We choose a corner table in the cozy country restaurant, two grown women, yet…I feel that we are playing dress-up. Pangs of guilt and anxiety needle me. I had to sneak away from Mom to steal this time with my sister. She looks as guilty as I do.
My sister and I are two pieces of a puzzle, day and night, the sun and the moon. We complete each other. Years of clinging together through the dark nights, years of my father’s rage, my mother’s silence, dysfunctional machinery that welded ropes of love, hope and faith that even we have not been able to destroy.
It doesn’t matter how long we’re apart; we begin our conversation where we ended on my last visit, as if no time had passed. Once, after a serious argument, we didn’t speak for three years and still; when we made up, it was the same way.
We talk about how we are workaholics, always working for (or loving) men who try to control, use, abuse, manipulate, annihilate and dominate. She tells me that at least I always fight back and stand up for myself. It’s true.
However, we agree that I accept the abuse too. I just make a lot of noise and end up quitting or running away. I’ve never resolved the situations. My life is paved with unresolved relationships.
I talk about starting my hypnotherapy to quit smoking and how when I am under, I always end up in deep, murky moats, smoky castles with walls built from bricks of terror and abandonment. I tell her that they dumped a baby out of a shopping cart into the smoke and her eyes open wide. I didn’t know if it was Sue Sue or me in that carriage. It felt like we were the same baby. I start to cry and light another cigarette. Two years of therapy and I’m still smoking.
“I’m almost fifty and I don’t want to deal with my childhood anymore, I just want to be okay. I just want to quit smoking.” I tell her. Tears fill her eyes.
We order breakfast and settle in with our coffee, letting it soothe us as I light another cigarette.
We need to talk about Mom, the reason I’m home this time. Our oldest sister has already agreed to take responsibility for Mom when the time comes. I’d always planned to be the one, but find now that the time is near, I’m not able to take care of my own needs, let alone imagine caring for anyone else.
“Is she still able to take care of herself?” I ask Susanne. “Keep track of her medicines and her doctor’s appointments? She has cried wolf so many times that I don’t know if she is honestly too confused to function on her own, and even though I just spent a week with her, I still can’t tell. Isn’t that crazy?”
“Alice in Wonderland,” says my sister. “Alice in Wonderland. I have been Alice at the Mad Hatter’s tea party my entire life. Nothing is ever what it seems.”
She talks about the falseness of our “loving, nurturing mother.” A mother who nearly destroyed her by trying to be the man in her life, her father, her husband, her daughter’s father.
I cringe as she talks, remembering my sister trapped, pregnant, the husband to-be my mother drove away, how I helped my sister work and escape when she turned eighteen. How she ran away into a world crazier than the one she left behind and preferred it still.
“Do you remember when dad was ranting and raving and he used to tell us that someday we’d find out that Mom was the reason he was crazy? Well, he was so right. My life has been nothing but a Mad Hatter’s tea party.”
She has mentioned Alice a lot these past few days. It has been years since I heard about Alice, so I know there is something she needs to say.
“Don’t you know?” she demands. “Don’t you know that Mom is your father figure? The dominating male figure in your life? How could you go through years of therapy and never figure out that your inability to deal with men is her fault?”
I know by the frustration in her voice, that she has wanted to tell me this for a very long time. I start to cry. Her words cause my stomach to flop over, my heart pounds with panic.
My gut knows that she is right. I just can’t believe that I have never seen it for myself. If my sister is Alice, I must be Sleeping Beauty.
“With all the therapy you’ve been in, haven’t you ever focused on Mom?” she shouts.
“No. I didn’t. I knew what she had done to you, how she controlled you and kept you a prisoner with Danielle ‘till you were eighteen, but she never wanted me. I was always the one that could handle her. Now I can’t handle her anymore and I realize that when I thought I could, it was only an illusion, I never had control. It was all just part of the game. She controls me too.”
My voice is soft and teary. Her voice is shrill and full of angry emotion. Her pain is the lighter fluid that sparks our conversation.
She cries out, “I can’t handle being around Mom. When I’m around her, I start to pull all of my eyelashes out again.”
I am startled, shocked by the degree of my sister’s torment. Yet, as she speaks the words, she is touching her eyelids in a familiar way. I have seen her do it a million times. How could I have ever thought that she had mascara in her eyes so often?
She continues, her voice taut with pain. “Mom is not normal. She hates everything about babies and childbirth. She hates kids. She is so sick. You know how I eat so fast? Well, one day when we were eating she said, ‘Watch me eat. Watch how I chew each bite slowly. Eat like this. Watch me. This is how you eat your food. Look at me.’ It was awful.”
“When you were little?” I ask.
“No! I was forty-one years old!”
We sit surrounded by elderly couples who pretend not to listen as we talk about our mother, our childhood.
Do they wonder if their own children sit in crowded restaurants exposing family secrets?
I feel as if I should shush my sister because the details that are pouring from her mouth are dirty and tattered, personal, best left to a therapist’s couch.
Her passionate grief, the shrill horror in her voice, the way she touches her eyelashes as she speaks, all these things freeze my words.
I decide that she is the only person in this room that I need to be concerned about.
“Why can’t you see the way that she has damaged you too, why do you think you never feel good enough? You had the same mother as me! You suffered the same things that I did. Do you think you escaped her mind games, her torture? Nothing was ever good enough for her; we were never enough for her. That is why you can’t deal with the men in your life, the same as me.”
My blind eyes are wide open now.
“We are so strong to have even survived, don’t you know that? We are both miracles. We are both so special, so gifted and she has not been able to destroy that in us. We are survivors.”
As we stand, we hold onto to each other for a long moment before we walk away with our heads held high. You can almost hear the people in the room let out a collective sigh of relief.
“Do you think we should have charged admission?” I ask her.
She laughs as she says, “Ya, cause then we could have used a microphone and sat in front of the fireplace.”
Ironic. When Dad was screaming, we used to hide in the old, unused fireplace in our bedroom.
I am grieving the loss of my sister even as we drive away from the restaurant together because I’ve learned that each time I leave her and fly home to Oklahoma, she will wipe me from her heart, erase me from her mind and that I won’t exist until I walk back in her door. I have to accept that it is the only way she can deal with her pain and her anger when I leave her.
Sadly, I know that one day I will knock on her door and she will not open it. She will erase me along with her past, leaving me behind as she runs away to another Mad Hatter’s tea party, an insane event that makes much more sense than her reality.
My baby sister Alice and me, Sleeping Beauty.