I’ve been staring at the computer screen for a long time. Two hours, in fact, which surprises me because I am not a do-nothinger. I waste time, do things that don’t matter, lose myself in useless pursuits, but I never do nothing.
Today, though, I’m staring. Thinking.
I want to write about Jacob and Abbie. I want to tell you about them, and how I love them, and how they left. And why they left, perhaps, though how I might tell you something that I don’t know myself is a mystery.
Have you heard of the Mariana Trench? It’s in the Pacific Ocean, near Japan, and at its deepest point, it is deeper than Mt. Everest is tall.
The pain I feel from Jacob and Abbie’s absence would, if it was a tangible thing, overflow the Mariana Trench. All that pain puts pressure on my heart, stops my words, makes me tremble, leaves me feeling feverish. When the pain shows up at the front of my mind, I’m overwhelmed with exhaustion. Like now.
If I could just go to sleep, the pain would leave me alone for awhile.
I’m compelled toward distraction. What’s new in my Google reader? Is there anything good on TV? How about I go work on that essay I started yesterday? Where should I send that? I’ll just pull out my copy of Writer’s Market and…
And so it goes. Despite my best intentions to look the pain in the face, to wrestle it to the ground with words so I can make sense of it and learn to live with it, I turn away.
I fear I may drown.
More than a dozen years ago, when I had gone back to college and subsequently (and not at all coincidentally) gotten separated from Jacob and Abbie’s dad, I had a classmate who was a non-custodial mother of a little girl. “It’s better this way,” she said.
Reeling from the transition to co-parenting and sharing my children with a man who lived in a different house, I was aghast at my classmate’s laissez faire attitude. I would never let that happen I swore to myself. My God, what kind of a mother allows her child to live somewhere else, full-time? There is no way she loves her daughter as much as I love my kids. No way in hell. I would die before I accepted something like that.
I held them here too long, hostages to my pain over all we had lost. I forced them to hate me because they needed that much power to launch themselves out of my house. They live a mile away in their dad’s apartment.
They live on the moon.
They were here on Saturday, these two who no longer live here and who have captivated me for so long. They are extraordinary, with broad minds and deep love. They are magic.
Their visits are rare and usually brief. They told me they were going to spend the night and I said, “Cool.” Inside I screamed my joy and pain. We watched movies; Jacob let me pet his head.
Often, we’re uneasy around each other. They challenge me; I respond as if I am still their mother in the old way. Abbie and Jacob make knowing faces at each other, faces they think I can’t see. “Nothing has changed,” those faces say. “She doesn’t care what we think. She doesn’t care about us,” and I am wracked with doubt. Is that true? Do I want them to go away? Do I like it better like this?
Because life is easier this way. The pain tries to drown me and the pressure is overwhelming but the war is over. The angry faces are easier to bear than the wounded faces were. Keeping Carter alive stole me from them and they hate me for that. They covered their wounds with a scrim of anger and it protects them. It protects me, too.
Mom, why are you always making excuses for Carter?
My dad says…
My aunt says…
You’re raising him wrong, mom.
Mom, you have to discipline him.
That’s not the whole picture, of course. How convenient and simple would it be to say, Carter’s illness was too much for them and they left.
Convenient, simple, and it lets me off the hook entirely. It absolves other people, too, but their absolution is not my burden. An explanation that puts all the blame squarely on a fluke of biology, mistakes of brain wiring and neurotransmission, would leave the pain intact but wipe away my guilt and shame.
I don’t like this hook but I can’t yet climb down. Redemption is a long way off.
I told Jacob that I slept with his baby blanket for several months after he moved out. “Why?” he asked.
Every time she’s here Abbie looks at the half-dozen pictures of her that hang around my computer monitor and asks, “Why?”
They don’t understand that I am devastated by their absence. They don’t feel the love that causes my pain, but they also don’t feel any guilt for having caused it. Which is worse? To be responsible, or to be unloved? They are neither, but I can’t find the place to begin untangling the knot.
I once read an article about plane crashes, about how there is never a single cause. There has to be a combination of factors to breach the many fail-safe mechanisms built into the system. That’s how a family comes apart. The thing that appears to be the cause is only the catalyst that ruptures old wounds that seemed to be healed. The wounds are sink holes and everyone goes down, dragging with them everything they can reach.
At the bottom of the sink hole, everyone is shattered and screaming, “You did this! You broke us! You you you you you!”
And no one is at fault.
And everyone is at fault.
Jacob and Abbie had been living with their dad for two months when I spoke to someone from Child Protective Services. I wasn’t surprised. There is dog poop and broken glass in every room of the house, the anonymous caller said. The social worker chuckled and closed the case. “If you know who called, I wouldn’t let that person in your house anymore,” she said.
I don’t. Jacob and Abbie are furious that I no longer allow their dad into my home. I follow the cardinal rule of divorce: never speak ill of the other parent. I hope that someday they will respect me for that.
The hope of respect later is thin compensation for what I’m missing now. My sister took my daughter to buy new clothes for school, takes my son for his haircuts.
I wanted to feel vindicated after the social worker left. I wanted to revel in my rightness. I ate the apple and I didn’t die! Victory is mine!
My prize was a new understanding of just how deeply broken we are.
Legally they are mine. I could force. Insist. Demand. But I am their mother, not a hostage taker. I want them here. I want to greet them at the end of the school day and listen to them chatter about their lives. I want to kiss them goodnight and remind them to brush their teeth. I want to tell Abbie to stop wearing low-cut shirts and make sure Jacob does his homework. The only thing I want more is for them to be happy. Relationships are never healed by force, so they live with their dad.
It’s better this way.