My daughter isn’t gay. Don’t get me wrong, it wouldn’t matter if she were: some people are short, some are tall; some people have brown hair, some have blonde; some people are straight, some are gay—that’s just the way they’re born. Someday, a super smart scientist will find the combination of genes that controls sexuality, he or she will win the Nobel Peace Prize, my opinion will be ratified as fact, and religion will die a little bit. But I digress. What’s important is that to me, it wouldn’t matter if one of my children were gay, but that’s irrelevant because they’re both straight. However, my mother thought otherwise.
My wife and I left for a short trip to Las Vegas. We took our youngest daughter with us, but we left our teenager alone with my mother while she house-sat for us in Durango. Catelynn, my teen, had a friend (we’ll call her “Hailey”), and while we were gone, Catelynn wanted to hang out with her—they wanted to go see a cover band play in the park. They wanted to have a sleepover. I said “no” from Las Vegas, but for some reason, my mother decided not to listen. She loves to overstep her bounds. While Hailey was at our house, she called Catelynn a “pasty face” because Catelynn is a tad self-conscious of her pale complexion. My mother thought she said “tasty face.” To my mother, it sounded like a pet name, and she decided that Hailey was actually my daughter’s secret lesbian lover. My mother loves to jump to conclusions without vetting the facts; senescence comes in many different forms. And all of a sudden, to my mother, it made sense why I didn’t want Hailey at my house: I was a controlling father who didn’t approve of my daughter’s girlfriend, and I was trying to keep them apart.
The truth is a bit different: Hailey is a fledgling criminal. She was suspended from school three times during her first semester as a freshman. The one time that my daughter was suspended was Hailey’s fault; she hid some vodka in my daughter’s backpack, and possession is still nine tenths of the law. Hell, I once had to meet the State Troopers in a grocery store parking lot at two in the morning to pick up my teenager because she and Hailey thought that it’d be a good idea to get drunk in public and break the legal curfew for minors. While I was in Las Vegas, I didn’t want my daughter hanging out with Hailey because I’m a smart father, not because I’m some sort of parochial parent from the sixties: that’s my mother’s father. It would take some pretty intensive therapy for my mother to admit it, but she loves to project her father’s flaws on me now that I’m a father. At one point, she thought that Catelynn was struggling because she’d fallen in love with some boy who I didn’t like. This was false too, and eerily similar to my mother’s relationship with her own father, but my mother couldn’t be convinced because she’d already jumped to one of her fallacious conclusions.
That’s just what she does. She decides that something is true even though it sounds crazy to the rest of us, and she’s unwilling to reconsider because she hates admitting that she’s wrong. She once poured a bottle of rubbing alcohol on my daughter’s head because her hair “smelled musty,” and to this day, she won’t admit how crazy that sounds to anyone who doesn’t have a paranoid fear of things that “smell musty.” Oh well. It’s just like my father always said “we don’t get to pick our parents.” Once my mother decided that her granddaughter was gay, she wouldn’t let go. Long after we came back from Vegas, Catelynn was still receiving texts from her grandmother wherein grandma talked about her own confused sexuality in college. Dear god… I don’t think I need to tell you how much a teenager hates hearing about her grandmother’s sexuality. A conversation like that is where comfort goes to die. It’s gross.
But when you think about it, none of this really matters. What matters is that when I trusted my mother to watch my daughter, when I trusted her to watch my house, she didn’t respect me. She treated me like a child who she outranked once she had the keys to my front door. I told her that I didn’t want my daughter hanging out with Hailey. I told her that I didn’t want Hailey in my house while I was gone. She didn’t respect what I wanted, and it caused something that she didn’t foresee. You see, my mother never raised a teenager even though she tells herself that she did. I raised myself in Alaska at my dad’s house, over an hour away from where she lived, and this is something that she’ll never admit. But if she had raised a teenager, if she had any experience whatsoever, she’d know that once you teach a teenager that respect for authority is negotiable, there’s no turning back. When Catelynn saw her grandmother let Hailey into my house after I’d said no, it became a free-for-all. Catelynn lost all respect for authority, for mine or my mother’s, and while I was gone in Las Vegas, she threw off the yoke of respect and morphed into a pubescent beast. It got to the point wherein my mother had my stepfather tackle Catelynn and take her phone because Catelynn wasn’t listening. My mom couldn’t handle it anymore; she couldn’t sleep in the bed she made. She loaded up her stuff and drove away in the dusk of evening. She stopped answering my calls. She left my daughter and my house unattended while I was nine hours away in a different state. She abandoned us, just like she abandoned me to a dark childhood in Palmer, Alaska. The morbidly funny part in all of this is that she isn’t even enough of a parent to realize that she caused Catelynn’s behavior by going against my wishes and letting Hailey into my house. My mother told Catelynn to keep it a secret. My mother fucked up. She fed the beast from which she fled, and like always, she isn’t culpable. It’s not her fault in her eyes, because nothing ever has been.
Consider this for a second: Thinking that her granddaughter was gay, my mother tried to facilitate a sleepover with a pretend lover against my wishes. And when my daughter started rebelling against her grandmother’s authority, my mother drove away from the problem thereby abandoning my child when I was too far away to do anything about it. To this day, over a year later, my mother hasn’t apologized. She thinks that it’s someone else’s fault. She says that I was interfering too much from afar. She thinks that I was being too controlling of the way she handled my children because I had rules for her to follow (like “don’t let people around my daughter who I don’t want to be around my daughter”). To that, I’d have to say: “Guess what? It’s my house. They’re my children. That week, you were a babysitter, and in that position, you do as you’re told. If that’s not something with which you can come to terms, then you shouldn’t be watching other people’s children.”
It’s ridiculously simple. I’m an adult, and my house, which is filled with my children, is a place where my wife and I get to make the decisions. Period. A rational grandparent would know that; they’d respect what is real and true as opposed to jumping to insane homosexual-based conclusions and dong whatever she wants regardless of whom it might hurt. However, I need to take this a step further and admit something because I need to write what’s true: I need to write hard about the things that hurt just like Hemmingway told me to. On a basal level, all of this really is my fault. I shouldn’t have trusted my mother to watch my daughter or my house because deep down, I knew that she couldn’t handle it. If you play with fire long enough, it’ll burn you, and that’s not the fire’s fault. That’s just what fire does. Secretly, I knew that my mother was incapable of the task that I’d set in front of her. She made a bad parenting mistake, but that’s just what bad parents do. I knew it’d happen. I saw it coming. I was being selfish. I wanted some time away. My wife needed to go to Las Vegas for a convention, and I wanted to go so my youngest and I could walk hand in hand through a grand carnival and smile at the sights. For a long time, I was mad at my mother because of what she did, of who she was that week, but that’s just like being mad at fire for being fire. My mom didn’t make a mistake; I made the mistake by leaving my child with someone who wasn’t suited to watch a child. I fucked up. I trusted someone who wasn’t trustworthy and cold logic demands that I admit my mistake by placing the blame where it belongs: on me. A professional helped me figure this out.
And now, there’s something scarier down the trail. Unfortunately, we all turn into slightly smudged facsimiles of our parents. I’ve seen it happen. When I was a child, I visited my mother’s mother in her nursing home. My grandmother told my mom that she carried mace in her purse just in case someone tried to rape her in an elevator or something. As my mom and I drove away that day, my mom vented her frustration. She said that her mom was crazy because nobody is going to rape a seventy-year-old woman. She told me to shoot her if she ever turned into her mom. Well, guess what? My mom is almost seventy, and she carries things in her purse that are a shit-ton more dangerous than mace. She lives in the same fear that crippled her mother. She spends her money on self-defense gadgets and special wallets that keep the imaginary bad guys from shooting scanners at her purse thereby stealing her precious identity. I’m pretty sure that over the years, she’s spent more money on protecting herself from bad guys than any bad guy could ever take, but she’ll never admit it. To the casual observer, my mother is insane.
I’d love to agree because it’d be easy to write her off that way, but I can’t. My stepfather once told me as we rode home in his corvette that I have a bond with my mother that he doesn’t understand, that I know her better than he ever could. It’s true. My mother isn’t crazy, but sometimes, she makes mistakes and says things that sound crazy. She does things that look crazy. And the reason that she seems so crazy is that even after she realizes that she’s wrong (this moment materializes on her face as a quirky frown), she won’t admit it. She’ll hold her ground until death because for some reason, to my mother, admitting that she was wrong is way worse than being perceived as crazy by the people who know for a fact that she was wrong. If I was saying this out loud in front of my daughter, right now would be the moment when I said “Catelynn, please shoot me if I ever turn into my mom.” And even though I’m going to fight it, in a few decades, I bet my daughter will have some analogous evidence that I have in fact turned into my mom. I’ll say or do something that looks crazy, and maybe I won’t admit it because the notion of looking like an idiot in public will be too paralyzing to face. The hypocrisy will roil in my guts like fetid stream water and I’ll be ashamed of myself. Holy shit. That’s just as scary as a shark swimming in the blue depths of the ocean below my kicking feet.
Even today, in the here and now, sometimes I hold my ground when I know that I’m wrong because it feels like doing otherwise might erode my authority; it might diminish my credibility even though I wasn’t credible in the first place thanks to my error. I know that’s exactly how it started for my mother, and today, that stubbornness has matured into a full grown beast of burden that has come close to costing her the only family that she has.
So now what? I’ve made the decision to never again let my mother watch my children without actual adult supervision. I’ve decided to stop playing with fire. But how do I handle it? Do I wait through a few more years without contact hoping against hope that my mother will wake up and apologize? Do I continue to fool myself in thinking that my mother will admit her fault when it really counts even though that’s something I’ve never seen her do? Or do I let her back in? Do I just forgive and forget because that would make it easiest for the person who caused all of this bullshit? Should I just digest the hurt just so my youngest grows up knowing her grandmother? Honestly, how bad could it be if my children grew up not knowing one of their grandparents? All four of my grandparents were alive throughout my youth, but I only saw them a few times—they lived back East and we had short phone conversations on birthdays that were hampered by an enormous generational divide. The detachment wasn’t detrimental. Sure, my youngest wants to see her grandmother, but is that more important than my need to not be around her hurtful refusal to make amends for her abusive denial of what’s right? I don’t know. It’s subjective. But I’m still waiting and I can continue to do so despite the reality of what comes after old age. My mother’s stubbornness is a pond ripple as where mine is a village killing tsunami.
The professional says that I’m where I need to be. I don’t need to work to let my mother back into my family because she’s the one who worked so hard to leave it. It wouldn’t be healthy to swallow my complaints, to forgo the necessary apology, because that’s the flavor of self-debasement that causes someone to resent their parents in the first place. But on the other hand, my mother is a bit broken. She won’t do what needs to be done because the inability to admit she was wrong is such a huge encumbrance that she actually convinces herself that she’s right despite all of the empirical evidence to the contrary. She sends occasional texts about things that don’t matter, and I ignore them because they’re pointless. But who knows? Maybe these pointless texts are preludes to something meaningful. Maybe she’s just trying to get her foot in the door so she can apologize, but then again, thinking so would just be a hypocritical projection on my part because my mother hasn’t spoken to rationality in years. And my youngest would like to see her grandmother.
The answer is pretty obvious. I need to come to terms with who and what my mother has become. I want a mother who can admit fault, who can tell true from false, but that’s not what I have. Expecting things that aren’t expectable is what leads to unhappiness, and unhappiness with my mother is what I have. Like an adult, I need to accept this and move on. I need to let my youngest see her grandmother and call her when she wants to despite what happens as a result. I mean seriously; the last time my youngest called grandma on her own, from the back seat of my truck while my wife and I were at a garage sale, my mother accused me of forcing my child to call her to manipulate her with guilt. In my mother’s eyes, the possibility that a seven-year-old might call her grandmother out of the blue when she’s left unsupervised with a cell phone wasn’t credible. To her and her negative reality, that call must’ve been a subversive attempt to control her. That’s the insane shit I have to deal with. But unfortunately, I have to deal with it. It is what it is. We don’t get to choose our parents. In the end, maybe my children wouldn’t have chosen me. But maybe now, I can do something to make it so they would. I can admit that all of this happened because I left my children with someone I shouldn’t’ve. I can apologize to myself for the mistake I made and I can forgive myself for the fallout. I, for one, do know what is true and what is not, and in this, I know that the apology I make to myself is the only one that will ever be made despite what “should” happen. And when I think about it, it’s the only one that actually matters.