I love meerkats. I always have. Their black, beady eyes. Their coarse, caramel-colored fur. Their whiskers. They’re like a cross between a rodent and a cat. That, or a curious African guinea pig. But they captured my attention at an early age, not because they were cute or because of anything related their appearance. No, when I first saw meerkats at Lowry Park Zoo I was fascinated by their holes and hovels — by their underground system. Meerkats do one thing and they do it well: They hide, and on that unbearably hot day in the summer of 1992, all I wanted to do was join them. I wanted to crawl underground and never be seen again.
Of course, the reason is complex. I had a complicated and difficult childhood, which is a nice way of saying I had an abusive childhood. My father hit me regularly, with the backside of his hand or, more frequently, his belt. My mother called me names constantly, berating me and putting me down. By the time I was 8, I was broken. I knew I wasn’t smart enough or good enough. I was a failure. A disappointment. A fuck up, through and through. And disappearing seemed like a good idea. Stay still. Stay quiet. Hide. So I did.
I often made forts under my bed or hid in the hamper. I sat in the dark amongst dirty laundry, mingling with undergarments and socks. I ran away days before my ninth birthday. I tried to leave again when I was 12. But I failed. On all fronts I failed, and when my father died days before Thanksgiving, things only got worse. My mother, who had previously been the sugar to his temperamental spice, became incorrigible. She yelled, every minute of every day. Insults were constantly flung my way, and I kept hiding until I was 18 and could legally get out of her house.
My mother never hit me. She never kicked, choked, or punched me. Rather, she cut me with her tongue, which was sharp and serrated. Her words could pierce the coldest of hearts. But she was still my mother, and for years I tried to rectify our relationship. I held out hope that she would have a “come to Jesus moment” and we could heal. We could be a small, pieced-back-together family. But that never really happened.
We had moments, to be sure. In 2005, I took her to Las Vegas — an attempt at a family vacation — and we drank together. We walked down the Strip laughing, like loving mothers and daughters do. She cried when I gave birth to my eldest. I think she used the word “proud.” But I wasn’t able to make peace with the past until her death from alcoholism late last June.
You see, when I found my mother, face down and clinging to consciousness, I didn’t know what to think. Her abusive nature came from an untreated mental illness and addiction, that much I knew, and there was always empathy. I felt sorry for her, for her lot in life. But she hurt me, in ways you cannot imagine. Her lack of “fight” caused me years of pain and loneliness. I was the product of abuse and neglect. And the day she passed, I exhaled. It was over. There was relief.
Things didn’t stay on the up and up, however. I didn’t feel thankful after a few weeks; instead, I felt angry. Years of trauma came rushing forward, and before long, I felt immobilized — again. I wanted to hide. But instead, I worked closely with my therapist and psychiatrist to untangle the mess she had made. I worked closely with my therapist and psychiatrist to love and care for myself in a way she wasn’t capable of. And after 13 months of work (and 13 months of frustration, sadness, flashbacks, fears, and tears) I’ve gotten to a place of comfort and complacency. I made peace with my abusive mother, albeit after her death.
Make no mistake: I haven’t forgiven her actions, at least not in the conventional sense. I can still hear the insults. I was stupid. Worthless. One of her biggest mistakes. And I haven’t been to her grave. I’m not sure I will ever go. But I have written to her. I’ve told her how her choices affected me. I poured out my heart, laying everything on the proverbial line, and I did so to help me find closure. To seal the open wound that festered for 37 years in my mind.
Was it easy? No. Sitting with the anger seemed easier. With the sadness, pain, and shame. But acknowledging my past was the first step I needed to take to move forward. It was the first step I needed to take to walk into my present and make my own future.