January 23, 2012

Old Letters and New Revelations

People ask all the time, “How ever did you do it?” when referring to my being a single parent of three kids, ages 1, 3, and 6 for seventeen years. There's an assumption I did do it. 

The kids are grown and gone and two of them have kids themselves. Today it's January 2012 and I'm selling my house—and, consequently, going through old files. I just now came across a folder of Heather’s work. She was six when I left her dad, and she's suffered the most—her age of course, but the deeper impact undoubtedly was the responsibility I'd placed on her. Worse, because she gave me no trouble I tended to leave her to herself; there were so many other things to do. 

One of my most painful memories of her childhood was of her breaking her knee. I was gone. She was out riding her bike and was a few blocks from home when a neighbor kid, just to be mean, plowed right into her, dropping her straight down on her knee. Knee broken, she somehow managed to get the bike and herself home, hopping all the way, and get herself into my bed. She instructed her little brothers to pack it with ice and waited. And waited.

I was at a writers conference an hour and a half away. No cell phones then. When I finally returned, she’d been in pretty brutal pain for hours, watching her knee swell despite the ice and aspirin. I bundled her into the car and over to emergency, where they splinted her leg and suggested a surgeon. Amidst my sea of guilt, I was thunderstruck at how stoic and smart she’d been. 

So, no, I didn’t do it.  I couldn’t be everywhere—physically, emotionally.

In this file of Heather's today I found a pile of letters she'd been asked to write. “Are you wondering why I am writing you a letter? It’s because Mrs. Morris is making us. We have to do this every week on Friday and it has to be returned, signed by you. If we bring it back on Monday we get 25 points. For every day it’s late, we lose 3 points. I know you hate reading and signing letters...”

She’s referring to the inundation of paper work I was constantly receiving from the schools for all three of my children; everything had to be reviewed and signed and returned and, yes, I hated it. The clutter of it all in my head—while struggling to get the bills paid and food on the table and attend all the other things needing attention—was too much. I didn’t mind reading the material; it was the borage of signing and keeping track and reporting to the teachers ad nausea that I minded. Why all the falderal? When I was a kid, we did our homework and that was that. None of this running back and forth between home and school. As a kid, it would have driven me nuts. As a mother? It was all so meaningless and just one more thing to do.

But reading Heather’s letter today, away from the pressing needs of yesterday, I realize that my irritation had been hard on her. Not only did she have the responsibility of orchestrating the paperwork—her grade depended on it—she had my resistance. Stoically, she'd soldiered on. I'm bothered by this.

A second realization. “...it’s not my fault,” she wrote. She tried so hard not to burden me. A kid shouldn't be asked to do this. Parents should be able to deal with it. Plain and simple. I couldn’t. 

But if this first letter bothered me, it was the one dated October 9, 1989, that has really upset me. In the middle of her narrative, Heather wrote: “Now, I’m supposed to tell you what I’m doing this weekend. I’m going to Dad’s. I don’t think you care what we do.” Right in the solar plexus. Because I did care. The reports on weekends with Dad, though, usually triggered rage, disgust. My children’s lack of care was so profound and I so helpless that early on I’d begun to steel myself and eventually trained myself to remain passive when hearing about it. In later years? when they could fend for themselves? For instance, refuse to sleep in urine soaked sleeping bags? By then it was a habit to simply listen, to remain disengaged from their lives outside my sphere. Today I realize that Heather interpreted my passivity as “not caring.” I am remiss in the obvious and hidden as well.

Over the years I've often looked back to see if I could have been a better mother, better able to handle the crises, the mundane, the day-to-day. Every time I end up concluding that, no, I couldn't. I'd given it my best. Even though I knew at the time it wasn't enough.

So to answer everyone’s question, “How did you ever do it?” I am here and now answering anyone asking that I didn’t, obviously, and that my children suffered for my lack. 

But here’s the twist. Heather and her brothers seem to have forgiven my faults and negligence. And if I ever doubted it, one of Phil’s letters also came to light today, alongside Heather's. Apparently some really big crisis occurred in March 1999. I have no memory of it, there were so many. This one must have been a doozy, though. Phil was 21. He writes:
I had no idea this was going on, you say this started on the 30th? I have already prayed for you, and prayed again. Mum, I don't want you to scare me like that again.  You have been so strong for all of us our whole lives. I am not telling you to be strong now, because I can understand, no, I can’t, but I simply ask that you allow us to be strong for you now. Tears run down my face as I hear your distress, think about the beautiful things. Any year now you may be holding a grandchild in your arms. You can teach them to love themselves as you have taught me. Sending my children to grandma’s house is something I have dreamed of my whole life, to let them experience the love and encouragement I was so fortunate to have….Please always remember that I love you and that I, we, will be strong for you…
Their whole lives saw us lurching from one upheaval to the next while I struggled with poverty, poor health, and all the attendant worries that come with parenting. My faults speak for themselves—not keeping my distress to myself is just one. But if my children can forgive me? I didn’t single parent well to be sure, but it seems I did it well enough.

So here's my final answer to anyone asking "How ever did you do it?" My answer is simply this, "I didn't. But sometimes forgiveness intervenes."

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