A couple of months ago, we arranged to spend this past weekend at the coast–my husband, my son, his girlfriend, and me. It’s set up as a late birthday celebration for my son. We rent a house through AirBnB, a newish home that faces right onto the beach. Enormous windows in the living room mean we can sit inside and watch the seals cavorting and the waves crashing right outside. There’s even a hot tub on the back porch if we want a soak.
My husband and I plan to leave early Friday morning, to drive south to pick up Andres and Valerie, then drive west to the beach. It’s late Wednesday night when I find out that Andres has just read my entire blog. This means that in addition to the horrified shock I’m experiencing, there’s also a sense that what was supposed to be a relaxing, celebratory weekend together is suddenly fraught with tension and uncertainty.
I go into it with some fear that it the three days together will be completely chaotic and emotional, but mostly, they are not. My son does have a bit of a meltdown on the phone as we’re driving south to pick them up. He lives with Valerie, her mom and brothers in another town. Valerie’s mom calls me, asking, “Will you please talk to your son? He’s refusing to do his chores and just losing it.”
(I wish she wouldn’t do that–he’s in his 20s, has lived with them for several years and really needs to figure out her own relationship with him directly. However, I don’t have the emotional energy to make that argument right now.)
I think what’s really going on is that he’s as nervous in his way as I am in mine. He’s afraid, perhaps, that he’s done something wrong, and I won’t love him anymore. And he lacks the ability to observe or even articulate his fears, so instead he kind of flails around, arguing with everyone and resisting everyone’s effort to get him moving.
I talk to him quietly, reassuringly, on the phone. “It’s okay. You can help Nancy get the house cleaned up. Just think, she’s going to be home alone with the boys while you and Valerie are enjoying four days at the beach; she could use a little help. I know you are tired, but you can sleep in the car. Shhh, yes, it’s okay, don’t worry….”
It’s been a while since I’ve needed to use my soothing voice like that with him. It brings out again my sense of tender protectiveness towards him. But it also reminds me that he has little emotional control or insight, and that means his promises not to tell what he’s read on my blog may not be promises he can keep.
When we actually get together, things feel better than I expect. Andres has calmed down, and Valerie’s happy and excited to be getting away for the weekend. Though she’s younger than Andres, in many ways she is the most mature adult in the household, taking on responsibility in a way that neither my son nor her mother typically does. She seldom complains about it but sometimes she becomes exhausted and frustrated.
So we drive through the redwoods to the coast, enjoying the scenery despite the grey sky. Almost first thing after we arrive, we take the dogs out for a long run on the beach. Smelling the sea and watching my dogs run around joyfully make me glad we are here and hopeful that it will be a good opportunity to set things straight with my son–whatever that means.
As it turns out, we are both a little afraid to bring up the topic at first. Finally on Sunday, we both decide it’s time to soak in the hot tub, protected under the patio from the rain and still able to see and hear the surf.
“I have some questions for you, Mom,” he tells me. I knew this was coming and have my answer prepared.
“Okay,” I say to him, “you can ask whatever you need to, but I won’t promise to answer everything. It depends on whether it’s something I feel comfortable talking about.”
It turns out one of the things that is uppermost in his mind is a post I wrote about a time when his dad, hm, for want of a better description, didn’t take no to mean no. He was very upset about this, very angry at his dad. But it also made him wonder a few things.
First, did I actually want him to be born? Maybe I got pregnant with him because his dad forced me to have sex?
It is incredibly sad to hear this question. It is about his conception, but so much more; it speaks to his sense of not fitting in, not belonging, not being wanted anywhere. It’s a reflection of the impatience the world expresses to him when he doesn’t exactly understand what is expected of him.
Yes, he was very much wanted, I told him, truthfully. Even though there were some terrible times with Miguel, not all the times were terrible. I was much younger, and I still had hope for the relationship. I didn’t know about cycles of abuse and forgiveness. I just felt sad when I was treated badly and ready to forgive and forget when Miguel said he was sorry, that he loved me, that he needed me. I wanted to have a baby with this man I felt I loved. We planned the pregnancy. His dad’s eyes filled with tears of happiness when I told him I was pregnant.
Andres had to mull that over a bit. He doesn’t feel loved by his father now, so it’s hard for him to imagine Miguel wanting him. He likes the idea, however. Well, who doesn’t want to feel wanted?
So he has more questions. A big one for him is: why didn’t I leave? “I did leave,” I tell him. “We’ve been divorced for most of your life; you know that.”
“But I mean, why didn’t you leave right away?”
The question everyone always asks a person in an abusive relationship, and such a hard thing to answer. Why didn’t I? Because I was in love. Because I didn’t understand that I deserved better. Because events in my childhood and adolescent had taught me that others (men especially) could do what they wanted and I was supposed to accept that. Because my mother accepted a lot of bad behavior from my stepfather and before that, from my dad,, so I had never seen a woman set a clear boundary with her husband. Because I was young and hopeful. Because I was embarrassed to admit to the world that I had married the wrong person. Because I believed that it was good for my children to grow up with a father, even with his flaws. All of that, mixed up together.
“But then what made you decide to leave?” he wants to know.
“Well, in a way, you did,” I answer. “It was one thing when he was a jerk to me. But when I saw him behave that way to you, it became crystal clear to me that staying married to him was not going to be good for anyone.”
I told him the story of that autumn day, so many years ago, when we all went for a walk along the river. Andres, who was five, was fussing a little about something, and Miguel wanted to distract him. He grabbed Andres’ jacket or backpack or something and pretended to run away with it. Andres didn’t laugh; instead he stood still and half cried, half protested.
“Don’t tease him; just give it back,” I said to Miguel.
Miguel gave me a dark look. “You’re making him soft.” This was not the first time he’d made this complaint.
“Give it back,” Andres said.
Miguel swore, slapped Andres in the face, threw the jacket on the ground, and stomped off down the trail, back in the direction we had come, all the while telling us all how useless we were. Both Andres and his three-year-old brother were crying. Andres’ mouth was bleeding from the slap, not a lot, but still, he was bleeding.
That was the moment I knew. After months of waffling about it, months or even years of berating myself for not being good enough to able to make this marriage work, I knew I was going to leave. I was still in graduate school. I had no job. I was seriously depressed. But I was going to take both my boys and leave this man.
I was suddenly calm and knew exactly what to do. I helped Andres put his jacket on, and I cheerfully continued along the trail with the boys, distracting them with the ducks in the river and challenging them to find different kinds of trees. When we reached the shops, we stopped for ice cream, and since Miguel had returned to the parking lot without us, we rode the bus home together.
When we got home, Miguel was outside mowing the front lawn. Andres ran up to him with open arms, “Papa! We’re home! I’m sorry I was crying.”
“Go inside,” Miguel growled. “I’m still angry about your behavior and not ready to talk to you.”
All these years later, I can’t forget that: the five year old was affectionate and forgiving, but the father wasn’t.
I’ve told this story before, but never to either of my sons. Andres listens to it and nods his head. “I knew it, I knew it!” he says.
“What do you mean?” I ask him.
“I knew my dad beat me,” he says. “When we used to go visit him on the weekends, he used to beat me with a belt.”
“What?” I say. “No, he didn’t.”
“He did. He used the buckle end on me.”
“What?!? No, honey, I would have known. You would have told me, or your brother would have…”
“We were too afraid to tell you.”
Where is all this coming from? He continues. He tells me that his dad always beat him the first day they were together and used something to “wash away” the bruises. That’s why I didn’t know. But didn’t I remember how he used to beg not to visit his dad?
No, I don’t remember that. That is, not until he was in high school and tired of the arguments and the criticism. When he was little, he liked to visit his dad, though he often came home tired and somewhat agitated. In all these years, I have never heard about Miguel hitting anyone with a belt. I know Miguel. I know his temper and his outbursts. It’s sudden and quick. It shows up in cutting comments, a quick slap, an impulsive throwing of an orange at me or a breaking of a plate. It’s never been a methodical beating combined with a system to hide bruises.
I also know my son. The line between truth and fiction is a fuzzy one for him, sometimes. He takes a story line and embellishes it to make it more dramatic. The road was longer and steeper. The rude person at the grocery story was more threatening. And now his father beat him regularly.
Except he didn’t. And when I contradict Andres, he becomes frustrated with me, telling me I didn’t notice the abuse, and he had wanted to protect me from that knowledge. For a confusing moment, I wonder if that could be true. But no, that’s not right. I did notice the abuse, the repeated emotional and verbal abuse, and I protested it many times and did the best I could at the time to shelter both boys from its impact.
There were some other questions during our time in the hot tub at the beach. For a while afterwards, I think it’s good we had that discussion. My son thanks me and says he feels closer to me. He’s glad he knows “the real story” now.
But does he? Right before my eyes, I saw him do what I’ve witnessed many times in the past: he takes a story and transforms it into a new, bigger, more dramatic narrative that expresses his feeling of being unloved and picked on by his dad.
It makes me wonder what he will do with other pieces he read from my blog, intimate stories that represent fragments of my life but not the whole picture. How will he embellish them, and to whom, and for what purpose?
CREDIT: Photo by Caleb Jones on Unsplash