I’ve been unfolding and refolding this paper for months.
“It’s very possible it won’t go the way you think it will,” my therapist says, tissues at the ready.
How she thinks I think it will go:
Tears. Blubbered admissions, plea for forgiveness. Transparency.
How I think it will go:
Hissed threats. Bruised skin. Fear of his car in my driveway, don’t you DARE tell ANYONE
Biff’s been coughing a lot. I get an email from the school that there have been cases of hand, foot, and mouth in his grade.
Our boys are doomed to get it. They’ll get it tomorrow, and Saturday I will have to drive by myself to Milwaukee to face The Monster all alone and even if in a coffee shop I don’t care, I’ll be alone and he’ll talk me out of what I know like he’s always done and I feel so fucking weak–
Bo has to remind me multiple times that Biff has boogers, not a fever.
“But what if they get sick? We can’t put this off.”
Bo doesn’t know.
Neither do I.
A text from him: Are we still on for Saturday?
I don’t breathe while I text back: Yup.
Jittery. Half-listening to my kids. My daughter has a family fun night in the evening. I don’t want to go. I can’t concentrate on nice things. I can only think of burning coffee being thrown in my face, of being shut out by my family for making the past matter.
I unfold the paper while my daughter plays freeze tag with friends. I do not know these other parents, and tonight I’m not the kind of parent to chat with, anyway. So I read, and read again. My eyes stay with that last line:
If repentance does not occur, the victim can still forgive by offering bold love,
but relationship cannot be restored.
My relationship with The Monster has felt like the rope bridge in Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail, only without a blind Terry Gilliam asking me what my favorite color is before flinging me into The Gorge of Eternal Peril. I’m scared as Hell to get on it. I never know where to grip. I don’t dare trust a single board with my weight lest it gives and I fall. I fail.
And I cannot fail.
My kids cannot afford such a failure.
I’ve been climbing this rope bridge for 6 years now. Time’s only made it worse. Time will continue to make it worse.
For the sake of my children, for the sake of my sanity, one of two things needed to happen:
We must repair the bridge together, as a family, one and whole. This would mean family therapy–that we all, like my mother and his wife–be told about the past, so that we may work through the penitence and forgiveness together. To build trust, together.
Cut the ropes. Walk away.
I describe this image to Bo for the umpteenth time as we get ready for bed. He pulls the quilt up and over my bare arm. “Jean, no matter how many times you rehearse, it’s not going to go that way.”
Hours in the dark with tears and threats and withered hopes. Sharpened knives on frayed ropes.
The air cuts my lungs with leaf-smoke and frost-thaw. I want to hold Bo’s hand as he drives, but traffic is heavy, and deer collisions common. Biff and Bash are thrilled to be going to Great-Grandma’s house, a glorious place filled with trucks, helicopters, and all the donuts they can eat. Blondie is not quite as talkative, having lost yet another tooth down her gullet. (Anyone else have a kid swallow THREE out of six baby teeth? The tooth fairy in our district’s getting exasperated.) We arrive, get the kids settled. I do not take off my coat.
“Where are you and Daddy going?” Blondie’s lone front tooth is also perilously loose. The kid’s going to have to live off of ice cream pretty soon.
I can’t picture the meeting place–it’s a coffee shop unfamiliar to me. I can only feel the hate and fear rippling from the future into this moment with my daughter, whose birth cracked all the old hurts open. “Out,” I say. “Just for a little while.” I kick my inner self for making such a glib promise.
I do not say goodbye to my sons.
Bo gives vague answers to his grandmother’s questions about what we’re doing and follows me out.
The wind’s nasty as we walk. The skin of Bo’s hand is so calloused I can barely sense his warmth.
I step in. The shop’s empty but for one older gentleman at his computer. An open space, easy to overhear others. Do I watch my words? Do I get into detail, spit my own acid of memory in his face for the baristas to hear? Do I–
He’s already there.
He sits in the one nook of the place, a pair of leather chairs stuck into the corner where one can find the restrooms.
I want to turn around.
I want to turn around and just not do this.
I want to leave and breathe air and be by other people, people who haven’t hurt me.
Bo orders coffee. Looks at me.
Does he see the panic? Does he see how I’m shaking?
Fight or Flight.
This is what families do for each other
He will never say that to my children. He will never do any. of. that. Not to my children.
He already sits in one leather chair. I sit in the other, facing him. There’s no support, and I sink back. My instincts wobble–this off-balanceness is unexpected. Awkward chuckles from all of us as I right myself. Bo cannot sit by me, so he sits across from us.
The barista brings a customer over to talk about the beans on display behind me.
How–how am I to use the words I need to use with strangers flittering in and out like house flies?
He picked a place like this on purpose.
No, I did.
I didn’t want to risk being alone. Well there’s a consequence to that, Jean. This, strangers or no, is your shot.
Find the right words.
“We need to talk about the past.”
And we do.
“What you did to me made me hate myself, hate my life. I wanted to die for so, fucking, long. I didn’t feel like a human being. Bo helped me find that again. I thought, I thought it, what you did, could be in the past, just, back there, done. But motherhood changes that. I see you, and I see my kids, and all I can think of is what you did to me.”
He says nothing. He leans forward. He is shaking a little.
“I’m tired of being so angry and afraid all the time. I want my family to be safe. But the past has consequences, and one of those consequences is that I cannot trust you. I’m incapable of trusting you. And if you have any respect for my feelings, you’ll understand when I ask that you do not go near my kids if Bo and I aren’t around. Even if they’re at my mom’s. You, you just don’t go.”
He holds his chin in his hands. He says a very quiet “I understand.”
I think of The Monster I knew as a child, the golden boy as tall as a tree and just as wide, with fists that let loose stars before my eyes when he hit me. I see The Monster sitting before me now, hunched over. Shaking. Eyes on the floor.
I look at him, my demon. I’m looking at him with my spine straight. I’m not shaking anymore.
“We’re a family, all of us, but I…” I pause, yes, I can say what I’ve been rehearsing– “I feel like I’m only connected to you by a single rope. If we’re going to be a true family, we need family therapy to build the bridge together.” Pause. Do I threaten to cut him off, here and now?
He’s not disagreed, or lashed out in any way.
I was told he might need time. Jeez, how many years has this moment needed to come into existence?
“I’m not asking you to agree to that right now. But the therapist has strongly encouraged me to tell my mom so she understands why I act as I do when I’m around you.” He goes very still. “Just…just…trust starts with transparency. Family therapy would give that.”
He nods, and starts…well…questioning himself and giving one-word answers. Does he have a lot of regrets from that time of his life? Yes. Does he think about what he did? Yes. Does he respect why I’m asking what I’m asking? Yes.
For all those questions, he never flat-out says: Am I sorry? Yes. Did I fuck you up? Yes.
At one point he says: I don’t know what I could say that could make any of it better.
Now I want to scream: YOU COULD FUCKING SAY YOU’RE SORRY
But I don’t want to have to demand it. It wouldn’t be any better than asking Bash to tell Blondie sorry for kicking her. Just a hollow parroting.
I want him to want to say sorry and say it. To finally hold himself accountable for what he did to me.
But I can see from the question-answers, from the tangent he enters about his marriage, about my mother, that this moment isn’t coming unless I demand it.
I want it to come from him because he wants it to come.
And if the past is any indication of the present, that will never happen.
So I cut his tangent off and tie it back to the family therapy. “I’m not asking that we start it now, but it will have to happen if I’m ever to trust you. I hated you for so damn long.” I pause, and the words surprise even me: “I don’t hate you any more, for the record.”
He coughs. Thank you for saying that, he says.
I nod, a little bewildered inside. But what else explains how I dug myself out of all the anger and self-loathing to reclaim my humanity? How else could I both find and keep love, experience joy, challenge my skills with language? For all the Hell I experienced at his hands, I still managed to live.
I am stronger than he is.
And now he knows it.
I look at the words I’ve been wearing to keep up my strength since we agreed to meet.
I look back up, and say it:
“I forgive you.”
Not sure what other shoppers think as I fall in and out of sobs. Bo is glowing. My shakes are back, and my coffee’s cold. But Bo still manages to kiss my snot-coated lips and whispers, “I am so proud of you. You did it. You looked him in the eye, and you told him. And he knows I know, which proves you’re not afraid to talk about it anymore.”
I think about the bridge. I had walked into that coffee shop with knife in hand, ready to cut it and The Monster loose completely. That didn’t happen. A small part of me dared to hope he’d want the bridge repaired for the sake of the family. That didn’t happen, either. The future remains in the mist, guarded by a blind man whose questions–and the consequences of their answers–remain unpredictable.
As Sir Lancelot says: “Ask me the questions, Bridgekeeper. I am not afraid.”
Nor am I.
Thank you all, from the heart and soul of me, for sharing this journey that started with “Growing Pains” and continued through “Lessons Learned from Zoe Zolrod: First, Face Myself and Second, Find My Voice.” You cheered with me in “And through the mist you’ll find hope.” Now here we are, on the precipice of a new chapter in my life. Thank you, dearest kindred spirits, and God bless you.