The Reptile on my Back

When I was away in Montana for my mother’s funeral the frog bridge collapsed. My grieving heart skipped a beat as I walked into the garden upon my return home. There was a frog floating in the middle of the pond. He was limp with fatigue and clinging to a small raft; it was impossible to know how long he had been struggling. What I saw as I reached into the water to save him sent my soul into a sweeping orbit of such grief and anger that it would take me years to return. He was not clutching a plant, or a piece of wood or a leaf. He was floating upon the buoyant body of his bloated mate.

My uncle and mother died within six weeks of each other in 2008. Their unexpected deaths sent shockwaves throughout the entire tribe. My mother was an anchor in an  isolated nuclear family storm; spending all of her life force struggling to protect her four children from the very same tempest that she herself had delivered us into with love, blood and tears.

Not until adulthood did I attach the word “abuse” to the pain I witnessed and felt every day. Verbal abuse didn’t exist back then. I’ve spent decades running like a convict to escape relationship patterns that were woven into my interstitial being while I grew in that teeming petri dish of anxiety called home.

In 1882 Maryland was the first state to pass a law making wife beating a crime; the convicted man could choose between 40 lashes or a year in jail. It wasn’t until 1945 that wife battering first became a felony in the U.S, and then only if you were lucky enough to be beaten in CA. In 1966 a wife still had to prove a “sufficient number” of beatings as grounds for divorce in NY. Most surprising to me, it wasn’t until last week that my brother told me a story of crying out to my mother in the night when he was a toddler. When we were very small she would come to us instantly at all hours to fill any need; soothing nightmares, quenching thirst, ushering us to the bathroom. On this night when he called out he remembers hearing my father shouting, and an argument ensuing. The exact words escape my brother through the fog of time and buried sorrow but he remembers the gist of it all; my father was raging, trying to get to his son while my mother reasoned, then pleaded then begged. He remembers frightening noises and the sound of a body hitting a wall. He remembers that my mother had a swollen and bruised face the next day. With the heartbreaking innocence of a child my 42 year old little brother looked at me last Thursday night, as we sat by the creek drinking wine, and asked, “Do you think that could have been the only time?”

His account hit my chest with such force that my body is literally aching a week later. How could I have not known? How could I not have seen through the self deprecating stories of clumsiness that she told again and again? Worst of all, how could I be so shocked by the proof of physical violence when I know that it was emotional abuse that robbed her of life.   

I am spending the summer 1,410 miles away from my home, my animals, my friends, my garden in order to escape a woman who is my father through the looking glass. Respected, upstanding, successful educator, admired by all when she walks out the door each morning. Yet inside the walls of our beautiful home, reality distorts in mind bending ways.

My work is just beginning but at fifty two years of age I’m ditching the reptile on my back and jumping the fuck out of that fetid pond.

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