Contested history, memory, and the body

When I was four, my parents separated.

At the time, all the participants – my mother, my father, me, and all the rest of our extended family – had different understandings of what happened. It wasn’t until I reached the end of high school, in the summer between my senior year and my first year of college, that a crucial piece of the puzzle became clear to me, when my father sat me down and told me that he is gay, that he had come out to my mother when I was four, that his coming out had precipitated their separation.

At the time of the separation, the family was living in another country. We had moved there for a finite period of time, for reasons having to do with my father’s work. My mother, though, loved living there. She felt more at home in that country than she ever had here, in ours. When I was five, when my father’s assignment came to an end, when the time for the family’s long-planned return to the States approached, my mother found herself confronted with a difficult choice. I say “difficult.” She found it difficult. That’s a better way to say it. She was torn: stay where she was, where she had felt at home for the first, for the only, time in her life; where she had found a community of friends, colleagues, unlike any she’d ever enjoyed in the U.S. Or, return to the land of her birth, the land of her parents. Her father had died recently. Her mother showed love sadomasochistically, torturing the most those she loved the most. And my mother was her favorite.

Add to that, my mother had created an intellectual and professional life for her in her new home. Returning to the U.S. meant abandoning that.

Of course, staying where she was, not returning to the U.S. meant, most painfully, abandoning me, her only child.

To many in my family, the choice should have been clear. It cost my mother dearly in her relationships with her mother, with her siblings, with her U.S. friends, that she didn’t simply return as originally planned, that the decision was difficult for her, that it did present her with what felt like an impossible, lose-lose choice. Many of those in her family already judged her harshly for having left my father and me in the first place. Divorce was shameful in those days, at least in my mom’s family. Abandonment of a child? Unforgivable. And as I’ve written – she didn’t exactly abandon me. She was close by, and made a point of organizing her life to include me in it – albeit not seven, or even five, days a week, but rather, two. Or maybe a little less.

So when my father and I returned to the States, my mother confronted that question so famously framed by the Clash.

What happened around the time of my father’s and my return to the States, though, is hazy. My memory – such as it is – is that my mother’s return was very uncertain. That I didn’t know if, or when, she would return; that I wasn’t sure if, or when, I would see her again. My father – a wonderful man now, but a bit of a monster back then – insists that my memory fails me. That my mother’s return always was certain, that there was a short period (he can’t remember if it was two, four, or six weeks – but not more than that, he insists) when he and I were here, and she was there. But that the ultimate outcome always was certain.

Never mind that I was five. That a five-year-old’s relationship to time, to presence and absence, to abandonment, simply isn’t that of a rational adult. Maybe her return was certain to him, to her. It seems unlikely that I understood that in my body.

My mother, of course, died fourteen years later. She and I discussed some of this in her final months, and what I recall of that – even those conversations, now, have become shrouded with the mist of time – is that she told me she was tortured, that she often regretted the decisions she made. But I don’t recall our conversations about – or even if we had conversations about – the particular period of time around my father’s and my – and her, ultimate – return to the U.S.

Recently, my mother’s siblings gave me a bit of reason to trust my memory a bit more, to favor it over my father’s. And my father – as I said, a terrific, wonderful, kind, generous man, today – is a bit of a memory terrorist. He relentlessly edits the past to suit his needs. He is powerful, forceful, in his molding of the past, in ways that I am not alone in experiencing as, at times, a bit gaslight-y.

So there’s all that.

And then, there’s the most interesting part: in the way of “epiphanies,” I’ve had, for the umpteenth time, the epiphany that I relive, frequently, the bodily memory of that time, the feelings I had when I wasn’t entirely sure if, when, my mother and I would be together again.

I did that one recent night, using Charlotte to provide them to me. I’ve used T to provide them to me. I used Marina. V. Isabel. You name it – any woman I’ve ever cared about (and many I haven’t) I’ve used to drag my body through the memories of that particular abandonment, that terror, that annihilation.

Sometimes I’ve blamed the women for this. I blamed Marina a lot. (And to be fair, we had a bit of a trauma bond, and she did contribute to the experiences I had.) I don’t really blame Charlotte at all. She’s attentive, dutiful. She’s done nothing wrong.

But my intent on remembering is powerful. My body is committed to reminding me, to showing me, what I can’t remember in my mind. And so, I do remember. I remember with a sense of dread, of cold. My chest tightens, my heart rises in my chest, up into my throat. My breathing quickens, my pulse quickens. I struggle to get a full, deep breath. I feel my entire existence shrink down to a tiny knot in my sternum. It’s fucking awful.

No wonder I remember it, bodily, so clearly. Whether it was two, four, or six weeks, surely, my body at age five was consumed with a terror for which I lacked words, in a family in which I was told that there was nothing wrong, that everything was ok, that I would be all right.

This message was not the right message for me. No one told me – and perhaps, no one could have, perhaps I couldn’t have heard – “You are feeling what you’re feeling, and that’s ok.”

Nowadays, I still need to hear that. And, maybe, “What you’re feeling is more of a memory than you know. Don’t confuse the present with the past.”

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