In the past two days, I have eaten nearly a pound of animal crackers. And they’re not even the good kind—ya know—like the ones in the red circus train box, or the pink and white sprinkled ones.
These are the slightly sweet but bland animal shapes. They’re like crunchy, obscure creatures with legs and tails. Communion wafers that would growl if they could.
I’m almost down to the crumbs.
Back in Ye Olde Therapye Dayse (I’m supposed to stick an “e” on everything to make it seem olde—I mean—old—right?), on occasions when I seemed to be willing to sacrifice my progress in order to make my mom comfortable, my doctor (now long-time former therapist and co-author), Matt, would shake sand-like crumbs from the oft-present saltine cracker sleeve on his desk and toss them at me as he simultaneously blasted something like, “Are you willing to accept nothing but crumbs from your mother?!”
I’m sure that at that moment, I was barely maintaining my determination to hold firm the boundary I’d set with Mom: I wanted her to be willing to KNOW—to actually KNOW—about the abuse I endured from age 8 into my mid-teens at the hands of her husband. Keeping the sexual, emotional, mental abuse a secret caused me to have a mental breakdown.
I began losing weight when I began addressing my eating disorder, and my stepdad had made inappropriate comments about my body at Thanksgiving. That day, we were playing ping-pong alone in the garage. Upon our arrival, Mom had told me, “He’s been lying in wait for you all day!” and, once alone, my stepdad told me, “You are lookin’ hot.” At once, I found myself floating on the ceiling, watching the goings-on below. I now know the term for that is dissociation, part of having PTSD. At the time, I just felt numb and disconnected as I watched myself swinging the paddle.
New Years Eve of 2004, Mom and I were standing outside a barbecue restaurant in Ennis, Texas. My daughters and I had driven there to meet my mom and aunt a week after I set the first boundary of my life with my stepfather. In a letter (delivered on Christmas Eve, because I was so freaked out at seeing him that I needed to try to stop what I feared would happen), I told him, “Because of our history of you abusing me, I am asking you to stop commenting on my body.”
You can guess: after Fed-Ex delivered the letter before we arrived to their house, Christmas was a disaster. My stepfather hid in the bedroom, and my mom would not talk to me. What I had done upset him, broken the Cardinal Rule: He Was Not to Be Made Unhappy. I had, in essence, committed the greatest blasphemy of all time. For the record, I am perfectly aware of how insane it seems to send the letter and expect to go in and just have my stepdad not comment on my body and everything would be fine. But I was in a place of panic at seeing him again and being vulnerable but wanting to stand up for myself at the same time. I finally got the courage to send the letter on December 23rd. I guess I was… hopeful to not be objectified.
A week later, that New Year’s Eve Day of 2004, my girls and I met my mom and aunt at the barbecue restaurant, and I asked Mom if I could talk to her outside. I still remember how scared I was. I said, “I’m having a really hard time with what happened to me in our house when I was growing up.”
Mom looked me in the eye and coldly said, “I am not going to rehash the past.”
I don’t remember the meal after that.
January, 2005, I was suicidal. I missed her so much. We had been so close. Like best friends, but with an unspoken requirement. If I still wanted to have a mom/best friend: I could never again bring up the fact that my stepfather sexually abused me starting at age 8. When I was 14, I told Mom he’d been molesting me, but I did not go into details, and, trust me, there was a lot that happened. It was more than just touching. She did not act on my outcry. I was ignored by my parents for a good year, until a switch flipped in me and I became The Perfect Daughter. I called my stepdad “Dad.” And I apologized to him for what I said.
That’s when was I acknowledged as a person again.
The message was clear:
All the years I played “Let’s Pretend Nothing Bad Ever Happened in My Childhood Home,” my mom was a phenomenal grandma. I had a mother, and we went on trips with my girls, and we hung out nearly every weekend, and I called her every day, and… and… and…
I was terrified of losing her.
I broke down when I was 38, but I’d been trying to find a salve for the agony since age 21 when my husband, daughters, and I were in a near-fatal car accident, and the awareness that had my husband and I died, my daughters could have been taken in by my parents—and my little girls could have been at my stepfather’s mercy as well—consumed every waking moment. I was anxiety. Yet, any time a therapist— and I went through several— broached the subject of me talking to my mother about “what happened in our house,” I quit therapy. Until I found Matt, I did not stick with getting well.
I had always feared losing my mom, but my first searing awareness of the possibility was when my mom’s best friend, a woman named Pat whose husband was a drunk who used to beat the shit out of her, met my brother and me at the schoolyard gates after school. She would not tell us where our mother was.
I was in first grade, and my brother was in third or fourth. Pat took us to her house, and in the days we stayed with her, I slept on their sofa bed, but I didn’t sleep. I sat on the end of the thin mattress, swung my legs off the edge, and stared at the white flashes of the TV screen in their dark den. Fifty-odd years later, the moment is crystallized in my soul: the ache inside me, the wondering where my mother was. Aside from that sofa bed, I remember three things: orange sherbet: the only food I could manage to make myself eat; being alone: my brother played with the woman’s son, Lee, who was a good friend of his; and fear: I knew from eavesdropping on Mom and Pat’s conversations that Pat’s husband would start hitting her the second he got home. I do not, however, remember seeing him hit her when we were there. I guess having company helped Pat out.
Years later, I learned that on that long-ago warm day that Pat met my brother and me at the gate behind the school, Mom had gotten a phone call from a hospital and rocketed from our Dallas-area suburb of Richardson to San Antonio—about four hours to the south—because my grandfather was thought to have had a heart attack, and he was with another woman when it happened. To keep my grandmother from finding out about the adultery, my mom went to take care of Grandpa and left my brother and me in the care of her best friend. The one whose husband was a wife-beater and a drunk. After she returned—it was probably a few days, but it felt much longer—I do not remember Mom ever speaking of leaving us, at least until the adult-me asked about the day Pat met us after school. By that time, my grandparents were divorced after years of my grandfather’s philandering. My grandmother talked all the time about Grandpa being “a cheating son-of-a-bitch,” and we all held great disdain for his new dingbat wife—one of the many he cheated on my grandmother with—so there was implicit permission to discuss the truth behind Mom’s covert mission to the Alamo City.
As close as my mom and I were—I should say, in spite of my perception of us as so close—I realize in hindsight that she didn’t really show me much about herself as a child or teen. I knew little-to-nothing about her life growing up. My husband and I are “open books” with our kids, but my mom had a game face for the world, and I think it’s because of what her own parents put her through as a child and young adult. Sexual abuse runs rampant through my mother’s family of origin. Sexual addiction such as my grandfather had, and my mother running interference to shield my grandmother—a volcanic woman at times, as well as a tortured person with her own addiction issues (prescription drugs and alcohol)—must have done things to my mom’s psyche that kept her from being the person my brother and I needed her to be.
And this, friends, is the strongest sense of forgiveness I have ever had for my mom. My mind is buzzing right now. Matt told me that someday I would be able to see my mother as a broken little girl. Today, May 13, 2023, it happened to the degree that I felt something.
Ye Olde Braine felt bent way out shape this past Wednesday when I received a text from my brother. He forwarded a text from our bio dad, who had been contacted by our aunt, my mom’s sister, to notify him that our mother, now 80, is in a care facility with Alzheimer’s. This is how children estranged from their parents receive news, I guess.
At the moment I read the text, I actually felt a sense of relief because I hoped that my mother is so lost that she does not realize she is alone. I know that sounds stupid, and I don’t mean it to sound callous, but I have worried so much over the last twenty years that we have been estranged, particularly after my stepfather died. Knowing her fear of being alone, I have wanted to be there for her, but knowing that would mean sacrificing my ability to live truthfully, I could not do it. How on earth could I ever go back to playing “Let’s Pretend”? How could I ever discount the blood, sweat, and tears my husband, daughters, and I shed as we worked to solidify our bonds in the Light of Truth? I previously coped with lying to myself about who my parents are in unhealthy ways, and pretending that nothing ever happened was not possible, so how in hell could I restart a relationship with this person—my mother—if she was not also willing to do the work that we had to do in order to work through excruciatingly painful issues? We—our little family—had reached the other side of it. We’d built a new normal, and it did not include pretending Pawpaw was someone he was not, or that Grandma didn’t practice deliberate indifference in the face of my outcry for help when I was 14, nor when I was 38. It’s not like we could or would be willing to revert to living a lie. I can’t do that now, either. I won’t do it now. If my mom still had her faculties about her, I don’t even think she’d like the “me” I am now since I am so different than I used to be.
Several years ago, when my mom sent a card telling me, “I’m a widow now. I’d like to start over. But I will not rehash the past,” I was enraged and responded with a seven-page letter detailing what it had been like to recover from what my stepdad did to me. I enclosed my first book, COURAGE IN PATIENCE, which is semi-autobiographical and told her to read it, write a book report on it, and then we could talk. But until she was willing to really KNOW the truth of what happened to me on her watch, there was nothing to talk about.
I never heard from her again.
When I was about 12, I made an off-hand comment about a movie star I was crushing on. I said I wanted to “jump his bones.” I thought it meant “to make out,” but my stepfather, enraged, told me, “You just said you want to F-CK him!” When I denied it—I was just parroting a phrase I’d heard my peers say— and my mother tried to discount the weight of the comment, my stepfather produced a rifle and held it on my mother and me.
As we drove around DeSoto and Lancaster, Texas that night, I wanted so badly to tell my mom what was going on—what HAD been going on at that point for around 4 or 5 years—but instead, I begged her to leave him. “Please! Please, Mom, I’ll—I’ll drop out of school! I’ll clean houses! Please! Please, let’s leave him!”
My mother replied, “I just don’t want to be alone.” We’d stop at pay phones (no cell phones yet, young ‘uns), and she’d call home only to have him hang up on her. Finally, Mom decided we were going home (if this scene sounds familiar to readers of COURAGE IN PATIENCE, it’s because this incident is in the book), and I was so scared. I tried to stay in our van when we pulled into our driveway, but Mom insisted I come inside. I remember approaching the front door on tiptoes, unsure if I was about to be shot in the face. Our house was a wreck. My stepfather had barricaded the entries, broken some stuff…he was nowhere in sight. I guess he’d passed out by then. The next day, nothing was said of the night before. “We’re just going to move on” should be my family of origin’s motto.
I’m adjusting to this knowledge: my mother has Alzheimer’s. We have not had a relationship for nearly 20 years. And now any hope I held that someday—SOMEDAY—she would have an awakening and be willing to join me in the Light of Truth—to live authentically—is gone. I learned through my youngest daughter’s correspondence with my niece that the Alzheimer’s diagnosis has been in place since 2021, and it’s progressing rapidly. It’s too late for us now. And her greatest fear—of being alone—has come true.
It did not have to be this way.
I won’t play “If only,” any more than to say that I grieve the loss of the possibility that she could have been surrounded by people who love her if she’d done the work to own her stuff. Instead, when I needed her to step up, my mother amputated me, my husband, and our daughters from her life because she was not willing to do the KNOWING. To acknowledge my worth as a person to the extent that she would KNOW what happened to me. I cannot imagine not wanting to KNOW what my children are going through or did go through. I cannot imagine not owning my shit if I messed up, but that’s part of who I am now that I have been through recovery with someone who reparented me and taught me to own my shit when I mess up.
I also cannot imagine a scenario where I would not have been able to embrace my mom if she had been willing to hear what he’d done to me and have it matter to her. But he was still alive. And even in his death, she was unwilling to know. Had she been willing only after he died, though, it would have felt like she was only able to step up at that point because he was not around to be made uncomfortable with the consequences of his actions. I’d still have taken it, though. Authenticity in the interest of unconditional love? Yes, please. Sign me up.
I once suggested in a letter to my mom that she get therapy; that she seek help to figure out why she was unwilling to know what I went through on her watch. I wish so much that she had pursued help with the kind of therapist I had: one who would not bullshit me or put up with any from me, either. I went through six years of intensive therapy and I learned to stop lying to myself, which was the hardest, scariest thing I have ever done and will ever do. I could not have survived—I would not be here at all—if I had not chosen to matter enough to my husband and daughters to stick around, and in order to do that, I had to stop playing “Let’s Pretend.” If the only way to have a mom was to continue playing “Let’s Pretend,” I had to let go of having a mom.
Tomorrow is Mother’s Day. I will ache for my mother, for the relationship that is beyond all possibility. I realize I still carried the tiniest hope that someday, somehow, my mom would be willing to know. My brother and I are not sure what to read, if anything, into our aunt reaching out to our bio dad with the news of our mother’s illness. We don’t know if it means the end is near, or if it’s the fact that Mother’s Day is tomorrow… or why this is the way we found out. It’s not like either of us expected to be consulted or informed as to her condition or what to do to pursue care for her. Not at all.
I am glad to know my niece, her mom (my brother’s ex) and my niece’s stepdad have a relationship with my mom. I am glad there are people in her life who can show her care. I take no pleasure in the fact that my mom has a horrible disease like Alzheimer’s. I grieved her loss when she refused “to rehash the past.” I grieved her loss when she told my husband to his face, “This is all Beth’s problem.” I grieved her loss when she was alone and I worried for her, and I grieve what she is going through now, alone, because it did not have to be this way.
One thing I learned is to be grateful for the people in my life because I am surrounded by the kind of people “you reach for when you fall.” I am so grateful for my husband, daughters, son-in-law, and the small number of chosen family and extended family we have.
Two nights ago, I was talking to my daughter Kristen about my mom’s diagnosis. I told her, “Listen. I want to make sure that we ALWAYS tell each other what needs to be said. There is nothing any of you could ever do to make me turn my back on you, and I know we talk authentically to each other like we are right now, but–I just–I just want to make sure that if I get Alzheimer’s like my mom, that I tell you everything that matters before I am not able to any more.”
She said, “Mom, if you get Alzheimer’s and you don’t remember me, I will always know that you love me.”
I’m glad my kids know my love. They don’t have to figure out whether crumbs from me are enough. And that makes the hard work, the blood, the sweat, the tears, all worth it.