My five-year-old feet twisted and slipped in the dusty soil of the farmer’s plowed field, making my journey a challenge. Normally, I would take the long way, through the neighbourhood backyards, but today the hazy humidity was too thick for even the slightest breeze, and the sun beat down relentlessly, a I just wanted to get home. Inside it would be cool, and I could play with my toys. My hair clung to my head, a tangle of sweat and dirt from the morning’s adventure. Reaching the back gate, I jiggled the catch impatiently, my tummy grumbling with hunger and an urgent need to relieve myself. With one last burst of energy, I sprinted across the silent yard and stumbled into the back door.
Our back door was actually two doors: the first a screen door with a stubborn latch that you had to hit to open. For me, this meant balancing precariously on the top step while reaching up and slamming my palm against it, all the while hoping I wouldn’t lose my balance and fall off. This feat accomplished, I reached for the knob of the inner wooden door. It was locked. Again.
I pounded my little fist against the door, yelling for someone to come quickly. It was my sister Lorraine who answered the door.
“Shush!” she said, blocking my way.
“Move out of the way! I have to go pee!”
“She can’t come in here!” I caught sight of my oldest sister, Lily, in the kitchen feeding the baby. “Keep her out.”
“She has to use the toilet.” Lorraine was soft-hearted. I was sure she would give in.
“Alright. But make it quick! And not a sound, you mind!”
Lorraine held the door for me and ushered me into the small two piece bathroom just inside.
“I’m hungry too!” I told her. “I want to come inside.”
“Take these and get out!” Lily shoved a sleeve of crackers at me.
“But it’s hot outside, I need to cool off!”
“Look,” she said, leaning over so her face was right in mine. “Mom is suicidal, and the last thing she needs is you around!”
“What? Then I should go to her.” I tried to push past, but Lily was too strong.
“You want her to kill herself? Then you better get out now!”
Lily pushed me out the door and I heard the lock slide into place. Slumping onto the back step, I stuffed two crackers in my mouth and gobbled them hungrily, not worrying about the crumbs; then realizing that this was all I had to eat, I started to nibble them slowly, sucking each morsel until it slowly turned to mush in my mouth.
I thought about what my sisters had said. Would my Mom really kill herself? And would I be to blame? It must be true, I thought, because I was the only locked out of the house.
I didn’t want my Mommy to die, and I didn’t know what to do about it. Tears and snot mingled with my soda crackers, but I didn’t brush them away. A new understanding was dawning and it made me feel deeply saddened, afraid, and alone. I had the power to make my mother take her own life.
My mother didn’t take her life that day, but as I grew older, the lesson I’d learned was reiterated and reiterated.
“Don’t make your father mad!”
“We must be nice to your sister, or her heart will get worse.”
“Don’t upset the baby!”
“Don’t tell your mother, it will only disappoint her.”
And on and on.
The burden of keeping my family happy became an impossible task that I somehow took on as my own. Of course, I was a failure.
But I kept trying.
I didn’t question the fallacy of this belief until I became a mother myself. As a parent, always trying to please children is a no-win situation. My role, I knew, was to make the tough calls, and say no even when my child would rage or cry. It hurt me to have always be the “bad” guy.
But it wasn’t until my fourtieth birthday that I really understood how wrong I had been all those years. As she had every year, my mother tried to downplay the importance of celebrating my day of birth.
“I don’t imagine you need anything,” she told me days before. “You’ve got more than you want, but I suppose you’ll be expecting something from me.” It was the same thing I heard every year. Weeks before each of my siblings birthdays she would begin planning, calling me up to make sure I didn’t forget. But she’d forgotten mine on more than one occasion, always excusing it by saying my needs weren’t as great as my siblings.
Something in me snapped that day. Something in me decided that I had feelings too, and I was going to express them.
“Mom,” I said. “If you don’t want to celebrate my birthday, then don’t, but don’t taunt me about it. I have feelings too, you know.”
“I’m just saying, you live a very good life, Beth. What could I possibly give you that you don’t already have.”
“A card, Mom. A token of acknowledgement. It doesn’t have to be a big deal.”
“You don’t have get like that about it.” My mother didn’t speak to me for a week.
I told my therapist that I was a bad daughter; that I had hurt my mother.
“Aren’t you all powerful!” he declared.
I was taken aback. “What do you mean?”
“Try as I might, I’ve never been able to make anyone feel anything. How someone feels is a personal, emotional response. Pretty sure you can’t choose that response for them.”
The truth of what he said hit me like an arrow shattering all those years of defeatist delusion. “Of course, I can’t. You mean my mother feeling hurt is her own choice.”
“She can choose to be hurt, angry, self-righteous, belligerent, whatever. You can do nothing about that. You don’t have that kind of power.” He let that sink in. “The only power you have is choosing your own response in any situation. What is important here is that you validated yourself by expressing something important to you. How she received it is out of your control.”
And all these years I thought that it was me keeping her alive.
“Rule your own life,” he added. “It’s so much easier than trying to rule everyone else’s.”