My students ask me in English where my father is. I reply with “Boston.” My students follow with English, slowly, “Where is…your…mom?” I can only respond with a shrug of my shoulders and say in Hebrew, Ani lo yoda’at. And the truth is, kiddos, I haven’t known for a long time.
It was ten years ago today that my mother made the choice to abandon my younger sister, Devon and I. Devon was sleeping while I watched my mother run downstairs to her medicine closet in the bathroom—the myriad of pills obtained by doctor shopping—run back up the stairs and began to swallow half a bottle of the muscle relaxant Klonapin. I was no stranger to this happening. In the past, my father would call the police. They would show up at the house, take my mother away in an ambulance, put her in the hospital for a while and then she’d come home and eventually do it again. Nothing ever changed. The only difference this time was that my parents were divorced and my father could not call the police since he didn’t live with us. I stood between the threshold of my room and the hallway, seeing as my 100-pound mother had somehow managed to rip my door off of its hinges in one of her blitzed out episodes. All she kept saying was, “This is your and your father’s fault.” She eventually retreated to her room and I sat around wondering what to do. My mother ended up stumbling around downstairs at some point in the morning and the kitchen was trashed. I left my father a voicemail saying that my mother had trashed the house and that I was calling 911. The ambulance showed up five minutes later; Crosstown Ave in West Roxbury, Massachusetts only saw action whenever the police showed up at the house for things like this. The EMT’s helped me pack a bag of clothes for my mother and it was then that we found her suicide note. It said:
I leave everything to you. Nothing to Taylor and dad. It’s Taylor and dad’s fault. I wish to be cremated. Just remember I will be happier.
I love you lots,
Her words still echo inside me after all this time. And people wonder why I won’t “get over it.”
On the ride to the hospital, the driver asked me why I had not called 911 right away. I didn’t want to because I wanted my mother dead. I only began telling people about the verbal and physical abuse she did to me a few months prior to this incident. If my mother had died, she couldn’t hurt me anymore. The abuse had started right after Devon was born. My father worked and my mother stayed home, so it would occur after I got home from school and my father hadn’t gotten home yet. After he moved out in 1999, things escalated, but I knew no one would believe me. No one thought anything could happen in the quaint, lower-middle class, Irish-Catholic neighborhood of West Roxbury. The Department of Social Services (DSS, now DCF) didn’t believe me when I told them. I showed them the bruises and scratches that adorned my skin, the disarray of the house that was constant since my mother was constantly blitzed out on whatever drug concoction du jour and told them about my mother’s weapons towards me—belts, high-heeled shoes, magazines, hot water and her long, acrylic nails. DSS did nothing and the abuse continued until that fateful night. So that’s why I didn’t call 911 right away.
In addition to DSS, no one ever took our case seriously in the beginning. I was fourteen at the time and because DSS took Devon and I to a courthouse, we were assigned a judge. The judge said that due to my age, she considered me mature and asked what I wanted to happen. I told her that I wanted to live with my father. She gave my father temporary custody but she and DSS kept saying that I would be placed back with my mother because she believed that fathers weren’t good parents. I couldn’t believe that this judge and DSS, the people that my tax dollars pay for to protect me, didn’t listen. The judge mandated that I visit my mother and every few weekends I had to. I rarely spoke a word and she would continue to verbally abuse me during these visits. The only people who ever listened to me were my lawyer, my father’s lawyer and the guardian ad litem who I met with a year later. They knew the damage that my mother had done. They didn’t agree with the judge and DSS that I would want to see my mother again; apart from the mandated visits, I have only seen my mother once in the past ten years. These people were my lifeline. I even considered going into law for a while, until I realized I wasn’t good at it. But I knew that I wanted to help people. My father is not one for sentiments, but one day during my senior year of high school when we were walking past the daycare I had been working at, he stood in front of me, placed his hands on my shoulders and said, “It is your moral obligation to make sure that what happened to you doesn’t happen to anyone else.” He still asks if there was a girl around when he said this. There wasn’t. I took those words to heart and I’ve been in the early education field for almost ten years.
I could easily rehash the details of when my life changed ten years ago. I can talk about the fact that only four people at my first high school listened to me and finally saw why I refused to drink or do drugs. They weren’t the ones calling me a Goody-Two-Shoes like my other classmates. I can talk about how Devon and I had to live in a studio apartment with no stove or oven for a month, since my father had resigned his life after moving out of the house to be a bachelor and didn’t need a huge apartment. I can talk about how I became the mother for my sister when I had to pick her up from school twice a week and care for her after school and how my grades suffered because I was now a teenage mother. I can talk about how our possessions stayed in our old house until my mother threw them in garbage bags and we didn’t see them until she dumped them at my grandparents’ house, possessions that we had to sell because of my father’s limited income and space constraints. I can talk about the failures of the legal system in what should’ve been an open-and-shut case. I can talk about the fact that my mother’s family never helped us and how my paternal grandparents, who were in their eighties, had to take care of my sister for two years and how their daughter, my Auntie Laurie, was the only person who agreed to take us if my father couldn’t. But I won’t. I can, however, say that it never ceases to amaze me that something that happened so long ago can still hurt as much as if it only happened yesterday.
It’s hard to live in Israel sometimes. Of course it’s hard not being able to speak, read or write the language, earning a monthly stipend that is less than the American federal poverty level when converted to dollars, or not having friends or family here. But those aren’t the hardest things. The hardest thing is living in a country where the dominant religion is matriarchal. I know the “Jewish mom” stereotypes. I know that many Jews only consider a child Jewish if the mother is. The importance that Judaism places on the mother doesn’t go unnoticed. I remember on Birthright when I fell in love with the “nice, Jewish boy.” (See my post with the same name.) He had mentioned how much he couldn’t wait to be a father someday. I didn’t know him well, but I saw the light in his eyes when he spoke about having children. Prior to finding out he had a girlfriend, I thought about what it’d be like to marry him and to give this man children. He deserved to be a father with his wisdom and kindness. The thing is, even if we had been able to be together, there’s no way I could give him children. As much as Birthright and other Jewish organizations believe that Jews around the world will become more in touch with their Jewish identity by visiting Israel (I certainly did), I know that they hope that we’ll marry a Jew and have Jewish babies. My Israeli Birthright guide even told the group to shower together due to a water shortage! For the first time ever since I had decided I didn’t want children so many years ago, I began to entertain the idea of having a child someday. Even now, when I think of all the support the Jewish community has given me—financial and otherwise—for moving here, I sometimes think that I owe it to them to expand the number of Jews in the world. I know that Israel’s neighbors want to annihilate the Jews—Israeli and otherwise—for simply breathing. Do I have a responsibility to increase the Jewish population? I have days where I think I do. But I also know that as much as I want to save the Jews and to advocate for them, I cannot bring a child into this world with my past.
I’ve had the days where I think about giving birth. I think about my child coming out of me, crying and covered in blood. I imagine the doctor placing him or her on my chest and holding them close. I look down at my child, his or her small head resting against my beating heart. I see myself sitting up, letting my child nurse from my breast as their eyes widen at the sound of my voice when I tell them I love them. I would tell my child that I love him or her every day and every time, I would mean it. I wouldn’t be my mother and make my child feel like they didn’t deserve the chance to breathe. But then I see myself not being able to love my child enough. Because of the debate of whether or not substance abuse is due to nature or nurture, I cannot pass these struggles on to a child, biological or adopted. I cannot pass on the verbal and physical abuse that my mother learned from her father. People say I would be different. But I cannot say for certainty if I would. And I’d rather not take that chance.
After ten years, I can at least recognize how hard things have been for my father. While I hate when people call him a martyr for being a single father, the only true martyrs are my grandparents and Auntie Laurie. Single mothers do this parenting thing by themselves every day. My father did what he was supposed to do, being half my DNA. I do know that it was hard for him having to go from the bachelor life to a single father with two children. We were lucky enough that the landlord in our building pushed us up on the waiting list in order to move into a one-bedroom apartment and eventually a two-bedroom that he still lives in. I know that I may joke around about my father being a jerk sometimes, but I do see that there must be a million ways to be a good father. And he is one.
His default is sarcasm. He is smart, attentive, forgiving and resourceful. His first reaction is to listen and his factory setting is to react sweetly. He remembers, more so than I do, to stand back and analyze situations. But he is constantly listening to me, too—with me and for me and because of me and in spite of me. I know he knows that I want to give back to the world, but he knows he’s letting me do that by exploring it on my own. Sometimes he says that he “rescued” me. But that does not work for me. He did what any decent parent would do. I’ve watched him at work—loyal and with a crinkle in his eyebrows. And sometimes I get that same crinkle. I have faith that my father will help me grow into a woman who continues to be kind and to search for meaning in this balagan of a world. And I do these things because my father does.
After ten years of ups and downs with my past, I know that families break apart every day. When you pause to consider it, it’s a frighteningly ordinary fact. Ordinary. Except that she was my mother, and sadness, as much as anger, is opposed to reason.
I wish March 1st would not hold me captive. Tears line up like trees, poised to blow straight through the sorrow. But it’s never really straight. Sadness is, apparently, also opposed to anything slightly linear. The ambulance that took Devon and I away from our house twisted and turned down the streets. I’ve let myself deal with pain. I wish I could protect my students from the broken families that some of them come from. They’re certainly better at dealing with the pain than me.
Ten Marches ago, Devon and I sat in a hospital room breathing horror. Our mother had chosen drugs over us and drugs would have her. When I realized my mother was mentally gone, I contemplated death. How could she leave us alone, traveling to whatever rehab center she was headed to, without us? I basked in sheer terror at the darkness of our new destinies and wondered how we’d ever live without her. I think we’ve done okay.
Visions of my mother beating me still haunt me. Horrible thoughts, so grotesque they cause something inside me to squirm. I cannot put on high-heeled shoes without seeing them as weapons. I cannot boil water on a hot plate without remembering how it had been thrown on me. The few times I get manicures, I get very short acrylics and try not to remember my mother’s—the nails that scratched my neck when she’d grab me by the collar of my shirt.
These days, as an educator, things finally feel less like I have been run over by a truck. Sometimes my mother’s absent voice still fills my ears and I can almost feel the way her fingers yanked my arms. I remember her skin from the time I saw her almost two years ago—so thin and showing the bones underneath. Her cheekbones, collarbone, shoulders and ribs all forced their way to prominence. I can close my eyes to picture her face on the stretcher at Faulkner Hospital; to remember the way her eyes bore into my soul and her lips formed in a straight line. Ten years later, I continue to struggle to bring to mind how all of those parts of her being alive fit together.
My mother’s heart stopped that morning and I was left stunned. I wondered how I would ever recover and if I would “get over it” as people have told me to do. I cannot forget her. I see her when I nurse a drink for two hours and cannot get wasted like normal people. I see her when I’m forced to take care of such people. I see her when I am writhing around on the floor in pain because I don’t want the doctor to think I’m a hypochondriac like her. I see her when I have to take prescription medication—her downfall. I see her when my lungs constrict because she smoked when she was pregnant with me and I get sick from everyone smoking here. I see her when I work with children, when I look in the mirror and see her nose and lips on my face, when I defend myself against not wanting children or when a guy sees how tense I get because my mother’s physical abuse makes it hard for my body to tell the difference between when someone is about to strike me or hug me. She is everywhere.
These days, I have my Jews to talk to. My Birthrighters listened to me about this. ITF-Netanya does, too. At least with my Jews, there isn’t this huge guard up around my heart as much as before. Letting myself feel things—both good and bad—isn’t the terrifying idea it once was in college or in London. I don’t know where I’d be without the Jews, in more ways than one.
Living life in Israel and working with children for almost ten years is at least a good reminder that even though my world had been irrevocably changed for both good and bad reasons ten years ago, life does ultimately go on. And I have a lot of living to do.