Before I go any further with this post, readers are advised that there are flashes of self-care internal battles in this post. Anyone who does not believe in self-care or mental health should proceed with caution.
In 2018, my father was diagnosed with Stage 3-and-a bit colon cancer; the cancer was successfully removed, together with a chunk of his colon, and he has been able to live a fairly normal, active life.
On Monday, he called me to say his doctors wanted him to go for an MRI scan because there were “abnormalities” in his latest health check. He said my mother, who claims to know everything, everyone and what’s best for everyone, insisted it was high time I took responsibility for my father’s care, so I should go with him to the MRI lab on Tuesday. Fact – my mother avoids medical facilities as she has had a double mastectomy and hip surgery; I understand her reluctance but I resent being ordered to accompany him when I would have willingly done so – he only had to ask. Why, when I am a working adult, does my mother think I will take kindly to being ordered about? I also resent the implication that I don’t take enough responsibility for his care.
After the MRI session, my father wanted lunch before heading home. Over lunch, he talked about his childhood, English football, the US elections, recounted several arguments between my mother and her sister, and then he asked if I’d spoken to my aunt.
Squabbles between my mother and her sisters are nothing new: they grew up bickering and that habit persists to this day. What has changed is the passing of the younger sister in August 2019, and the elder sister having to sort through her effects. Because my late aunt named me as co-executor, I have obviously met with my surviving aunt (the other co-executor) at the lawyers’ and she has mentioned her unhappiness about my mother’s constant accusations that she is taking too long to clear out my late aunt’s things, and my mother’s demands to have items she had given her to be returned. Fact – my aunt is 91 years old and I feel the task is mammoth, emotional and she is doing it alone, so let her take her time and pace herself! Why is she handling this alone? Because my other aunt would not have wanted my mother anywhere near her things. Why am I not helping? My doing so will trigger more aggressions from my mother, and the suspicions that I have made off with things of value.
Back to my father’s question. I would be damned no matter how I answer because he will report it to my mother and she will have another go at my aunt, after calling me all sorts of names and recounting my sins to the neighbours, her friends and her relatives. I settled for, “I haven’t talked to her about the house.” My father accepted that but followed up with, “What has mum done to you that makes you so ungrateful?”
This is a question that really didn’t need to be answered in a cafe in the middle of Covid-19. But never have I been more grateful for this disease because my father is near-deaf, refuses to use his hearing aid but, thanks to Covid-19, the nearest tables were 1.5 metres away.
I told him I am not ungrateful. I am well aware of her sacrifices raising me; she has never let me forget her struggles and how she had to do everything on her own because her husband and sisters were useless. But there comes a point where gratitude and filial piety can get overtaken by survival needs and emotional self-defence. I told him of instances where I heard her telling other relatives about how I was a disloyal, uncaring, unfilial, lying, useless daughter, and that I had poisoned my relatives’ and my own family’s minds and opinions against her.
I told him of two occasions (there were others) where she upset other people at social events and I was politely requested not to have her present in the future. I told him of a school event where she ranted at me in front of the principal, teachers, students and other parents for something I never did. How much, I asked my father, was I supposed to take from her? Did he really think I should remain “grateful”, and for what exactly? I told him smoothing over ruffled feathers in those situations was already paying for “grateful”. And that “grateful” and survival were two separate issues. Fact – the question I also wanted to ask was: where were you, dad, in all of this? Did you never know mum clearly has problems?
I don’t know how much of what I said was heard. Or if anything registered. Or if it meant anything to him. Or if he’d been simply tasked to ask that question by my mother and he would report whatever he could. I do know that the circumstances were not ideal for that conversation. My father was not an ideal discourse partner. My mother will never accept anything I say anyway because she is never wrong and she knows everything.
I am aware the situation in that household is percolating away and may well boil over. I am aware I am dodging things and am stuck in the middle. And this sorry situation has taken a toll on my health (could this be the trigger for the heart attack?). I should probably also have sought help way earlier.
But that conversation went better for me than I expected. I didn’t get emotional. My father wasn’t angry so that meant I hadn’t been disrespectful or totally illogical. I was clear headed and firm. And I have therapy to thank.
Therapy has taught me that I can’t change the past or who people are, or tweak the present, especially if they deny a need for their own self-examination. It has taught me that there is a difference between being grateful and being a victim, being filial and being abused. It has taught me that abuse takes many different forms and not all bruises are seen on skin.
Therapy has taught me that there are toxic parents. That mothers can suffer from narcissistic personality disorders, or be bipolar, or simply not be equipped to be good mothers. That fathers can be compliant because they go along to get along. That siblings don’t all get along and that the child sometimes has to be the adult.
Therapy has taught me that my mother’s script is not mine; I have a right to write my own.
And writing this has been cathartic.