To distract Middle, I got her talking about this year’s Christmas vacation. I’d already agreed to see her over the holiday, but also wanted to take my kids to the East Coast. Thirty years ago, our dad did his residency at Johns Hopkins. For two years we lived near Washington D.C., and he would take us to the Smithsonian on weekends.
I mainly wanted to take her mind off the dust-up. But also to find out what she remembered about the Smithsonian, as she was then about the age my youngest kid is now. After a moment, Middle said, “Well, would you go to D.C., and then still spend a week with us here after Christmas?”
It’s hard to explain how shocked I was. My family was up for a three day visit, and I’d already cried every day, slept through a trip everyone else took to the water park, and counted the hours until we’d leave in an effort to keep myself together. A week? Unthinkable.
Meanwhile, Middle continued on about her plans with what we’d do – maybe rent a house in Tahoe with Mom and Dad?
Her seeming disconnect with reality (as if Dad could manage a week in a strange place) and her apparent obliviousness that being around our parents is like being exposed to radiation, like already my skin was sloughing off and my hair falling out.
My utter How the fuck could you even suggest such a thing?!
And then: the sudden, huge divide between us. How could someone I’ve known all my life, one of two other people in the world who’s going through this terrible thing with me, suggest something so completely untenable? It was as if she’d suggested we all swim in a vat of cement for a week.
Finally, I had to say, “Middle, whether we go to D.C. or not, I would never spend more than three days here.” It sounded brutal, but it was also so true I couldn’t hide it, or even fake some seeming agreement to bail on later. And neither should you, I couldn’t quite say, but in retrospect wish I had. Move away, Middle.
In a moment, she’d gotten her game-face back on. “That was my expectation,” she said, “but I can see it’s not yours. That’s OK, I’ll adjust my plans for however you want to spend time.”
Eventually, Middle and I went back in the house. A while after that, my dad came out of the back bedroom. He has this repetitive pattern of walking through the house, checking each room, probably making sure he knows where Mom is. It makes him seem like he’s on sentry duty.
I was kind of morbidly curious to see how the rest of the day would play out. Had he forgotten about getting crossed up with Middle? When sentry duty brought him to the living room where we sat, I could see right away he was still stressed.
What he said was this: “I’m sorry. I get…” Arms waving slowly, miming confusion or something mixed up. His face an agony of apology. “The dog…,” he added, then shook his head, like that part didn’t matter, and left.
The next morning, I woke up around dawn. Middle doesn’t drink coffee, so I hit the Starbucks drive thru. The person ahead of me had a vanity plate which suggested she was both a nurse and a doula. Because of the acoustics, I heard her tell the cashier she wanted to pay for my order. Someone else had done it for her, and she wanted to pay it forward.
Overhearing her, I felt totally numb, watching her hand over her credit card again, pay for my stuff, and drive off. To not spoil the surprise, I kept my face blank as I pulled up, and listened to the fellow at the window explain my coffee had been paid for.
I started sobbing until the poor guy in the window said nervously, “Hey don’t cry, don’t cry. It’s a good thing,” and I worried I might turn him off the joys of paying it forward.
Thanks, Doula nurse.
I left with my husband and kids the next day, and spent a week at my MIL’s, which is remote and has poor cell service. The phone rang about an hour after I returned home, so I suspect Middle had been waiting for me to get back. She was crying or close to, and angry with me. “I’ve gotten so used to Dad. It was like you ripped off my protective shell, and I had to see him again.”
As toxic as it feels for me to see them, apparently it also feels toxic to them to see me.