|Phil, Heather, Blake|
A single mother for years, people often asked, "How ever did you do it?” There was an assumption I did do it.
The kids are grown and gone and have kids themselves. When I sold my house to down-size in 2012, I spent a lot of time going through old files and came across a folder of Heather’s school work. She was six when I left her dad, and she's suffered the most. 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 is when she broke her knee. She was out riding her bike a few blocks from home when the neighborhood bully plowed right into her, dropping her straight down on her knee. Somehow she managed to get the bike and herself home and into my bed. She instructed her little brothers to pack her knee with ice and waited until I got home.
I was at a writers conference an hour away. No cell phones then. When I 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.
Yet I couldn’t be everywhere—physically, emotionally. This was my reality. And hers.
She’s referring to the inundation of paper work I constantly received 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 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?“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...”
But reading Heather’s letter years later, away from the pressing needs of yesterday, I realize 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'd added. She tried so hard not to burden me. This really bothers me.
But if this first letter bothered me, it was the one dated October 9, 1989, that really upsets 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. But the weekend reports with Dad triggered rage, and 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. For instance, in the early days they had to sleep in urine-soaked sleeping bags. They came home reeking. Their necks were dirty. Their hair uncombed. In later years my habit was to simply listen, to remain disengaged from their lives outside my sphere. Today I realize that Heather interpreted my passivity as “not caring.” I was remiss and this bothers me.
So to answer everyone’s question, “How did you ever do it?” I here and now answer, "I didn’t. I failed."
But here’s the twist. Heather and her brothers seem to have forgiven my faults and negligence. And if ever I doubted it, a letter from Phil is the pile alongside Heather's. Apparently some huge crisis occurred in March 1999. I have no memory, there were so many. This 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, they watched me lurch from one upheaval to the next while I struggled with poverty, poor health, and all the attendant worries that come with any kind of parenting. My many faults speak for themselves. But if my children can forgive me?
I didn’t single parent well to be sure, but it seems I did well enough.