Last week, I was in Toronto. This was not a vacation, but a very difficult trip. My husband, my boys and I went to say goodbye. We were saying goodbye to my father-in-law who opted for MAID (medical assistance in dying) and I was saying goodbye to my mother’s last 30 years of life.
It was a week full of tears, stress, anxiety and even some laughter. I saw my father-in-law’s choice as a blessing. We were gifted time to reminisce and visit with him, even if we were wrapped in full PPE and couldn’t hug. He was going to go on his own terms, peacefully and without pain. At 90-years-old, he acknowledged he had a great life and was happy with his decision.
The other purpose of this trip was to pack up everything in my mother’s condo, her home since 1988, now that she has moved into a retirement home. While my husband and sons packed everything she owned into boxes and bags, I sat at the dining room table, sifting through four drawers and one filing cabinet full of papers.
My husband and I did a walk-through of the condo. He wanted to know what I wanted to pack up and what I wanted to keep.
“Get rid of it all,” I answered. “There is nothing here I want to keep. It’s all going to the junkers.”
He asked me if I was sure and I nodded. If you’ve read The Girl in the Gold Bikini, then you know my relationship with my mother was difficult. Everything in that condo held crappy memories for me. There was nothing in there that held any sentimental value; my mother snuffed that out when she threw my beloved Pound Puppy off our 12th floor balcony when I was 10.
In her bedroom, there was replica statue of Rodin’s Thinker. I put it aside to take some time deciding if I wanted to keep it. That statue sat on her high hutch in our rented apartment when I was a little kid and was still on that hutch in the condo. I once asked her where it came from. She brushed me off, telling me she didn’t remember. I moved the statue to the dining room table and he watched me sift through paperwork. At some point, I stopped sorting bank statements and tax forms and stared at the brown metal man with chin resting on fist. It took a moment for me to realize she didn’t forget the origin (my mother could remember who gave what gift at her wedding 50 years ago), but was likely hiding a painful memory she didn’t want to share. That’s when I decided Thinker needed to go: this powerful image of humanity paused in thought was now tainted with the memory of my mother who could never let things go. Bitter to the end.
Among the insurance documents and mortgage papers, I found the transcript from my parent’s divorce hearing. Their divorce was a nasty battle that endured for 9 years. I knew those pages held the history of two people in pain. I wanted to read it, badly. But I also didn’t. There are some things a kid should never see her parents do. Duking it out and slinging mud in front of a judge is one of those things. I put the 60-page stapled packet into the shredding bag.
Later, my husband, whose parents also divorced, told me I did the right thing. “Trust me, that is not something you want to read. I know, from experience.”
As I dug deeper into the filing cabinet, I found the ruling from a court proceeding when my mother took my dad to court for years of non-payment of child support. This surprised me; I had no idea this had happened. In early 1988, she won and was paid a $47,000 settlement, a sum that would be immensely helpful as I started university in fall of that same year. But I never saw a penny and I started my university career with loans that would, after 4 years, add up to $36,000. It took me 4 years of financial sacrifice to pay that loan back. As my boys were dumping the contents of her bathroom drawers and cabinets into garbage bags, I was screaming horrible things about their grandmother. Not one of my finer moments.
I heard my husband telling my boys that I was fine and was just dealing with some painful memories. My eldest came out of the ensuite bathroom and gave me a hug. I felt his arm around my shoulders and realized my relationship with my almost 16-year-old was a thousand times healthier than the one my mother and I barrelled through when I was that age.
And now for the really juicy stuff.
If you’ve read my book, you might remember Chapter 14, where I share the story of my mother taking me to court for assault and the resulting sentence of one year probation.
As I am separating file folders from yellow kraft envelopes, I find one marked “Dana’s Probation Report” in my mother’s handwriting. I stare at the envelope, so casually labelled. I pull out the report, dated 1986 and start reading. The probation officer interviewed me, my parents, the guidance counsellor at my high school, the principal at my elementary school and the psychotherapist I had seen only a handful of times.
As I read into the report, I found myself repeating “oh my god” over and over. Here, in these 6 pages were testimonies from adults in my life who were witness to the damage my mother inflicted. Here, in black courier font was validation that my mother was verifiably fucking me up. What brought me to tears was the realization that people were trying to help me, to get me to the other side of darkness so I could shine.Probation
Of all the things I discovered in the piles of paper, this was the one that devastated me the most. I was hit hard, realizing that I was one of the lucky ones who fell through the cracks and managed to claw my way out on my own.
As long as I live, I will never forget that I had advocates, ghosts from the past who were allies, saw what was happening and spoke out. Proof, for me, that you are never, ever truly alone.