I've been back for eleven days after visiting my father in Arizona over Christmas. They've been jittery with publication obligations, which sometimes leave me deer-in-the-headlights about things like putting my luggage away (finished THAT this morning) or opening the Christmas cards that came while I was away (I don't even know where they are now). In the mean time, life rushes on & I've neglected Car on the Hill for other spaces & there are things I want to say about my life that belong here.
I went to Arizona not knowing what to expect of the first Christmas without Mother. Would I cry the entire time? Would I sleep & eat the entire two weeks to escape the misery? Would Dad want me to spend the time doing non-Christmas things? I had a couple of TV spots & a radio interview lined up, as well as a friend & a cousin to see, & my social life increased late in the game when another cousin, the sister of my Phoenix cousin, came to stay for a couple of days as well. Dad began to fret about her visit. Where would she sleep? What would she want to eat? Would he like her?
The approach was a little fraught, then, with questions. Little did I think I would learn more about my relationship with my mother by her absence than I had in the 53 Christmases we'd spent together.
I believe 2009 stands as the most pleasant Christmas in memory.
I couldn't put up certain ornaments: they were too laden with association, too much Mom's. But Dad wanted me to put up the tree, of which he could only see the blur of the lights, & when we sat looking at it, I described what ornaments stood out, which I think he liked. I brought out two new holiday CDs & he loved If Mozart Wrote White Christmas, playing it well beyond the 25th. I did some cookie baking and took a bag to the Christmas Eve dinner we spent with old friends, & he asked me to make extra copies of calendars as gifts, which our friends enjoyed. (I did two this year, at Shutterfly which has a sort of scrapbook/caption capacity: "2003 in Lab Years" had dog quotes; 2010 Flowers had seasonal floral quotes. One of my dog walking clients cried over the dog quotes.)
Friends were kind enough to send my gifts to Arizona so I had things to open on Christmas afternoon. Dad loved the bottle of obscure & hugely expensive rum I brought out (opened it on the spot & took two big swigs). I wasn't sure he'd want gifts but after some phlegmatic responses he gave into his greedy side & I set about finding the best I could. I made seafood casserole & a faux yule log that is delicious. It was a quiet day. He watched football & I read Laurie Notaro's An Idiot Girl's Christmas and Augusten Burroughs's You Better Not Cry, which did, in fact, produce copious crying from me.
The visit was pretty much like that. Low key. Smaller but in the spirit of our years together. Together but separate.
Therein lies the insight: that together but separate.
When my mother was alive, life was together but divisive. She hated his sports, his documentaries, his Library of Congress books for the blind, so Dad retreated to their bedroom to watch TV & listen to his tapes through his headphones. Dinner had to be early because later upset Mom's stomach & meds, & my father's historical disinterest in talking at the table is abetted by tracheal problems, leaving Mom hungry for conversation, which fell on my shoulders. In the last few years she had less to contribute but more greed of me than ever.
While Dad hung out in the bedroom, Mom napped through Oprah & her knock-off line up, then on to Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy and the news. Somehow she had the idea that I loved those shows, or would if only she could get me to sit down & watch. She never did remember from visit to visit that I spend the half hour of Wheel calling out "Bankrupt! Bankrupt!" & she got furious with my father during Jeopardy because he sat there rattling off the answers.
Bookended with the Dr. Phil white trash problems, I felt like I was living in a trailer on the moon.
Dad's come out of the bedroom now. Football & boxing are such a steady roar that I can ignore them. I enjoy listening to his tapes -- we spent the days leading up to Christmas with Magellan's voyage and the smell of butter cookies.
I certainly ate too much but in the past I would wake in the middle of the night and go out to the kitchen and take a pile of crap back to bed. Every night. This time I engaged in this garbagey behavior perhaps four times. I ate less during the day, & had two day-long comas (the day after Christmas, the day I had an 8 a.m. TV gig that I got up before first light to drive the unfamiliar route to & then spent my vertical time running to the toilet).
The house felt quieter despite the roar of television or talking book or CD (Dad is quite deaf, even with hearing aids). He didn't expect me to watch football with him & I was involved in his books or enjoying his music. Our tastes are similar & we met up with each other when they coincided. Even then, however, we each live on our own planet, which we understand & wave to each other from.
This is not to say he can't be demanding & it drives both my brother & me crazy to be doing one thing for him only to find him next to us with a request to do something else, spoken in the sort of voice that we have to take a breath & ask, "Can it wait?"
But I found, in the absence of my mother, that I was more intact. I felt an expectation from her, rightly or not, to give ALL my words to her. I'm 53 & ever-single, a writer & dog-walker: I don't have that many words to say out loud. I know I was the light of her life but it evolved into a cost to my body & my self-respect & my energy, & I used food-induced comas to escape whatever it was I felt I should & probably wasn't giving her.
I love my mom...but I can live with my dad.
At least I came home with fodder for therapy.
Some couples throw that phrase around like breadcrumbs to the pigeons...