Fight or flight.

Mothers aren’t supposed to leave. Or perhaps I should say mothers aren’t supposed to leave on purpose. But mine did when I was 4 years old.

You know how there are moments in your life that encapsulate every single sense of your being? I mean you can literally feel the moments when you think back to them. Maybe that’s what they mean by “sensory memories” because you can see them, you can smell them, you can almost touch them, or rather, they touch you. And most of the time, those moments aren’t the good ones. They are the painful, ugly moments that you just want to forget.

I vaguely remember the time leading up to that night. To be honest, the only real memory I have of my mother prior to her leaving is the day she picked me up from preschool. It was drizzling outside, and we were walking, holding hands, and singing, “lions and tigers and bears, oh my!” all the way to the car. It must have been a short while later, perhaps the following summer, when one single instant became the basis for every relationship I’ve ever had.

It was late. It had to have been. My brother, sister, and I were in bed, or maybe getting ready for bed because I remember pajamas.

Then a front door slamming. Then yelling.
My father taking us all to the living room and turning on the TV, not concerned with what was on; his only concern was getting us out of the way.

(Enemy Mine was on. A movie starring Dennis Quaid and Louis Gossett Jr. The things we remember, right?)

The yelling turned to screaming turned to a physical altercation between the two people I trusted most. I vividly recall trying to squeeze my way between my mom and dad. I pulled them close to me, trying to get them to stop, to make-up, but I was pushed to the side.

We were all crying. My brother was only 2, and he had absolutely no clue what was going on. My sister, 7, and probably seeing a very different scene than I was. But the fighting continued and then suddenly it stopped. And my mom was gone.

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me and mom on a school bus, 1984

She never came home. She found a new place to live, with new friends and new boyfriends. We’d see her, don’t get me wrong. But seeing her and seeing her always meant different things. There were a few years of stability, years when she had a solid relationship with a solid man, and during those years we would see her semi-often. But those years were short lived.

My mother suffered many abuses. As I grew up I began to see what a very sick woman she was. She’s never consistently been the same person for long periods of time. She was always changing and I tried so hard to keep up, even when my own safety was at risk. There are stories of some of my visits with her when I was a teenager that have yet to be shared with anyone, and I’m not sure they can be.

She’s missed out on a lot of my life. She’s met my daughter a handful of times, and my son only once. Most of the time I don’t know if she’s living or dying, but the truth is I think she’s been dying her whole life. I’ve always been compared to my mom. We share  a lot of the same personality traits, and we’ve both experienced the death grip of addiction and mental illness. In a lot of ways we had lived parallel lives up until I found sobriety and a really great shrink.

I think it’s a normal feeling that moms have, to want to run away, take a breather, get some space. I’ve felt it more times than I care to admit, and every time I feel it, I wonder if everyone was right – am I just like my mom? Could I just leave, and live freely. I mean the idea sounds so absolutely epic sometimes, you know? But when that urge to take flight engulfs me, when the exhaustion and frustration and irritation become so immense that I feel like I’m going to explode, that’s when that sensory memory returns and I have to remind myself:

I am my mother’s daughter, but I am not my mother.

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