A piercing scream shatters the silence. It’s the middle of the night and I’m sitting on my bed, wondering whether to keep working a while longer, read some poetry, or go to sleep. I rediscovered an old book of mine on my mother’s bookshelf earlier, a British poetry collection acquired when I was a teenager.
At the time, I filled my head and heart with poetry the same way I filled them with music, waiting until I’d be a legal adult and able to leave. Poetry and music kept me focused at home; languages and philosophy kept me focused at school where I spent as much time as I could.
So as not to be home.
In an instant, a surge of adrenaline dispels exhaustion and I’m alert, ready to spring into action even though I’m terrified. I hold my breath and listen out for signs of movement.
Instead, a loud voice says something I cannot identify a few minutes later. Presumably, it’s in French. Or it’s a collection of sounds that mimic language; I might find out in the morning if the topic comes up but if it does, I won’t be the one who mentioned anything.
Knowing stress is a shortcut to insomnia and will only compound exhaustion, I put my headphones back on. There’s no way my body can take another sleepless night without suffering severe and crippling consequences. The music of Icelandic multi-instrumentalist Ólafur Arnalds comes to the rescue, lulling me into a gentle, joyful meditative state that helps me detach from what I’ve just heard.
Half an hour later, my eyes are heavy and I take my headphones off. All is quiet so I turn off the light and go to sleep.
I pat the front of my shirt and it’s wet; I hadn’t even realized I was crying but my face is awash with liquid helplessness, too, and my glasses are messy. At least I didn’t put contacts in today so my eyes won’t hurt for hours on end as they usually do when tears happen.
Thankfully I’m alone for a while and can regroup in the only way I know how: headphones on, loud Portuguese rock, a giant cup of tea, and some singing along. I take a deep breath, clean my glasses, and put the kettle on, those steady gestures marking the transition from helpless to capable again.
I go to my room; I give the little yellow lion I carry everywhere with me a squish, a visual and tactile reminder of all the goodness in my life. And despite my non-standard circumstances, goodness abounds; it surrounds me, soothes me, and guides me. After sending a few words the way of said goodness via text, I get back to work.
“All I can do is let go, detach, forgive otherwise I won’t survive another day here. I’m back to being the little kid she used to beat up, pretty much,” reads the message I’ve just sent so my friends know how the day is going.
And I remind myself that self-pity has no place in my narrative. I’m here for my mother because she kept asking me to visit and it was about time I did so I went straight from Amsterdam to her place, which wasn’t the best idea.
I’m always a little fragile when I leave the Netherlands, with reason because it is the one safe place where I needn’t pretend I’m OK when I’m not. But my stay in Northern France is finite and I’ll go back to Paris and my father’s place as soon as the nationwide transport strike is over.
A few months ago, I thought I had found a way to mend the relationship I have with my mother but for a few minutes, I wobble and I’m no longer sure.
Unfortunately, she knows exactly how to get to me and did the one thing that strips me of all my defenses before grabbing her bag and walking away, again. She rarely apologizes and she has certainly never been the comforting type; instead, she just leaves me behind.
Whether there’s any malice in her behavior is something I have never had clarity on, but resentment often informs her actions, that much I know.
Why I have been an object of lingering ill will my entire life is something I can only guess at without any certainty; she likely never wanted a child. She also suffered crippling postpartum depression which went untreated because it wasn’t a thing back then. Soon, this morphed into chronic depression compounded by raging anxiety, something I can relate to.
I left home at 17 under the cover of academia and every time I come and visit, I see alternate futures I escaped and I experience a dizzying surge of relief. I also come up against my past, a past she keeps reminding me of as inappropriately as possible. “You and D. came and spent one Christmas here, remember?” she tells me and of course I don’t remember because D. was my first husband whom I married at 19, he was an abuser, and I have very few memories of our ill-fated union.
My brain wiped off most of those years in a desperate act of self-preservation so my past wouldn’t stand in the way of my future.
I expect nothing from my mother and yet I keep coming back because I see a fellow human in pain; presence is all I can give her but it’s never enough. I keep my private life under wraps and I keep myself as unknowable as possible; to let her in is too dangerous and I can’t take the risk.
At the same time, I share joy freely but she has never understood where it comes from. Dad, more than likely; he and I are similarly wired, with this innate ability to zoom in on the good even in the most harrowing of situations.
She never managed to suppress or steal this joy but she never gave up trying; she can’t feel it so it bothers her. She never managed to learn how to see it, either, even though I’ve tried to show her how plentiful and widespread and readily available it is. Even when I openly praise the little things, she immediately defaults to finding the cloud within the silver lining.
She finds it peculiar I derive so much joy from the smell of freshly ground coffee whenever I open the kitchen cupboard. She finds it peculiar that music, sunshine, or finding a forgotten book again is enough to fill me with spontaneous happiness.
To her, I’m the alien, the oddball, the weirdo but what she thinks doesn’t matter to me, it stopped mattering when I understood she’d never see me as an equal. In her eyes, no one is ever good enough, least of all her own daughter but I don’t need her validation or approval or permission to lead my life as I see fit.
I am “special” but never in an endearing way; she uses the adjective to express disapproval, judgment, and reproach. And every time she says that, I see Anne Dorval as Chantale in Xavier Dolan’s cult debut movie , “I Killed My Mother.” I hear her but it’s no longer signal, only noise; I retreat in my head to keep myself safe, using the same coping mechanisms I deployed as a kid.
Only now I don’t have to listen or engage. Instead, I state my position clearly and move on, often preferring silence to words spoken in vain or justifications that in no way concern her.
But she hurts me. She still hurts me although no longer in the physical sense as her laying a finger on me again would put an immediate end to our relationship.
I have to trust her heart is in the right place even though all that life seems to inspire in her is a kind of disgust; at only 74, she’s already preparing to die and she is scared, hence the night terrors.
No amount of compassion or attention from me can change this but it doesn’t mean I should stop trying as long as I have the mental wherewithal to do so.
On the off chance.
Because, much like my father, love is all I know.
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.