The Price of a Second Chance

Feeling drained after the funeral and gathering afterwards, Carolyn just wanted to sleep, to feel nothing for a while. Walking through the front door of her mother’s house, now hers, she felt an odd mix of emotions. There was loss, to be sure. She’d just lost her mother, the last familial tie in the world since her father committed suicide five years before. But more than that was a sense of relief. Her mother, whose illness had come on suddenly and progressed very rapidly, was no longer suffering. That was a big part of the relief. A smaller part was a sense of freedom, freedom from the constant physical care her mother required. Freedom from the bitterness and anger thrust at her because she was an easy target, the only one willing to be there through the good and bad days.

For the first time in her life, she was completely alone, left with nothing more than a house full of unpleasant memories, a house she wasn’t sure she could stay in alone. To her left she looked at the dining room, the one room in the house that was a complete lie. It still held a table big enough for ten people and a buffet full of good china, a room for a family that did not exist. She vaguely recalls the last time it was used for its intended purpose, the final family Thanksgiving. She was ten. Her parents were separated and talking of divorce. Her father was at the head of the table. To his left were his brother, sister, and her son. To his left, Carolyn sat between her mother and maternal grandmother. The tension, obvious even to a ten-year-old, made for long silences only broken by small talk. The divorce took another six years, after several attempts at reconciliation. Her uncle, like her father, took his own life a few years after that gathering. Her aunt broke all contact. Her grandmother, who moved into the house when she became too ill to take care of herself, died a year before her mother got sick.

Carolyn, oppressed by the absolute silence, walked the hallway towards the bedrooms. The hallway was another reminder of the lie that was her family. When visiting friends, she noticed their families covered the walls with frames filled with family portraits, wedding photos, graduations and all the milestones of a child’s life. She saw the smiles, hugs, and love they shared. Her hall was lined with beautiful, impersonal artwork; stylish landscape paintings and photos of places she’d never been. The only hint of belonging was the family crest for a surname that died several generations ago.

The first room on her right was the guest bedroom, the one usually reserved for Mary, her mother’s best friend. Thinking about her mother’s friends, Carolyn became angry again, recalled the anger she felt every time those friends hurt her mother. They all made a show of concern, discussed how hard it was at the end. Like they had any idea. She said as much to Mary.

“You talk about my mom’s last days like you had any part in it. Where were you when she couldn’t drive herself to the doctor? What about when she could no longer walk? I don’t remember seeing you here for that? You were never here to help her dress. I was all alone when mom needed help to bathe or simply go to the bathroom.”

“I visited!” Mary insisted. “I came every week.”

“Sure, you came. You sat with her for about twenty minutes and talked about all the things she could no longer do, the things you used to do together. You reminded her of all she’d never have again. Then, as soon as she brought up her pain, asked for the least amount of help, you suddenly had more important things to do.”

If not for the brief happiness it gave her mother to see her best friend, Carolyn would’ve told her not to bother. The anger cleansed, she was able to come to terms with her own feelings, her own anger at her mother. The relief that she was finally free added guilt to that list of warring emotions. The guilt was minor though as she thought back on the last year and really a whole lifetime of a stormy relationship.

The next room was hers. It had changed a lot since she was a child. All signs she had lived in it for over twenty years were gone because she defied her mother, dared to fight for some control. The biggest fight she could recall was when, at twenty-five, she decided to move out. Her best friend needed a roommate and Carolyn needed a change.

Her mother demanded to know, “How well do you know this girl? How do you know she can be trusted?”

“Because she’s my friend! And, you know, I’ll never know until I try,” Carolyn countered. “Why are you so against this? It’s not like I’m leaving the state. I’ll be fifteen minutes away.”

“I don’t understand why you’re so set on moving. You have all you need here.”

“Not everything mom. What about a little freedom? I’m too old to still live at home with my mother. It’s just not normal.”

The argument lasted for over an hour and, though Carolyn did move out, her mother never quite forgave her for leaving, tried to make her feel guilty for not appreciating the good thing she had. They didn’t talk for weeks beyond the nightly required calls to let her mother know she was safe.

From the time she was old enough to start thinking for herself, Carolyn had been a disappointment and embarrassment to her mother, not adhering to some unattainable standard for which she was expected to strive at all times. Thinking about it still made her angry. Encouragement was more like thinly veiled insults.

“You’re smart enough to get a real job.” Because a secretary was real while retail was a waste of time. “Is that what you’re wearing?” That one was the one Carolyn heard the most. No matter what she wore, if it wasn’t something her mother bought for her, it was questioned. She adamantly drew the line on letting her mother set her up on dates, though it didn’t stop her from trying.

Now at 45 years old, Carolyn had no husband, no child, and no career to show for all her hard work. Her one attempt at an intimate relationship failed miserably. She was too naïve to know he only wanted one thing and it wasn’t a long-term relationship. She was only three or four credits from a two-year degree that might never happen. She loved her mother, knew her mother loved her, but neither ever learned how to express it without some expectation in return, without strings attached. Her mother expressed her love through overprotection to the point of smothering. The few friends who were acceptable to the standards balked at the idea that a grown woman with a life of her own had to call and check in with her mother every single day. The truth was her life was never truly her own.

Her mother raised her to be totally dependent and that’s exactly what she was. Trapped by her own helplessness. Her strange upbringing left her with more than just dependence on her mother. At three, they found out the people running her day care were abusing some of the children. In the fourth grade, the teacher took the class on a field trip to the local slaughterhouse. When she was old enough to drive, she became her mother’s designated driver and chauffeur while spying on her unfaithful father. Over the years she’d been diagnosed with everything from Bipolar Disorder to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and was on a daily cocktail of medications for mood and chemical imbalances. She still went through bouts of extreme depression, cutting herself when it got bad and even self-medicating to the point she was hospitalized as a suicide risk. Her bad days outweighed her good ones by a long shot.  It seemed the entire universe conspired against her, blocking every avenue of escape. She tried to get out of retail, but had no experience. Her emotional issues began to take a toll at work, putting her job in jeopardy. It was shortly after a talk with her mother about going back to school that her mother was diagnosed. The one constant in her life, no matter how stressful it was, was torn out from under her. A mother who seemed to live life to the fullest on her own terms was now depending on her and she never felt up to the task.

That was before the illness, before ALS took even that strained relationship and stretched it to the breaking point. After the diagnosis and progression, she gave up what little personal space she had to be 24-hour care for her dying mother. The disease, known to be fatal as early as a year or two after diagnosis, took an able-bodied, vibrant woman who loved to travel the world and tend her large backyard garden regularly and within six months left her using a walker, unable pick herself up when she fell, a frequent problem as she lost motor control. This meant Carolyn needed to give up her apartment and most of her own belongings to move back, live in the room that was no longer hers.

The room was not to be altered in any way, no furniture or décor added, as it was already perfect as it was.  Carolyn could sleep in there, but couldn’t change it. If she wanted her books and movies, she could retrieve them from a storage room as she needed them. The only concession her mother allowed was her cats, but they weren’t allowed in the rest of the house. They would stay in the small room with her or be sent to the pound. It was the worst possible solution for Carolyn, and the only solution available to her. She couldn’t afford her tiny apartment on her own salary. If she didn’t move in with her mother it meant assisted living and no financial help.

At the end of the hall was her mother’s room. It was a room that used to be immaculate, nothing out of place, not a speck of dust. The walls held more artwork, the closets lined with designer clothes and shoes, nothing but the best. Now it had a walker, abandoned when the wheelchair was needed. The designer clothes were forgotten, replaced by clothes chosen for comfort instead of style. The nightstand held a pharmacy of pills, medicine that relieved pain but could do nothing to stop the illness. It was the one place in the house where her mother’s secret was visible to any who entered. Not ready to face how much she would miss her mother, Carolyn turned her back on the physical reminder and went back to the living room, back to the façade.

Thinking back to the funeral again, she was relieved when Mary asked to do the eulogy. She’d stressed over it, not sure at all about what to say about a woman who was so intent on appearances that she hid her true self from everyone, including her only child. Carolyn knew only what her mother allowed her to know. Even the house gave no clues. Looking around the living room, all it contained were window dressings meant to impress visitors. Expensive knick knacks lined up precisely along bookshelves filled with decorator books, titles and covers more important than the words they contained. Furniture placed to look warm and inviting in a room with no personal touches, void of family photos or childhood mementos. Even the fireplace remained pristine, for looks and not use. The halls, usually meant to proudly display family and friends, snapshots of happy times, had artwork coordinated to match the décor, not the inhabitants. The bedrooms, the bathrooms, the kitchen were all designed to impress, pulled right out of the pages of a interior design magazine. Even her choice of pet, designer dogs that were all the craze, was about appearance and not because she held any real affection for them.

The only thing the house said about her mother, and it spoke volumes, was the need for absolute control. She controlled her daughter, and for a short time her mother, the way she controlled her environment. Carolyn could never get her to understand you can’t control people the way you do things.  It didn’t stop her from trying and was the basis for many of the arguments they had over the years. Up until the day she moved back home, her always mother demanded to know exactly what she was doing, where she was going. She had to call her mother every time she left her apartment and when she got home. If she didn’t, her mother would call until she answered, regardless of the time. The one time she forgot to call and left her phone on silent, her mother called the police, certain she was hurt or worse. Carolyn was furious and she could not get her mother to understand her anger. Her mother’s need to control her family and surroundings grew exponentially as the disease took hold and robbed her of control of her own body. Though Carolyn found out even her mother’s control was a façade.

When she moved in and got to see parts of the house her mother never showed, the garage and the attic, she saw the truth. Where Carolyn used medication and self-pain to cope, her mother shopped. The garage was full to the ceiling with boxes of all sizes, containing everything from appliances to more decorations for the house. The collection was unorganized and untouched for years. The attic, much to Carolyn’s surprise, held the contents of her old room, the childhood things she thought her mother threw out. She’d heard of hoarding, knew it could stem from emotions never faced and accepted. She realized that her mother had lost a lot over the years, her marriage, her mother, and Carolyn when she moved out, and compensated for the fear of losing more by holding onto everything. She used her own fear to manipulate Carolyn, used sympathy and guilt to get what she wanted. Her mother never realized that she didn’t have to lash out. She didn’t have to take her own anger at loss out on Carolyn, the one person who would never actually leave.

Walking the now lonely house, she knew she had a long road ahead. But that road had a light at the end and many possibilities. The furniture, the knick knacks, and all the art that were only window dressing could go. She’d find a good home for the designer dogs, maybe in a home with kids who would play with them, love them as living beings should be loved. There wasn’t anything left in the shell of a home that reminded her of happy times, but it was still a foundation, something stable she could use to build upon, to start fresh. For the first time in her life she was looking to the future, not seeing all the things holding her back, but imagining what it would be like to do what she wanted, what her had heart stopped dreaming ages ago. School would mean a chance at meaningful work, something she could truly enjoy. Trips with friends, or even alone, would finally let her see all the places her mother told her about. Maybe she’d even taking the risk of finding someone to love and love her, flaws and all. She would live life on her terms, sad that it took the loss of her mother to be free, but reveling in the fact that she was indeed free.

I know this still needs a bit of work. I’m open to constructive criticism, suggestions, or any general feedback.