I miss you.
It has been exactly a year since we last communicated. I recognize our estrangement remains fully my choice, that I have only to pick up the phone and you or dad would without doubt answer. I think about that option every day.
I miss you—deeply—every day.
And, every day, I remember: sometimes we face decisions where all the options are bad. All that anyone can do then is choose the least shitty of the shitty outcomes.
And so I choose to orphan myself.
For me, losing you remains the least-bad option available.
* * *
I remember clearly that it was Valentine’s Day, the last day I replied to any message from you. One of the texts you sent, amid that final flurry of texts, simply said “Happy Valentine’s Day! I love you!” And I’m sure you thought that was innocuous. I’m sure you thought that, THAT, was a message I couldn’t possibly take issue with.
And so I would give you what you wanted.
But this is not how love works. This is not how anything works.
Every text message and email you sent me during that final 24-hour period pivoted on the word “love.” Every deployment of the word you could think of, each message seemingly removed from the context of all the others—as if you were running field tests to see which use of “love” was the most effective strategy for manipulating the recipient. Every strategy except the one that actually would have worked: honesty.
By which I don’t mean that I think you were dishonest in saying you love me. (I know you love me, and I hope you know I love you too. More than that, I believe we genuinely like each other.) But you were not being honest—not with me, and not with yourself—about what you wanted from me that day. Which was not simply (and let us please be honest about this now, a full year later) a phone call in which I reassured you about my life.
You wanted a phone call in which I performed brokenness for you.
You wanted me to prove that yes, I was broken enough to justify that unexplained deep unhappiness you were feeling [“see! a mother always knows!”] but no, not so broken that you needed to hold onto that deep and apparently-inexplicable [gimme a sec, I’ll explain it for you] unhappiness. Because, moment of honesty again? When I actually was broken, several years ago—when I was suicidal, and you were the first and only person I told—your response was not to demonstrate worry. Your response was to perform being pissed off.
To sic my scary dad on me. To uninvite me from the family Christmas. To buy me another one of those damn “cover up the fat daughter!” coats I’d begged you not to buy and then drive away. To repeatedly tell me how ashamed I made you feel in front of your friends.
So, you see, whenever you start bombarding me with “you are very loved and therefore you must call me immediately” messages, I know in my bones that whatever is troubling you? Ain’t got shit to do with me.
(Though, to be fair, text messages are hella preferable to earlier years when you used to call the cops on me, if I didn’t return your phone calls within a time frame to your liking. Do you have any idea how upsetting it was the night a policeman showed up on my doorstep, only to say “uh…call your mother ” and walk away? [Hint: the answer starts with “very.”])
After a lifetime of being groomed to respond with fear to certain commands, though, a person will respond with fear even when you change up the delivery method. No matter how many different ways you find to announce, “LOVE IS WHY YOU SHOULD OBEY ME,” I can recognize an annoyed policeman under a porch light when I see one.
You know what makes me saddest for both of us?
If you had even once admitted why you really wanted to hear my voice, I’d have called you in a red-hot second.
* * *
Let’s talk for a moment about the unnamed elephant in the room, shall we?
Let’s talk about my father.
Let’s talk about all the ways you have been talking to me about him since I was 14. Do you realize we’ve been having the same conversation now for over 30 years? (A discussion that you should properly have had with a close friend and not your school-age daughter, though perhaps I have always functioned as a bit of an oubliette for you: telling only me is as good as telling no one. Maybe even better.)
This conversation, to remind you, is the one that starts with you telling me how unhappy you are in your marriage, how trapped and controlled you feel—then somewhere in the middle you cry and I try to get you to think about leaving him—and it always wraps up with you saying something to the effect of how you never will, because what good would that do now. “My life is already over” were the words you used the last time we had this conversation, just a few years ago. And I’d’ve felt really sad for you at that moment, except that this was the same reason you gave me back when I was in high school and you were younger than I am now.
It isn’t that I don’t still find the sentiment sad. It’s that stalled repetition has finally worn out the engine that powers my empathy.
Pick anytime in the last three-plus decades, and you could’ve found me twisted and pretzeled into the most extreme desire to help you leave. To support you anyway I was able. There was a time, not so long ago even, that merely thinking a hypothetical “what if she actually left him?” was enough to drop me to my knees sobbing in imagined gratitude. But I have come to the end of myself, on this subject. And I have finally recognized that no matter how much my childhood self believes it is My Job to save you, you don’t want to be saved. You just don’t want me to leave you alone with him.
I have also realized that when you start rapid-firing messages that all say you have been suddenly seized with conviction that I am in terrible distress and so I must call home right away(!) to reassure you, what you really mean is that you are in terrible distress. And who wouldn’t rather see herself filled with maternal concern (“I am such an empathetic mother”) than admit to marital breakdown (“I am such an unhappy wife”).
“I love you” in this context means “save me from knowing myself.”
I get the sentiment, and the desperation behind it. I really do.
But my engine for playing this charade on command has finally worn out, too.
* * *
I wonder if you realize that I never intended for last Valentine’s Day to be the last time we spoke? This estrangement was never something I planned. When I finally got my head calm and organized enough to respond, I didn’t say “Begone with you!” or anything of the sort.
No. I said I felt manipulated. I said it felt unfair to turn “you haven’t yet responded to a casual email I sent you last night” into “you do not understand the meanings and obligations of love.”
I did not say (because I did not yet have the right words), but I meant: it is unfair to use “I love you” as a lever to control someone.
It is unfair, and it is unloving.
Another thing I didn’t say then, but have realized since: you also use “I hate you” as a lever to control me. Specifically, you tell me you hate me when my father is unwilling to tell me directly that he is angry at me. He takes his displeasure out on you, until you take your discomfort out on me.
That too is unfair. On all sides.
* * *
I have gotten so much better, over these months of distance. I have recovered parts of my brain, all the parts of myself, long lost in the fog of trauma and PTSD. Is that something you want to know?
Is it better or worse, to know that your child—your child whom I do believe you truly love—can only learn to love herself after she estranges from you completely?
I have no idea the answer to that. I don’t even know how to feel about you now, or about my father. I go into a jumble of conflicting strains: Compassion, because I do understand (perhaps better than you understand yourselves) the kinds of early pressures and childhood pains you each endured and how much they hurt and warped you. Anger, at the childhood pressures and pains I endured from the two of you and which you both deny and refuse responsibility for, to this day. And horror, at the ongoing dynamics of control and abuse that are unmistakable to my experience-trained eye when I am with you both.
(Baffled what I mean by that last one? It was not coincidence, shall we say, that during your final visit to my town, we all drank heavily every night you were here.)
* * *
So, here we now are. Valentine’s Day.
And I don’t know how to end this letter.
I don’t know how to make you know that I still love you, or that I know you still love me. Under all the words, under all the levers of the I love you’s and the I hate you’s, there is yet an abiding love that remains unspoken.
Perhaps if I put it like this: Please know, mom, there is no one on this earth—NO ONE—I’d ever chose before you…
All my love,