My niece, when she was a toddler, began using the toilet to urinate. She was hesitant to do the rest of her business there and her mother asked her why. “It’s very dangerous!” my little niece apparently said, with great conviction. The seriousness with which she delivered her answer made it a great laugh line in the family for many years, though we never learned what the actual danger was.
The last Mother’s Day of my mother’s life, a week or so before she was taken to the hospice to die, was one of the saddest days I can remember. Her daughter, my sister, had long been operating under the principle that our mother was “kookoo for Cocoa Puffs.” The phrase harkens back to an ad for sugary cereal that ran for a while when we were kids. The mascot, a very excitable cartoon bird, apparently a kookaburra (famous for its hysterically laughing call), went wild for the delicious cereal, bouncing off the walls and squawking “kookoo for Cocoa Puffs!” over and over as it freaked out. Saying our mother was kookoo for Cocoa Puffs was a cute way of saying she was batshit crazy. When my mother “lost” her wedding ring, her mother’s solid gold bracelet, the one with the little photos of our family lovingly cut out and pasted into sections of a little gold orb that opened and expanded like an accordian, it was because she was kookoo for Cocoa Puffs. When my mother was pissy that her daughter and grandchildren never thanked her for anything she bought them, same verdict.
During that last meal with the family, gathered around our dying mother’s kitchen table, many meaningful looks were shot behind the old woman’s back. She’d say something and eyes would quickly roll, facial expressions would flash all around, silently and constantly, “phew, nuts, eh?” My sister, her husband and her children were convinced of the old lady’s lost grip on reality. She was nuts, and they humored her, if barely.In the end my mother started to cry, which they felt proved their point.
I never found my mother to be the least bit nuts, except when she was in a situation where everyone was pretending. That shit drove her crazy. A week or two before she died, a new hospice nurse met her with a small group of hospice workers. I heard them all laughing from my mother’s bedroom. When the nurse came out, she said to me, with a big smile, “whatever else you want to say about her, your mother is sharp as a tack.”
Meanwhile, before an early dinner on that final Mother’s Day, there had been a tense negotiation, for the hours leading up to that carefree meal, with numerous phone calls back and forth, due to a serious, ongoing suicide threat. A door had been slammed and locked, wailing tears from within, nobody could reason with the inconsolable teenager who’d been humiliated on line, as teenagers are when their friends turn mean. It had apparently been touch and go for a while, until finally the younger brother quietly talked his way into the room and was able to calm his sister down. They arrived a few hours later, big smiles on all their faces, with Chinese take-out and the firm conviction that grandma was insane. It was an excruciating experience. A few days later a van from the hospice came and took my mother to her deathbed.
I have that same tic my mother had when faced with dishonesty, selectively poor memory, a failure to acknowledge when my feelings are hurt, an insistence that I’m crazy and the people insisting on my insanity are beyond criticism, no matter what they have to do. After my mother’s funeral I mentioned a historical fact, someone’s prior marriage, that sent my sister into a frenzy. She desperately made the slashing “ixnay!!! ixnay!!!” gesture across her throat to get me to stop talking. The prior marriage was, for some reason, a humiliating secret that left my sister no choice but to lie to her daughter about it. It upset me to be called a liar, and in my confusion I held my tongue. The next day, when we spoke alone, my sister promised to clear things up afterwards, but put so many conditions on when and how, that it took over a year and then, she explained, the conditions were still never right. After a year she was hurt and very angry that I still had an issue with being called a fucking liar. A year! My fucking insane brother only knows one thing — how to hold a fucking grudge.
My mother’s funeral was more than twelve years ago. Now, in my sister’s mind — twelve fucking years later my brother is still upset that I inadvertently called him a fucking liar and that there was a slight delay in telling my children the demanding, judgmental asshole hadn’t lied. Is there no statute of limitations on his insane, prosecutorial bullshit? What about love? What about fucking love? My brother wouldn’t know love if it came up and lied to his face!
Call me kookoo for Cocoa Puffs, but to me love does not include a need to lie whenever necessary, a pass for all hurtful behavior, a license to do whatever you feel you need to do to someone else, whenever you feel hurt or upset, with a lifetime entitlement to unlimited, unconditional understanding, kndness and graciousness. That’s something, we can all agree, but I’m not sure we can call it love.
For one thing, it is a one way expectation, since the party insisting on it does not extend the same privileges of unlimited forgiveness to the other. For another thing, without authenticity, what is there between two people?
Being authentic means being honest. In an intimate relationship it means being honest while taking care with other people’s pain when they feel they’re not getting what they need from you. To some people it hurts too fucking much to consider making themselves vulnerable that way. They tend to believe that we all have our own perspective, our own reality, that nothing anyone you love says is necessarily true or false. This essential solipsism is untouchably real to someone to whom the pain of rejection is much more terrifying than accepting that we are, on the most basic level, eternally unknowable to each other. The price of maintaining this kind of solipsistic relationship is very high if you are so kookoo for Cocoa Puffs that you insist on difficult abstractions like honesty, apology when someone is aware they’ve hurt you and so on. If you can’t love and forgive without conditions, they insist, you are not worth loving.
And, of course, they are completely right. You certainly will never be able to convince them that they are not, since it is humiliating to them to ever admit being wrong or acting hurtfully. You know them well enough to know what will make them tense up, set their faces, become cold, whenever they feel you are criticizing them. You are prying open an unbearably painful primal wound, proceed in the face of resistance only if you want to end things.
Sometimes, even with your best efforts, relationships you love, that have long been a source of comfort and security, will end. It can be very, very hard to move on, but sometimes it is necessary for everybody. Sad, and true, as death itself.