I was visiting my mother in the hospital. A few days before she’d had her leg amputated. She’s not even 70. She’s not even diabetic. It’s a long, long story.
It was Sunday. We were alone. She was only allowed one visitor per day. That Sunday was my day. Her spirits were high for a woman having just lost a leg. I imagined they’d been keeping her as high as her spirits from all the pain meds the nurse came in and rattled off. She spit out the names and quantities of all the dope like it was a foreign language, asking my mother, “Those are right?”
“Yes,” my mother said, massaging her fresh stump.
“You want them all? Now?”
“Yes,” my mother repeated.
The drugs. The cyclical, eternally recurring surgeries. All major players in the absurd story of my mother’s lost leg.
She downed the cup of pills with a Diet Coke.
We sat and we talked a lot about her. How she was feeling. How the surgery and recovery was going. How this time she was going to try to stay away from the pills when she got home. She laughed in telling how her surgeon said the sparks flew when they sawed through all the metal in her leg. She seemed to be taking it, like all of the surgeries before, as some kind of dreamlike, fairytale adventure.
When we fell to silence, she asked to leave the room for a bit. I pushed her down the hall in her wheelchair. We meandered down hallways and corridors, stopping to look at a wall of pictures from the 1920’s and 30’s. Pictures of the local amusement park and the teachers from the local school in the 20’s. We commented on their dress and their expressions We noted the signs for popcorn and Vernors soda at the amusement park.
I pushed her back to her room, stopping at the chapel along the way. She wanted to look around, so we went in. She wondered aloud if the services were Catholic. The pills seemed to be hitting her real good. I said the sermons and services were probably Catholic. She picked a little white Bible off a chair. She said it was a Gideon’s Bible and from somewhere she read, “Not for sale.” She said she wanted one. I said if she asked, I was sure they had some around to give away.
I wheeled her back to her room where it was time to decide on Monday’s meals. She studied the menu like it was an important legal document. She told me all about the hospital’s sizable turkey wraps and omelets and how she always got an apple or an orange. She told me how dessert for breakfast was even an option. She chose her evening’s entrée with the import of deciding to fight for custody of a child or not.
I sat there in silence as she wrote down what she wanted, imagining the menu with its turkey wraps and meatloaf was a metaphor for so much of what had gone wrong. The world could be burning all around her and she’d be blissfully obsessed with the most trivial shit. That’s the way it’s always seemed. And the years and years of pills sure didn’t make the lack of focus and attention on the significant stuff any better.
She finished with the menu to ask me a bit about me. And she asked about my father. I told her it wasn’t going so well. They’d divorced almost 50 years ago. She’d split and left me with him and from there hadn’t been involved in my upbringing much.
I explained the reasons for the rift between me and my father. She seemed interested, even sympathetic. I think she was nice and high on the meds by then too. She never talked about her and my father’s relationship much. And I never asked. But she was attentive to this. Maybe she needed validation from me that he was an asshole, making her decision to flee a half-century ago the right one.
I told her much of our problem is my father doesn’t seem to understand relationships very well. And doesn’t even care to. I said he figures he can either bully or whine his way to getting what he wants. That compromise and consideration are burdens to either be smashed or talked around rather than addressed. I said that’s probably why, in the 50 years since their divorce, he’d only had a relatively brief relationship with one other woman.
My mother knew of her. She said her name.
I said, “Yeah. Barbara. And she was probably a desperate woman, all by herself with those 5 kids.”
“Your father treated her awful,” my mother said. “Awful. I got to know her a little bit years later.”
I waited for more.
“He made her hide from me when I’d come get you or drop you off.”
I didn’t know what to say. But I knew my mother was meek. My father forcing Barbara to hide would have had nothing to do with any concern over a physical conflict or emotional outburst.
“Imagine it,” my mother said. “Being with a man who forces you to hide when his ex-wife has to stop by. A grown woman with her own children treated like a child herself. Told to hide behind the door or in a closet. Humiliating.”
But I knew it would have been what he wanted. And, like a compliant child, Barbara probably gave it to him. Out of intimidation? Out of some false hope that obedience would lead to a commitment to her and her 5 kids?
Again, I didn’t know what to say. There was a part of me that thirsted for more. More validation that he may have been what I’ve always thought him to be – a petty tyrant of a man. A self-obsessed bully. And when he couldn’t be a bully anymore, he cleverly metamorphized into a victim and a martyr instead of the man he should have been from the start.
I’ve always thirsted for validation but I also understand it’s not fair to define a person wholly or even mostly by their past transgressions. When we’re young, especially, we do dumb, thoughtless, sometimes hurtful things, sometimes with intent. Sometimes not. And the worst in us doesn’t necessarily define the whole of us. Yet, sometimes the worst does justifiably define us. Like Dahmer. He might have had some good qualities, but he also killed and cooked and ate people. Or my mother, who raised my half-sister and lots of animals, but who’s never escaped the stigma of abandoning her infant son – made even worse by knowingly throwing him to the wolf of a known tyrant.
So yeah, it’s hard to judge. It’s hard to know where people are coming from. It’s hard to take things at face value. Maybe Barbara was just a jilted lover spilling the beans, like jilted lovers tend to do. And when there’s strong emotions mixed in the formula, it’s hard to know what’s true and what’s only half-true.
Still, I wanted to know more. But it didn’t want to either. It feels sorta perverse creeping around for the skeletons in someone’s closet, especially someone you know so goddamned intimately. Someone you’ve so desperately wanted, at times, to not be what much of the evidence suggests they are. Someone you’re expected to have sympathy and empathy for. Someone you’re expected to show kindness to.
“Terrible, terrible things he did to her,” my mother added. “Like stringing her along for those years. Letting that poor woman think she and her kids might get something out of him. But he never intended to give them anything.”
“Yeah,” I said.
My father had admitted as much to me before. He admitted it as a regret, expressed with little emotion – with little empathy toward how it might have affected Barbara and her children. But, I’ve got regrets too. Many I’m truly regretful about. But I don’t like dredging them up. I don’t like airing that dirty laundry. I don’t like humiliating myself with reminders of the ways I’ve transgressed. Yet, I hope I’m not a heinous person for keeping them buried.
“Terrible things,” my mother said. “Other terrible things he did too.”
She was having trouble keeping her eyes open. She apologized for being so tired. I said it was probably time to go. I said she probably needed the rest.
I put on my coat, leaving behind the opportunity to know more. It might have been the perfect opportunity to extract more validation. The perfect opportunity to exploit my mother’s vulnerabilities in her dope haze. But I chickened out. I know about confirmation bias. I know about grudges and the reasons and desires for running another person down. I know it applies to me needing validation as justification for villainizing my father. And there was good enough reason for my mother to play along. But somewhere deep down I’m not sure I want to know. Maybe I don’t have the courage to know about any more of the terrible, terrible things done to Barbara. So, instead, I put on my coat and left down the same halls and corridors we’d just wandered through. I exited the sliding doors for the parking lot, leaving my mother to her afternoon nap and the next morning’s French toast.