That woman? Up there? Yeah, sure, she’s smiling. She has the purple hair, the fun colorful scarf, and seems happy. But she wasn’t.
She was quick to anger, took everything personally and negatively. She assumed the world was out to get her — family, friends, acquaintances, strangers. They were all just one heartbeat away from screwing her over but good. Any perceived misstep was grounds for cutting someone off, mumbling about them under her breath for DAYZ, and bitching about them to Tyler/my mother/the people I wasn’t angry with. I constantly took out my anger on loved ones especially Tyler and the kids. There was a lot of yelling, slamming of doors, and, yes, I threw stuff. Mostly plastic hangers (Joan Crawford, anyone?) and our poor house in Wellesley saw some shit. I REALLY hope the new owners bake some cookies, sing Kumbaya or some shit every night, and torch up logs of sage to purge the old me out of that house.
It always seemed that I was one explosive moment away from physically hurting someone I loved. Believe me when I say that the emotional hurt happened all the time and it’s a wonder that I’m still married with full-time access to my kids. It’s a miracle that some people still welcome me into their homes.
Six years ago, my doctor (shoutout to Keerthi Mulamalla, M.D.!!) saved me, my marriage, my motherhood, my family and friend relationships, and put me on the path to healing. I was lucky in that I didn’t need to experiment with different anti-depressants or a cocktail of pills. She handed me a prescription for a daily 50 mg dose of Zoloft and it’s worked ever since. Each morning, I make my coffee and while the dark, rich brew is deposited into my mug-of-the-day, I reach into the cabinet above for my daily meds.
Nexium Crestor Vitamin D Zoloft
The colors are bright against my palm. Purple and yellow calms my stomach acid, peach tells my liver to simmer down with the cholesterol production, white helps keep my bones strong, and the baby blue keeps the bitch at bay. I remember reading a funny quote a few years back that said, “If you can’t make your own serotonin, store-bought is fine.” For many years, I was ashamed to admit that I needed Zoloft until one morning Jarrod watched me take my meds and asked what each was for. I explained the function of each pill and when I said, “… and this one is for anxiety and depression…” he was upset. “Mama, why are you depressed?” I explained, “It isn’t anything that’s happened or something anyone has done. It’s just that my body either doesn’t make enough serotonin or absorbs it too quickly. This pill helps keep the serotonin I do make in my brain longer so that I have enough to not be sad or scared all the time.”
And he went on with his morning. Simple as that. And it dawned on me that I, too, shouldn’t look at my condition as something of which I should be ashamed. My problem is a chemical imbalance. I was basically living the first 43 years of my life in a constant state of fight-or-flight and it’s a wonder I survived that long without chemical assistance.
Whenever I’m around friends and family who remember Bitch Heather, I hide a deep shame for my past actions. I smile and laugh and engage, but deep inside, I am completely mortified at what Bitch Heather did on a regular basis. It will probably take me decades to get over it, and maybe I never will. But I guess what I’m getting at is that I’ll always be sorry for who I was pre-baby blue pill. But I’ll always be thankful for that woman up there who FINALLY recognized she needed a little extra help to be the person she is now. From here on out, I’ll go easy on her. After all, she did give me purple hair.
They’re at home, in Suches. Busy. That’s why they haven’t called.
I’m driving kids, running errands, folding laundry, writing. I’ll give them a shout when I’ve got time.
There’s her contact info, still in my phone. His, too. It’s all good.
I can’t wait to show him my new office. He’ll get a kick out of the dungeon-like atmosphere.
She’s going to giggle at my new cross-stitch project.
I’ll show those to them when I have a moment to breathe and hit the “FaceTime” button.
It’s just all go-go-go. They’ll understand. They’re just quiet right now because we’re all busy.
But then? Reality hits.
When I go to divvy up the school photos and I have an extra set of 8 x 10s that would normally go to them.
When I see rocky road ice cream or German chocolate cake at the grocery store.
When I send out an email reminding loved ones of the next football game/band competition/swim meet/taekwondo belt test and I don’t include them in the “To:” line.
When I walk by the family room shelf where their cremains reside and place new tea light candles on top to replace the old ones that have burned out.
When Tyler brings up his parents’ estate in conversation.
When I step into the house in Suches and it’s empty and devoid of laugher.
They’re gone. She left us a year ago today. He followed three weeks later.
In fleeting moments, I remember that how I’m coping is not healthy. This pretending that they’re just busy and have no time to call or come to kid activities. It’s easier to make believe that they’re here, just a few miles away rather than not here and on another plane of existence.
That’s how I’m managing. That’s how I’m carrying on.
Self-therapy has been… interesting. Since ditching my therapist several years ago and going it on my own, I’ve tried different things. Reading, posting, and commenting on subreddits that have to do with borderline personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, and emotional incest. I keep a rather extensive journal that grows weekly, sometimes daily. I try to read books, articles, and papers on the above topics. It’s a lot. But it’s helping me work though my cognitive dissonance, anger, sadness, confusion, and frustration without vomiting it all over my loved ones. Oh, and? As you guys have read, I blog.
A little over two years ago, I got my one and only tattoo. It’s a Queen Anne’s lace blossom with words from my father’s last letter to me. Queen Anne’s lace grows rampant on my grandparents’ farm in Lewisburg and, I later found out, it represents sanctuary.
Yes, flowers have a language.
Back before texting, emails, phone calls, and letters, if you wanted to communicate with someone without letting the entire town know what you were thinking, you would communicate with flowers. Clearly, yes, I’ve read WAY too many Regency-era romance novels. But I LOVE the fact that one could reply to a proposal of marriage with either a bouquet of apple blossoms — I prefer you before all — or yellow carnations — disdain! With this interest of mine, I decided to combine the language of flowers with a bit of self-therapy.
My mother isn’t getting any younger. Someday, sooner rather than later, she will be gone from this Earth. But, since we no longer have contact with one another, I have no clue what her end-of-life plans are. I don’t know who she will leave her belongings to, which person in her life will take care of her final wishes, or if I will even be alerted that she’s gone. No clue. And, honestly? I’m at peace with that. When my Aunt Allegra passed away three years ago, I was a basket case. The separation from my mother was fresh and Aunt Allegra and Mom had been close at one time. As I mourned my aunt, I also mourned my mother.
Even though I have no idea of my mother’s final plans, I’ve tried to imagine what I would do if, or when, I receive a phone call, “Your mother is gone. What’s next?” I haven’t answered all of those questions, but I think I’ve figured out the flowers, thanks to those pesky Victorians and their need for subtle communication.
It was not easy finding all of these flowers. Honestly, I scoured the local craft stores and then ended up ordering most of these online because, sadly, Michael’s doesn’t really carry lots of bittersweet. Not only that, but I’m not the best “floral arranger.” I’m kind of bad at it. But, hey, this isn’t art, it’s therapy.
I’m sure you’re wondering, “Heather! What are these flowers — and garlic — and what do they mean?” Well, from the top, and left to right, here you go:
Striped carnation – No Bittersweet – Truth Christmas rose – Tranquilize my anxiety Azalea – Take care of yourself Red Rose – Love Sweet pea – Goodbye Lavender Heather – Solitude Forget-me-not – Memories Queen Anne’s lace – Sanctuary White rosebuds – Girlhood White Heather – Protection Cattails – Peace Garlic – Courage and strength
That’s a lot, I know. But, essentially, these flowers form a letter, a message, that I wish I could tell my mother, that she would hear and understand, and get.
Mom, I love you. I never stopped loving you. But, I needed to begin taking care of myself and I had to protect myself from your mental illness. It took a lot of courage and strength for me to step away from you and live my life on a separate path. As a young girl, I needed love, sanctuary, and truth. I know you loved me, in your own way. But it wasn’t a healthy love. And that love came at a price — my safe space came with lies. My memories are a dichotomy of happiness and anger, love and hate, truth and lies. Oh, so many lies. And now that I’m grown, I’ve had to reconcile the actual truth with your truth. I get now why my life has always been full of anxiety. But now, I am taking care of myself, I am at peace with my decision, and my mind is calm. I have found my sanctuary. I have both good and bad memories of you. The good memories give me happiness and the bad memories help me understand how not to be to those around me. I hope in your life without me that you are taking care of yourself, that you have peace, that you have good memories, and that you have love.
And so, here is the finished bouquet. That floral letter to my mother that I will someday leave on her final resting place. But, for now, I will look at it each day and remember why she is no longer in my life.
This is going to be a really heavy post. It may have to be a two-parter. Or a several-parter. I don’t know. We’ll just see how it goes.
I’ve done quite a lot of navel-gazing these last three-and-a-half years. It’s not hard when there’s a pandemic, the kids are at school 40 hours a week, and all the house chores are finished. When I cut off contact with my mother, it felt like a death and the first thing I did was make an appointment with a therapist and begin counseling. My old therapist had taken a leave from work due to health reasons and she suggested someone new. Michelle was nice, effusive, and helpful, but then after six months, she uttered the words I did not want to hear.
“Someday, when you re-establish a relationship with your mother…”
You know, how when you watch Scooby-Doo, and Scoobs and Shaggy are running away from the scary ghost or monster, and they start backpedaling, and their legs just turn into blurry circles? My brain was doing that. That simple phrase absolutely terrified me. I felt so healthy, so happy, so relieved to be away from her and now? Now I was supposed to someday talk to her again? Have my boundaries violated again? Feeling less than worthy again? Being used again?
I’m not proud to say it, but I ghosted my therapist and haven’t returned to her since. Or sought any other therapist in the intervening years. Instead, I read. Write. Watch. Absorb.
I found communities online where others went through similar experiences with their parents. I began reading books about parents with borderline personality disorder. And I kept a journal where I would write down what I had learned while also trying to put memories on paper to remind myself, “This is why I no longer talk to Mom. This is why I need to be a separate entity from her.” I wanted to understand myself and her. Why this happened. And try to be self-aware enough that I don’t repeat the “sins of the mother.”
Through all of my reading, something interesting happened about six months ago. While reading yet another post in a borderline personality disorder subreddit where the OP lamented the horrible relationship they had with their mother, they used the term “emotional incest.”
Lord Jesus. Here I am, a native West Virginian who staves off jokes of being married to a cousin by jokingly telling people, “I’m from West Virginia and I did NOT meet my husband at a family reunion,” and I find out I may have been a victim of emotional, or covert, incest.
In the simplest of terms, emotional incest is when a parent uses one of their children as an emotional spouse. There is no physical relationship. No actual sex or rape or molestation. It’s all emotional. Mental. The parent “parentifies” their child. They expect their child to provide them with the emotional support a spouse would normally give. The more I began to read up on emotional and covert incest, the more I realized that I wasn’t just my mother’s daughter. I was my mother’s completely and utterly enmeshed spouse. For well over 40 years.
It’s really hard to wrap my head around. This little-talked about type of emotional abuse is damaging to a child and when I started learning more about it, I realized that ohmygodthey’retalkingaboutme. The invasive parent in this type of relationship is enmeshed with their child in order to meet their own needs that are not being met in their adult relationship. Meanwhile, the child is often treated as “all good” and is favored to the exclusion of other children or, in my case, the other spouse. The needs of the child to develop as an individual, to make mistakes, to receive structure and discipline, are neglected because, surprise surprise, it’s all about the parent here. I’m supposed to make her happy not the other way around. As the invasive parent turns to the child for their emotional needs, the left-out spouse is shut out of this exclusive bond and may turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms (in my dad’s case… FOOD) in order to deal with his or her unhappy home life.
Yeah. It’s a lot to take in.
And then? I started reading up on the behavioral signs that could point to someone having been a victim of this type of abuse.
People-pleaser (Oh. All day. Every day.) A need to be invisible (I HATE. DESPISE. Talking about myself. I don’t like “tooting” my own horn. I hate writing this fucking post, tbh.) Self-advocacy is nonexistent (Yep yep. Don’t like asking for stuff.) Difficulty understanding and finding yourself (This. ALL of this.) Inability to share authentic feelings withothers (If I share my true feelings with you, you’ll turn on me like Mom did.) Can’t say no (See number one.) A reduced sense of significance (I don’t matter because I never mattered. Only she mattered.) Very judgmental of others (I won’t say it to your face, but I’m judging you. Because I had to judge her and her moods and make sure she was always happy. And I hate that about myself.) Attracted on some level to narcissistic people (I have a trail of narcissistic people who used to be friends but I gradually became self-aware of them and quietly said good-bye.) An unrealistic view of what a family should look like (It’s taken me 26 years to figure out what a family is supposed to be. Thank goodness they all stuck around long enough.) Anger and rage toward the enmeshed parent (I can’t even describe in simple words my incandescent rage toward her that I have kept bottled up inside otherwise for many years. If quiet rage was punishable, I’d be in prison.)
Yep. I just ticked right on down that list. Every. Single. One.
When your mother tells you, as a teenager, that she hasn’t had sex with your father since 1982… When your mother tells you, as a kid, that her father abused her, sexually propositioned her, that she married your father to get away from her family… When you later discover that those are all lies and that she’s told you all of that so that she guarantees she’s the only person left in your life and you have no choice BUT to turn to her for emotional support…When your mother expects you to call her, every day, without fail, and is cold to you when you don’t… When your mother bitches to you about anything and everything your father does, no matter how big or small, and makes fun of what he does and who he is… When she wants to be included in everything you do and say with your friends… When she gets offended that you don’t like the same things she likes… When she makes you feel guilty for taking time to yourself, even if it’s a one hour nap, and yet berates you for not spending enough time away from your husband and children to be with her…
I could go on and on and on. But I think I’m probably boring you with the details.
On the flip side of all of this is my father. I’m slowly coming to terms with the fact that I’m now pretty pissed with him. Why didn’t he stand up for me? Why didn’t he tell his wife, “Hey, this is wrong!” I realize that he, too, was pretty damaged, but dammit it’s been 24 year since he died and I’m angry. And I can’t yell at him. And I’m feeling guilty because I’m feeling angry.
I don’t know why my mother was like this. Was it her own mother? Was it environment? DNA? Was it a random aberration? Like, she was raised just fine and turned out this way just because? Was she enmeshed with her mom because her mom was enmeshed with her mom… because some great-great-greatx10 grandmother started the whole generational shit show? Did Mom marry my dad on a whim, figured out she didn’t love him, and took the chickenshit way out by enmeshing me instead of divorcing him? I don’t know. And I refuse to get the solid answers I need because it would mean talking to her. And I will not sacrifice my well-being in order to do that.
One of the many videos I’ve watched from licensed therapists who talk about this condition mentioned that in order to repair the damage done by emotional incest, one must establish boundaries, advocate for yourself, parent your children the opposite way you were parented, yada, yada. But one item on the list is, “Talk about it and share your story.”
So. Here I am. Sharing it.
Hi. My name is Heather and I was a victim of emotional incest.
*The title of this post is taken from the title of the titular X-Files episode “Home” where Mulder and Scully discover the Peacock family who practice extreme inbreeding. I don’t know. I love the X-Files and I thought, “Why not name this post after an episode that involves incest?” My brain isn’t right, y’all.
One of 14 photos of Amelia after she stole my phone.
Being the mother of teenagers is weird as hell, y’all. It’s just crazy.
My niece is the mother of three little ones and is in the boat I used to be in a decade or so ago. Whenever I talk to her, I look back and think, “Wow, I was there. Here seemed so very far away. And yet… I’m smack in the middle of it.” In a way, this post is for her. But also? This post is for the me ten years from now that will be a mom of full-fledged adults. Because THAT shit will be absolutely cray.
I’m convinced that Jarrod is trying to get a head-start on his infectious disease vaccine career. Why? Because whenever I step into his room, there’s a smell. Not a “those socks haven’t been washed in two weeks and take a damned shower” smell. More like an “aren’t those the chicken nuggets we bought for dinner last week” smell. Yeah. From time to time, I’ll stop in to his room, gesticulate wildly in the general direction of everything, and yell something about, “WHAT IN TARNATION IS THAT STENCH?!” (Note: Yes, I say tarnation.). Eventually, I’ll find a bowl full of curdled milk and moldy Cheerios that I had no clue were even in said room in the kitchen sink and the nuggets will still be sitting on his desk, in front of the keyboard he looks at every evening when he plays video games. I just keep telling myself that someday, he’ll discover a cure for teen angst amidst all of that old food.
Driving. My 4-pound, 6-ounce baby is driving.
Amelia and her friends will FaceTime each other at all hours of the day and night. No lie. I will go downstairs to check on her and there, on her side table, will be her phone, plugged in and charging, with an active FaceTime call. On the screen will be several of her friends, all sleeping. It’s like a virtual slumber party. They will talk all day and into the wee hours. No one will hang up. They’ll just stay on the call, each falling asleep at different times, eventually waking one another up when they regain consciousness the next day.
Tyler and I will be in the family room, watching whatever TV show has piqued our interest, when Heath will march in, cracking his knuckles, ready to talk. He will launch in to his most recent computer creation, whether it’s an ocean liner he’s created on Roblox or a new flag he’s designed. He will pace the floor, nearly wearing out the carpet, sometimes for ten solid minutes. We’ll pause whatever we’re watching and just watch and listen, interjecting every now and then with “Uh-huh” or “Cool!” And then he’ll go silent, walk back upstairs, and Tyler and I will just look at each other, shrug, and realize we’ve been witness to another Heath drive-by. He just designed a new flag for Cherokee County and emailed the county commissioners telling them about it. Not that there’s been a request for a new flag, he just thinks the current one is rather ho-hum. (Cue “Sheldon Cooper’s Fun with Flags” intro music.) Also? He’s on reddit. And it’s a never ending cycle of each of us texting the other with funny memes and cat videos we’ve both found on said web site.
Apparently, sleeping with a hoodie around one’s neck is all the teen rage.
All three of them sleep in. And when I say “sleep in” I mean “there are some weekends when it’s 1PM and I go to their bedrooms and hold my index finger under their noses to feel for breath because I’m worried they’ve passed in their sleep.” When we’re all kids, don’t we all make promises to our future children? That you’ll never repeat the sins of your parents? Mine have always been that I will let the kids sleep in on weekends/holidays/summer and not force them to accompany me to the grocery store. But, sometimes? When they sleep in until the wee hours of the afternoon? It freaks me out. And not only do they sleep in, but the boys will sleep in their clothes. They eschew pajamas. They shower, put on clothes, go to bed, and roll out the next morning. I mean, it’s brilliant? But I’m waiting for the day when they have jobs and are calling me to ask how to remove sleep wrinkles from a tie.
The most common phrases uttered in the house:
Chill your beans! (Jarrod. To me. When I complain about the old food smell permeating his room.)
So, there’s this video on TikTok… (Amelia. All the time.)
OH MY GOD, JARROD! (Heath. Most days.)
YOU’RE DAMAGING MY CALM! (Tyler. Typically in the evenings. When the kids and I get riled up.)
No lie. You guys are the G.O.A.T. (Me. To multiple members of my family. Even when they leave Cheetos ground into my purple carpet.
Definitely don’t leave me out in the middle of nowhere with nothing but the occasional funeral director and bird for company.
And please, don’t ever come visit me. You have a life to live. People to love. Desires to fulfill.
Don’t remember me by driving by my cemetery and guiltily thinking, “Oh, yeah. I haven’t taken flowers to Heather. I need to do that,” and then promptly forgetting as your brain fills with that day’s to do list.
What I don’t want you to do is contribute to a death industry that’s more retail than respect. Don’t waste money on a coffin that’s just going to dent in as soon as the first shovel-full of dirt is heaped on it. Don’t stare at an urn on a shelf that is never dusted because it creeps you out. Don’t stick a bunch of roses in the ground that will just wilt by day’s end. And definitely DO NOT waste good money on “perpetual care.”
Don’t you dare save my phone number in your contacts list. What’s the point? I’m not going to pick up when you call and eventually, the mailbox will just get full. Don’t text me, either. That’s just creepy as fuck.
Don’t keep me on your social media “friends” list. Really. Not like I’m going to be ranting about the latest political nonsense when I’m gone. I’ll have more important things to worry about. Like, galaxies, my next life, how to walk through walls. If you stay connected with me on social media, then you’ll feel obligated to post there on my birthday, deathday, and any time you see the color purple pop up in your life. That’s just too damned much commitment.
Here’s what you need to do, instead.
Go pour yourself a cup of dark roast coffee with lots of sweetener and half-and-half. And if you hate coffee, that’s fine. Just hold the mug and warm up your hands.
Turn on the television and watch a TV show about serial killers. Or, just have it turned on for background noise.
Plant some flowers in your front yard. I don’t care what color. Just water them when it’s hot and throw some MiracleGro on that shit every two weeks and it will look a. mazing.
Listen to some loud, alternative 80s music in your car. I don’t care if you like it or not. Just turn that shit up and let the Depeche Mode wash over you.
Read a ghost story or ten. And if that creeps you out, read it in broad daylight.
Kiss your child on the forehead and give them a hug. And while you do it, awkwardly sniff their head. Because it’s your job to embarrass them.
Wear something purple. And if you’re a guy worried about your masculinity, then make sure said purple is lavender.
Decorate your home with pictures of your loved ones. No, that doesn’t include George Clooney or Kim Kardashian. Yes, that includes Henry Cavill.
Embrace the awesomeness of Halloween. Eat a piece of candy or wear a Michael Myers mask or hang up a black and orange wreath. I don’t care. Just keep that spookiness in your heart year-round.
Eat a huge hunk of chocolate. Like the size of your head huge.
Donate to a homeless shelter. Or pass out underwear and socks to unsheltered homeless. Tell them that you care about them and that they matter.
Pay for a child’s school lunch. Because you know there are kids out there who are hungry and that shit isn’t right.
Cheer on a marching band at a football game. Because they go out there and give it their all with minimal recognition. It will make their day if you stand up and holler like a blithering idiot.
Give the gift of creativity to someone in your life who loves to draw/sew/paint/sculpt/play music. Seriously. Randomly show up at your friend’s house with a fistful of paint brushes. They will go ape shit.
Sit in a sunbeam. Take a nap while you do it. You’ll thank me for it.
Go love on your cat or dog. Tell them they’re a good boy/girl. Because they are.
Curl up under a blanket and re-read your favorite book for the 90th time. Books are our friends and it’s OK to revisit an old friend.
Sit on the beach and listen to the waves. Turn the radio off. Why on earth would you listen to music at the beach? The only music you need is the water. And have a beer while you’re doing it. Corona Light with a lime wedge. And bury your feet in the sand. And apply sunscreen early and often.
Watch the rain and listen to the thunder and wait patiently for the sun to return. Because you need the rainy days to appreciate the sunny ones.
Go running. The distance doesn’t matter. Three feet or three miles. Just get your heart rate up.
Do one or more of those things. THOSE are the moments when you will feel close to me again. Otherwise? You’re just wasting your time.
* No, I’m not dying. Well, not today anyway. I’m still alive and kicking and not sick. It’s just that this last year has me thinking rather morbidly and I just had to light a candle for an old friend who has been taken off life support thanks to COVID-19. I feel like I needed to get this out there. Thanks for reading.
I fell asleep last night before midnight. I can remember a time when it was imperative that I stay up all night to ring in the new year. Now?
I couldn’t care less.
My soul is tired, y’all.
I know, I know. Someone out there is going to start gesturing at their computer screens and shouting, “But you’re an atheist! How can you believe you have a soul?”
It’s a figure of speech, OK? My soul, personality, emotions, core of my being, heart, prefrontal cortex, just… whatever, alright? It’s all fucking exhausted.
While the world shouts, “FUCK OFF, 2020!” I keep wondering, “What’s going to be so great about 2021?” There’s still a pandemic. Vaccines aren’t being administered as quickly as they should. There are still assholes refusing to wear masks and gathering in large groups putting the rest of us at risk and whining about vaccines being a government plot to track us with RFID chips all while watching flat-earth videos on their iPhones that alert cell towers as to their exact locations at all hours of the day and night. Politicians are still in the game of running the show not because they want to make the world a better place but because they like the attention and power. Left or right? Liberal or conservative? Centrist or extreme? What does it matter? The people who should be running the show are too smart to be politicians. We’re all still at home and going to be for the foreseeable future. There’s no change, all monotony, no inspiration. Eating is a chore and so is showering, writing, taekwondo, cross-stitching, playing the piano… all of it.
By staying in place, not moving, I have lost my way.
I take anti-depressants and if it wasn’t for my daily dose of Zoloft, I would probably be a nervous wreck, shivering in a corner and lashing out at my loved ones. As it is, I’m pleasant on the outside and slowly withering away on the inside.
I’m so very sad. Just… indescribably sad. I’m trying really hard to keep it together for my family. My friends. To just be a person who isn’t a raging basket case. But I’m exhausted by nothing changing and everything changing.
Three of my favorite people are gone. Forever. Each time I step outside my house I feel like people are meaner. Nastier. Because of that, I don’t want to leave. But if I don’t get out of this house soon, I may just go crazy.
My life is like constantly-flipping coin. Heads or tails? Tails or heads? I don’t know.
I’ll probably re-organize my office. Buy a new comforter. Try reading a new book. Binge watch another TV show on Netflix. But I know that deep down, those are just temporary fixes. For me, I feel like 2021 is going to be just a repeat of 2020.
Charley has been gone for over 28 days. The last time I saw him, hugged him, kissed him, called him “Chuck” was 45 days ago. One week ago yesterday, I drove to Dahlonega to pick up his ashes from the funeral home. No one was there–they were out on a pick-up call–and I had several hours to waste. Tyler encouraged me to drive to Alpenrose, Betty’s and Charley’s house, in Suches and pick up a few things.
I wasn’t ready.
The last time I was alone at that house was July, 2005. I was pregnant with the twins and on limited physical activity. Tyler was going out of town and didn’t want me to be home alone, so he drove me up to the mountains. One morning during my stay, Betty and Charley drove Betty’s mother to Atlanta for a doctor’s appointment. I didn’t tell Betty this at the time, but I spent most of the day driving pell-mell all over those 28-acres on a John Deere Gator. It was sprinkling rain and the power was out thanks to a tropical storm that had moved through the area the night before. I didn’t have anything else to do–no cable, no internet, no power–and I figured limited physical activity included sitting in a Gator and pushing the gas pedal. Of course, when they returned that evening, I was sitting on the couch, “reading” a book, acting like I’d had a boring day at home.
This time, though, they weren’t coming back.
I walked in to this silent, still house. Normally, Betty is at the door, arms open wide, smile even wider, Charley a few feet behind with a welcome grin on his face. This time, the only thing that greeted me was the wind chimes on the back deck, tolling a mournful song each time the wind blew. I slowly started upstairs, making my way to the room where Charley painted, and couldn’t make it. I sat down several steps from the top and just lost it. I joined in on whatever song the wind chimes had composed.
Entropy, first defined in the 19th century by German physicist Rudolph Clausius, comes from the Greek word for transformation and it is central to the second law of thermodynamics. At its most basic, entropy can be described as the natural tendency of all systems to evolve towards ever-increasing disorder. The first law of thermodynamics says that energy cannot be created or destroyed. Simply put, it’s transformed. But, the quality of the energy decreases and that’s where the second law of thermodynamics comes in to play. It states that as the energy is transformed, more of it is wasted each time. It also states that it’s the natural tendency of any isolated system to degenerate into a more disordered state.
I don’t know what the hell is more disordered than two people you dearly love dying within three weeks of one another.
After I pulled myself together, I walked into Charley’s art room and took in the chaos around me. Charley’s outlet was oil painting and he could transform a canvas into a gorgeous landscape. The room was covered in oil paintings. Canvases everywhere, full of flowers, waterfalls, trees, landscapes, beaches… you name it. The painting I was there to retrieve was an extremely large canvas depicting the Nā Pali coast of Kaua’i, Hawai’i, for Tyler and I. Charley had never finished it and seeing it there, on his easel, it perfectly depicted a life interrupted. Entropy. Tyler and I had mentioned to our friend, John, that there might be a painting we would want him to finish. But looking at it on that Monday, I wondered if we should just leave it alone. Hang it, unfinished. Or, destroy it. Convert that energy to something else.
No matter how many people were in the house in Suches, it held laughter. Betty’s loud, boisterous laughs. Charley’s low chuckles. The various high and low, fast and slow titters of whatever family and friends were visiting. It always made me happy, being in that house. Because I was always surrounded by love. With such an uncertain standing in my own family, the mountain home of Betty and Charley Dobson was my safe haven. I could hike the Appalachian Trail, sit at the foot of waterfalls, walk through rhododendron forests, or sit on a thick bed of moss and just listen. And, when I was done recharging, I could walk through the front doors and be unconditionally loved for who I was and am. There were no lies in Suches. No subterfuge. Just pure acceptance.
The living room was full of boxes, overflowing with photo albums, tchotchkes, books, and what-not. Several years ago, when Betty and her siblings moved their mother to a care home in South Georgia, they emptied her house of her belongings, trying to decide what should go, stay, or be passed on. There had been some minor family strife over it and I remember saying to Betty, “I don’t want anything when you are gone. Because the only thing I’m going to want is you. And I can’t have you. So, I don’t want anything.” I still feel that way. As I walked past those boxes, knowing that the closets of this home were still stuffed full of tangible things, I shook my head at them. I gathered up a few pictures of my three children and saw, sitting off to the side, a set of glass mixing bowls I had bought Betty this past May for Mother’s Day. I cried again and decided to take those. They couldn’t bring Betty back, but maybe they could bring me a smidge closer to her.
The morning after Charley died, when Tyler returned home, he sat down next to me and told me everything. I held it all in pretty well. I had told the kids and already shed a few tears, but I was doing OK. And then? Tyler handed them to me.
Charley’s old slide rules.
Back before the advent of calculators, slide rules were used by physicists and mathematicians to make complicated calculations. And these slide rules had been used by Charley throughout his high school years, while studying physics at Georgia Tech and when he taught physics at a local college. The slide rules are worn, well-used, and I pretty much lost it. For a physicist, the slide rule was more important than any other tool. Those objects radiated his energy. For a moment, there was no entropy. It was just me and my Chuck.
I had always told Tyler, “Hey. Many years from now, when you inherit that property, if we end up living there, I’m cool with that. Just give me my DirecTV, decent Internet, and a free weekend each month to go hang with friends, and I can live there.”
Now? That’s happened and far too soon. As I stood in that empty house, full of furniture and memories, silent, with no Betty or Charley to give me their love and support, wisdom and advice, I couldn’t stay any longer. I felt like an interloper. I felt like there was no way I could live up to what they had created. I don’t know what will happen to Alpenrose. But right now? It hurts too much to be there. I drove back down the mountain to Dahlonega, walked in to the funeral home, and cradled the second box full of ashes in as many months. I drove all the way home with my hand on the top of what was left of my dear father-in-law and talked to him. As the years went by after my father’s and uncle’s deaths, it bothered me more and more that the three months before their ashes were buried, they were hidden behind a door. Charley and Betty are on our side table, in the family room, right in the middle of the most active part of our house, a part of our family until they are scattered in accordance with their wishes. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
As we drove up the winding mountain road, the vibrant fall colors seemed blinding. The kids were quiet, each absorbed in whatever they were watching on their phones. An earbud in one ear, I half listened to an old Art Bell Coast to Coast episode. My other ear caught the sound of my minivan’s tires gliding across the blacktop. My eyes watched the road, but my brain wasn’t focused on anything except the events of the past week.
She’s been gone for a week. Betty was the epitome of grace. When I married her son twenty-five years ago, I instinctively knew I’d have a lot to live up to. But, I also knew I’d have quite a bit of time to prepare for that future role. Betty’s mother is well into her 90s, Charley’s mother lived into her 90s and his grandmother had the same longevity. I figured I’d be a senior citizen myself before wishing them a final good-bye in their extreme golden years and all would be well.
Life has a super funny way of making things not well.
When Charley was diagnosed with cancer last year, Betty’s nursing instincts and training from decades ago kicked in. She banned all of us from the house out of fear that Charley’s chemo-weakened immune system wouldn’t be able to handle even the most common of colds. We knew that Charley would have surgery around January and then? We could get back to life as normal.
But that wasn’t to be. January stretched to February thanks to ineffective chemo and February slipped toward March as he battle pneumonia. And then? COVID-19 hit the country and none of the hospitals were performing surgeries. When he was finally able to enter an operating room in August, it was too late. His cancer had spread everywhere. And still, Betty battled for her husband of 56 years.
Several days before Betty had her stroke, Charley called hospice. I know, deep down, that the stroke was due to stress. It was all Betty this last year. She drove Charley to all his chemo and doctor appointments. She fixed his meals, shopped for groceries, ran errands, paid bills, did absolutely anything and everything, all while keeping their environment COVID-19 free. She did it all, 24/7/365, with no break, no rest, no respite.
I’ve expressed a lot of anger as of late with people flouting common sense rules when it comes to social distancing, wearing masks, and getting vaccinated when the time comes. And some people couldn’t understand why. And this is why. Because my mother-in-law shouldn’t have done this alone. Was COVID-19 the cause of Betty’s death? In a round-about way? Yes. I think so.
But, I digress. Let’s consider those last four paragraphs the Tom Clancy portion of this blog post. You know, when you crack open a copy of Red Storm Rising or The Hunt for Red October and sandwiched between all the action and suspense is Tom’s chapter on the political philosophy of whatever it is he’s writing about. That up there is some of what I’m stewing on as of late.
What we’re facing, right now, as a family, is the loss of both of our parents and our children’s grandparents and great-grandparents. And that shouldn’t have happened. And in the midst of this absolute, all-encompassing grief and anger and frustration and fatigue, I’m trying to remember the little things about Betty.
When Betty and Charley first gutted their mountain home and began rebuilding it to match their dream, they envisioned a huge kitchen with a play area for the grandchildren directly above. And one of the first things Betty did was tie a pail to the railing so that the kids could lower down the bucket and she could send up snacks. This pail was used for years just for that purpose and when I looked up from the kitchen and saw it sitting there, it was like a punch in the stomach. The pail was last used was over a year ago, when we visited for the annual fall festival, when the voices and laughter of three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren echoed through the house, the pail being passed down for food and toys.
When we got to the house, one of the first things I did was ask Tyler for his mom’s car keys. He looked at me quizzically and I replied, “I have to fix her clock.” Betty never did learn how to change the time on her car’s clock and twice a year, I would do it for her. When I turned the key in the ignition, the clock blinked. Clearly, she had tried changing it herself, but was never able to finish it. I did it for her. It was something I needed to do. Even though she wasn’t here to ask me.
Betty had perfected her chocolate chip cookie recipe. And any time she made cookies for us, Tyler and I fought the kids for them. She started labeling them “Hugs” once COVID-19 hit and we could no longer visit. Tyler would make the trek to their home periodically to talk to his dad about the family business and Betty would pass along bags of cookies, her hugs for her grandchildren. I found the last dozen in the freezer on Sunday. I’m never throwing this bag away.
We all have our bedrooms where we sleep at their home. Tyler and I always crashed out in the bedroom directly under the kitchen. Each and every morning, I would wake up to hear Betty’s quick footsteps through the kitchen, turning on the ovens, checking the coffee pot, followed by Charley’s heavy boots to help. I would lay there, light pouring through the windows, my blurry eyes focusing on the bronze sculpture across the room, willing myself to get up and help make breakfast or wash dishes. I would run my hands over the back of that sculpture as I looked out the windows, gauging the weather, thinking how smooth the artist had made the model’s skin. But now, for me, when I see it, it personifies my grief.
The rocking chairs by the kitchen fireplace were where we would all gather. Betty and whoever else she co-opted to fix the upcoming meal would be moving around the island while the rest of us would sit on the hearth, in the rocking chairs, or pull in chairs from the dining room. And we would talk politics, religion, current events, anything and everything. Clutching coffee mugs or wine glasses, depending on the time of day, many great conversations were had, usually with Charley front and center and Betty trying to pull him away to help with food.
“Charley,” she would tentatively begin, “could you check on the roast?”
“Bet,” he would gently fuss in response, pushing himself up from the chair, “I just checked it ten minutes ago. It’s fine.”
She would look over her glasses at him and he would sigh and do whatever she wanted, returning to the conversation several minutes later. At which time she would encourage him to check on something else. At which time he would grumble and do whatever she asked. Rinse. Repeat.
Charley is the family artist. And summer, 2019, he drew like crazy. He took Amelia and her cousin, Hannah, to the side, and the three of them would spend nearly each morning drawing. Charcoal, pastels, pencils, beach scenes, waterfalls, whatever. Didn’t matter. One afternoon, Heath worked hard to fly a kite, wearing his signature orange. My memory of that day is being on the beach, laughing at his antics. Betty, though, was too focused on her other grandchildren and great-nieces and great-nephews playing in the water, worrying about sharks, jellyfish, riptides, and too much sun. Meanwhile, Charley was up on the condo balcony, capturing the pure joy of that moment on paper.
There are so many other little things that Betty and Charley did, too numerous to name, that I know will come at me in waves. There will be the small waves, like the annual family Christmas puzzle, that will merely wet my ankles. And there will be the larger waves, crashing around my waist, taking my breath away, like remembering the first two weeks of our children’s lives, at home, when Betty spent each night watching them sleep and waking me up to feed them. She would arrive at dinner, leave at breakfast, and help us ease into our new normal. She was exhausted, but she insisted. All the waves, all of the memories, in varying sizes and shapes, will come at me throughout the ensuing years. And I will do my best not to stumble when they hit, to instead allow them to wash over me like cool, ocean saltwater on a hot summer day.
Betty was, without a doubt, the most incredible woman I have ever known. She will never be replaced and I will never be able to be half the woman she was. But, that’s OK. Because even though I was her batshit crazy purple haired hillbilly daughter-in-law, she loved me. Unconditionally. And never asked me to be anything other than what I already was. I will miss her so much.
I had just left Gainesville. Wayne had labored over my salt and pepper hair to give me an amazing noggin full of purple strands. I had my favorite podcast blasting over the car speakers, the sunroof was open, the day was good.
My aunt called.
I had texted her to get an update about my grandmother, who had recently received a devastating cancer diagnosis. I hadn’t received a reply, but I knew she was busy.
As soon as I saw her name pop up on my phone’s screen, I knew it wasn’t good. Grandma was gone. I had to pull off to the side of the road, finish our phone call, and sit for a few minutes, hazard lights blinking, cars flying by completely unaware and uncaring of the fact that one of the greatest women on this Earth had left us. I cried. I scrambled through my center console, looking for any and all spare fast food napkins to sop up tears and snot. I knew she was going to die, because we all are, but that didn’t mitigate my sadness. I was fortunate enough to say final good-byes two weeks before, but it still stung. My tears were, and are, a mix of sadness and anger. Because I allowed myself to be gaslit for decades and had voluntarily cut off contact with my grandmother in order to support the woman who had lied to me.
Thelma Hutsenpiller Berkley grew up in and around Lewisburg and Fairlea, West Virginia. She was born in August, 1921, and like most women of her age, she married young and had two children. Unlike most women her age, she left her husband when he turned out to be an unfaithful lout who just up and ghosted her and stopped supporting his wife and two young children. Grandma moved back in with her parents, found a job with the telephone company, and worked, supporting her children and raising them as a single mother. It wasn’t easy, but she did it.
Paw-Paw and Grandma, on their wedding day, April 19, 1969.
One April day, in 1968, when the telephone operators went on strike, my grandfather–along with many other telephone company engineers–was called in from Charleston to Fairlea to help fill in. It was my Grandmother’s responsibility to help train them and there was this tall, handsome man named Simeon Berkley. He looked familiar to my grandmother because he was the brother of one of her neighbors. He asked her out to dinner and a year later, they were married. And she was the only grandmother I ever knew.
She knitted, crocheted, tatted, quilted, embroidered, grew the most gorgeous gladiolus and roses, canned, cooked, baked, gardened… everything. You name it, she knew how to do it. In her later years, she developed macular degeneration and gradually lost her sight. She quilted by hand and the last quilt she ever made, her cousin Earl helped her thread the needles so that she could finish. She knitted afghans for my three children when they were born. They weren’t up to her normal standards, but that’s because she knitted them by feel. The gardens she and my grandfather planted were full of fruits and vegetables that they would share with their blended family of children–six in all–and the cattle they raised help feed all of us throughout my childhood. I honestly wonder how, looking back on my childhood, my parents would have fed me if it hadn’t been for Thelma and Simeon Berkley.
My grandfather died in 1992. For 18 years, Grandma continued to live alone on their 70-odd acre farm in Greenbrier County, West Virginia. Every morning, the fog from the Greenbrier River blankets the rolling fields, obscuring the surrounding mountains. Each day, the sun will burn off that fog, revealing beautiful vistas. It’s a magical place. They called it, “Pleasant View Farm.” I don’t know. It’s more than a pleasant view. It’s a knock-your-socks-off view, but that’s too big for a sign.
One of the greatest moments for me was reading my book to Grandma.
Over two years ago, I re-established contact with my grandmother. Even though we hadn’t spoken in decades, she had still sent me cards for Christmas and my birthday, with some money tucked inside. She sent me baby gifts when I was pregnant, the odd postcard when she would travel. I later found out that she waited, all these years, for me to realize the truth of the lies I had been fed on a regular basis. And when I woke up, she welcomed me with open arms, no judgement. Over the course of several visits, she sat in her pink recliner, I sat across from her, and we talked. Constantly. We caught up, laughed, cried, and consoled. A couple of times, these talks went late into the night. I learned many truths, found out a lot about myself, her, and my mother. These moments are absolutely precious to me and I’m so fortunate to have had them before she left us.
Our family was like a Brady Bunch of knitted and sewn together connections. Four children for my grandfather, two for my grandmother, numerous grandchildren between all of them. None of us were treated any differently from the others because this one was a Berkley or this one was a Hoke. We were all loved, cherished, and provided for. My mother tried to make me believe otherwise. As I sit here, 24 hours in a world without my grandmother, I’m crying. I’m sad, angry, lost, tired, hurt, and just gutted. I know that within the next few days, I’ll be driving back north in order to celebrate Grandma’s life and accomplishments. Until then, I intend to wrap up in the quilt she made for me all those many years ago and think about the time we had together. She was a wonderful woman who lived a long, incredible life and every single one of us who knew her will miss her terribly.