past 6 years...My bow was vastly outnumbered by strings! My life energy was changing and I did perceive light through my own cracks. Mother also started composing poetry again and joined a creative writing class. This class gave her new life and such pleasure. We frequently joined up in Lenox because she needed to get away so very badly. Her companion and my older sister often made life so unpleasant and they rarely lifted a finger let alone hatch a kind thought to help her. During this time, Mother was experiencing heart-related problems-who wouldn't have? She was diagnosed with a flu-like condition to her heart and she had to treat herself well and thoughtfully for quite awhile. I remember that, during a Christmas gathering, it was my brother and myself who worked to help my mother while my sister and Mother's live-in simply sat and talked to each other encircled by the smoke of cigarettes. This almost pathological selfishness was a depth-charge to my heart and I shall never forget nor forgive the two monoliths in our family room for this.
In the autumn of 2003, Mother had to make another monumental decision which saddened her to her very core. To move out of her beloved house on the mountain. I won't delve into the reasons for this, but move she did into another house that she decorated with her history.A couple of days before her move, she did call me and asked if I could come up to Vermont to help. I said yes right away, but when I got off the phone, I felt the onslaught of ambivalent and tired emotions course through me. I called a good friend to ask for her support of me and to accompany me on this very pregnant mission. She said yes without hesitation and I relayed this to Mother. The idea of additional people wore her down and she suggested that I stay where I was
And then in January, 2004, my farewell to all I had known truly began.