The shower was warm and comforting, a steady stream that relaxed and invigorated her. Standing under the shower head, Sarah felt ensconced, safe, as if she had entered her own private, protective cocoon. She wanted to remain there forever. Although the snow and the wind had tapered off through the night, the temperature was still bitterly cold outside the house.
It was also cold inside the house, and, frankly, unpredictable. She never knew which version of her mother she would meet each morning. It was like living with a Sybil-incarnate. There was the somnambulist, the manic child and the raging bully – and sometimes a combination of all three. Her mornings frequently felt like a race against time, a frenzied dash towards and through the front door before her mother rose for the day. This particular morning, she had gotten through breakfast without a run-in and had tip-toed upstairs to the shower without incident. But how long could it last? She didn’t consider herself a lucky person, and her chances for avoiding conflict when she inevitably returned downstairs seemed woefully poor.
Reluctantly, Sarah turned off the shower, which quickly sputtered to a stop. She then stepped out, pushing a slick, shiny arm through the still lingering steam, grabbing a fuzzy, blue towel from the rack. She began toweling herself off, rubbing the towel across wet skin before stepping out into the larger bathroom. She hadn’t realized it initially, but she had been in the shower for a long time. The steam had completely taken over the room, inundating the walls and fogging up the mirror completely. Normally a reflective surface, the glass was now cloudy, obscured, a shield of congealed perspiration. She couldn’t see anything looking into it, and she found herself strangely grateful for this fact.
Wrapping the towel around her body from above her knee to her sternum, she walked out of the bathroom, turned to the right and then entered her bedroom. Her closet stood open in all of its gaping, intimidating glory, and she was struck by two thoughts that were both contradictory and true: She had too many clothes, but she also had nothing to wear.
Fifteen minutes later, nothing had changed, aside from the pile of discarded clothing options on her bed, which kept growing with no end in sight. Despite this chaos, she found herself suddenly smiling, a big shit-eating grin that spread from ear-to-ear. When they had lived together, she made a habit of asking James to choose between different outfits and weigh things like which pair of her shoes he liked best. She had always teased him about his choices, pushing him into situations where there was no right answer, playfully groaning at each one of his suggestions. This had been towards the beginning of their co-habitation, however, a lifetime ago.
Finally settling on an outfit, Sarah walked downstairs, passing her mother’s door which stood slightly ajar. Her anxiety may have been unwarranted. It was likely that her mother wouldn’t be up for at least a few hours and that she wouldn’t be capable of much for a few hours more. This would give Sarah time, something she desperately needed before heading out once more to the complex. She envisioned sitting for a while at the table and reading, something she hadn’t gotten the chance to do for quite some time, not that she hadn’t been trying. Every day she lugged her bulging backpack back and forth from her house to the complex. And everyday it sat in a dirty corner of the staff office, untouched as she ran around like a beheaded fowl.
She expected the kitchen to be exactly as she had left it, full of the same ghoulish madness she had seen last night and earlier this morning. But, entering the room, she saw that it was the exact opposite: The kitchen was clean, orderly, revealing no trace of the rampant dysfunction that was such a major part of her home life.
“What?” she said to the empty room, dumbfounded.
Most amazing of all was that on the now crumb-free counter top sat her lunch pail. Opening it, she saw that it was stuffed full of food. There was a vegetable and cheese sandwich on wheat bread, followed by two Tupperware full of carrots and strawberries and complimented by a baggie containing two chocolate chip cookies. Inspecting the meal, Sarah was immediately hit with a wave of déjà vu, so powerful it made her slightly dizzy. Lunches like this had greeted Sarah on almost a daily basis many years ago. Regardless of time or circumstance, these lunches had always been there, acting as a staple, a guarantee, a beacon to follow in the confusing fog of childhood and adolescence.
She didn’t know how long it had been since something like this had happened – not that she was complaining. She was grown now, and the much-appreciated consistency these lunches had embodied was now unnecessary. That was why she was surprised by how touched she felt staring at the pail. It transported her to a younger, simpler time.
“I thought it might be nice to not have to make lunch for once,” came a pained gurgle from behind her.
Sarah turned around and saw that her mother had hobbled up behind her. She was dressed for the day, which was a good thing, but she looked as if she had been put through the wringer. Her face was both ashen and ruddy, two contrasting attributes united solely by a shared clamminess. Her skin was also more deeply lined than Sarah had ever seen it, with canyon-like crow’s feet streaking away from her red, slightly puffy eyes. But mostly it was her arms that truly shocked Sarah. Reed-thin and wasted, they hung limply at her sides.
“Thank you,” Sarah murmured back, shutting the lunch pail. Her eyes stung as she fought back tears. Steadying herself, she then turned to face her mother, noticing that a fragrant, delicious smell of onions and balsamic still hung in the air.
“Are you ok?” Sarah asked tentatively but with genuine concern.
“Oh yes, of course. I’m sorry about last night. I just, I just had a bad night.”
She looked sheepish and sad, and Sarah felt her heart ache – but only slightly. The bandage around her mother’s finger was fresh and had clearly been changed earlier this morning.
“How does your lunch look?” her mother asked hopefully, breaking what was quickly becoming an uncomfortable silence.
“It looks amazing,” Sarah replied, no clue on where to take the conversation next.
The silence hung over them like a cloud, heavy and dark. Sarah wanted to disappear, to seep through the floor like some sort of ethereal spirit. And for a beautiful moment, she saw herself doing just that, floating down and then away, levitating over the frozen Minnesotan countryside, heading somewhere else, anywhere else.
“Look, about last night,” her mother said, bringing Sarah crashing back to earth.
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“We need to talk about it.”
“You need to talk about it.”
“I’m going to get help.”
Sarah had heard this before, countless times, a vague promise backed by no gravity or consequence.
“Really?” she asked, not believing it for a minute.
Although they were little more than a few feet apart, a massive divide separated the two women. Sarah didn’t know if it was bridgeable. It may have been just a couple of years ago, but things had changed since then and so had she.
“I just started thinking about your dad, and I got so angry about it, about everything.”
Sarah knew she was still in the kitchen, still grounded near the counter top which held her lunch, but, at the same time, everything was falling away. Reason and logic, meaning and causality were being rendered nugatory. This was when she knew she was once again being pulled into the delusion, the fantasy that constituted her mother’s waking life.
She felt herself growing enraged with every word that came out of her mother’s mouth, an anger that pushed her already frayed nerves to the breaking point.
“He was always trying to control me,” her mother growled in a spastic, instinctual way, “always watching me when all I wanted was to do my own thing.”
Sarah committed herself to trying to disconnect, and amazingly her mother’s wild blather started to become more muted and distant. For the last few years, she had fought fire with fire, chastising her mother when she would go on these tirades about Sarah’s father, Sarah’s choices, everything. She couldn’t calculate how much energy she had expended in these battles over truth and fantasy. It felt like it had been a titanic struggle of biblical proportions, one that had always been raging and very likely always would be.
Sarah knew where her behavior stemmed from: She wanted her mother to grapple with how her sickness had actually affected those she purported to care about. She wanted her to logically own her failures while recognizing the myriad of forces – social, cultural and historical – pressing down upon and shaping her experience.
Her mother hadn’t simply been born this way. Nobody is merely a product of nature. The arc of a life is etched by innumerable forces, only one of which being individual agency. Sarah’s mother was, at least partially, the product of her father, Sarah’s grandfather, who himself was the product of his. A long line of abuse and dysfunction had percolated through various generations, stretching back to some now unknown point of germination. And, for better or worse, some traits appeared to be ingrained and static, solidified and ineluctable. One could struggle, of course, but it was often a painstakingly slow battle, the psychological equivalent of trying to scratch through cement with one’s fingernail.
Acknowledging this was, to Sarah, the only way for there to be positive change. Sometimes, it felt that if she could just get her mother to rationally engage with the world all their problems could be dealt with. But Sarah also knew that blindly relying on logic was itself illogical. Nothing suggested that this concept was the dominant force governing human behavior, at least no more than emotional rationalization.
Of course, this was all perfectly understandable. There was no mollification to be found within the milieu of logic. And the world was cold; that much she knew. Perhaps the only silver lining was human beings’ innate aptitude to imagine a better one.
So where did that leave Sarah and her mother? She knew what she wanted to do. She wanted to stride towards her mother, grab her by her bony shoulders and scream that her father hadn’t left due purely to his own selfishness.
This was one option and a valid one at that. After all, this was a woman who had often terrorized her and, even when Sarah was younger, possessing a mood that could change on a dime. Thinking about it, long buried memories came roaring back, accompanied by their respective emotions and sensations. Once more, she could hear the verbal abuse she had suffered for the infraction of temporarily losing the family’s car keys. She could again feel the anxiety that had accompanied almost every social engagement, where a frenzied zeal to appear perfect had left everyone walking on eggshells. Lastly, the familiar sense of fear came seeping back into her body, tied to the potential for physical violence.
Still, Sarah also recognized she could also do something different. The woman in front of her had caused her pain, but their relationship was complicated and immense, a dense jumble of both bad and good. The further she went back in time, the more shades of grey emerged. It hadn’t just been about heartache and disappointment, anxiety and fear. Her relationship with her mother had also included parties and trips, classroom events and homework sessions, engaged conversation and shared meals, hugs and soothing words. When concentrating hard enough, she could again hear her mother read to her at night, see her toil endlessly on academic dioramas and feel the fabric of one of her awe-inspiring, homemade Halloween costumes.
This maternalism had been palpable, instinctual and seemingly second-nature. For as long as she could remember, this had given Sarah pause. She couldn’t understand how her mother could seamlessly embody such an all-encompassing role and with seemingly little thought or calculation. Had Sarah’s mother ever debated her role, thought at length about where the parent ended and the woman began? There was no way to know for sure, but it certainly seemed as if she hadn’t. Instead, there was always the faint air of someone unconsciously fulfilling expectation, adhering to gender obligation or, maybe, just following biological programming.
It hadn’t mattered in those early years, of course. Whatever motivations and thought processes were behind her mother deciding to become a parent, Sarah had known that she was loved. However, this had changed as Sarah grew. While she still believed her mother loved her, their relationship had deteriorated significantly as Sarah had gotten older and asserted more independence. Now, it was barely a husk of its former, salubrious self. The loss of control and purpose had brought about a dissolution of identity that had been too much for her mother. She had floundered, pinwheeled and sought relief harder than ever.
Sarah didn’t believe that she owed her mother for the goodness of those childhood years; she had never asked to be born. Yet she did think there was maybe something she could learn from her mother’s tenuous relationship to her own identity. Her mother had obtained a role through parenting, an identity and a form of life that had carried her through. She was able to step outside of herself in a way that was, for a time, transcendent. But as Sarah grew, she had been forced to turn inward, and it all fell apart. She wasn’t able to make a critically-important leap in regards to her role as a parent. She hadn’t been able to transition from effectively caring for to effectively caring about. What’s more, she hadn’t cared enough for herself, hadn’t developed some of the self-discipline and emotional maturity necessary to created a sustainable life.
Sarah already knew that becoming consumed by motherhood was a path that she had no interest in treading. Beauvoir’s The Second Sex and Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique – which sat dog-eared and creased in her backpack upstairs – had taught her that long ago. She could see that one had to create a life broader in scope, while negotiating an identity that is both personally-fulfilling and independent.
But Sarah could also understand that her own search for this identity had, at best, brought her no closer to anything true. So much of herself was wrapped up in posturing, in gesture, in putting on airs. The calculations and scheming, the rumination and the self-analysis may have been the converse of the woman in front of her, but they weren’t necessarily better. Sarah was perhaps more aware of the mental mechanizations behind her own thoughts, behaviors and statements, but they were ultimately external, grounded not in the personal meaning they evoked but in the social capital they engendered.
She was starting to suspect, for instance, that her combativeness directed towards her mother was not entirely about a high-minded need to dispel the woman’s ludicrous falsifications or instill in her a more authentic perspective. As much as it was about her mother’s delirium, Sarah’s dismissive attitude towards these diatribes was equally about her own sense of self. It was about about how analyzing and criticizing such hysterics made her feel.
On this particular morning, that didn’t feel like it was quite enough to launch her into action. In removing the goal of self-actualization, Sarah understood that the actual benefit of attacking her mother’s fantasies was negligible, like throwing a pebble into a rushing stream whose course was decided long ago. And although Sarah didn’t feel particularly beholden to her mother, she was beginning to see how deeply important her psychology could be.
The woman in front of her could barely stand, a physical fragility only outstripped but what was going on inside. In such a threatening, unknowable and debilitating world, what else was there to do aside from cultivating a sense of the unreal? Such a mindset is what had worked for Sarah’s mother in recent years, and it was very likely what kept her alive now. Of course, such delusions may be only slightly better than bottomless depression, but slightly appeared to be enough for Sarah’s mother. Maybe it could be enough for everyone.
Then she could hear James’ voice again, as real and immediate as if he was standing in the same room.
“I want you to talk to me like a real fucking person!”
For better or worse, Sarah now recognized that he had maybe been on to something. Sarah wanted her mother to get better, as much as she wanted her own life to be different. But her wants were irrelevant, a notion that disturbed her deeply.
But perhaps she was now finally equipped to deal with it. Maybe now she could actually embrace the notion that she had often enthusiastically read about in the abstract. She could indulge in fantasy and extend that courtesy to others. She could live mythologically, telling herself that her mother would be ok and that so would she. This, she thought, was maybe the state of being James was referring to. She could become a reservoir of emotion, a nexus of subjectivity, a conduit for unreason; she could adopt the real fucking nature of humanity.
“Yeah, he can be an asshole sometimes,” she said, breaking into her mother’s flow and interrupting another spittle-filled stanza.
The vitriol died away and her mother began to quiver, eyes shining like dew in the sun. Maybe this was the indication Sarah had been looking for, proof that she had made the right decision. She had offered her mother relief; she had let her lay her burden down. She given her one of the most valuable of gifts: the grace that comes from affirmation.
But then a competing thought emerged, shattering any certainty like a rock moving through glass. And this notion didn’t dissipate, even when her mother moved forward and drew her arms around Sarah. Her heart broke and she realized then what was wrong. Sarah could jettison her attitude. She could refrain from chastising behavior. She could be more receptive and focus on existing rather than posturing, living rather than analyzing. But it would never be enough. She could never get away from the all-consuming nature of herself. There was something inside that was a master of her actions, the dictator of her thoughts. Everything led to it, and everything emerged from it. Like a petulant child, it was a needy, insatiable force, screaming to be continually projected and relentlessly filled.
Changing her behavior towards her mother wasn’t a break from her ego; it was simply another iteration of her quest for self-satisfaction and actualization. It was another in a long line of attempts to impose definition on that which is perhaps undefinable.
Stewing, she reluctantly returned her mother’s hug and heard her murmur, “I love you.” But this didn’t stop her from sinking into a pool of malaise. There was no peace to be found, she realized. She lacked the constitution to change. Her ego, her being, her identity project could never be satisfied. It would never stop; and no act of charity or altruism would change that, no matter the circumstances. She remained apart from herself, devoted to exterior perception. Sarah was incapable not only of authentically shaping the present and future, but also selflessly comforting her mother, who had been betrayed by history.