On Families, Loss, and the Stories We Tell Ourselves

I have spent many years refusing to say in so many words that my mom “left” my dad and me. But the fact of the matter is that she did leave, and she did not take me with her.

I belong to the everything-is-fine school of trauma management. It seems a part of my inherent nature to be calm and rational in the midst of terrible crisis. On the last day of school in the eighth grade, several friends and I were sitting on the side of the road, waiting for our bus, when a man backing out of his driveway ran over us.

One of my friends was trapped under the car, curled up in a tiny ball, wedged against the searing exhuast pipe, her body lifting the rear left tire off the ground. In a panic, the driver attempted to pull the car forward, to get it off her, I suppose, but the lack of tire contact with the ground only meant the back wheel spun ferociously against my trapped friend’s arm.

I had been knocked to one side, my bookbag stuck under the car, showing where I had been sitting. I stood up and I instructed the driver (in a ferocious scream) to jack up the car to free my friend. Then I ran over to where several other classmates were standing agape and astonished, and yelled at the kid who lived nearest by -- only half a block away -- to go home and call an ambulance. THEN I went back to the scene, where the driver, with help from other adults now, was attempting to raise the car off my friend, and went around checking with all the other kids involved, making sure they were not seriously injured, seeing them into the ambulance.

Only once everyone was gone did I let myself cry.

Variations on this story have happened my whole life; I am exactly the person you want around in a crisis. I will prioritize tasks and manage people like a pro. I will speak in a level, soothing-but-not-patronizing tone of voice. I will plan for our long-term survival. When the inevitable zombie apocalypse occurs, I may not be able to run fast or shoot the shambling undead in their brains, but I will almost immediately have a list of places we should loot in order of importance and a map detailing multiple alternate routes to get there. I am contingency planner, and I will know what needs to be done and several ways of doing it.

I’m not sure how much of this comes from some genetic predisposition toward preparedness and how much comes from my life as it has unfolded, and the origins probably don’t matter. The point is that in order to make this calm happen, I often resort to telling myself stories about the situation I am attempting to manage -- stories that may or may not always be absolutely true.

I do this most often with long-term relationships; sometimes it’s just easier to force myself to think of things in a certain way, or using only limited language, rather than to see them clearly. I think all families are guilty of this to some extent -- there are always certain subjects we don’t talk about, certain memories we don’t share, certain family members whose bad decisions or personal problems are couched in forgiving terms, to make it easier on everyone involved.

I edited a story in my forthcoming book to remove the direct identification of the family member it’s about, because I had it on good authority that said person would probably be upset to see herself and her behavior so candidly described. I still tell the story, and I still run the risk of making her upset, but at least only she will know for sure who I am talking about. It wasn’t even negative; it was just honest, but honesty often hurts, even when it comes from a nonjudgmental place.

The stories I tell myself often take liberties with strict reality, even if I only restrict the words I use, as though words themselves can retroactively change the events as they happened. I have spent many years refusing to say in so many words that my mom “left” my dad and me when I was about six years old -- I have said my parents “got divorced” (which was ultimately true), I have said that my mom had “stuff to work out” (which was absolutely true), I have said that the best place for me at the time was with my dad, in the house I’d grown up in (which is as true as anything can possibly be). But the fact of the matter is that she did leave, and she did not take me with her.

It’s been difficult for me for admit as much because my mom is not a bad person, nor is she a bad mother, and mothers who leave get the special hell in our current way of thinking about parents and who bears the greatest responsibility to a child -- it’s always on the mother. I spent most of my childhood and teenage years vigorously defending my mother and her right to make the best choices she could, for both of us, when very difficult choices had to be made -- I defended her even as I was angry with her.

My mom is kind, loving, and generous. She is the type of person who would give you the shirt off her back; if you were hurt and scared and everyone around was ignoring you, my mom would stop to help. She is a person who gets involved in other people’s everyday lives; she will talk to a cashier for five minutes and get their whole story, and she honestly cares. She makes people feel comfortable, and there is something about her that is immediately trustworthy, something that gets people to open up to her as they never would to any other stranger. She is also stubborn and occasionally insecure, but aren’t we all.

And she left. It’s OK that she left. There is nothing that saying it can do that my mom’s own self-imposed bad-mother guilt hasn’t done to her already. She had to go, and I love her no less for it, because she is still my mom, and our love for our parents, being the first love we know, tends toward the unconditional, no matter how traumatic the impact of their choices, or their oversights, or their mistakes.

In the end, I wound up well-adjusted and happy, did well in school, went to an excellent college and today I enjoy an awesome marriage of my own, in spite of my stated intentions never to get married, never ever ever, and certainly not before I was 35.

My mom will read this, because she reads virtually everything I write, and I hope it doesn’t freak her out, because my point is not to vilify her as an imperfect mother -- as all mothers necessarily are -- but to say how important it is that we be willing to take a second look at the stories we tell ourselves. I can only admit that my mom left today because I no longer think of that as an unfathomable loss; I’ve forgiven her, and accepted that it happened, and so the reality of it doesn’t hurt as it once did. I no longer need to hide from it.

I often feel as though I am least honest with my family, more than anyone else I know. They will probably be surprised by this, but it’s very often true. I try to protect them, you understand, to make sure they’re happy, to keep any potential conflict at bay. I realize this behavior is only semi-healthy.

At one time I worried that my family happiness was too fragile to survive certain truths, innocuous though they were, but today my parents are close friends, and I have a wonderful, funny, loving stepfather as well, and we all spend holidays together as though this is how things have always been.

Our happiness and acceptance was earned, and hard-won, and is probably stronger than I realize. I am working to be more calm about that, to stop my endless contingency planning and just trust that my solid relationships with my family will persist even without constant vigilance on my part, even without the need to tell myself certain stories in a certain way to make sure everything will be fine. Things are as they are, and there is little to be gained by forcing events into a shape they’ll never take.

On occasions when I have expressed concern that my writing is too personal, not only about myself and my experiences, but by extension about everyone who is close to me, my father has repeatedly and firmly told me I must not worry about that.

“This is what you’re good at,” he tells me, “and you have a positive effect on people for being willing to do it.”

I am working on trusting his advice, by writing this down and sharing it with you. And I am working on believing that everything will be fine, because it always is, eventually, even without my contingency intervention, or my protective story-telling. I must be honest with myself first, after all.