Calling my mother is like playing Plinko on the Price Is Right. A contestant places a wooden disk at the top of the board and watches it fall in a random pattern, bouncing haphazardly between the Love/Support and Batshit Crazy slots. There is a whole manner of additional available prizes, but they generally fall in between those two categories. The player’s heart leaps when the piece looks to be headed toward Maternal Warmth only to sink in dismay when it makes a last second detour to Sicilian Guilt. The outcome waits to reveal itself even to the final moments, as she answers the phone the same way, no matter her mood.
Mother’s Day was no exception.
“HELLO?!” she accused into the phone, leaving me to guess at the direction our chat would take. To judge by her tone, anyone would think that she couldn’t possibly be more annoyed, that even correcting the grammatical errors of the entire population of Facebook would be preferable to taking my call. That’s not really the case…it’s just how she rolls.
Knowing her tone is no indication of her mood, I chirped a cheerful Happy Mother’s Day (!!) into the receiver and was rewarded with a couple of cold responses. Under normal circumstances (and to save my own sanity) I will beat feet to the end of the conversation when I see it headed in this direction. If I don’t, screaming matches occur; it’s better to live to fight another day than engage, logic has no place when her voice takes on a certain edge. But, it WAS Mother’s Day, and as such (I felt), required a bit of extra effort on my part.
After some prying and coaxing (“Seriously, what’s the matter? Why do you sound so hateful today?”) I was rewarded with a solid dose of the truth.
Now, here I pause to tell you something else about my mother. I’ve shared some shitty things about her on this blog. Told a couple of horror stories. Mostly because this seems to be where I work some crap out. But, beyond those stories, it should also be known that she’s a woman dealing with her own shit. A really smart fucking woman, dealing with her own shit. I forget sometimes that she’s spent a considerably longer amount of time trying to figure herself out and get back to even than I have, and as such, has the benefit of experience. Every once in a while, she pops out with something that sounds completely ridiculous, but turns out to be exactly what I needed to hear at that particular moment. It’s those times that I know I’m just as Batshit as she is and that there will never be anyone out there who understands quite like she does. This fact absolutely has TNT written all over it, but sometimes when it manifests, it’s the only thing in the world that helps me know I’m not alone.
This was one of those times.
“I’m not a goddamned business, Jennifer.”
Now, the layperson will read that line and wonder: “What the fuck does that even mean?!” But I’m no novice when it comes to my Mom. I knew exactly what she was talking about. I’d just spent the previous five-or-so minutes in a state of calm detachment, trying to figure out why she was upset. My voice had been soft and clear, friendly even, but there was no warmth behind it. I’d been giving her the fake customer service treatment, and she called me out. I was instantly fighting back tears. She knew, goddamn it. She knew and saw right through.
I use my call center voice when I’m in danger of feeling something. I use it when I’m perilously close to submitting to weakness. When I’m so lonely for the touch of the person I’m speaking to that going another moment without it might drive me to desperation; the emptier my soul, the more cordial my voice. Without that failsafe, that tone modulation, the outside world is in danger of falling victim to the dam breaking. I’d just been using it on her and she failed to play along, instead, forcing me to recognize something about myself that had (has) become my entire world lately.
There I was, face-to-face with the truth of my coping mechanisms.
These days, I am detachment embodied. I have shut myself down to only the bare minimum. Essential systems only. Reserve power. Low lighting. Martial law. I have declared a moratorium on the expression of, well, anything. I live so teeteringly close to a breakdown that I must maintain a state of hyper-vigilance lest this wound opens only to bleed and bleed and bleed.
I have become so careful about how I express myself that I don’t express myself at all. My closest relationships have withered off of once healthy vines. My need and drive to write has dried up because in its honesty, it would be admitting to the lies I’ve been telling those around me. I have no shortage of hands reaching toward me, but I’m afraid they have no idea what they’re offering; that once I give in and let go, allow myself to be comforted by those hands, that they’ll realize the extremity of my need and retreat, sorry at once that they’d offered any contact at all.
In truth, my inner world is a blustering chaos. I don’t jest when I say that out loud. It’s more than just a warning or humorous hyperbole. As my skin screams out for contact, tenderness, soft words, I breathe those desires back inside. Their ferocity isn’t to be meddled with, and I don’t trust the outstretched and open palms to know what they’re offering. With certainty I know that once I open that door, that cut, there will be no stanching the flow. And while I fully expect and understand that those offering aid will retract it once they see the truth in the outpouring, I also know that that abandonment is something I can never recover from.
So I keep to the inside and play my grand role. With abiding grace, I am thankful for the kindness of the people that reach out. I am quietly awed by their intentions and charity. But I must, at all costs, maintain this distance; a break in the ranks could mean a break in my tanks, the reserves, what’s left of this crumbling edifice. It’s not enough to know that she sees me, my Mother. Not enough to just be revealed. All I am at that point is revealed, uncovered. There is no protection in the open, and in the end, just being found out is not the same as being understood.