parents and children

I had some very deep revelations about my parents last night. It was a lot less like being brought to my knees and a lot more like a light fog finally lifting.

Lately, the same tarot cards came up in separate readings–ones I did for myself, ones that people did for everyone, and one that a friend for me. These are probably some of the most unfun, unfavorable cards. I’d even rather have the Death card come up.

 

Five of Cups: The traditional image is of a person with a long black cloak of cape, head bowed, with three golden chalices spilled to his left, and two upright golden chalices. You can call this the “don’t cry over spilled milk” card–focus on the unspilled two cups you still have. The cups in tarot represent our emotions.

The Tower: This is a fearsome card, with lightning striking a tower that is topped with a crown. Flames shooting out from the windows. Two people are falling headlong. It’s a shocker. It’s chaos. It’s destruction. It’s an undoing of the status quo.

Seven of Swords: There’s a man escaping with five swords, leaving two behind. He’s looking back with a smirk. Deception. Mental strategy. Manipulation. Theft. Guilt.

The Moon: There are two dogs barking at a moon sternly looking down. And, there’s some random lobster coming from the depths of a river or lake. The unconscious. Confusion. Dream world. Shadow. Intuition. Illusion. Darkness. Life cycles. Deepest fears. I love moonlight, but it’s not the best light for truly seeing yourself and the world.

Unfun cards, but life is unfun sometimes.

All this week, I’ve been worried that I  was missing something, that I haven’t grieved enough, or that I’ve been involved in self-deception, or that something shocking was going to happen that was going to be for the worst. I’ve never had tarot upset me so much. So I had been dreading what this week was going to turn up.

I think I know what it is now.

I called my mom yesterday to check in on a family friend who lives in London. She has been battling bladder cancer, although she is cancer-free now. But due to the terror attack near Parliament yesterday, I was just concerned.

This family friend came to visit us right before I started kindergarten. I had this very odd habit of sucking my bottom lip. My only memory of her was us sitting at a table, and she telling me very plainly although very kindly that if I continued to suck my lip, kids in school would make fun of me. I stopped cold turkey, right then and there. So, I owe that auntie a lot!

Anyway, London time, we were sure she was in bed. My mom was going to check on her through WhatsApp the following day.

My mom had mentioned something about some program where people write down the history of their elders. I had been thinking about this myself with my own father, but how I’m not sure if I wanted to hear his stories, which always felt like he had been oppressed his whole life.

He’s been suffering from bipolar disorder for years, quite unmedicated. He lives separately from my mom. They have been separated for at least 17 years.

My mom asked if I kept in touch with him, and I said no. I made it clear to him in a phone call, when I was in my mid-20s, that I wouldn’t keep in touch if he wasn’t going to seek help for his mental health issues.

He pops in on Facebook sometimes. The first time he did, I almost had a mental health breakdown. I didn’t respond for months. It felt like he had broken through a locked gate. There was a period where he’d write me way early in the morning, 2am, 3am, which meant that he must have been in a manic state. My dad was never really a night owl, unlike me.

I brought up reasons why I didn’t keep in touch–how he had written me this scary looking screed of paranoia right before I cut off ties with him. It looked like pages out of the Bible, written in black and read–that made my mom laugh wryly, which made me feel. As a writer, I do wish I didn’t throw it away, but having left my home just a few years before, it was too painful to see the brilliant man I knew as my dad be disfigured by bipolar disorder.

He had written something else more recently that broke my heart and I never told anyone about. It was more paranoid delusions but he mentioned this instance of abuse that had happened to him as a little boy, in the vein that he felt like his mother did nothing to protect him. When I read it the first time, I knew that this was one of the vortices of pain that his life spun around, and thus our whole family silently whirled around, too. But I decided to let his estranged wife, my mother, know. Usually, I wouldn’t disclose this, but I felt like she needed to understand him a little more.

 

She didn’t know that this had happened. There was no OMG, no exclamation of shock. She had been taking some counseling classes through her church and herself had no idea how abuse could effectively ruin someone’s life. Until then, she didn’t understand the effects of trauma. So her reaction was more through the lens of acceptance; these things happen.

She then brought up another instance of possible abuse that he had mentioned to her back when he was in medical school. She wasn’t sure if he had witnessed it or if it had happened to him. It broke my heart some more. I had a little more insight into why he had been such a selfish father and husband, why it seemed like he wasn’t that great at showing affection or caring. His own parental relationships felt even more strained than mine ever were.

I told my mom how his relationship with his mother, who chose not to attend his wedding, made me internalize no interest in learning about his side of the family. If she doesn’t care about my dad’s marriage, then she won’t care about the children that were created from it. She had her own mental health issues, most likely. When my dad came to visit her with his future mother-in-law, my mom’s mother, and a good friend of his, she yelled at them like they were intruders. That was not how you greeted your son, his friend, his future MIL, or guests of any kind. My mom’s mom had brought food, and I don’t even think my dad’s mom accepted it.

It’s probably no surprise that my dad and my mom’s mom (who are both Leos) got along famously. He was the kind of boyfriend you married. He helped with childcare with my mom’s mom of his future nieces and nephews after he got off of a hospital shift. So, before my mom’s mom died, she never knew how badly things had turned for him, and she never would in this life. My mom couldn’t bear to break her heart. I don’t blame her.

So my mom was in agreement with all I was saying…until we started to talk about how odd it was that my father was confessing to me in the first place. I had been tired of being a shrink and priest for my family, and said just as much to her. I said it with no bitterness or pain. I wondered if she really understood my point of view.

I was trying to show the difference of how parents and children should interact with each other, even as both age. In my view, if I have a child, I’ll always be their parent and that person would also be my child. The power dynamic, even if I became ill or suffered from dementia–it wouldn’t change. It’s what I signed up for. Even if we became best friends, I’d still be the parent. I’ll always try to protect them from harm, as much as I can without it being oppressive or overbearing. So, if I had had an incident of abuse, I probably wouldn’t spill the beans to my child in some random essay. There would be some context, i.e., a discussion about abuse, what happens if someone abuses you, who should you contact, etc. Or, maybe it’d come up in conversation. Even then, I’d be concerned about the burden I’d place on my child by telling her. It’d be my job to do that.

My dad always just spilled his guts to me, like in ways that I don’t even think he’d talk to his friends. A habitual line-crosser. And this may be some cultural expectation because I ask my mother if her dad was still alive and decided to confess things to her, would she think that was OK. And she said it would be.

I vaguely remember my thesis advisor saying that in West African culture, the eldest daughter could hold the role of counselor to her father (and I guess mother, too). In my American point of view, it feels like a double invasion of privacy.

Looking back, what’s strange to me is how I so invariably trusted my parents as a child and then just started seeing them as individuals well before I left for college. The transition to individuation happened so quickly–and part of that is the journey of adolescence to adulthood. These people with their lives, separate from mine, lives they lived before I came along, and lives their lived in parallel, but rarely in synchronization.

My phone was breaking up so it only seemed like she understood how inappropriate it was for him to tell me this through an essay until the end of our conversation. I hung up with a sense of heaviness, of responsibility, of finality.

This is really all to say that I get it now. It feels kind of sick and twisted for me to feel “better” about the emotional neglect I had as a child. Oh great, that explains why you were insufferable to live with! But I have the words and the knowledge about abuse and neglect that my parents, both medical professionals, never had. I don’t mean to slight my upbringing–it was tough in ways that showed no broken bones or bruises. I never went hungry. I was always clothed.

The lack of boundaries my parents had with me makes sense now. How am I able to see that sharing sensitive information with a child, young or an adult, can be devastating for the child? And how come they can’t see that?

To throw in some astrology, Capricorns and Capricorn risings/ascendants (and I have both) are old souls who often feel like they raise their parents. They are the big daddies of the zodiac, so it makes sense. My brother is a Cancer, which is the mom of the zodiac. I feel like my parents gave birth to their own parents, especially my father. My brother is still very much scarred from my father’s absence. They have a symbiotic relationship that is probably the tightest in our family.

I don’t even think the “why” of this matters anymore. Both of my parents are staring into the twilight of their years. Like how those tarot cards were taunting and haunting me this week, I’ve always wondered if I ever felt sorry or sad enough about my parents’ emotional absence from my life. Like a weed that grows in the sidewalk but could have grown in rich soil–does it matter? The weed grows, nonetheless. But still, of course it does. That weed could have had a richer and fuller life in the right environment. But it’s also like the Five of Cups tarot card–it’s not so much about mourning as it is a way out of it. Focus on what you do have–a skill that I have yet to master.

Sometimes I wait for some ugly snot crying to just overtake me about my family, about my existential isolation, like The Tower. Maybe the right circumstances haven’t lined up–which usually for me is when I feel love and accepted, or see it in other people’s lives.

I don’t think the tears are necessary anymore.

I’m fine, even though I more than deserve two loving parents who can angibly love and support me and are always proud of me. And yes, the tarot cards were really about last night’s conversation more than anything.

A few hours before the phone call, I went through a short forgiveness meditation and focused on them. Forgiveness kept coming up in my oracle card readings, in emails, in tweets. I t even came up again today. Yet I hadn’t been feeling any sort of grudge–or honestly anything. And that’s why those tarot cards had been so frustrating. Have I not done the work here? I felt I had been honest with myself about everything, as much as I can be. I hadn’t been sitting here being upset with anyone. In fact, I was feeling very positive about my life. Hopeful, even.

The recent full moon in Virgo really helped me clarify what I wanted in a relationship–to really be known, to not have to self-edit, to have true intimacy. I know that my relationship with my parents has probably blocked some amazing people in my life because, although I am fine, there’s the little girl who wants all of that, in a parental sense. The man I end up with cannot be my father and my name is not Electra.

So I did that meditation just to be sure that there wasn’t anything else in the way of developing healthy relationships and having my own family, whatever that will look like for me. It felt good. No tears. Just a lot of light and lightness. Nothing earth-shattering, just peaceful. And then that conversation with my mom happened. I wasn’t spoiling for it.

Still, grace floated down for me, for my parents. It’s so much easier for me to accept them now, and it’s sad that it stems from such painful, horrific reasons. I don’t have a daughter’s compassion for them, but a mother’s compassion.

Sidenote: this year, I’ve realized that if I never have kids, I had my mother, my father, and my brother that I have all parented and still somewhat parent. Most of all, I still need to parent myself, to respect my own boundaries and the boundaries of others, to remind myself that I deserve to be spared gory details, that I deserve some consideration, that I deserve some grace.

The cups have been spilled. The tower has been struck. The swords have been absconded, and the moon shone brightly, and I saw the shadows of my parents clearly. It feels like a last step to my own personal freedom from my past and even from my present.

I can finally believe, deep in my heart, that my parents did the best they could with the resources they had–and so did I. And it doesn’t mean that my mom and I will ever be close, or that I will ever talk to my dad again. It just means whatever lasting stains of resentment that colored my life have been cleansed. Maybe that will lay the path open for ugly crying. Or, maybe not.

Even though at times this came out of the blue, I have fought for over 25 years to get to this place of clarity and acceptance. I really deserve this win.

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