Something very strange happened this Christmas. I had a good time. Now it's New Years. A week later, and I still don't know what to do about it.
"Enjoy it!" Will says. Will is an amazing husband. Supportive and grounded and even-keeled. The perfect Yang to my moody, neurotic, anxious yin. But sometimes it's like he doesn't know me at all. Enjoy it? Who does he think he's talking to? Evidently some kind of emotionally stable person, and not his wife at all.
Whenever Will gets like this--rational, upbeat, sane--I have no choice but to turn to one of my other favorite humans for advice. Will's great and all, but he just doesn't understand the depths of my neuroticism. Writer Anne Lamott does, even though she technically doesn't know me. Just look at what she has to say in one of her best essays:
"It’s not that I don’t have a lot of faith. It’s just that I also have a lot of mental problems. And I want to fix them all, and I want to do that now..." --Anne Lamott, My Advent adventure
Wanting to fix my mental problems. That I understand. Enjoying odd moments of happiness. I just don't get it. Especially around the holidays. I once spent a Thanksgiving afternoon in my twenties locked inside my car so I could get in a good cry. I had decided not to go to any of the feasts my split-up family was having, assuming being alone on Thanksgiving would give me peace, but instead I felt more miserable. And my roommate was home so I couldn't even go inside to cry. I sat out in the parking lot of our apartment for hours, feeling like I had nowhere to go.
"Mom, I don't know why you complain about your dad so much. I know you say he was so mean to you when you were a kid, but he seems so nice now."
Our eight-year-old daughter, Katie, said that to me in the back seat of the car as we drove home after dropping Dad off at his apartment. I looked over at Will and smiled like, can you believe this kid but I found that his face matched hers.
"Yeah, Mommy," Will said, smiling slyly. "He's just a harmless little old man now."
"Ugh!" I shouted, but I was smiling too. They've heard this rant before, and even I know how ridiculous it sounds, but I feel compelled to remind them. "Nobody believes me that I had a shitty childhood! It's not my fault my life has turned out so good, so nobody believes all the hardships and pain I've been through. "
"Oh, we believe you, Mommy," Katie said, although she was giggling along with her father. She shares his lack of neuroticism. "We're just happy your dad is happy now."
"Yeah, me too," I said with a sigh.
I felt like punching them both in the nose, my wonderful husband and magnificent daughter. But I just turned to face out the passenger side window and waited til I could get home to someone who understands me, my imaginary friend, Anne Lamott.
This whole thing started because I accidentally invited both of my parents to spend night with us on Christmas Eve. What was I thinking? My parents have been divorced since 1992, though they quit acting like they liked each other long before that. The first time I remember Mom talking about divorcing my dad was in 1975, when I was four. I have no memory of them hugging or kissing or telling each other I love you. Not until I was twelve years old and my dad was getting ready to drive off to his new job in a different city, meaning we wouldn't see him for six weeks, when my mom pecked my dad on the cheek. I was shocked at their display of affection, even if it wasn't public, but inside our suburban garage.
It wasn't just their coldness toward each other. It was Dad's hot temper, too. Dad was always grumpy. He worked too many hours at a desk job, ate crappy food, rarely got fresh air or exercise. He had heart problems and vision problems and anger problems. Mom finally got up the gumption to leave him and they both moved on with their lives. They both remarried, for the third time, having both been married before they got together and had me. Dad's marriage ended in divorce. Mom's third-times-a-charm husband passed away last year. Dad and Mom are both single now. Each live alone in small apartments. It's weird how people's lives get smaller as they get older, just as our bodies start to shrivel up.
I remember one fight they got into when Mom wanted to buy a house that was big and had a swimming pool in the back yard, but Dad wouldn't cave and refused to accept the seller's counter-offer, which was just $1000 more than Dad's offer had been. When Mom said she was disappointed, Dad started screaming at her, getting in her face, calling her "stupid". Mom got up, walked to her bedroom, and closed the door. It was their last argument. Divorce papers were filed and their twenty-two year marriage was finally over.
Now they're two old single people, living quiet, calm lives of their own. Dad went on medication to treat his chronic anxiety and it's changed him. That and just the inevitable slowing-down of growing old has made him tolerable. And dare I say it, nice.
And yet, I feel traitorous when I acknowledge how nice Dad has grown over the years. It's easy to forgive him for his part in the rocky relationship we had together, but it's harder to forgive him for how terribly he treated my mother and siblings--his stepkids--years ago, even though he's not so bad anymore. It's difficult to release the old memories and accept him for who he is today, forgiving him for who he used to be. It's difficult to forgive someone you have hated as much as you've loved.
I once read in an astrology book I was obsessed with one summer before ninth grade this statement that has stuck with me ever since, long after I gave up my belief in horoscopes:
"The opposite of love is not hate. The opposite of love is indifference." Linda Goodman, Love Signs.
Mom's mostly indifferent towards Dad now. She's cool. She doesn't necessarily want to spend time with her ex-husband, but she's fine when he shows up to Katie's birthday party, my birthday party, Christmas Eve. Even when I spring her with the information that Dad's spending the night too.
"Sorry, I didn't think he'd say yes," I explained to Mom when I broke the news to her. "I asked if he had anywhere to go tomorrow and he said no," I said.
"It's OK. I can ignore him," Mom said.
I felt like I needed to explain myself, so I kept it up, "I asked if they do any Christmas parties in the community room of his senior apartments, but he said no, everyone goes home to their families," I frowned, knowing I put Mom in an awkward position, but also feeling sorry for my dad.
"It's OK, Beck. Don't worry about it," Mom said, again.
I ignored her and kept explaining myself, "So I asked him if he wanted to come over to Will's folks with us tomorrow and he said yes. So we got to talking about the logistics of it, and the simplest thing would be for him to sleep over here tonight," I said, clenching my teeth.
"I'm fine. Give him Katie's bed and I'll sleep on the chair in the living room."
And then I remembered who I got it from, my need to make sure everyone around me is comfortable, even if it's at my own comfort's sake.
Inviting them both to a sleepover is one of the unwisest things I've ever done. And yet somehow it wasn't awkward. We had a wonderful time. At one point I found myself sitting in a pew at church with Dad to my left and Mom to my right, Katie on my lap, and Will to Mom's right and my sister Kit and her husband Scott to my Dad's left, watching the Nativity program. The room was full of families big and small. Full of hope and joy and love. The children and teens who were singing and acting out the story of our savior's birth were wonderful. I simply could not stop the tears from streaming down my face.
I sat there for a silent moment and reflected upon my position in the world.
What the hell am I doing here? In church? With both my parents, my sister and brother-in-law, my husband and our kid? Who is this person I've become? How did I get here?
Isn't this what I always wanted? Isn't this the quintessential happy family scene I envisioned back when I was a teenager locked away in my room, wishing my family was something it is not? Close, warm, supportive. And now, it's here, right before my eyes. The great big happy family I've always wanted.
And there I sit, looking like Dustin Hoffman at the end of "The Graduate" when he gets what he wants, too.
So now I face a new year, with a family that gets along, a husband and a child who love me so much they're willing to call me on my bullshit and still love me anyway. It's weird. Getting what you want. Waiting for the other shoe to drop. Knowing you should feel more appreciative of this happy moment, and then beating yourself up for not appreciating it enough.
I suppose instead of wishing for a happy family when I was an angsty teen, I should have asked for the ability to appreciate the moment I'm in instead of worrying about what's next. I'm getting there. But it's hard.