Friday, February 12, 2010
My father's second wife -- still technically my stepmother; the two of them split in the early 1980s, but couldn't stand to have enough contact with each other to get divorced -- died very early this morning in Connecticut. I haven't been in contact with her for decades now, but my sister was still close to her, and has been sending me updates on her medical condition. She had lung cancer; I believe she died in an ICU, but I'm told it was peaceful, and friends were with her.
She was in her early seventies. I wish she'd lived longer, and I wish her life (at least the parts of it I know about) hadn't been so difficult.
So, yeah, my sister was still close to her. My father's sister and her family were still very close to her, even though many of them were no longer speaking to Dad. She had tons of extraordinarily loyal friends. So why haven't I spoken to her for decades?
Here's the thing: when she and my father married, I was the right age to be her biological child. My sister, nine years older than I, was too old. So my sister and my stepmom were good friends, but my stepmother and I --
Okay, let me back up. Her own parents were an odd pair: an extremely prim, devoutly Catholic, gentle mother, and a loud, lewd, alcoholic father prone to nuclear rages. I don't know if he ever laid a hand on either of them (although I wish I could say I'd be surprised), but I was terrified of his fury. He was a talented artist and an amazing cook, and he and I made an unbeatable team at Pinochle when I was a young teenager, but I tread very warily around him.
His only daughter inherited both his alcoholism and his temper. There were other issues. She was extremely bright, but she'd turned down a full college scholarship to work to help support her family. As far as I can tell, her model of parent-child relationships was that children were expected to sacrifice themselves for their parents, and could only see to their own happiness when they'd fixed whatever was wrong with mom and dad. Children's job was to rescue grown-ups.
She never would have said that aloud, of course, and probably wasn't conscious of thinking it. But that's how she lived.
So I was the right age to be her kid, and my father had his own drinking problems. You can guess where this is going. By the time I was in junior high school, she'd told me repeatedly, "It's your job to make your father stop drinking, because he loves you so much." (Sure. I'd love to. And how am I expected to do this . . . ?) During my every-other-weekend-visits to the two of them in New York, she also kept me up until all hours telling me about her problems, most of which revolved around my father. When I did something she disliked, she gave me the cold treatment and railed to my father about how cold and uncaring and selfish I was (I overheard several of those conversations). In due time, she started telling me directly how cold and uncaring and selfish I was. She and my father slid into a toxic spiral of bringing out the very worst in each other; she tried to pull me into various crises involving him, from which my mother, as gently as possible, extricated me. (Once she told my stepmother, very gently indeed, "You know, most people try to protect kids from situations like this;" my stepmother's response was a puzzled, "I guess you're right. I never thought about it that way." Of course she didn't; she never learned that lesson from her own parents. So sad!)
In the meantime, she was buying me presents she couldn't afford, being an absolutely brilliant hostess during increasingly infrequent dinner parties, and doing her best to cheer on my academic achievements. I now realize that last item must have been very difficult, since she'd sacrificed her own academic achievements and must have read my compulsive accomplishment at least in part as rejection and treachery -- which, to some extent, it was, since studying was my escape from family chaos.
When I was nineteen, this huge, tangled knot of guilt and shame and fury exploded when she physically assaulted me during an alcoholic blackout. (By then, she also had a pattern of physically hurting my father when he was too drunk to fight back.) She and I were both okay, thank God, and I got out of there, thank God, and the next morning -- when my father handed her the police report and told her what had happened -- she felt absolutely awful, so much so that my mother and sister and I all felt really sorry for her. She didn't remember assaulting me, because of the blackout. To her immense credit, she gathered her dignity and told my mother, "I know you'll never forgive me for what I did to Susan." I can't imagine how much courage that must have taken.
My mother said, "You didn't know what you were doing. We all know that. You were drunk. You need to go to AA. I'll take you to a meeting."
She didn't go to a meeting, though, and she didn't stop drinking. She and my dad split up, got briefly back together, and then split up for good. She came to my college graduation; he didn't. I tried to be friends with her until my late twenties. Let me emphasize again that she was bright, caring, compassionate and generous to everyone but me and Dad, and often to us too. But after the assault, my reptilian brain went into total panic mode whenever I was with her. We'd have a perfectly pleasant dinner, and then I'd be sick for three days afterwards from accumulated anxiety. I finally decided that maintaining the relationship wasn't worth it: I didn't think she'd ever be able to see my side of the story, not unless she stopped drinking, and I just wasn't getting enough out of spending time with her. So I broke off contact.
She never stopped drinking. Dad didn't, either; my mother's the only one who managed that difficult feat. But both of them became saner and healthier after they split up, because they were no longer bringing out the worst in each other. I was glad to hear it, but I kept heeding my reptilian brain, and stayed away.
No one else in the family except my mother, my sister and my sister's husband understood my reasons. As far as I know, no one else had a clue. My aunt -- my father's sister, still very close to the second wife -- asked me in 1995, just before my wedding, why I'd broken off contact. When I explained the above history, she listened attentively and then said, "I didn't know about any of that. I understand now: of course you wouldn't want to see her." That's all we ever said about it.
Last summer I visited my cousin, my aunt's daughter -- also still very close to the second wife -- who asked me the same question. Her mom apparently hadn't filled her in. As I told the story, her eyes got progressively wider, and finally she said, "Oh my God, Susan! I can't believe what you've been through! And no, of course you wouldn't want to see her!"
I stressed to both my aunt and cousin, as I have to my sister, that I fully understood why they were still in touch. They'd always seen the best of my stepmother; my father and I were the two who pushed her buttons. Around almost everyone else, she was a hugely admirable person.
And now she's dead. I spoke to both my sister and my cousin on the phone today; both of them asked me how I feel. I'm not sure. I'm sad for her, and for the many people who loved her. I know I made the right decision in ending the relationship, so I don't regret that, but I do have an odd sense of absence, because someone who knew me so well for so long is gone. And, foolishly and selfishly, I can't help but wonder what my stepmother's many friends (many of whom were also my friends once) think of me now. I'm sure they see me as the uncaring, ungrateful child she periodically told me I was.
There were some good times before everything went south, and I am grateful for those. Mostly, I'm grateful that she and Dad split up: both of them would have died decades sooner if they'd stayed together. I'm grateful other people took care of her when I couldn't.
Today I sent a condolence e-mail to my stepmother's best friend's daughter. I knew this woman when she was a little girl. She's the person who was at the bedside at the end, saying, "It's okay. You can go now; you can rejoin my mom and all the people you love who've aleady died." I thanked her for being there.
I wonder if she'll believe me when I say I cared. I guess it doesn't matter. I know I cared. But I had to care for myself first. If that's selfish, so be it.
When I talked to my sister today, I said, "We only have one parent left."
"I know," she said. I could hear the shiver in her voice. It's an eerie feeling.