Day 3. This is where I come clean about my part in all this.
Here are the 10 ways I’ve heard you say I hurt you, Dearest Mother:
- I got caught up with a bad crowd.
- I did drugs and drank and had too much sex with too many boys.
- I was selfish.
- I was cold, remorseless, and uncaring.
- I was ungrateful.
- I didn’t listen.
- I lied.
- I talked back.
- I was just like my father.
- I abandoned you.
To this day, you probably still think that I didn’t hear you back then, that I didn’t care about what you were going through. You were mamma-bear-ing through a difficult, lonely life, protecting your one and only child. You stopped at nothing to keep her safe in hostile Detroit in the seventies and eighties. All five foot two of you dug deep to find the strength every single day, whatever the cost. You gave all you had to give, didn’t you? And yet, despite all your efforts, I committed crimes against the family, against you.
Here’s the thing though. Those crimes up there? The grievances you railed against as I grew out of childhood and found a life of my own? They’re not all true.
Before you fly off in a rage, bear with me a second. Let’s go through them, one by one.
1. There was no bad crowd.
Why not? Because I had no friends. Vigilantly, you chased off the ghettobaby neighbourhood kids, instructed me not to talk to any of the raggedy children at school nor at any of my many after-school classes, and you forbade visitors to the house. I was safe from their influence and safe from harm. In those difficult and dangerous times, you protected me and I did as I was told.
2. There were no drugs, drink, nor sex of any kind.
Today, this is one I totally wish was true back then. But it isn’t. I believe my first “grown up” drink was a cloying Bartles and James wine cooler when I was nineteen. For those keeping score, nineteen is the age of majority in my home province. At nineteen, I’d been in university for two years already. No drunken frat-house gang rape here. You protected me and I did as I was told.
The first time I’d even seen an illicit substance with my own eyes was well into my twenties and even then it was from across a room and I was mortified. If I’d worn pearls, they’d have been clutched and clutched hard. I remember actually being afraid I’d be irreparably damaged just by proximity to debauchery. In the era of crack pipes and destroyed lives, you protected me and I did as I was told.
As for the dangers of underage sex? Being years younger than my high-school classmates, I had no clue and no one was interested. I had to beg to get a date to senior prom and even then he stayed as far from me as he could all night, partying with his friends instead. Good times. When it came to boys (no one said a word about anyone else) and the perils of teen pregnancy, you protected me and I did as I was told.
3. I was selfish.
This one is probably close to true. I didn’t think much about anyone else in my youth. This is likely because aside from you, Dearest Mother, my every-other-week father, and a few occasional relatives, there was no one else to think of.
Sure, there were a few kids at school I had conversations with when they needed something but, as instructed, I did so only out of politeness and a desire not to draw attention. I spent my time reading, watching television, taking apart and reassembling appliances, computers, and electrical equipment, and rearranging the room I am indeed grateful to have had. These, you may notice, are solo activities. Self-focus came with the territory.
4. I was cold, remorseless, and uncaring.
Sure, I’ll cop to having a cold and remorseless nature. Looking back, I can see now that I’d lived an emotionless life until my thirties, really. Shut down. Numb. Absentee. I’d taught myself to summarily stifle my thoughts, feelings, and opinions as they only served to bring about difficulties for myself and others. I suppose that made me come across as uncaring, if not actually reduced my capacity to care as being successful in this way of being required a degree of disengagement. You can’t have it all, I guess.
Your own life was a war zone and you imparted to me the only way you knew how to survive a situation like that: head down and soldier on. And it worked, partially at least. I’m still alive. So I suppose you might count this as a win in the end.
5. I was ungrateful.
Let’s talk about ungratefulness for a sec. Ungratefulness seems to be the curse of children whose parents do not see their own heroic efforts reflected back at them. Because children don’t have a frame of reference outside their own experience, they do not have any reason to think their parents’ back-breaking exhaustion isn’t just the way things are for everyone at all times.
Looking back, of course I’m grateful. You were a single parent, an immigrant, living in an embattled city. You had struggles of your own. I didn’t expect to live past thirty so yeah, every day I’m grateful. But no, as a child, I probably didn’t say so.
6. I didn’t listen.
Like so many of these criminal accusations, I’m not entirely sure where this came from. Not only did I listen to every word spoken, I took in every gesture, every look, every tonal variance. Anything I could get, I greedily took. As an OG latchkey kid, I was desperately lonely in those houses. You worked double, sometimes triple shifts and slept the rest of the time. You had to. How else were we to live? When you were around and awake, I paid attention so hard, I ached.
It’s why I penned that pathetic letter to you when I was nine; I wanted that same quality of attention directed back at me. Now I know why that enraged you so — you were doing all you could and I wanted more.
Barely a moment passes without your internalized voice guiding me. It even has your accent and the sound of you sucking your teeth in disgust. My memory is unusually and selectively accurate when it comes to interactions. It replays conversations word for word, gesture for gesture, as if I’m watching a recording. Even if I wanted not to hear you, I can’t.
7. I lied.
You remember how dramatic it was back then? Me proclaiming my innocence when you called me out? You railing at the nerve I had for denying what you knew for sure? Well here’s some breaking news: I told you the truth each and every time you asked.
You warned me to do that so I did. Terror apparently makes for effective parenting, at least if you squint and look real hard.
I’ve lied to you exactly twice in forty-seven years. Both were in that period in my thirties where I instinctively tried so earnestly to take space, time, and distance to hear my own voice and think my own thoughts apart from yours. Both horrid moves, I know (once I made up a reason to escape your house the last time I visited and once I lied about having a cell because I wanted to keep the new number to myself…not everyone had phones then). And I accept the guilt of my actions. But the point is, all those other times? Truth. 100%.
It’s worth mentioning that I vividly recall the moment I understood that everyone lies pretty much all the time despite consistently instructing children not to do so. That moment was only a handful of years ago and it broke my world.
8. I talked back.
Okay, you got me on this one too. I talked back. I did. I asked questions. I expressed opinions. Or at least I tried. It was my damned job to be curious about the world. It was my damned job to develop an identity separate from yours. Autonomy is natural, inevitable, and desirable. I’d do it again too, only much, much more. I now know that it’s healthy and expected to have one’s own self and to actively develop it. I just missed that chapter back then.
For the record, in my youth, I barely spoke. When I did, I quickly learned I had no right to do so and worse, was being offensive for doing so. You all weren’t kidding when you said speak only when spoken to. I’m going to say I think I lived up to that expectation fairly well.
9. I was just like my father.
To be just like my father was, in my eyes, a high compliment. He was tall and handsome, dignified and intelligent. He was white and fit in easily in the affluent circles in which he enjoyed traveling. I saw him command respect wherever we went. People smiled when we entered a room. I admired him for that.
Being in the world with you was different. There was a furtive feeling in the air, a sense of danger but from what? Back then, I didn’t understand the hostility and side-eye was more about the colour of your skin and your foreign-sounding voice. The racial tensions of black versus white Detroit just after the 1967 riot permeated every moment yet were invisible to me even as I stood among them, the embodiment of the unwanted, feared future.
Being a kid, I just thought you offended everybody in every store and doctor’s office and ballet class lobby because you were pushy and strange. So yeah, I wanted to be like him, not like you. I wanted people to smile when I entered a room not roll their eyes when I fished for my wallet because they were certain I’d come up short.
There’s so much I didn’t understand back then — so much I’m just beginning to understand now — about the experience of being black in white Detroit at that time. I do, however, understand that not much has changed which is why one goal for my life is to do all I can to engender #equality for all regardless of appearance, heritage, ability, sexual orientation, gender, wealth, location, language, and all the other ways humans differ.
10. I abandoned you.
It’s no secret that ran away from home as soon as I could. But it didn’t go down like some would expect: I wasn’t underage and full of fury. No, I ran when I was far too old, improbably naïve, and filled with shame. I was ashamed of my being the vile, unnamed thing that was so disdainful, so horribly wrong that it caused my Dearest Mother, my only friend, to tough love me out of our home twice before that final break.
I tried, I did. Despite my best and constant efforts, I didn’t behave well, didn’t use my body correctly, didn’t use my words properly, didn’t anticipate and react as required. To self-correct, I studied people every chance I got. I examined characters on television. I internalized every novel I could get my hands on. I devoured pop psychology books from the library and became a keen observer of the world around me. I was earning my Jr. PhD in Expected Human Behavior so I could stop being me.
But those studies were never good enough. I was never good enough. I wasn’t able, no matter what level of effort I put in, to earn my right to be alive. Whatever my fundamental, in-born error was, I wasn’t going to be able to overcome it, it seemed. So the third time I was told to leave, I did, for good. I ran. I hid.
I hid so I wouldn’t cause any more upheaval. Now I understand that the default for a child’s psyche is to believe that a parent’s unhappiness and suffering is the child’s fault. At the time, my childish reasoning was that if I stayed away, you’d finally have the peaceful life you wished you had. That faulty reasoning soon turned into a wish for a peaceful life for myself.
The more separated we were, the calmer I felt. My nightmares lessened. I tried making friends. But the happier I got, the more belligerent you became. The threatening phone calls increased. The sporadic letters in the mail became more bizarre and alarming. My attempts to ease your outlandish fears backfired so thoroughly that the only choice left was to step away.
That seemed to work best although from time to time your fury reached me and undid my world. This crime is a complex one. Some would say it’s simple, that society expects a child to devote all energy and resources to supporting their parent, no matter what. That having been given life itself is a debt to be forever repaid, without question and with respect.
That is not how I choose to live and for that, I accept the charge of abandonment. I believe that I carry no debt for having been born. You chose me and that choice comes with great and long-lived responsibilities that are non-transferable and non-interest bearing. The crime of abandonment means a separate, less stressful, more loving life for me. For you, this crime means a chance at the peaceful, unencumbered day-to-day you dreamed of for so long.
To the charges listed above, I plead somewhat guilty. Life is complicated, filled with shades of grey. Some of my crimes were committed in the ignorance of youth and others in order to nurture a healthy adult life. I suppose every criminal has justifications for their actions.
These letters are my self-imposed sentence. I’m fairly certain nothing I say will touch you in any way because I’m either “remembering incorrectly” or “lying” (see #7 above), right? But words are what I have to offer and so I offer them to you.