What Doesn't Kill Us...
Mother’s name, the medical form asked. Marie I wrote. If deceased, cause of death it asked. I felt awkward as I put the pen to the paper. I thought about the spelling then printed suicide. List siblings, it said. I wondered if I should include my step sisters or just write down my blood brothers. I decided on the latter. Having finished the form, I handed it to the doctor. She read it quickly and frowned. “We have counseling here at the health center if you need some,” she said.
I saw the concern in her eyes and smiled. I told her I hadn’t had the smoothest childhood but thought I had turned out just fine. My mind raced back to a sunny day when I was about four. My mom had recently died and my brother and I were staying with the family that lived around the corner, only three houses away. It was like a vacation as I remember. There were twins about our age and their mother was as nice as grown-ups come. She tried to keep us busy playing games and eating cookies, but I remember always nagging her about seeing my Dad. On this particular afternoon, I asked if I could go around the corner and see if he was home. I remember Mrs. Alves acting like it was a big secret between her and me. It was agreed that if the other kids aked me where I was going, I wouldn’t be able to tell them without letting our big secret out. It weighed heavily on me as I started on my journey up to our old house. As it turned out Dad was not home, but I was so worried about keeping my travels a secret that I didn’t seem to care. Upon retuning to the Alves’ I spilled out my mission to my brother, who to my surprise did not find it all that interesting.
I had another secret back then, one I shared with my brother. We had been told that our mother died. They didn’t tell us she shot herself in the head. They didn’t tell us it was the third and final time she tried. They didn’t tell us they blamed my father or that they blamed my grandmother. They didn’t say much more to us than, “she is gone.” So, my brother and I made up our own story. Our little secret was that she wasn’t dead at all. We decided she was on a trip and that eventually she’d come back to us. We kept our secret alive for years, until a grown-up made us give it up. Made us finally cry for the loss of her.
“So this other name Anne was your second mom then,” the doctor broke into my thoughts.
“No, Sally was my second mom, Dad married her when I was four.”
I suppose most people only get the one mom. So I can see why my laundry list of mother names was confusing her. My dad had three wives: my “real” mom, the schizophrenic; my second mom, the wicked stepmother; and my third mom, the one who stayed till the end. There had been an assortment of other motherly figures as well. The different ladies I lived with between mothers, and the one who hid me from the wicked stepmother, and the sweet old “Nanna” that wanted to steal me away. Perhaps mother was a better title for the women who loved me rather than the parade of figures who married my father.
Sally, the wicked stepmother, wasn’t very old, barely 20 I think. Looking back now, her age explains a lot about her inadequacies as a mother. They were married for three years most of which time I was sick to my stomach due to nerves. Those years were a collection of bad and painful memories for me.
She used to put a little clock in front of me at the dinner table. I was allowed ten minutes to eat. I would watch the minute hand wishing I could slow it down. If I took too long, I was immediately sent to bed. During dinner, Sally would sit with a wooden spoon in one hand and eat with the other. If we chewed with our mouths open, she’d hit us either across the hand or upside the head. She had long sharp fingernails that she’d nearly pierce our ears with. One of her favorite punishments was washing our mouth out with soap. She’d use scented rose soap when we had it. She’d tell me to bite off a piece and then chew it. It would burn the sides of my tongue and make my throat constrict. “If you throw it up, I’ll make you do it again,” she told me. I learned to concentrate on the water I’d be allowed after my mouth had been “washed” to her satisfaction.
It was during those three years with Sally I learned not to cry. My tears were the only thing I had control of. So, when she put my dinner plate on the floor next to the dog’s dish, for chewing with my mouth open, I did not cry. And when she pushed me to the floor and told me to lick up the vomit that didn’t make it in the toilet, I did not cry. And when she flung me into the bathroom counter and blackened my eye, I did not cry.
Not until the day Dad came to school and told me he was divorcing Sally, did I finally cry. He couldn't understand my tears. He didn't understand that I loved her. She was my mommy. She bought me pretty dresses and taught me how to polish my shoes. She gave me little pie tins and taught me to bake. I didn't know that other children's moms kissed their boo boos and held them when they had nightmares. I didn’t know that other kids ran home eager to see their mothers, while I drug my feet up the driveway hoping she had forgotten the beating she promised me that morning. Despite the way she treated me, she was the only mother I could remember. My little six year old brain believed that she was better than having no mommy at all.
It wasn’t too long after that Dad married Anne, my third mom, the one who stayed until the end. Anne brought with her three daughters. The youngest was a little older than I and we shared first names. We became best of friends and worst of enemies. We competed for attention from our parents, our brothers and eventually boys. My older brother was always bringing friends home and my sister liked a few of them and let them know it. I liked a couple too, but kept it to myself. There was this one boy named Brent who would work on cars with my brother. He was about as good looking as a boy covered in dirt and oil can get. My sister liked him and made sure he’d find out. I liked him but wrote down my feelings to myself, hoping no one would know. My sister found the paper and in her fat, round script wrote mean, poking-fun things across the page: “you don’t stand a chance.” and “You’re just dreaming.” When I found the note, I was mortified. I couldn’t look her or Brent in the face for fear they would laugh at me. It wasn’t until years later I found out it was me he had liked all along, but didn’t know I felt the same way.
I never did learn how to tell a guy I was interested or worse, no longer interested. That’s the hard part. After a two year long relationship, I was faced with the ugly task of breaking things off. How do you tell someone who wants to marry you that you’ve become bored. It was a tough week all the way around. I couldn’t tell him I had met someone who makes my stomach do flip flops. I could only tell him I felt too young for such a serious relationship and that I needed to date. “Just tell me you’re unhappy and I’ll leave,” he said. I told him I wasn’t as happy as I had been in the past, and then he cried. I told him I’d always love him, but that made him mad. He left, head bent and shoulders slumped. My chest felt like it was caving in. From my bedroom window I could see his red Z speed down the driveway spewing gravel in all directions. I didn’t eat for three days. And I would never learn this lesson. Over and over I would stay too long because I could not bear to break a man’s heart.
My next relationship lasted even longer and followed me to college. So here I was, my first semester in college experiencing life as an adult, which included paying bills, buying groceries and taking myself to the doctor when I got a cold.
“Get this prescription filled out in the lobby and you should be just fine,” the doctor said.
As per the doctor’s order I took my medicine. Thinking back now, my whole life I’ve always taken my medicine. Abandonment, beatings, broken hearts, I took it dose after dose. And in spite of it all, “I was... I am just fine.”