I awakened very slowly that spring morning, aware of a strange feeling of disorientation. Had my alarm clock malfunctioned? As I glanced at its face, registering the time at seven o’clock, I momentarily panicked. Normally, I would have been up an hour-and-a-half before, halfway to work by this time, refreshed by my shower and fortified by my two cups of coffee. I would have quickly perused the headlines in the morning paper. After thirty years of this scene, I did have it down pat. But today something seemed oddly off-kilter.
Along with the rays of sunshine peering through the slats in my blinds, announcing the beginning to a beautiful day, I sensed encompassing warmth unexplainable by the morning sun, but it took a few minutes for it all to fall into place. And then it hit me! This is the first day of the rest of my life!
Last night, my friends and coworkers had gathered together to honor me, an ordinary woman named Sybil Andrews, retiring after thirty years in social work. I smiled to myself as I replayed the tapes in my head, hearing again the wonderful kudos and best wishes. They’d spoken with great sincerity, but I’d also sensed their underlying envy as they watched me reach this milestone in my life. After all, here I am, facing days, weeks, months and possibly years of a whole new life, with unexplored options and a kind of freedom that I’ve never before encountered.
And now, as I stood before my mirror, I recognized an unfamiliar quality in this new Sybil. I studied my face, with the familiar lines etched along the mouth and crinkling at the corners of my dark eyes. And that permanent worry line creasing my forehead. Sadly enough, my hair still needs a touch-up, something to bring a more youthful auburn to the graying strands. But underneath these superficial and all-too familiar characteristics, I detected an eagerness that wasn’t there yesterday.
Taking my cue from this quality, I decided to plunge into my day and into my life.
I became the energizer bunny, hopping from one task to the next, my outlook transmogrified in strange and wondrous ways. First, I turned on the stereo full blast -- I live out in the country, with no close neighbors -- and as I danced along with the tunes, in my sweats, sipping my coffee during momentary pauses, I felt an amazing freedom. A release.
Somewhat winded from this physical exertion, since I’m not as young or fit as I used to be, I panted just a bit as I staggered toward my computer. As I turned it on, I felt a tingling in my fingers; placing them on the keyboard, I sensed the magic emanating from their tips. My fingers literally flew across the keyboard as I checked e-mails, reading and rereading each message and then replying immediately. Next, I clicked on the file I’d entitled “My First Novel.” I paused for a moment, visualizing the words in my head, behind my eyelids…And then I began.
And suddenly I began formulating words, connecting them into phrases and sentences and paragraphs. And none of it even slightly resembled a report to the juvenile court, or the documentation of a case file. These words came straight from my heart and my soul. In fact, they seemed to flow off my fingertips like a stream cascading over a waterfall. I sighed and moved on over to my short story file, working there for awhile. Finally, after what seemed like a very long time, I glanced almost guiltily at the clock. But it displayed twelve noon and I still had a whole afternoon and evening stretching ahead of me.
What to do now? Oh, I know! I’ll run down to the bookstore/coffeehouse, hang out, and just go with the flow. A feeling I hadn’t experienced in a very long time. And, in a flash, I’d changed into clothing appropriate for public appearances, strangely casual compared to my normal working day attire, and I’ve taken off. Exploring and pushing the envelope.
The options unfolded magically, in a strangely surreal fashion, and the overwhelming freedom lightened my footsteps as I glided along the courtyard at the mall. Somehow, sipping coffee at the bookstore on a weekday feels sinful and utterly delicious.
Later that night, I discovered that I still had enormous reserves of untapped energy. With the load of stress magically lifted, my normally tight muscles had loosened, allowing for a seemingly endless source of power. At this moment, I paused, thinking that I must be invincible and that nothing could touch me.
I knew that my euphoric pink cloud sensations would surely disappear with the first wind. Yet even as my internal voice warned me that, sooner or later, my mood would crash, or at least, drop down a notch or two, I blissfully ignored these rational thoughts as the first week unfolded uneventfully.
Curled up on my sofa watching a late-night movie on HBO, ecstatic at this new ability of mine to sit through a flick without having to tape it first for later consumption, a frantic knock on the door jarred me out of my harmonious existence. And turned my world on end.
I peered through the peephole, strangely disturbed by the prospect of someone at my door, and to my horror, flashed on the broken image of my daughter. Bruised and battered, her swollen face seemed distorted by her injuries while tears formed trails down her cheeks. Throwing the door wide, I opened my mouth to exclaim and invite her in. But she had already fallen across the threshold, lying on the floor, curled up into a little ball. Her duffel bag tumbled after her, almost like an afterthought. Apparently stuffed hastily with odds and ends, its seams were distended. Distracted temporarily by this oddly irrelevant detail, I focused on it while gathering my wits about me.
Sasha, at twenty-one, had lived a discordant life thus far, so her condition on this late night in spring didn’t come as a total surprise. As a teenager, she’d veered away from the safe path I’d dreamed for her, choosing instead the wildest boys, the toughest girls, and the path of least resistance, one carved out by all those dissident youth who only live in the moment. In other words, she had no viable goals for herself, other than moving from one party or boyfriend to the next. Despite my attempts to help her focus, my efforts to counsel her toward more sane goals and choices, she defied me at every turn. And ran away repeatedly. When she’d turned eighteen, I’d allowed myself to feel a momentary relief, a respite, as she catapulted into a world of her own choosing, but outside my field of vision or legal responsibility.
At the moment, or so I’d thought, she was sharing a trailer with one of the most obnoxious hoodlums in this town. At least, in my humble estimation. Offensive in all the ways that counted, Vinny did have a certain superficial appeal and even the occasional charming mannerisms. But I knew the type. I’d spent the last thirty years in social work dealing with clones of this guy. And I could read his future in the bad boy swagger, the sneer that lingered on his hardened mouth, and the smell of failure emanating from his pores along with last night’s beer.
Sasha’s older brother Kurt, a self-described slacker, had at least spent several years in college before disappearing into his netherworld of idle disengagement. A traveler, he lived a free-lance lifestyle, but he’d never shown up on my doorstep in the middle of the night, turning my life upside down.
But then, feeling guilty at my judgmental attitude, I fastened a sympathetic expression on my face.
“What’s going on?” I struggled for a calm voice while risking her wrath.
One of Sasha’s greatest complaints thus far in our turbulent relationship had been my tendency to “hover” and intrude in her life. And, to my credit, I’d improved in that area. But while I hesitated, wondering if my question might be misconstrue d as an overstepping of the bounds, I reminded myself that surely she’d renounced the right to her privacy once she’d impulsively knocked on my door in this condition. So I waited for her reply.
“No big deal, Mother,” she flashed the words at me through sullen yet swollen lips, sending my earlier hopes right out the door. Her appearance here didn’t mean that she’d left the ingrate. She was just getting her second wind. And she continued: “I just need a place to crash for a couple of days,” sighing heavily, and apparently struggling to replace the sullen look with a more pathetic one. Something designed to elicit my sympathies. Gesturing out the window toward my guesthouse, standing there poised for weekend visitors (invited ones), she soulfully gazed into my eyes and threw out her final plea: “I won’t get in your way, I promise.”
Famous last words, I thought, while struggling with my inner turmoil. My needs or hers?
If I’d truly believed that she wanted to change, that she needed a place to stay while she got her life together, moving beyond the past and the baggage of her poor choices…if she’d even hinted that I might expect such a metamorphosis, everything would have been so much easier. But when she reiterated her refusal to file a complaint for “abuse against a cohabitant,” choosing instead to dismiss the whole episode between her and Vinny as an unfortunate accident, I should have seen the handwriting on the wall.
But I sighed and nodded and helped settle her in next door.
My eyes wistfully scanned the lovely guesthouse, with its pristine white wicker furnishings in the greatroom, and I briefly inspected the bedroom equipped with an antique brass bed layered in crisp linens and handmade quilts. I knew that I’d already stocked both the galley kitchen and the country bathroom, in anticipation of my dream visitors. Sighing, I dismissed the fantasy in face of the reality, hoping that I wouldn’t later regret all of this.
Later, much later, I would realize what an error in judgment I had made that night: Not the mistake I’d made by allowing my daughter to stay for a brief respite, as requested; but the one I’d inadvertently made when I failed to take the time to sit her down, despite her apparently distraught condition, and establish some ground rules.
I would later curse myself for that glaring oversight.
For the first few days, Sasha turned out to be the ideal guest.
She knocked first before entering my private space. She asked in advance before raiding my refrigerator. And she even politely hemmed and hawed about using the washer and dryer. Lulled into a feeling of false serenity by these early indicators of a peaceful coexistence, I was, therefore, blindsided by what happened next.
I noticed Vinny’s presence next-door after the fact.
My first clue should have been the louder stereo music, or the overflowing garbage cans, with an inordinate amount of beer cans and bottles for one person. But, since none of this obviously intruded on my peace and contentment, I chose to ignore the signs. To my everlasting regret.
On a Friday night, two weeks after Sasha had “temporarily” taken up residence in my guesthouse, I heard the first rumblings of disaster with the shouts, curses, and slamming doors. I peered furtively through my side window and caught a glimpse of Vinny, clad in a tank top and cut-offs, running across the front yard, kicking over garbage cans and shouting behind him as several other similarly garbed revelers followed. Through the darkness of the night, a sliver of illumination from my porchlight revealed Vinny holding a baseball bat aloft in what I perceived as a threatening gesture.
Like a mother lion, I sprang into action, dialing 9-1-1 before stomping over to the guesthouse.
The cops arrived within five minutes, apparently having nothing better to do in this foothill community on a weekend. And amongst the revelers, they ferreted out several underage kids whom they hauled off with them, along with Vinny, who had turned verbally abusive for their private listening pleasure. And apparently they’d charged him as “drunk and disorderly.”
But instead of Sasha’s gratitude for ending the perceived threat to her life, I got attitude.
Her famous sullen demeanor, further complicated by her newsflash. Pregnant. I thought I’d prepared myself for the worst. I’d anticipated that she might choose to stand by her man, as deficient as he might be, and that she might announce her decision to move straightaway into the previously vacated trailer with him…once he got out of jail. I even expected that she, who’d consistently thumbed her nose at all my efforts, might hope for me to suck it up and be happy for her as she returned to her home with Vinny.
Instead, I got her huffily expressed expectation of an indefinite tenancy in my guesthouse. And, she’d hastened to add, she and Vinny were not over. They were just taking a breather.
As I envisioned recurring replays of tonight’s revelry, with regular visits by the local law enforcement officers; as my mind flashed ahead to my life unfolding before me, with no room for the peace and contentment I’d sought for lo these many years; and even as I felt the tightening of those shoulder muscles along with that heavy weight that sat on my chest, I said: “All right, but just for a little while.”
All because of my own memory tapes. Instead of the clinging, parasitic young woman she had become, I saw the little girl, her face crumpled with tears as her father disappointed her for the umpteenth time by choosing his own selfish endeavors over a promised weekend with his daughter. And I flashed on mother and daughter playing out the roles of The Two of Us Against the World, creating treasured moments and special vacation trips for ourselves despite the dictates of a tight budget. I remembered that look on her face when I surprised her with a new outfit, spread out on her lavender gingham canopy bed, and how she hugged me tightly, whispering that I was the “best mommy in the whole world!”
I could still see her freckled face, with the missing front teeth, when she started first grade.
And somewhere underneath this disquieting creature she had morphed into, I knew that my little girl hid, just waiting to be released. If only I could do just the right thing. If only I allowed myself to see beyond the obvious flaws, forgiving her the wrong choices and the repeated disregard for my needs, I might find her. And we’d be The Two of Us Against the World once again.
But, of course, since life seldom measures up to our fantasies, none of that happened.
But it would take six more months of this disastrous scenario, with the two of us existing like soldiers in an armed camp. We had our talks, usually disintegrating into shouts and exchanged accusations, punctuated by tears on both sides. I made several attempts to establish those long overdue ground rules, achieving only a small measure of success for a limited period of time. In one of our talks, early on, Sasha had admitted to me that she wasn’t really pregnant. That she had thrown that out in a desperate cry for attention. One of her few moments of complete honesty.
In the midst of all of this, a thought occurred to me. Had I capitulated to this travesty, overlooking my own needs and allowing the rampant destruction of my peaceful existence, because I somehow felt responsible for her poor choices, for her self-destructive tendencies? Did I wallow in guilt because of the abandonment of her beloved father? Because I had chosen to end the marriage, thus tearing apart the perfect little family she had enjoyed? Could she still believe, that if not for my long-ago decision, we might all be living happily ever after?
Did I believe it too?
Well, obviously, something had gone terribly awry and I was the only one who could turn things around. By putting my foot down. By ending this sojourn of hers in my backyard. By setting up boundaries and establishing deadlines.
And I did just that. She hated me for it, calling me every name in the book, selfish bitch being only the first of many such pejorative labels that I heard on that autumn day when I gave her thirty days to vacate.
And in the month that followed my decision to reclaim my life, she thumbed her nose, doing everything in her power to create discomfort and disquiet. Interspersed, of course, with the occasional sweetness and charm calculated to regain my good favor. As I watched her pull out all the stops, I steeled myself against that faint voice inside that whispered, the one that promised the storybook mother-daughter relationship that I had craved from the moment I first saw her pink and white face in that hospital delivery room. The voice that promised a happy ending if only I would give in, if only I could overlook the bad behavior one more time….
But then, as I watched her tossing that defiant look in my direction as she clung to Vinny, I listened to that other voice inside. The one that speaks of reality and the things we cannot change.
Today I have a magnet on my refrigerator with the serenity prayer on it: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
And even though I have temporarily given up on the relationship that I’d envisioned between myself and my daughter, my ever-optimistic heart holds out for a day, sometime in the distant future, when she will come to me, having evolved into a more mature incarnation of herself, and we will forge an adult relationship free of illusion and grounded in reality. A relationship born on that autumn day when I set boundaries for my daughter, in the hopes that she might learn to accept responsibility for her own life and her own choices.
The very day that I learned to do the same.