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  • Writer's pictureLori Nanan

The strange calm of estrangement

I haven't spoken to my mother since the day my father died. On that day, that terrible day, she tried to tell my brother and I that he would still be alive if he had still been married to her. Stunned, my brother and I made eye contact above the phone held between us and I said we had to go, we were needed inside.

I often think of that moment and how it was truly (sorry, sorry) the final nail in the coffin. I'd largely removed myself from my relationship with her in the few years leading up to my father's death and in that exact moment I knew I had made the right decision. That I wasn't being unreasonable, that I wasn't asking too much. Less than 2 hours after the death of her children's father, she could not contain her grandiosity. She could not simply be kind.

Since that time, I check in with myself every so often. Had I been hasty, did she deserve (yet) another chance. And every time, a calmness comes over me. I stuck around for a long time. I absorbed a lot of unkindness. About me. About my father. About how my father messed up my brother. About my husband. About my dogs.

I often remember good times, too. The poker games played for pretzel sticks instead of money. Sitting on the porch with friends, drinking wine, eating cheese, watching the sun set over the river. The music I still enjoy from those times. The distinct smell of her house: cigarettes and Clinique Aromatics Elixir. But always, a dig. Typically about money or my father. Who I was just not supposed to love anymore. Who left when she asked him to and who likely would have put up with the digs forever, otherwise.

Money was one of the primary ways she kept us under her wing. She was generous with my brother and I. At least that's what it felt like for years. It's only very recently that I realized there was an actual mechanism at work: our relationships were transactional. The money kept us on the hook, needing her. It felt good to all of us. She could feel like a hero, we were to be grateful. My father simply existing put a damper on that for her.

I don't know what she expected after he died. Did she think we'd run back to her? My brother had maintained more contact with her than I had for a few years but even he was tired. He and I often have conversations about what we now recognize as abuse and while we feel sad, mostly we are calm, we are glad to be away.

And now, by away, I mean 2 states away. My brother is developmentally disabled, has always struggled with his mental health (but that sure didn't stop her from hitting him with a shoe on his graduation day. There's some context for ya.) and had a heart attack at the end of 2021. Depression and other small health scares led him to asking if my husband and I would be open to living together (again. We tried it once before with mixed results. I mean, no one got divorced and we all still like each other, but we were kinda different versions of ourselves then). I had found myself thinking so often about my brother alone, in his condo, with a next door neighbor who was just as abusive and cruel as our mother and feeling helpless. I did want to live together again. But I wanted him to make the choice, not for it to be made for him. Something my mother had done up until he officially cut ties 2 full years after I did.

So now we're here. In Baltimore. And our mother doesn't even know. I'm sure she knows that I am the one who cares for her special needs son. And yet. She has never made any effort to change. To step up. To apologize. Because she can't. She doesn't know how and she doesn't think she's wrong.

And so with that weirdness (I sometimes look at myself in the mirror and realize my face is probably frozen in time for her, wrinkle-less, my hair without greys) of our mother not even knowing we're gone, we are safe because of that togetherness.

And that calms me in a way no amount of therapy ever has. I don't doubt myself and my decision to walk away. Not for myself, not at all. But mostly because of my brother: my mother left her adult daughter to care for her adult son (who needs it, like, a lot). And that is heartbreaking. But it's also a testament to his emotional intelligence, something he was never allowed to express.

I am committed to us not causing more damage to each other. And in that commitment (for me, at least. I can only speak for me.) comes calm. We eat together, we laugh, we hang out, we help each other with stuff, we choose when we want each other's company and when we don't and know it's always there and that whatever choice is made, it's okay.

Estrangement is not a dirty word. It also doesn't feel good or come easily, and I recommend gut checks along the way, but the road to full self-embodiment is not possible with a parent who systematically puts their own needs first. Whether they are aware of it or not.

Postscript: This has been on my mind since we moved. The last few episodes of the second season of The Morning Show really drove home the struggle and helped me realize I'm not alone. Bradley's family struggles ring so true to me, her internal struggles and the external "advice" , more so. I recommend that show for so many reasons, but as someone with this particular set of life experiences, it's very affirming to see it on-screen.

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