“I know and can sense you’re in a lot of pain, but that’s all I can really say about your life. I just don’t want it to get to the point where the thread between us is so thin that we have nothing at all to say to one another–except, I guess, ‘Hello’ and ‘How’s the weather?'”
It’s been almost a month since last I accepted a call from my mother. And I listen with the panic of sadness coming over me that goes hand in hand with the imminence of tears. Tears I have long tried to suppress for the sake of functionality. On the one hand, I feel remorse for how easily I’ve allowed our relationship to atrophy ever since I left at eighteen, and on the other, I know that I’ve tried. I’ve tried to keep a closeness that could never be sustained on the listening skills of someone as preoccupied as she. Those preoccupations consist of everything from the drudgery of sifting through mail to the high-octane tasks of her job as a nurse in the emergency unit at the hospital in my small hometown. She says she cares–they all do–insists she pays attention to what I do. But nothing in her actions indicates this to me on any deep level.
In my silence, augmented by the fact that our voices are all we have of one another on this telephone call, she feels compelled to prove her point about knowing nothing of me by summing up the past ten years of my life as she sees it. “You moved to New York and you’ve struggled with money ever since. You opened yourself up to someone and got really hurt and haven’t recovered since. Other than that, I have no extensive knowledge of what’s happened to you, of what’s going on.”
Hearing her stark appraisal of my life to date is more stinging than I expect it to be. Because even though she thinks she knows nothing, everything she’s just said is it. It’s exactly it. My life, it seems, is nothing more than how she’s so bluntly described it. Maybe there is something to that whole “a mother always knows” saying. For not only does she intuit that I’m in a well of pain so deep, I don’t see how I’m ever logically going to get out, she also knows I am trapped in it. Each layer of brick in the well of my madness appears daily to mount, between credit card debt and the sinking sensation that I can’t feel or love again, the light of the sky looks even further away.
“I think you should get help,” she urges me.
“Have you ever even read anything I’ve written?”
“You mean to a certain extent. Because if you did, you’d see my life is an open book. There’s nothing you wouldn’t know if you paid attention to the one facet of my life I’m actually good at.” My voice has raised now, become infected with the hostility of defensiveness. She is calm in her response, assures me that she reads whatever I send her. But this vexes me, for I feel she should make a more active effort in seeking widespread internet knowledge about me. Then, maybe that’s just the narcissist in me. Yet if a narcissist was ever to be allowed the luxury of being indulged, shouldn’t it be from her own mother–the only person, if anyone, on this earth obligated to overly care?
When I realize she’s not going to take the bait of my accusatory anger, I enlist another approach. “So what do you think of it?”
“I think it’s too autobiographical for me to make a fair assessment.”
“That’s such a bullshit answer. Either the writing is good or it isn’t. Everyone’s is autobiographical.”
She does nothing to assuage my insecurities with this chance I give her to compliment or encourage me in the only way that will have an effect on my mood. Instead, she shifts the conversation back to her strong belief in my need for therapy.
I retort, “If I had money like that, I’d use it for something far more mentally enriching. Like starting a production company.”
“Therapy isn’t an either/or, Kara. It’s, at this point, like basic health care.”
I smirk to myself. “I always wanted to ask you if you found it ironic that you named me Kara when I really don’t care-a. About anything.”
She sighs. “It’s statements like these that only further confirm my suspicion that you need to see someone. I’ll help you make the payments to do it. You can’t put a price on something like this. Because all these feelings you have, the ones for that person who will never reciprocate your sentiment, they’re going to manifest in physical health problems.”
In essence, the one thing I don’t want to define me–a failed relationship–is the one thing my mother thinks does. And, in truth, the only time I overly examine what happened on that front is when she asks me how I’m coping during these phone calls.
I counter, “I’m never going to do it. Opening the portals to certain caverns in my mind could end up flooding the entire operation, know what I mean?”
My mother audibly shakes her head at my refusal. I know what upsets her most of all isn’t that I’m a lost cause, but that she feels somehow responsible for my flailing. It’s the ultimate contraceptive to those considering having children–the notion that maybe no matter how well you raise them, they’re still going to be an embarrassment, a scourge on your name–a subject you’d rather not discuss with friends and neighbors.
“I know you’re suffering and I’m sorry.”
That’s how she chooses to conclude our strained exchange. That thin thread she was alluding to could snap at any moment before I hang up the phone. At least she knows I’m suffering. But, like the average stranger I pass on the street, she will have to gloss over it for her own self-preservation because, as Woody Allen puts it in Annie Hall, all you can do when bearing witness to another person’s tragedy is remark, “My god, the horror, and then you turn the page and finish your eggs from the free range chicken.” Parent or not.