I have a new confidante. A lady who wouldn’t seem elderly but for the stroke she suffered six years ago which makes her as feeble as a newborn but with wisdom twinkling behind the half relaxed eyelids, always surprising when it comes out in her slurred voice. We talk about the frailty of the human body and she criticizes the left side of her body as if it were a disobedient child.
‘Naughty leg, I hate it when it sticks out straight like that.’ And she looks at me her eyes, mischievous.
She finds amusement in the foibles of our days together as I slam her limp foot on the floor to get the circulation going.
‘Slam harder. Let’s wake up the ghosts in the basement,’ she says.
Half of her mouth is smiling and the other half is slack. Sometimes I read to her from her bookcase, there’s plenty to choose from because she’s of the age where her library is crammed with classics. We choose ‘The Tale of Two Cities’, a story of love and tragedy, a story about the human condition. When I read the last words we sigh because there is no other way the story could have gone.
Much of the time, we talk. There’s a lot of conversation that bubbles up in our intimate moments and when she says wistfully,
‘It’s frustrating to be treated as a child. Did you ever fall sick?’ I tell her a secret, I forget is a secret. Because it was so long ago that its shameful expiration date has passed.
‘I was once in hospital because my mother and I had a car accident, rather dramatically on Christmas Eve.’ I say, ‘I didn’t realise until years later how awful she must have felt, because I was too busy blaming her for the scars which crisscrossed my face and made my life as a teenager a living hell.’
My new confidante might be of a different generation, but she’s rather fond of bad language. My stories, peppered with words like ‘hell’ liven up her day.
‘And did you ever have bad conscience for it as an adult?’ she asks.
‘No,’ I reply. It has never occurred to me that I should but her question makes me stop and think. So I say ‘Because I don’t remember talking about the emotional impact of growing up disfigured. My mother’s only mention of the scars was how well they were improving and how I mustn’t forget to put cream on them because otherwise it would be my fault they didn’t heal.’
And as this never spoken before thought tumbles out of my mouth, it strikes me as curious that even in our family, repressed as it was, such a large life impacting event should remain undiscussed. Curious that I was never counseled, encouraged to explore my grief, or understand the repulsion of my classmates when I returned after 6 months with a recreated plasticky type skin, nor even allowed to express my anger about what was, at least legally, my mother’s fault. Outside and inside the family, it was as if it never happened. In the past.
Yet it’s only a fleeting memory and moments later it passes from my mind and I’ve chalked it up to my parenting ‘do’s and ‘don’t’s list, thinking that this one must come near the top; ‘allow your child to express their anger and grief, even if, especially if it’s at you.’ And then I draw a line under it.
Because over the years I’ve questioned various aspects of my upbringing until I think truly, there must be nothing left to scrape out of that particular barrel. And yet the more you mine your emotional past, the more diamonds appear, sometimes all the more precious for having been been hidden for so long. But it’s a treasure I don’t care to keep, baggage I have no space for.
I don’t blame my mother for the car accident any more, these things just happen. I don’t even blame her for preferring not to discuss it, the weight of guilt and shame must have been intolerable. That she should, on a daily basis, be reminded of her error of judgement just by looking at her only daughter’s disfigured face. I feel for her. But nor do I blame myself for my feelings at the time, so misunderstood by myself and so overwhelming. Fault. Blame. Tragedy. Otherwise known as the human condition.
We created the tapestry of our relationship together my mother and I. By stitches of silent resentment and denial. Tissue upon tissue of guilt, need and anger. But the anger has long gone, dissolved with the passage of time. ‘Should’ has no place in the past and there is no use in wishing it were any different. I can’t be angry at a woman who was so ashamed and guilty about an accident that she was unable to help her child. Nor can I be angry at a child locked in her own prison of isolation that she lashed out at the only person close. Twenty years later those two people are now strangers and our story is one of the human condition, of love and tragedy. It was inevitable. And so I simply sigh, close the book and move on.