For a little while now there has been a tugging at the back of my mind. It goes something like this, “I don’t think they understand. It was a choice between surviving and not.” I grew up in what basically amounts to a dysfunctional home. There wasn’t much healthy about. Even before my mother got sick and died there was anger and hate and fear. The only love I felt was from my mom, and she was broken too, but she made sure to hug us and say I love you.
I have siblings, but we aren’t the call each other on the phone everyday and text all night kind of siblings. Life in a house like that does different things to different people. We broke and built ourselves back up in different ways. Our strengths and weaknesses were magnified, it was a pressure pot, and there was no way we were going to leave unscathed. However, you don’t experience life and loss together without knowing when shit hits the fan you will be there for each other, no questions asked.
I remember being 4 and telling my dad that I knew he hated us and then running to hide from him in my mother’s arms. I remember watching Oprah after school with my mom one day and someone on the show said, “Marry someone like your dad.” My mom turned to me and said, “Don’t marry anyone like your dad.” I remember being in 5th grade and realizing that I could leave and not come back. I clung to that the rest of my youth. My remembrances could go on and on. They flicker in and out of my head. I try to turn them off, but randomly they break through.
My mom died when I was a senior in high school. Everyone made sure I went to college. I believe there must have been some group meeting. They didn’t want me to stay near my dad. They didn’t want me to become the mother to my younger siblings. They wanted to me to leave. I was moved into my aunt’s house for the summer. Maybe it started then. Maybe it was a choice and maybe it was just survival. I didn’t go back. My house was only 20 minutes away. My siblings still lived at home. I think about all the should haves, could haves, and it makes me sad. It makes me regret that I didn’t. I was older, I was the one who should have comforted them, held them, stepped in and started saying I love you and hugging them because I bet they never got another hug from a parent after my mom died. I didn’t though. I was selfish.
I went to college. When it was time for summer break my heart was racing because what would I do? I didn’t want to go home. I didn’t want to go back. Not ever. I had already been kicked out at Thanksgiving for daring to tell my dad he was a horrible father. I had avoided as many reasons to go home as possible. Again, I felt like I was abandoning my siblings but years of pain and sadness and even hatred don’t just disappear. The day before I was to leave I was asked to stay on as a summer residence assistant. I volunteered to work every summer and break that was allowed to work after that.
Slowly and over time my hatred began to slip away. It was more just apathy. Time changes us all. Distance helps make it easier. The relationship I had with my husband when we first started dating and even into the first year of marriage wasn’t healthy. There wasn’t much of a chance that it would be. Through all the crazy and loss of a baby at 22 weeks gestation we made it out on the other side stronger. I realized I didn’t have room in my life for anger, it had been weighing me down for too long. Once I started having children we went back to visit more often than before. Once we crossed the bridge into my hometown I would always and still always feel my breath catch. I get knots in my stomach and a tightness in my manner that doesn’t leave until we do. I wonder if my siblings know that I can be silly. I can be goofy. I can be more than uptight. I can laugh.
A couple siblings stayed. A couple moved away. To the ones who stayed I wonder if they see that I had to leave in order to grow up, in order to be functional, in order have a chance at smiling. I suppose it was selfish, and I could have done it in a better way. I could have been a better big sister. I was just a kid too though, one who had been broken before my wings were even given a chance to grow.
Recently, my dad got sick. Quite sick and we all thought he would die. I went home. My feelings on this were all over the place. I understand that my father’s life wasn’t great growing up either. Adulthood wasn’t how he had planned, and we are all broken in different ways. So on one hand I feel sorry for him. On the other, we all have a chance to make a change. It can be hard, but even the slightest effort and improvement goes a long way. The concern was with him because no one should have to live in a shell of a body. The concern was mostly directed towards the siblings who stayed. The ones who would continue to stay. The ones who felt it differently. He got better. I left.
I admit that I am selfish. I also admit it probably won’t change. The scars of childhood run deep. I don’t text to check in with him. I don’t call on the phone. I don’t ask for updates. I can justify it by saying my whole life he never called me to check on me. All through college I heard from him maybe 3 times. When I got engaged I called to tell him and he asked,” Do I know him?” The list could go on. The fact that I knew at the age of 10 I needed to leave just amplifies how deep that truth runs in me. My anger has subsided, my outbursts minimized, and my self destructive thoughts lessened (with the help of medicine they are gone). My self-worth, self-esteem, and self-confidence will never be optimal, but I can finally walk in a room and not look at the floor, I can (usually) talk to others and not feel as though they are all better than me, and I don’t use a loud insecure voice to cover up my weaknesses. I am not strong enough to go back for long. I am not brave enough to tempt fate by stepping into the role of dutiful daughter. I worry that the apathy I have cultivated over the years will slip back into anger. There are too many people who depend on me now for me to go backwards. I have to keep looking forward. I’m sorry, but it’s a matter of survival.