How It Feels To Lose Both Parents While They Are Still Alive
“Every once in a while, there’s a day with an absolute right and an absolute wrong, but those days almost always include body counts. Other than that, there aren’t very many un-nuanced moments…” — President Bartlett, The West Wing
For the first time in 32 years, my birthday came and passed without a word from my parents. The same happened on Christmas, Thanksgiving, Father’s Day and Mother’s Day. Three people — my father, my mother and myself — who were once so fundamentally present in one another’s lives, made the willful or passive decision to watch the agonal breaths of our relationship and turn our faces from it, either too cowardly to intervene or relieved, perhaps, at the eventuality of its passage.
What no one tells you about estrangement is that it’s often impossible to determine fault and even more difficult to assess “right” and “wrong.”
How do you know if it is proper to extricate yourself from the people who gave you life? Are you an ungrateful, spoiled brat, or are your parents toxic to your well-being? Have I tried hard enough? Have they?
Whatever the case, your decision will come into question every day of your life. Though you can distance yourself from your parents, you cannot separate yourself from their absence; it takes up residence in one part of your brain, occasionally popping out for a smoke to remind you that estrangement is now a character in your life’s story.
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As an adult, I found footage from an old VHS family video taken when I was a child. Because I was an obnoxious and intelligent little imp, I commandeered the clunky 80s camera and pointed it at my parents, hoping that they might find my playful excitement charming as I made my directorial debut. But as I watched the playback, my parents’ countenances showed more than simple annoyance with a rowdy child. What I witnessed was something more along the lines of disgust.
Within that fleeting and seemingly inconsequential exchange I found visual proof of the guttural feeling that I hadn’t ever been able to articulate to counselors and friends. I saw, in grainy, shaky footage, the gentle terror of my childhood… a little person clamoring for love who only ever found disdain.
Not every day was bad, but I cannot shake the millions of terrible moments that pricked me, like some sort of emotional torture method, again and again and again. My mother might say something like “Why don’t I just get you a spoon and some lard?” when I would eat a snack, because I was a chubby child, and she wanted to ensure I didn’t forget it.
When I told my mom and dad I wanted to be a writer, they chuckled, exchanging mocking glances.
They would ignore my existence for days if I played poorly in a basketball game. On more than one occasion, they berated me mercilessly in front of my peers, humiliating me and causing distance between me and my friends, who didn’t know how to address it. I might come in one evening and be thrown up against a wall for not making my bed before leaving the house, cowering to a fierce rage that, as an adult, I cannot imagine directing at a teenager for such a small trespass. My father was occasionally physically abusive, it’s true, but in reality it was the constant degradation that battered my self-esteem into a bad-land that I would traverse all by myself.
It goes deeper than that, however. My parents’ place in this world is wholly incongruous to my own and I choose to believe that’s why they never liked me much.
My folks are fundamental evangelists who live in a cow-inhabited West Texas town. Unfortunately for them, they birthed two-and-a-half gay children.
More than that, I came out of the womb with my fists up, ready to bust balls and break out of the conventions that I saw all around me. That fighting spirit is not exactly prized in a conservative religion that doesn’t even let women speak, never mind dissent or lead. I gave conservative Christianity my very best shot, honestly I did, but you can’t choose the animal part of you, the one that bucks in your tummy and sends signals to your brain about freedom, love, expression, grace, sexuality and human purpose.
It’s within this framework that my father, mother and I tried to forge a strained relationship as best we could. But it all changed after I met my husband.
Because of the comically sizable relationship baggage I lugged around in my psyche, I tested every boundary I could find when I fell in love with my husband at 18. Anger, infidelity or abandonment — I tried them all. After years of experiencing love as a painful, fleeting thing, his constancy felt unsettling. Despite my errs, he wouldn’t budge. He would cry and tell me how hurftul I was being, or might leave me alone until I’d worn myself out pushing him away. Through years of my desperate attempts to validate that I was, in fact, not worth loving, he finally demonstrated to me what unconditional, healthy love felt like.
And what does it feel like?
Healthy love takes a person who is thrashing and coos her into calm.
It takes gaps in confidence or relationship knowledge and putties them until they are water-tight, able to withstand any pressure or stress. Healthy love brings joy …not happiness, which ebbs and flows given circumstances, but unfiltered joy. It acts as a metaphorical hand on the small of your back in good times and bad. “I’m here,” love says.
It contrasted the love that I’d known from my parents. Unhealthy love that kept me guessing, insecure, weighed down and scared. How could I ever go back to that?
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It’s funny, actually, how we fell out of touch finally. The incident wasn’t nuclear in terms of destruction. I had simply done something that they found offensive. (It wasn’t.) And they didn’t yell or threaten. They did, however, passively aggressively tell one of my siblings that they were angry with me, which would make approximately the seven-hundred-billionth time that I was on the receiving end of their pissy-ness.
Normally, It would consume me with anxiety until I made it right.
But I did something on that day that I had never, ever done. Instead of pleading for their understanding and acquiescing to their fits, I didn’t contact them at all.
I was bone weary. The thought of trying to smooth things over yet again with people who didn’t seem to like me one bit felt exhausting, even to consider.
A series of terse e-mails followed, and when my father never responded to my request to see a secular counselor (the fundamentalist ones believe agnostics like myself to be the root cause of all strife, familial and otherwise, up to and including ISIS, premarital sex, President Obama, etc.) it was the beginning of the end.
Now it’s been about two years and our current contact is zero. They don’t talk to my sister either, but maybe that’s because they know we back each other’s play.
I heard through the grapevine they’ve actually adopted a high school girl. Maybe they’re trying again. To make someone they’re proud of.
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I overhear conversations between my husband and his parents where they talk about what kind of things to look for in a general contractor or how to invest wisely. I listen, quite creepily probably, as mothers and daughters who are at brunch talk about which outfit to wear for a wedding. I’ve heard adult women refer to themselves as “daddy’s little girl” no matter how old they get. I see Facebook photos of family holidays and grandparents taking everyone out for ice cream.
A million times, I’ve had the urge to call parents for moments like these. Not my parents, necessarily. But some parents. Two people who care about my new job or the house we just bought, the pink dye I’ve put in my hair or the health scares of my beloved dogs. It’s silly, but I’ll imagine conversations that I would have if someone out there wanted to know about my life. “I’ve actually been doing really well at work,” I’d say proudly. They would reply “I just can’t tell you how proud we are of you. Your’e gonna be taking us out for dinner instead of the other way around!”
I cry for these imaginary people, who won’t ever exist.
And then I tell myself to get my shit together.
Whether they like it or not, my parents gave me the genes and the experiences that made me who I am. They might have wanted a genteel creature who caved to their bullying and to their ideals of a successful woman. But it doesn’t matter what they wanted. It matters what they got.
And they created a bad-ass bitch who came out swinging. I don’t need any fucking “parent” to give me support, because I’m strong enough to give it to myself. I have no use for their money, their advice, their ideas or their influence, because I can be a better parent to myself than they ever have been or could be. I’ve formed the relationships with my husband and with my friends that prop me up while I figure this thing out. They might not want me, but plenty of people do.
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Someday, when I’m in a meeting or at the supermarket shopping for dinner, the call will come. The person on the other end of the telephone will tell me that my mother and father are dead, or at least very close, and that’s when I’ll know. The moment when one path is closed to me, and estrangement transforms into loss, that is when I can be certain if I made the right decision to let the relationship (and the attendant complications) go gentle into that good night. Only when there’s a body count will there be an absolute right or an absolute wrong.
Until then, they’re living there and I’m living here, not a word for miles and no love lost. I’m simply a daughter who has lost both her parents while they are still alive.