The Boy They Forgot

There was a victim in my family that is rarely mentioned because what he experienced was insidious, tragic and ultimately a noble act of self-sacrifice.

My little brother was born right before everything fell apart. There were problems before, big problems, but to all intents and purposes we looked like a pretty normal family for the most part. In fact, we weren’t just normal, we were thriving and well off.

My brother never got to experience that part of our family. He told me once that he didn’t remember a time when our family had been whole. He didn’t remember his Dad taking his Mom in his arms and saying, ‘I love you’. All he ever saw was the court cases, the manipulations and the pain. All he saw was what our dad did to our mom and unlike the rest of us, it was our mom that he loved best.

He was her baby and she clung to him. He was the only thing that my dad never successfully took from her. He stripped her of the love of my older brother and myself, he took away her beautiful home, first by fire and then by divorce. He made sure that by this point he had driven her crazy and taken her to the psychiatric hospital so he even took her sanity. This last thing he claimed to me he did to avoid alimony payments, I’m sure that he enjoyed himself in his games as well though.

See how quickly it happens? How quickly the baby of the family is lost in the sea of trauma that stormed around him? To even explain what he has been through I have to sort through a mountain of what everyone else was going through. He was a leaf on the currents of every one else around him and where he was pushed and tumbled was at the behest of the events transpiring all around him.
Our older brother left home as soon as the divorce papers were scented in the air. He didn’t look back except in a supercilious way to tell anyone and everyone what we were doing wrong. I hated how he distanced himself and then lectured me in a sanctimonious tone about how I should handle things after he had run away from them.

It was a traumatic time and everyone dealt with it in whatever way they could. Our dad had laughingly and gleefully sabotaged our entire family and we were left with a stack of lies and abuse to sort through and please, remember, we were only children.
All of us were only children. My mother included. Now that I understand more about trauma I see what my mother was going through. The severe shock of my dad leaving her, cheating on her, whatever else she discovered and that I was never privy to as a child had shocked her to another major trauma that had happened to her as a very young girl herself. She was so ashamed of everything that had been done to her and said about her and the shame she felt for ‘failing’ as a wife that she lost her entire support network in one fell swoop. How convenient for her husband that no one heard her side of the story because of the shame spiral he had whipped her into.

This shaking of the foundations of someone to their childhood core is often called Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Nobody recognized what was going on with my mother but I’ll never forget her crawling into my bed the night we left our home forever, sleeping in a cheap hotel and her hands gripping me. She whispered to me, “You’ll have to take care of me now. You’ll take care of us all.”

Beside me in the bed my little brother started to cry softly. Was he sleeping? Having a nightmare? I don’t know, all I knew was that my mother had just put all the responsibility of the household onto my shoulders while we sat in a hotel room without a home or any way to see a future ahead. I was suddenly, profoundly alone and ‘in charge’.

I tried my best to be there for her and my brother. My mother had never been good at a lot of the vital mother activities and my dad had filled those voids by being the one who ‘took care of her’. She had married too young, she had been abused by her own dad, there were so many things wrong and she regressed into being a child.

I tried my best for my little brother. I really did. But I made mistakes, I got frustrated and I spent days away from the house leaving him to fend for himself. When he was diagnosed with malnourishment by a doctor there should have been a full investigation. Hell, I had been telling school counselors and social workers that there wasn’t any food in the house for several years at this point. I told my dad too, at that point he was busy with his new girlfriend, traveling, going to Disney World with her and the new baby and then coming home and showing me and my brother slides while we starved.
Here’s Katy (only about six months old at the time) with Mickey Mouse, here’s Katy getting ice cream, here’s Judy and Katy at the beach…

Dad had made a new family and a new life and me and my little brother were embarrassing reminders that he had failed in his old life. Deliberately and maliciously failed, but it was still a failing.

I had gone to Disney Land, I had gone to Mexico, I had traveled all over America and Canada with my parents and 2.5 kids. I had already had a great big piece of that delicious pie and seeing how my dad had moved on, left me behind in favor of his brand new family hurt like acid nevertheless.

My little brother though, he never got a piece of any pie. The only time he went on a trip was once when I paid for him and my mom to come and see me in Ontario. I took him to the zoo and he told me as an adult that those are his only memories of ever having a trip. He still loves white tigers because of the one we watched together at the Toronto Zoo.

The only other trip he went on was with my dad. My wonderful father took him across the border with him so that daddy could go to the casino. He made my brother hide in the backseat under some blankets so he wouldn’t get in trouble for leaving his child in a vehicle while he spent the day gambling. That was it.

Meanwhile, Katy and Judy and Dad were going on cruises, traveling across the country, going for shopping trips in New York… I had fled by this time and where did that leave Frankie? Starving, alone and the one who had to ‘take care of her’.

Like myself, there came a time in Frankie’s life where he was given an option to escape. Dad dragged him through court and my brother, looking at his mother in the courtroom, tears streaming down her face, said that he would stay with his mother.

He didn’t say it in court, but he said it in his heart with a heavy sigh, he would be the one who took care of her. Just like I had done my best to take care of things when I was far too young, now the mantle fell on him. He was the one who had to deal with making sure mom took the right amount of medication, who had to make sure that the bills were paid and try to find enough food to survive on while mom ran around to garage sale after garage sale. She was still a child and she spent money like a child.

Now all this burden fell on Frankie. He stayed with her until the very end. He was the one in the hospital who, all alone, waited and waited to see if our mother would come out of the coma that had been induced by the simple error or a low salt diet and a lot of water. Someone had told her these were healthy things to do and, childlike, she obeyed. Frankie was alone when they told him that his mother was gone.

I didn’t know about our mother’s death for several years after. By this point I had run away into my own life. I had escaped and I didn’t even think of them all that much. I had shed that life like a skin because every time I came close to my mom or to Frankie my dad showed up on my doorstep. My dad was a black hole and my mom and the rest of my family were swirling particulates around him waiting like lures to suck me back into the whole mess.

Yes, I was selfish. Yes, I was thinking of me. At that point, I had no option except to think of myself. I had to build a healthy scaffolding away from the toxic environment. I had to to survive.

But my little brother, faced with the same choice, gave himself over and stayed. He still stays. I get mad at him because he doesn’t stand up for me the way I always stood up for him when I was home. But at the same time I understand that it’s the same flexibility that makes him too weak to stand up for me that also made him capable of staying with our mother until the end.

Did it benefit anyone that he stayed with her?

I don’t know the answer to that question. I don’t know what would have happened to my mom if my dad had managed to take away her baby from her. Or if he had run away to start a fresh life the way I had. Their is a poignant, tragic nobility to the choice that he made that deserves to be acknowledged and appreciated. He sacrificed everything for his mother, to this day his life is molded by the choice he made in that courtroom that day. The choice he upheld at the cost of his own happiness and physical and mental well-being.

I couldn’t have done  what he did. I didn’t. I ran away from home and as far across the country as I could conceive of going. I traveled the world, I got educated, I wrote, I made a family, I lived my life. All things that Frankie was never able to do.

He has a son, but his son lives with the mother and her husband. His son took his step-father’s last name and thinks that grandpa is amazing and that Aunty Katy is his favorite aunt. He has a son but he doesn’t get to keep his son, he only gets to visit with him when his health is good enough and his finances are such that he can afford to feed him.

The mother, Ashley, wrote me hate mail for telling the truth about my dad. She thinks he’s amazing too. She called me a filthy liar and never once wondered why Frankie had been left in the position he had been left in. She never examined the man who had been a boy and wondered why he was so ill, why he had been left without dental care. Why his father, who she idolizes and gets all her other kids to call, ‘grandpa’ never once took care of his own son.
When I met my nephew I was shocked by how similar he looked to Frankie. It was like meeting an echo. But he was so alien to me. In fact, when he met me and my husband he said, ‘They don’t look like people I’d be related to’. How different from Frankie who had clung to me every minute, who had wrapped himself around my legs and begged me not to leave the house to go be with my friends.
I was happy for the kid, he has a good life and I don’t need to be his favorite, in fact, I don’t even consider myself to be his aunt. He is so sheltered from all of ‘what happened’ that I’m happy to leave it at that. I don’t need his mother to acknowledge that grandpa is a monster and to the best of my knowledge he’s never sexually abused any little boys. He just abandons his boy children. I doubt he’s in much danger with the man who pretends to be old and doddering and to not remember the pains of the past.

If Frankie wants to tell him one day what he’s been through while his bestest aunt Katy was globe trotting on cruises and having the best of everything then that’s his choice. Let the kid love his grandpa, let Ashley love him too.

I can’t talk to my little brother. He’s still circling the black hole. He belongs to that family and he’s not going to tell the truth to anyone any time soon. That’s okay. You don’t get to be the bestest anything by telling the truth and it’s a very, very hard road. The  only thing that you get out of it is the redemption and healing of your own soul.

That’s why I’d like to say a word for Frankie, the boy everyone forgot. The boy who to this day is abandoned by everyone, including myself. But it hurts me a lot. I think of the last time I saw him and him waving, so happy because for the first time in his life he had had his teeth fixed. He did that himself, no help from dad the amazing there!
He waved to me from inside his car, the car that had been his inheritance from our mother and said, ‘See you soon, Sis!’.
It was shortly after that that I found out what had been going on behind my back, how my dad had been telling everyone I was crazy. How I had realized when my dad hung up on me when I asked him why everyone was saying these things about me that I wouldn’t see him soon. Because Daddy would always be there. Because I had told the truth and I didn’t want Ashley to stop Frankie from seeing his son because he was around his ‘crazy’ sister.

But the stupid thing about this all is that Dad won again. Frankie is still alone and I won’t see him soon because of yet another crime our Dad committed against us. It’s like he’s radioactive and I don’t have what it takes to sacrifice myself on that pyre. Our relationship that had just begun to heal was ripped apart once more. As I write this I wonder what could possibly be done differently but I just don’t know.

I talked to him virtually last on FaceBook. He sent me a message to ‘call dad, Len is dying’. My older brother had drank himself to death and his kidneys and liver were failing, it was a matter of days.

To put it politely: I lost my shit.

Finding out how I was spoken of behind my back, finding out why no one knew why I had run away, no one had been told of the abuse and then without so much as a word, just an order, a command: call dad.

I told him that I wasn’t going to call dad about a brother who had made it clear he didn’t want me in his life. I asked if Len had asked for me me: No, of course he hadn’t. It all spilled out of me then, how hurt I was that he hadn’t let me read my mother’s journals, how heartbroken I was by how no one ever stood up for me. How unacknowledged I felt that I had lost my mother while Katy was cooed over after her abusive alcoholic mother finally died of her own crimes against her body. How Katy had cruelly told me my mother was dead with barely a, ‘sorry’ before changing the subject back to herself again. How no one, not even Frankie had come to see me in the hospital when I had been run over or had my miscarriage. How no one in the family seemed to care whether I lived or died so why should I come running to their hospital bed when they had never once come to mine?
The cruel unfairness of having spent a year at Katy’s hospital bed while she had cancer, everything about Katy. Then holding my evil stepmother in my arms and letting her weep and telling her it wasn’t too late to change even as she prepared to go out on another binge that would end her up in the hospital again and again until she was found in a snowbank, too drunk to find her way to work or home. How much time had I wasted on them and caring for them to never have it repaid to me even once? When my baby died my Len didn’t call to say he was so sorry for my loss, he didn’t say, ‘Hey, I’m glad you’re not dead’ when I got run over. Neither had Katy. No, Katy had thrown a temper tantrum at me for not mourning my step mother’s death while I was so anemic from losing my baby I still passed out if I stood up too fast.

How badly neglected and hurt I was when I received the demand to ‘call dad’ like a dog called to heel, for being called a liar for telling the truth, for being called crazy for running away…

I’m sorry, Frankie. I wish I could think of an answer. I think of you often and I think that you were brave to stay. You did something in staying that I could never do, I could never give myself over to my abusers.

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Turkish Delight

Turkish Delight

or

How a child understands abuse through symbols and stories.

My mother loved Turkish Delight.

I personally never liked the stuff. I couldn’t eat it without thoughts of The White Witch and Edmund’s temptation away from Aslan in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. I couldn’t figure out what she loved about it. I know that she had the real stuff a couple of times in her life. I had had it with her. I ate a bit of it to please her but in my heart I couldn’t shake the idea that the stuff was toxic. It was the stuff of evil.

These weren’t thoughts based on anything except for the connections that I had with Turkish Delight and the struggle between good and evil that C.S. Lewis painted so classically. It bothered me how much she loved it. She could eat an entire box of it in a sitting and the greedy way she hoarded it reminded me only of Edmund Pevensie. It seemed to my childish mind that the mere act of indulging in Turkish Delight was a prelude to betrayal.

Are these the silly connections that a child makes? Children love games of adrenaline and daring. They love to pretend that something is forbidden: Step on a crack, break your mother’s back.

We’ve all played that the floor is hot lava and instant death if you are to accidentally touch it (well, all the fun people have in my experience). You jump from couch to couch or bed to chair, maybe allowing the use of pillows as islands if the leaps are too big. That inevitable moment when you realize that you’ve messed up this time and you’re going to fall in the lava. Your heart races… and then you laugh and get up out of the ‘lava’ and jump back on to the nearest ‘island’. I played those games and other superstitious games based around imaginary dangers.

The way I felt about Turkish Delight and my mother’s unwholesome relationship with it was a whole different thing. I really felt that the danger was real with Turkish Delight, that betrayal was just around the corner and was heralded by her indulgence. It was a sign to me that I couldn’t trust her and anytime she would eat it or I would find a wrapper of it in the glove compartment, it made my skin crawl.

This is the fear of childhood, the fear of betrayal in those who take care of us and are responsible for meeting our needs. I loved my mother very much, but I think it would be fair to say that I trusted her less than the Pevensie children trusted their selfish brother Edmund. The problem with my mother was not her love of Turkish Delight, but the fact that, like Edmund, she had no self control around it. If she had eaten a piece of it, it wouldn’t have been disturbing, it was her need for excess that made it disturbing to me.

It had a resonance for me. I had read Lewis and Tolkien since before I went to Kindergarten. If her obsession had been jewelry I have no doubt that I would have associated her with Lumbago because the symbolism that I was using to express my fear was rooted in a child witnessing an excess. It was an addiction for her, just like alcohol is an addiction for some people.

This is part of the nature of stories: they give us a language to express the things that we see around us. I knew my mother wasn’t Edmund. I knew the difference between fiction and reality. That wasn’t the problem. The problem was that my mother was addicted to many things and Turkish Delight was the one that happened to twig at me and warn me, even when I was very small, that there was something deeply wrong with my mother.

My mother was bipolar. She abused prescription drugs and she abused sugary candy and she did it because she had been so injured as a child that she had never recovered. She would never recover, she died as she had lived, one excess too many destroyed her. I don’t want to give the impression that she was evil or bad, no more than Edmund Pevensie was evil or bad. She was a child in her mind. She never grew up past the age where her mind and soul first broke apart from the abuse she had suffered. She was, like Edmund (like all of us), prone to being selfish. She fought against that urge to be selfish, she tried to be a good mother but she wasn’t always a good mother to all of her children and she floundered with me especially. This was because of the way she had been broken and was never able to heal and is another and a much longer story.

The language of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe was all the explanation I needed for her behavior when I was that small. It would be years before I would comprehend the depths to which she had been abused and how alone she was her entire life. It wouldn’t be until after her death that I would begin to understand why she had so often found her only daughter difficult to cuddle and love the way she loved her boy children.

The Pevensie children forgave Edmund his betrayal and, even though it took me awhile, I forgave my mother for all of her betrayals. I forgave her for the darkness that consumed her, for the despair that she lived in so much more often than she lived in the light. I forgave her for all those days that she couldn’t get out of bed, provide me with food and the other basics of life but after that I had to learn to forgive myself for not seeing her struggle more.

Turkish Delight was a big flashing warning sign to me that something was wrong with my mother. It was a symbol and that is the power of the story. We may not understand the parallels we draw when we make connections and to fictional places, times and characters or the telling of true stories but these symbols become indelibly inscribed in our minds. It is the language of learning, the language of the parable. This is why it is vital to read as much and as widely as possible. Even when I was small I had already read a great deal of high quality fiction and my mind gave me indicators and symbols that I could understand based off of what was closes to the situation I was in. Later, in junior high school after I had first been exposed to horror movies my mother would sometimes appear in my nightmares as the monster in the movie.

Was this fair? This intensification of symbolism? Well, I’m sure there would be a lot of debate about that from my siblings and her siblings as well. It is easy to remember only the best parts of those we lose and forget the excess that drove them to the grave. When I had nightmares about my mother I would go to her and I would hold her while she slept. Because that was the sort of mother she was to me. If I had a nightmare, I would hold her. If the nightmare was about her, I wouldn’t sleep but I would sit in her bedroom and stroke her hair and watch her sleeping features.

She told me she as cursed. She told me she was haunted by ghosts and demons. To me it always came back to those wrappers of Turkish Delight. The White Witch and Edmund. She wasn’t a monster, just a scared, cold, hunted child who had been tricked into doing ‘bad’ things.