By Melissa Hart
My mother lost custody of me in the homophobic 1970s when she left my father for a woman. My daughter lost her mother to addiction at birth.
At nine, I read a novel in which a boy’s beloved hound dog got mauled by a cougar—ripped open from breastbone to pelvis so that her entrails spilled out and festooned a nearby bush like Christmas tinsel as she attempted to follow her master home. That’s how I felt when my mother and her girlfriend left me on my father’s front porch Sunday nights, and I watched their VW bus disappear down the street for 10 days—like my entrails were cascading from my gashed abdomen, pooling in a pile around my white Keds.
And that’s how I felt 35 years later, watching my nine-year-old daughter say goodbye to her older sisters on our front porch after 24 hours of let’s pretend and coloring books and hiking trails while I wished their adoptive mother a safe journey two and a half hours back down the highway.
My mother lost custody of me in the homophobic 1970s when she left my father for a woman. My daughter lost her mother to addiction at birth. She didn’t miss the parent she’d hardly met. But her sisters with their identical timbre and diction, their shared love for dollhouses and hip hop, their shared trauma—these girls, she missed.
My husband and I adopted her from Oregon’s foster care system. Another family had adopted her sisters—one of them developmentally delayed—and couldn’t parent a third infant with significant medical needs. We agreed to an open adoption, to visits with them when time and schedules permitted. For several years, our meetings consisted of tentative hours at shopping mall playgrounds and children’s museums as we got to know each other, gradually lengthening into daylong playdates and this season, a sleepover.
They tell you that as a parent, you’ll experience all the ages and stages of childhood again vicariously through your kid. I never found this to be true until the moment my daughter stood out on our winter porch with the kitchen vent emanating smells of her favorite macaroni and cheese, and she told her sisters goodbye.
All at once, memory walloped me. The girls clung to each other with goosebumps raised on their skinny arms, called “I love you, Sissy!” with their breath creating smoke flowers in the crisp air. Then, two of them walked to their car and one of them stayed behind, and my insides spilled out.
* * *
Every other Sunday in the eighties, when I stepped through my father’s door, I paused for a moment to take the temperature of the house. Almost always, he sat in his bedroom upstairs paying bills and listening to Vin Scully recap Dodger games on the radio. My stepmother stood in the kitchen describing for my younger siblings the new dessert she’d concocted from crushed Oreos and vanilla pudding or fresh Meyer lemons and cream cheese or bottles of stout poured into chocolate cake batter.
Alone, I sat on the carpet in my room and pillowed my head on the bed. No one came in. If I missed dinner those Sunday nights, if I shook my head at my stepmother, mute with sorrow, she returned to the dining room explaining my absence as “hormones.” I listened to my father’s overloud laughter and pressed my hands against my sternum, wondering how on earth to hold myself together for ten days before I could see my mother again.
Losing a family member over and over becomes a Sisyphean series of cruel small deaths. It would have been easier not to visit my mother every other weekend all the years of my adolescence. It would be easier not to see my daughter’s sisters, to let the girls get on with their lives 100 miles apart. But easy isn’t always optimal.
* * *
This winter on our porch, I left my daughter waving goodbye to her sisters in the car disappearing down the road. I went into the house and sat at one end of our big green couch, legs splayed inelegantly across the cushions, and reached for the warmest, softest blanket I could find. Then, I waited.
How do you help a child through grief and loss? The first few years, I met the moment of the sisters’ parting with a barrage of what I believed to be comforting distractions.
“Let’s go see a movie!” I told my daughter. “Let’s go to the trampoline park! Get ice cream! Go roller skating!”
She took my suggestions, mute, eyes wide and glittering as an animal’s when it’s in pain, and I congratulated myself for avoiding the chilly disregard of my father and stepmother. But last summer, after a playground visit with the sisters ended much too quickly, she hurled these words in my face: “Mommy, I don’t want to do anything!”
I heard her, and thought with a spinning head, what now?
The Buddhists tell us to sit with our pain, to make friends with it. Three decades ago, I sat with the loss of my mother surrounding me until I fell into bed exhausted. I think about what I wanted from the two parents with whom I lived—not space to process the transition as some obtuse child psychologist had counseled my father. Not even the whimsical desserts that my stepmother presented on her silver cake tray and I failed to recognize as reparation. I would have said no to a trip at the cinema or a game of Monopoly. I longed only for someone to say, “You hurt,” so that I could nod and push my insides back in and soldier on.
So this winter, I sat on the couch with a soft plaid blanket on my lap, and I waited. My daughter walked into the living room without looking at me. She closed the door against the 34-degree wind rattling our front yard cedar and wandered into her room.
I’ve failed, I thought. But she returned. Eyes downcast, she walked over to me and sat on the couch, straddling one of my outstretched legs. Then she crawled between them and lay against my chest. I covered her with the blanket and put my arms around her.
I couldn’t tell her it would be okay. Because it isn’t okay.
But if we can acknowledge that, not okay becomes more bearable.
My daughter and I sat there together on the couch for an hour and just breathed. She dozed a little in the warmth from the baseboard heater. I closed my eyes, as well.
For once, maybe I got it right. I didn’t do anything. I didn’t say anything. I just sat there with her, the slippery tangle of our entrails surrounding us, and held on.
Sky Pony Press will publish Melissa Hart’s debut middle-grade novel, Avenging the Owl, in April. She teaches for Whidbey Island’s MFA program in Creative Writing.
Photo: Andrew Pons/unsplash.com