Being female is a load of hurt.That’s all I could think as I listened to my sister rant, looping through her repeating list of complaints she had about her ex-husband, our parents, her sons, and her neighbors. I tried not to seem alarmed as she recycled the exact language and inflection, the rationalizations, the affronts in the way Alzheimer’s or whatever has taken over her personality makes her do. Our father did this, too, in the last few years of his life. But he was in his eighties. Linda is in her early sixties.
She wears her hair very short because a long time ago, before he left her for another woman, that ex-husband wanted her to cut it that way. Her hair was beautiful, dark and wavy with glints of our mother’s red. So many years later, Linda still wears her hair cut short and close, even though it doesn’t flatter her as well as a little longer style might. I wish she would let it grow to her shoulders again.
I try to distract her from the stories that reopen so many old wounds and still have the power to make her cry. I try to get her talking about stores she likes. She was a world-champion shopper, with more tricks for bargain hunting than anyone I knew. She had the stamina to march through stores all day and night, long beyond what I was inclined to do.
The day after our mother had the heart attack that would eventually lead to her death, Linda and I went shopping for nightgowns and robes for Mom to wear in the hospital. Our father had sent us on this errand to save our mother from wearing the undignified hospital gowns. Linda kept us on the move through three malls and every department store and outlet in Virginia Beach until after five that evening. She was driving and in charge. I was getting the migraine that always hit me when I wasn’t in control of my own schedule. I didn’t realize until late in the day that Linda was delaying our arrival at the hospital because she was afraid to see how sick Mom might be. The lingerie we bought stayed in the boxes we delivered them in, wrapped in tissue and never worn because our mother took a bad turn soon after that. I was frustrated that we missed most of one her last days on earth, but I knew that Linda was coping with complicated feelings toward our mother.
Linda’s relationship with our mother was always charged. Linda can still quote things my mother said to her so many years ago that hurt. Linda says Mom told her outright that she wasn’t her favorite child. Linda is still angry that Mom would wake her up to cook breakfast for our older brother and his friends when they came home late at night. She tells me that she stayed up on Christmas Eve to put my toys together because our parents went to bed without doing it. She says that Mom took me to bed to nurse me and left her to do all of the housework.
Of course these events were unfair and still bother her. I feel guilt even though these actions of others aren’t my fault. I still wish I could make up for them for Linda. And I don’t really know what is true or unfair or wrong on either side. Was Linda a teenager feeling put out that she was expected to do anything at all? Did my parents really make as much of a difference between my brother and Linda as it seemed to her? I wasn’t born yet for most of the episodes Linda tells me about. Linda was 16 when I was born and got married when I was five. All I know is that fifty years later, these stories still make Linda cry. If they had happened to me, would I have let go or would I be hanging on to old hurts this way, too?
Linda has cast herself as the victim in every part of her life. She sees herself as the mistreated party, with no recourse, no power to change anything.
She has recited this litany of hurts every day of her life.
And I am terrified because I see a little of that tendency in myself and my daughter. All the way home from Charlottesville and my last visit with Linda, I tried to persuade myself that I am different. I’ve been the one in charge in my life; I was the one who made decisions and changes and had power to do what I wanted to do. I tried to fill my head with new ideas, tried to stay creative and open to trying new things. I never forget the stories of those who treated me poorly or hurt my feelings, but I don’t think about them every day. Maybe that is insurance against being robbed of joy and happy memories the way Linda has been.
But what if I’m NOT different? What if my own litany of complaints takes over my brain and leaves me in an endless loop of sad, angry thoughts? What mantra can I repeat to myself to ward off what might be inevitable?