One Friday night in mid-January, I called my mother. I was starting an hourlong drive to my friend’s house in northeastern Connecticut. It was 30 degrees in New Haven. Though it was just after 5 p.m., the sky had already darkened. I shivered as I walked to my car. I hadn’t spoken to my mother in weeks. But I wanted someone to accompany me on the drive. I knew that she would answer — nothing Mom could be doing back in small-town Texas was more important than talking to a daughter who almost never reached out.
I turned my car’s vents on full blast, sat on my hands and waited for Mom to pick up. Three rings later, and she did. Her voice reverberated through my headphones. There was something slightly off about the sound.
“Hi, baby girl.”
“Hey. I’m driving to my friend Jessica’s and figured I’d give you a call… I know I haven’t talked to you in a while.”
“I’m so glad you called. It makes me happy to hear your voice.”
“It’s freezing here. It snowed last week and there’s still piles of it laying around.”
“It’s been pretty chilly here, too,” Mom said. “Not as cold up north, but enough to make me not want to go outside.”
I tried to imagine what my face looked like as I listened to Mom speak. It must’ve been somewhere between a grimace and a grin. I began almost all of our calls with the same kind of justification, either to prove to myself, to my mother, or to both of us, that the conversation was real. Once upon a time, there’d been four years of silence between us. Even now, I wasn’t sure if I was truly glad to be talking with her again.
Talking about the weather did nothing to warm the inside of my car. The engine temperature gauge still pointed beneath the coldest indication marker. I gave up on preheating the car, adjusted my headphones slightly and reversed out of the parking lot. Something still sounded off about Mom’s voice. My sense of ease lessened as my car slid onto the road.
I’d learned back in high school that Mom’s tone of voice could tell me a lot about her state of mind. If she sounded high-pitched and talked a little too fast, I knew that she was in a manic phase. If she spoke with slow and immeasurable exertion, I knew that she was depressed again. In those early years, I was still learning how to live with Mom’s bipolar disorder. I spent many nights on the phone with her while she was held in Hunt County’s Behavioral Services Center — otherwise known as Hunt County mental hospital. I’d learned the absolute highs and lows of her mental illness. I saw how intoxicating the mania could be, how debilitating life was in the mania’s absence.
Mom had been completely off her medicine when she was in the mental hospital. She was as unhinged as I’d ever seen her. At the time, I was especially vulnerable to the ebbs and flows of her mental illness. I was 15 and dreaming of leaving my alcoholic father and moving in. A year later, I even forewent caution, tried, and failed, to live with Mom. That botched mother-daughter reunion had taught me one thing: Mom’s bipolar disorder was like a whirlpool. If I got too close, I would be sucked down with her.
New psychiatrists, new genetically tailored cocktails of medication, and a few more stints in the mental hospital had apparently helped Mom regulate her mood and her sound. I’d heard the difference when I called Mom a few months earlier. It was the first time we’d really talked in almost four years. That conversation and a few other intermittent ones had assured me that Mom was sane, far from either of the poles that had haunted me as a teen.
Sure, these more recent conversations involved unspoken negotiation. What was okay to share? What wasn’t? What conversation would lead to a red zone? How could the conversation be navigated back to green? I tried to stay away from talking about her new husband, Danny, but I’d begun making tangential references to him. I’d learned not to talk about how Mom fucked up raising me and my brother, John. We at least began talking about the positives of the whole thing, mental health stints, unstable households and all. I felt stronger. Mom seemed stronger.
But this conversation that January night was somehow different. Something about Mom’s voice pricked me.
I tried not to ask what was wrong. But I was so damn curious. What had happened, given the months upon months of clear voice and sane mind, to cause this new tone?
“Should I ask?” I thought to myself.
“No,” my mind answered back. “You know she’ll tell you, and you can’t just remove that burden once she shares it.”
I’ve had versions of this conversation since high school. Each time, the voice in my head would change tactics slightly. It would try something new to convince me to back off. Each time I had the conversation, the voice grew stronger, smarter. Just as its arguments increased in complexity, so, too, had mine. Today, I felt like arguing back.
“But she’s been so much better. Shouldn’t I give her a chance?” I really wanted to give Mom a chance, but I couldn’t just forget all the past times I’d been hurt.
My mind wouldn’t let me just forget. “You know how precarious this is,” it reminded me. “Do you really want to risk losing what little ground you’ve gained with her?”
I knew I was giving myself good advice. I knew that I came up with this advice because it’d protected me before. But I wanted to try again. I always want to try again. “She seems so much better,” I thought to myself. “Maybe we’re ready to gain more ground. Maybe I’m an asshole for not listening.”
I figured I wasn’t a kid anymore, that we were moving into the adult version of our relationship. I figured that this time would be different from the others because I would be the one asking, because I would be the one inviting Mom to share her pain. In the face of my refusal to listen, the voice in my head backed off. Just as it had done many times before, it gave me the space to repeat the exact same mistake. Maybe I was a fool for hoping it would be otherwise.
I had to ask.
“Is everything alright? You seem upset.”
Mom was in the middle of explaining how her most recent UTI was causing her a lot of pain and that she had no money, even more no money than usual.
“Do you really want to know?” She sounded incredulous. I could tell she wanted to talk.
I said yes.
There’s this hidden entrance to the interstate that I only recently discovered. It lets you skip over two onerous downtown New Haven traffic lights and spits you directly onto the open road. You enter it on South Frontage Road just past York Street. To the untrained eye, it looks like you’re pulling into a parking garage. It’s actually a shortcut — a poorly lit tunnel under the parking garage. It feels like it shouldn’t be there.
Right now, the shortcut is a little mangled because of all the construction on the South Frontage Road on-ramp — what do you expect when multiple on-ramps merge, then, within half a mile, split into I-91 north, I-95 north and I-95 south? You have to be careful. The tunnel is always darker than the open road.
I was driving through this entrance to the highway, trying to manage listening to my Mom, reading my phone’s GPS and getting onto the right highway — after all, there were three to choose from. Residential New Haven, with all its muddied and hardened snow, with all its well-lit intersections and street-corner homeless, with all its pizza shops and hole-in-the-wall restaurants, all of it untouched by memories of family — all of it was behind me. Ahead was a dark and empty I-91 and my mother’s voice. Jessica’s house felt so far away.
“I haven’t told anyone this except my therapist, not even Frank and Connie,” Mom said. Frank and Connie were my aunt and uncle. “That’s part of the problem, actually. I stopped seeing Marjorie. I’ve been looking for a new therapist.”
“Wait, what’s wrong with Marjorie? I didn’t know that you were still seeing her.”
Mom sighed. “She said something hurtful to me about Danny, very judgmental. And it wasn’t good for me to hear that. So I’ve been looking for someone else. I just saw this lady in Winnsboro last week and was telling her what’s been going on. And you know how hard that is for me to live through everything again with someone new. The Winnsboro lady also said some mean things about Danny. I’m still trying to find someone to see.”
“What did they say about Danny? And why does it matter? Aren’t these appointments about you?”
“I’m trying to get Danny to go to therapy, but I have to find someone who will be sympathetic.”
“But why does Danny need to go to therapy? And why do they need to be sympathetic?”
I was missing something. Mom had been seeing Marjorie since I was 11. I remember the countless times John and I had sat together in Marjorie’s 1970s-upholstered waiting room, waiting for the soft-spoken, spindly grey-haired woman to return our mother to us. While Mom worked through her problems every week, John would play discordant keys on a redwood piano and I would scribble into my notebook stories about murderous fathers and kids trapped by their parent’s insanity. Later, I remember when I was 16 and Mom forced me to go to a joint session with Marjorie. We’d “discussed” the “issues” that had come up when I moved in. Marjorie had played so much of a background role in my adolescence that I’d forgotten she’d been there. She’d blended into the wallpaper of my memory, invisible until my mother reminded me that she had always existed.
Mom had been insulted by Marjorie before but had never left her. A 10-year patient-therapist relationship seemed like something too large to throw away over a comment about a marriage that was only a year old.
Mom waited a second before she told me.
“He’s been saying things. Hurtful things to me. About my body… He wants me to get bigger. He’ll say, ‘Oh it looks like you’ve put on a few pounds, that’s good.’ Or when I walk by him, he’ll grab my fat roll and say ‘Oh, I’d really like to see you balloon with a baby in your stomach.’”
My mother already weighs over 250 pounds. I can’t even remember if I said ‘what the fuck’ out loud or if I kept it in my head.
“Mom, that’s not okay. He shouldn’t be saying those things to you.”
“I know that, Lydia. I know, and it makes me so upset. I joined that Big and Beautiful dating website, and you know I’ve never paid for a dating website before, but I paid for this one because I wanted to find someone who would love me for me, not want me to get bigger. I don’t want to get bigger.”
“You don’t want to have another baby… do you?”
“No. Danny already has 10 kids, and I don’t want anymore. Besides, I don’t even think I can. A few years after you were born, they performed endometrial ablation on me. I was having really heavy bleeding from some of the medication my psychiatrist had prescribed me, and when I switched doctors, they took me off the hormone therapy treatment and did the ablation instead. It basically burned my uterine wall. That with all this weight — it would be very hard for me to have kids.”
I didn’t know what to say. I shouldn’t have been surprised. I remembered the telephone boyfriend Mom had who’d said very similar things about her weight. I remembered the conversations I’d had with Mom when she explained that some men fetishized big women, that she herself had grown so big to stop people from looking at her. But to hear the same type of conversation from her husband — someone she’d been with now for over a year. My mother’s vulnerability was men. It always had been.
Halfway across the country, I shook my head.
When John had called me at the end of my sophomore year and said that Mom was trying to get married again, I wasn’t surprised. When he told me that the new husband, Danny, had 10 kids and had been accused of rape by his previous wife, I was appalled, but not surprised. John and I had told Mom that if she went through with it, we wouldn’t speak to her. We wouldn’t have a relationship with him. She’d gone through with it anyway. John and I both gave their marriage a year. Her last marriage hadn’t even lasted a month.
The marriage had survived the year, but this conversation was making me think it had been crumbling and that Mom had been hiding that fact. It was a new turn of events.
My sweaty hands stuck to the steering wheel. I squinted and looked out at the empty Connecticut highway before me. I was nearing Meriden, my GPS inching forward in mile increments as I approached the exit to merge onto I-691. The heater had finally warmed up, and now the car felt too hot. I tried to look in my rearview and saw only fog. I looked down: back window defrost was on. I shook my head and continued to squint.
“Mom, if he’s harming you, physically or mentally, then you need to make sure you’re putting your own comfort and safety first. You don’t have to put up with this.”
She pivoted, as well. “Well, he’s gotten much better. He’s not as selfish anymore. When we first started dating, see, we only did what he wanted to do — only watched his movies and did his hobbies. Well, he lets me pick the shows sometimes now. And he’s really sweet to me. He puts up with me waking up screaming, and he does things for me.
“I just want him to see someone. It’s not just the comments about my weight. He also won’t kiss me. Maybe like once a month. Sure, he pecks all the time but I’m talking about tongue kissing. That makes him very uncomfortable. And sex makes him uncomfortable, too. He can’t even say dick or vagina. He just says down there and points. If we try to have oral sex, he goes soft because it makes him uncomfortable. And he won’t talk about it.”
When I start backing away, my mind goes fuzzy. It stops cataloging everything in detail. It tries to protect me. It was a skill I’d perfected back in high school — emotionlessness. And I felt it now. I felt myself retreating from her. My responses felt more disconnected. I would bear everything that my mother was sharing, but I wouldn’t let her know that she was hurting me.
“Well, even if he won’t talk about it, I can guess why he’s like that,” I said. The words felt callous on my tongue.
“You think he was sexually abused?”
“If I had to guess, it was by a man.”
“I was thinking something similar, but I don’t know because he won’t tell me. All he says about his childhood is that his female family members told him he was good for nothing. He went through a lot of verbal abuse, and I know what that feels like. The only person who ever cared about him was his grandmother, and that’s why he’s on this whole Catholicism bent. His grandmother says that he’s not a real Italian if he’s not Catholic. And that’s the only person he cares about.”
“Wait.” The mask slipped a little. “So that’s why you’re converting?”
“That’s the only reason,” she responded. “And it’s becoming a lot more than I expected. All the classes to learn how to be Catholic and all the restrictions. So many restrictions. They basically want me to say that I see the error of how I’d been worshipping before… I’ve been Southern Baptist basically my whole life. I was happy with my relationship with God.”
“I know you were.”
“I didn’t think I needed to change it.”
“Then why are you changing it?”
“Because Danny wants to prove something,” Mom said. “He wants to be a full Italian. But it’s expensive. We both have to get all of our previous marriages annulled before the Catholic Church will recognize our marriage. An easy way is to ask your Dad to give me his marriage certificate to Cindy Jo. But then I’d have to talk to your Dad. And then there’s still Johnny and John to get annulled, too.
“The other option is to pay for the divorce certificates. But we don’t have any money because of his child support and all my UTIs. And to do all this without money, I’d have to fill out pages of paperwork explaining what happened in the marriage and argue why it should be annulled and then hope that it gets approved. But a lot of what happened in those marriages was very traumatic for me, and I don’t think I can write it all down just for this. Even for Danny.”
“Well can’t you guys just go to the Catholic Church and not be Catholic? Why does it have to be official?”
“Because Danny wants to receive the sacrament. He says it doesn’t count if he can’t do that.”
John and I had laughed about the Catholicism gimmick, about how Mom was giving up one fundamentalist religion for an even more restrictive one. It was funny from a distance, but hearing it from my mother’s mouth saddened me. She didn’t sound manic. She didn’t sound depressed. She sounded trapped.
I knew the feeling well. I’d worked so hard to leave my parents’ issues behind me. I’d traveled halfway across the country to go to college and escape them completely. The plan had worked as long as I severed myself from them. But this phone call was renewing our connection. It was one I’d asked for. The line, invisible from Sulphur Springs to Connecticut, had roped me and was pulling me back in.
In some places, the speed limits in Connecticut are much slower than in Texas. As you leave New Haven, the speed limit’s 55. Once you leave New Haven’s city limits, the number of exits decreases, and the winding highway straightens. And thus, the speed limit rises.
For much of my childhood, the speed limit on the highway through the center of Sulphur Springs was 70 miles per hour. But there’d been complaints that it was too slow. So the Department of Transportation did a test, and at some moment in time before I could drive, the speed limit was raised to 75. There’s an equation that can predict how many more deaths a stretch of highway will see given each mile-per-hour increase in the speed limit. The speed limit outside Meriden was 70. I was going 85. My foot inched down on the accelerator.
“Mom, you need to talk to Danny. Tell him these things you’re telling me. If you don’t want to be Catholic, you don’t have to be. Y’all are in a relationship together. These are conversations you can have. He needs to make sure you’re comfortable, not just you doing the same for him.”
“That’s why I want him to go to therapy, Lydia. I really think it would help him, but he completely refuses. He says I’ll just try and blame everything on him and that it’ll be his fault and he won’t do it.”
“Have you read that book I gave you?”
I began to feel stupid. “Have you started writing anything at least?”
“I really need a therapist to do that. It’s hard for me to think about that stuff, Lydia. I told you, I still wake up screaming at the top of my lungs, and I don’t want that to get worse.”
The last time I was home, Mom and I had gone to Chili’s. We’d sat in her car for an hour waiting for a table. Once inside, we’d talked for two more hours. I talked to her about my education, how it had helped me realize that a lot of what we’d gone through together had been the product of our circumstances and not our own fault. I told her that I’d forgiven her and that, in the process, I felt more powerful. I encouraged her to do the same. She’d been interested. She’d asked questions — how she could start, how she could learn to use her traumas as a strength to help others. I’d given her a copy of my professor’s book about writing. I’d said, read this and start where it feels comfortable. It’s your story. You get to write it, so write it first for you, not for me. I’d left that conversation feeling like a new breakthrough had been made. I thought I’d convinced Mom to try the path that was working for me. I’d hoped that she did.
I’d convinced myself of a lie. I’d become invested in Mom getting better, in believing that she was. The cycle was reinforcing itself again.
Mom needed love so badly that she married anyone who would have her. She didn’t realize what she was getting herself into and how her new husbands’ issues might exacerbate her own. The partner who was meant to accompany her had succeeded in further isolating her. And here lies the conundrum: Still, she hoped. She’d married Danny because of hope; she was trying to force him into counseling because of hope. It was intoxicating, watching my mother hope in one hopeless situation after another. Even after four failed marriages and 20 years of abuse and loneliness, she still hadn’t learned. She still thought that she wasn’t worth anything more.
How do you convince someone they’re worth something?
My drive was coming to an end. The GPS told me that my exit was approaching, 15 minutes away. The roads near Jessica’s house were winding and poorly lit, nothing like the bright and well-trafficked neighborhoods in downtown New Haven, nothing like the unfaltering straight-edged rows of houses back in Sulphur Springs. I struggled to see where I was going.
I also struggled to respond. I couldn’t process my role in my mother’s life. I was angry. I was tired of seeing my mother suffer. I was tired of suffering because of my mother’s suffering. I called her because I wanted a parent. I’ve kept calling her because I want family. I want some semblance of unfaltering, uncomplicated love.
We started talking about my graduation. I don’t even know how I changed the subject.
“Frank and Connie have already bought their plane tickets,” Mom said. “They already rented their hotel room and said they’re going to be there no matter what, even if there’s no ceremony. Danny and I still need to save up to get our tickets, but Frank and Connie said we could stay with them.”
“How did Frank and Connie know what days to come? Yale hasn’t announced officially what graduation will look like for us. They don’t know if we’ll be vaccinated yet, so they haven’t released any details.”
“Frank said they looked at dates listed on some website. I don’t know, but they’re going to be there, and Danny and I are doing everything in our power to be there, too.”
I had to say it. “Mom, I don’t want Danny at my graduation.”
She was silent for a few seconds, and the tone of her voice changed yet again. It was guarded. Insulted. “Can I ask why?”
I couldn’t really see where I was going. It was cold. The windows were foggy. I kept driving. “Because I don’t know him, Mom. Because he hasn’t had any kind of role in my life. I’m uncomfortable around him.” I couldn’t stop. “My graduation is about me. It’s about celebrating my accomplishments and about having who I want to be there. I don’t want to be uncomfortable or feel awkward. I wasn’t sure until recently if I even wanted you there. I definitely don’t want Dad there, and I don’t want Danny either.”
I was angry. I was cold. Five minutes away.
“Do you want me there?” Mom’s voice was quieter.
“Yes, I want you there, Mom. I just don’t want him.”
The silence grew. I was swearing to myself. This was not how I wanted this conversation to go. This was not the right time.
I could’ve sworn that the drive to Jessica’s hadn’t been so dark the last time I did it. But I couldn’t see. The GPS wasn’t helping. The other cars’ headlights were blinding. I tried not to drive off the road.
Three minutes away.
I couldn’t take it anymore. “Mom, I have to go. I’m almost to my friend’s house… It was nice talking to you.”
“I love you.”
“I’ll call you soon.”
I turned into Jessica’s neighborhood. I drove and parked my car outside her house. I could see that it was lit inside. It looked warm. It looked loved.
I shook myself as I got out of the car. I swallowed the weight, as I’d swallowed it many times before. I walked inside. I cleared my voice and hoped that it would be cheery.