My father is dying. The Votrient he has struggled to take since January is not working. In fact, the renal cell cancer which metastasized to the lymph nodes in his chest has now spread to his lungs, the lining of his chest cavity, and his bones.
My mother still believes there is a chance for him to pull-through. Her Sunday School class is praying for him. God is still in the business of miracles.
But I know he is done. There is no fight left in him. He is stubborn, my dad. Dr. George, his Oncologist, tells him he must get out of bed or he will lose his muscle mass. He must try to walk and get some exercise. But Dad only walks from the bed to the bathroom. “I don’t feel like getting up,” he says. He eats minuscule portions and his parchment-thin skin is gaunt across his frame.
“Dad, you have to eat.”
“I don’t have any appetite. Nothing tastes good. I can’t keep anything down.”
“I understand that. You still have to do it. You either eat or you die.”
He has made his choice.
Jerri thinks he has seen his last Christmas. She’s not sure he will be here come August when she hopes to move into a new income-subsidized apartment with a washer and dryer. She has requested a two bedroom in anticipation of unsupervised visits with JM, her 10 year old, who lives with our parents. But the apartment complex wants copies of his social security card and birth certificate. My parents won’t supply these.
“She’s trying to get a two bedroom under false pretenses,” Mom says. “JM is never going to live with her. She doesn’t have a mothering bone in her body.”
“She is not misleading the apartment complex. This not about JM coming to live with her. This is about visitation and having a room for him to stay over a weekend.”
“JM can sleep anywhere. He doesn’t need his own room. He can sleep on the couch or a blow-up mattress. Besides, she doesn’t have any bedroom furniture herself. How is she going to furnish a room for him?”
Because I’m going to give her furniture. Stan and I have two guest bedrooms we never use. We are planning to downsize within the next four years. The bedroom furniture will not be going with us anyway. Besides, its hard to justify owning beds that are never slept in when my own sister lives in such poverty.
My mother and I are at odds. Not about my dad but about everything else. Mostly about Jerri.
“You don’t even know Jerri, Mom. In your mind she’s the same person she was twenty-one years ago. She’s a drug addict. You refuse to see her as anything else. She is not an addict. She is not the person you’ve always told me she was. And she is capable of being a mother. To you mothering is all about providing financially. That’s not what mothering is all about.”
“You’re right and she can’t provide for him. She can’t give him clothes, or food, or even a bed to sleep in.”
“That’s not true. She can’t provide for him the way that you can but there is more to life than that. But this is not about him coming to live with her – this is about him spending a weekend with her – not every weekend, maybe not even every month.”
The argument escalates.There is nothing I can say that she will hear. She hangs up on me. There is so much left unsaid.
The phone call leaves me empty and strangely proud. I stood up to her. I said what I thought. I didn’t raise my voice or bite back my words even knowing that to disagree with her means certain retribution. For me, this is progress. In 5 months, I will be 50 years old. And I am FINALLY able to stand against my mother.
At 1:45 am, Mom leaves a voice message. “Don’t worry about coming to the hospital for your Dad’s appointment. He feels the same way too. We can just sever the ties of the family and you can just make it on your own with Jerri.”
About the third year into our marriage, we borrowed $1400 from my parents which we paid back 2 months later. That was the last time I ever asked my parents for anything and I’ve been married for 28 years. Wow. Just not sure how I’m going to manage to “make it on my own.”
Dad has an appointment with his Oncologist Monday. I was going to join them because given my pharmaceutical background, I understand what the Oncologist says better than they do. Mom’s message is clear. I’ve been uninvited. More than that, I’m once again excommunicated from the family. Because I disagreed with her.
I call her back that afternoon. “Do you really think now is the time to sever ties given Dad’s situation?” She lets loose with anticipated fury. I am always bringing up the past. I don’t know all that went on. (Over 20 years go, before Jerri was ever treated for Bipolar.) I wasn’t there when Jerri went into Prodigal’s Community. I can’t get a word in edgewise. She is soooo glad that God doesn’t hold grudges against her the way that I do. She is soooo disappointed in me. She hangs up again.
I am done. I call my friend Susan who, more than anyone else I know, can empathize with mother issues. “My friend,” she says, “All I can say is there is some undiagnosed mental illness going on there. There has to be. Normal mothers just don’t behave that way.”
On Thursday, Jerri leaves 6 frantic voicemails while I’m in Zumba. They all say the same thing. Daddy is in the hospital. Mom is not there. She had called the house to talk to Dad and that’s how she found out. He’s dying. They are going to bring in hospice. This may be the last chance we have to see him without Mom. Jerri is going to catch the bus immediately.
I beat her to the hospital. Dad is curled up on his side. He is so very thin. His hair is totally white now and he has brown spots on his face. He is so fragile. I don’t have the courage to wake him. If Mom is telling the truth, he will not want to see me.
Jerri arrives and he awakes. For a moment, Dad is unsure of what he sees – his daughters – but he sorts it out. We are real. Not a dream. Not the morphine. He’s been in the hospital since Monday. He fell on his way to the car for his appointment. His Oncologist sent him to the emergency room when he arrived.
He’s been in the hospital 4 days and Mom never told us.
He says they are no longer fighting the cancer. They are fighting the pain. His Oncologist has given him a choice. Another drug like Votrient that may make him sick and unable to function but may slow the cancer or pain meds that will do nothing about the cancer but allow him to feel okay. Dad has chosen the latter, at least for a month, and then he will see.
I don’t tell him the awful truth – that every moment he doesn’t fight the cancer, it advances. It has spread so quickly, he may not have a month. The brain is likely the next stop on the Great Cancer Tour of his body and then he won’t have a chance to change his mind. It will take his mind. I struggle to breathe.
He says he doesn’t have much longer. I ask, “how do you feel about that?” He says, “I’m okay with it. I’m not afraid. At least not today. Ask me tomorrow and you might get a different answer.”
I am glad for him. That he’s not afraid.
From the hallway comes a public announcement. Visitor hours are over. I tell Dad we have to leave. He hurries to tell us one more story about the dream he had last night. It is not important. It is not how I want to spend my last minutes with him. I let him talk.
When he’s done I stand and he struggles to get out of bed. An alarm goes off. He is at risk for falling so they’ve tied an alarm to his bed. The nurse comes in and he says, “It’s okay. I just wanted to get up to say good-bye to my family.”
He hugs me. I know in my heart it is the last time. “I love you, Dad.” “I love you too,” he says and he makes a point of looking me in the eye. He knows it too. He hugs Jerri and tells her he loves her. We believe him. This is our real Dad, the way he is when Mom isn’t around.
Jerri promised Mom she would call after she gets home from her visit with Dad. She reports back to me the next day. “Your mother kept me on the phone for over an hour last night talking about you. Boy, is she mad at you. It’s kind of nice – her being mad at you and not me for a change.”
“I don’t want to hear it.”
“She said she’s not going to tell you when Daddy dies. She said you’re just swooping in because he’s dying.”
“Seriously, Jerri, I don’t want to hear it.”
“She said she doesn’t want anything else to do with you and neither does Dad. So I said, really Mom? Cause Terri was at the hospital last night and Daddy talked to her almost the entire time!”
I feel sorry for Dad now. Because Mom will hold my visit against him. She’ll be furious with him for not tossing me out of the room. It’s Father’s Day, probably his last one, but I don’t call. I’m afraid he won’t answer. Or he’ll say he can’t talk to me anymore. I’m afraid she may have gotten to him.
I can still see his face – his eyes penetrating mine. I can feel his arms around me, his stubbly cheek against mine. “I love you too, Terri.” Those words are a gift. They will sustain me for the rest of my days. I know that he meant them. She can’t take that away. No matter what happens next.
Have you ever had a word or phrase pop into your head so seemingly out of nowhere that you can’t get it off your mind? That happened to me a few weeks ago. I was responding to Cathy’s comment on So This is 2013 . . ., thinking about Dad, kind of shaking my head, wondering why he goes along with Mom even when she says something he knows isn’t true or does something to one of us that’s unwarranted, vindictive, or hurtful and BAM! There it was. Stockholm Syndrome. It kind of threw me because I’ve only ever heard the term applied to hostages–think Patty Hearst–who instead of trying to escape or fight back, actually bond with their captors and even help them. Bizarre, right? I mean Dad isn’t exactly a hostage. He was the breadwinner when we were growing up. Mom was dependent on him, not the other way around.
So I googled SS and discovered it can also apply in family relationships, where the mother or father (or anyone else in a position of authority) is extremely controlling or intimidating. You can read the complete article here.
Dr. Carver, the author, seems to use “controlling” and “abusive” interchangeably. That makes me slightly uncomfortable. There’s no question WHATSOEVER that Mom is controlling. When Mom wants something done, she means now and you better be in the middle of a bowel movement if you don’t intend to drop everything and comply. Hahaha, drop everything. I crack myself up.
But where was I? Oh, right. Controlling, absolutely, but abusive? Jerri says yes, Mom was abusive. I say, really? Because abusive is like battering women, beating and raping children, torturing prisoners. That’s not what happened to us. Granted, as kids, we were spanked frequently, often with a belt, but I don’t recall welts, bruises, or broken skin. I mean, no one ever pointed and asked “what the heck happened to you?” And spanking was, at the time, a socially acceptable form of child discipline. Growing up, I didn’t know any kids who WEREN’T spanked.
No, what we experienced was more of a psychological conditioning, an emotional penetration, the inflicting of someone else’s will on us and not for the purpose of growing us into better human beings. One blogger I follow uses the term “white collar abuse” which seems a little more palatable.
Dr. Carver describes four conditions that have to be present in order for Stockholm Syndrome to develop. These can be found in both hostage and abusive relationships:
I can only speculate on how these apply to Dad. But I know how they apply to Jerri and me. Because, yes, after reading the article, I believe Dad, me, Jerri, and my nephews and nieces who’ve been raised by my parents have all developed Stockholm Syndrome.
Perceived threat. That one is easy. Mom could fly into a rage with very little provocation and sometimes, none at all. She was unpredictable, like a volcano that isn’t even smoking and then spews a lava stream fifty feet into the air. She’d scream, jump up and down, totally lose all control. It didn’t matter if we had friends over or if we were in a restaurant or at the mall. It was incredibly embarrassing when it happened in public. Most spankings happened when Mom was in this state. Talk about terrified. We’d hide the belt before telling Mom something that might bring out the worst in her. I’d confess every possible thing I could think of, hoping to circumvent the rage. Jerri, on the other hand, was nonplussed. She refused to conform, even went out of her way, to defy Mom’s rules. I became a horrible tattletale because it didn’t seem to matter which of us, Jerri or me, committed the crime, we were both in trouble. I used to have this recurring nightmare where I would wander through the house and find Mom in the kitchen, at the stove or the sink with her back to me. I’d start chattering about my day and as Mom turned, I’d realize she was the wrong mother. Instead of Momma Jekyll, I’d see the face of Mother Hyde.
Small kindness perception. Dr. Carver states that in threatening and survival situations, we look for evidence of hope — a small sign that the situation may improve. Sometimes that sign is simply the controller not subjecting you to verbal or physical abuse in a situation when she normally would. My mother’s anger was anything but predictable. There were many times I expected her to explode and instead she’d be quite understanding. My relief was always tethered with confusion. Had I misread the signs? Maybe Mom wasn’t so bad after all. Maybe I was making the whole thing up.
Isolation from other perspectives. If there is one quote in the article that truly hits home, it’s this one:
In abusive and controlling relationships, the victim has the sense they are always “walking on eggshells” — fearful of saying or doing anything that might prompt a violent/intimidating outburst. For their survival, they begin to see the world through the abuser’s perspective. They begin to fix things that might prompt an outburst, act in ways they know makes the abuser happy, or avoid aspects of their own life that may prompt a problem.
Ah. Now we get to the crux of the matter. “Walking on eggshells” describes Dad’s behavior and I know all too well what that feels like. Funny how I always hated how controlling Mom was and yet I’d do my best to control her by trying to avoid any missteps that might set her off. For example, whenever I visited my parents, I would spend all of my time with Mom whether just keeping her company in the kitchen, antiquing, or running errands. I wanted to hang out with the nieces and nephews but knew if I did, Mom would feel neglected and that was a trigger. This explains, too, why we could all so easily make Jerri the scapegoat. Mom said our family issues were Jerri’s fault. We all knew better than to disagree with her. Devour or be devoured. That was the choice. I can see that now. Dad, like all of us, was, and is, simply trying to survive.
Perceived inability to escape. Obviously, as kids, we were trapped. Until we were old enough to get jobs or husbands to support us, it wasn’t perception; it was a fact. There really was no way out. Even after I moved out, Mom still tried to maintain control. For years, she encouraged me to divorce Stan. Without him, I would be more vulnerable; I would need her more. Mom has also found ways to keep everyone else on a leash. JM, Jerri’s youngest son, still lives with her and Jerri has to toe the line if she wants to be allowed to visit him. Mom wrote her daughters out of the will and made a point of informing the nieces and nephews the inheritance would be split among them–I suspect so they’d realize what is at stake should they ever decide to cross her. And Dad? Well guilt is a powerful motivator. I suspect one of the reasons Mom was so keen on getting custody of Jerri’s kids was to keep Dad ensnared. She’s told him Jerri’s addiction was caused by his drinking. If he’d been a better parent, Jerri would have been able to raise her own children. How could he live with the guilt of failing his grandchildren on top of failing his daughter?
Wow. Who would have thought it? As angry as I’ve been, as hurt and sad and torn about the rift with my parents, all things considered, I’m the lucky one. Of all my family, I’m the only one who is truly free.
Photo credit: bp6316 / Foter.com / CC BY
Jerri shared what a nice visit she had with you and JM a few weeks ago. It’s got to be inconvenient for Dad to pick her up in High Point and get her back in time for the return train. But I also believe JM will be a stronger, healthier adult if he grows up knowing his mom loves him despite her disabilities. I’m sure that’s what you want for him as well.
Jerri said you commented recently you knew I was angry and you’d made a lot of mistakes when I was in high school. But that you and Dad had “loved me so much my freshman year that you drove to the college every weekend and brought me back home.” Every single one.
Huh. That’s not the way I remember it. What I remember is posting ads on the bulletin board in the student union, “Hey, anyone going near Winston-Salem for the weekend?” and bumming rides with total strangers so you would not HAVE to pick me up. I remember you urging me on the phone to try and find a ride “’cause it sure was a long way for you to come.” I remember spending many weekends at school because I couldn’t find a ride or I didn’t have money to share gas or I just didn’t want to beg.
And just to check my memory, I asked Stan, “do you remember my parents coming to get me every weekend from Gardner-Webb?” He said, “We bummed a lot of rides with other people. They had to pick us up from somewhere but we always got as close to Winston as we could.”
It’s interesting that you would remember “loving me so much” my freshman year. That was the year you called and asked for my house key because you’d made Jerri give up hers (after robbing you) and “it was only fair.” That’s also the year you called the school and told them to apply my work study income to my tuition. Without consulting me. I went to pick up my check and was informed of your directions. We agreed when I chose Gardner-Webb that I would pay half and I was doing so, already, through scholarships. Apparently, you felt my share should be more. On top of the fact that I saved up my money all summer, every summer, to cover my books and living expenses. You never offered to help me out financially, even when I lost down to 98 lbs and was clearly not getting enough to eat. If that’s what “loving me so much” looks like then I’d have to say, yeah, you almost loved me to death.
Just felt the need to set that record straight.
I just finished a book by Dr. Jeanne Safer called The Normal One: Life with a Difficult or Damaged Sibling. The book explores the effects of “problem siblings” on “normal ones” and is based on interviews with over 60 “intact” siblings. I found myself on almost every page.
Apparently those who grew up as I did with a troubled, difficult or disabled sibling share a common set of personality traits which include premature maturity, compulsion to achieve, survivor guilt, and fear of contagion. Who knew?
My kindle edition has so many highlights, its more yellow than white so I decided to dedicate the next couple of posts to unpacking some of the quotes that resonated most. Here’s the first one:
Invisible is the word normal children most often use to describe their place in the family
Because the everyday problems we faced as kids were nothing compared to those of our siblings, our parents always put our siblings first. We were chronically overlooked. Our parents didn’t do this on purpose. They were overwhelmed by situations they never bargained for. Understanding this, however, does not minimize the actual consequences to us. We continue, even in adulthood, to have a hunger for our parent’s attention that will never be satisfied. We feel like we don’t matter to them. Our needs were so consistently ignored, we don’t even acknowledge them to ourselves.
Months ago I wrote an essay called “Super Powers.” It starts out:
There are some days I feel so invisible, I’m convinced not even God can see me. If I were a Super Hero, I’d be Invisi-Girl.
Perhaps at some point, I’ll share the full essay. For now, I hold it up as confirmation of Dr. Safer’s point.
What did my parent’s do exactly that made me feel invisible?
- They did not assign me a curfew. That’s right. As a teenager, I could stay out all night as long as I let them know where I was. When I’d call at 1 am to say “I’m at Michael’s house playing cards”, I’d wake up my parents. No one sat up waiting for me to come home. No one worried about my safety. They only had the emotional capacity to worry about one child and that child was Jerri. “We trust you,” they’d say. I was 15 for Pete’s sake!
- They did not attend events important to me. My senior year, I was nominated to Homecoming Court. I was surprised and incredibly honored. My parents skipped Homecoming. Mom said, “Too many people know I’m Jerri’s mom. I just can’t face them. They are all judging me behind my back.” I was in the Marching band; they never came to a game. I played soccer; they never came to a game. I suppose they came to my high school graduation but frankly, I don’t remember.
- They did not protect me from predators. When I was 16, a 28 year old man pursued me. Looking back, I think he was a pedophile. My mother knew about him. The only thing she had to say was “I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to see him.” My senior year of high school, I kept stats for the boy’s soccer team. At the end of the year, the two coaches held a party including alcohol for the team of about 20 underage boys. The stat girls (4 of us) were invited. Hmmmm. 20 boys, 2 men (one of whom had hit on me in the photography dark room at school), beer, 4 girls. What is wrong with this picture? As I was walking out the door, Mom said, “I don’t think this party is a good idea but you do what you think best. It’s up to you.” On the other hand, they were constantly monitoring who Jerri was with. They banned some of her friends from our house. When she didn’t come home, they would drive through the town looking for her. When found, they would drag her butt home.
As an adult, my mom only called when she wanted to complain about Jerri. She rarely asked about my life or what was going on with me. In my 30’s, I wrote her a letter and said I no longer wanted to discuss Jerri. “If she is all you want to talk about, please don’t call again.” Mom apologized and things got better for a while.
About 4 years ago, I invited my parents and Jerri’s kids to the beach for Christmas. Stan and I rented a small mansion and invested a substantial amount of money in the vacation. My family left early. Mom said, “The kids are bored and this isn’t what we expected. We thought there would be more sights to see and things to do.” I was so furious, I stopped talking to them. My mom never sought reconciliation. Neither did I. Two months later, my parents wrote me out of their will. To this day, we are estranged. It still dumbfounds me how incredibly easy it was for them to erase me from their life. I guess it shouldn’t. They’d been doing it for decades.
So, invisibility, check – I identify with that one.