“I don’t think you love me!” She twisted and turned and flailed in her bed. She was tired, I knew that much, and a touch sensitive that day, but here it was again: questioning our devotion.
Many times I respond with irritation as if it should be obvious – of course we love you, you’re our daughter, now stop this ridiculousness. I’d walked in and out of her bedroom several times that night, not quite ready to stop the conversation because she still needed something from me, but refusing to indulge what was a ploy for attention.
Soon enough, my husband joined the fracas and tried as I did to shut the emotional outburst down and away, hoping like me that it would end with no indication it had ever been a thing, quite like it had started.
After a melange of raised voices and collective frustration, something stopped me from a third exit from her room. I saw her face – a red, exhausted, puffy, yearning reflection of my own and entered another room from 30 years ago. This one with yellow flowers papered on the wall, matching heavy curtains pulled aside to show a peeling blue swing set in the yard below, and a canopy bed strung with green chiffon. I heaved against the door.
“You don’t love me!” I shook a bottle of saline pills I dissolved in distilled water to rinse my contacts. “I’m going to kill myself and you won’t even care!”
My mom stood uselessly outside and didn’t say the thing I wanted to hear – whatever it was; but a thing nonetheless, more than strung together words, a monolith of meaning, or something. A thing to make it better that was ethereal and nonexistent.
She threw her irritation and parental despair back at me, not violently or even convincingly, more like you’d throw a snowball that fell apart in mid-air. “Open the door!” She yelled it, still a snowball.
She didn’t say the thing, because she didn’t know the thing.
I left that memory and entered another: another door, another bottle of pills. This time I was pregnant with my second daughter and upset with my husband. I rattled some Advil and threatened to take them all, a lie and a fake promise. It’s just that I wanted a reaction. And for him to say the thing.
My husband picked up the phone and called my dad. The one person who knew so well what I did, and although he would never be able to articulate it in soul words, why I did it.
Several refusals to open the door later, I took the phone. There was no recrimination nor judgment, although his voice shook a little. He’d witnessed countless play acts just like this one between my mother and I, and knew to wait it out and be there.
I could never be loved enough. I could never be loved enough. Why don’t you love me? Why don’t you love me? Say the thing.
These words shoot into my brain as I moved to leave my daughter’s room. A threshold, a line I could cross or not, and be the person who doesn’t understand when I know down to the molecule that I do.
I returned to her bedside.
“I love you.” I admit it was hard to say because I was so angry that it had to come to this, when I tell her I love her every day, and these outbursts demand another affirmation so irrationally and hard fought.
“No you don’t!”
I remained there, and said it with conviction because it was true, “I love you.” I saw her eyes and her face and her needing the thing. I didn’t look; I saw.
She looked ashamed, maybe, or just needful. “Really?”
“Really.” I ran my fingers under her eyes and along her nose with the seeing and the thing.
She settled under the blankets and my husband re-entered her room, safe now.
Something tiny and elusive had happened: I’d realized the thing wasn’t what you said, it’s how it’s believed.
The outbursts will happen again, a genetic deficiency of some sort, perhaps. Only now this beautiful and fragile mirror of my weakest self has someone who understands in soul words she can’t quite articulate. A person who always understood, but just finally discovered that the thing is real and big and just the same, easily knocked to the ground as brought up and given a hand.
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