In college the heterosexual lifemate and I had a radio show. For the two and a half years we were on the air we were the highest rated and most popular show on our tiny college bandwidth, broadcasting from a tower with a total air radius of about 15 miles. We strung together the most ungodly sets of righteous music, bandying about from De La Soul to Ani DiFranco to Dave Matthews to Smashing Pumpkins to Nirvana to Spearhead to Tom Waits to Underworld to Dar Williams to Van Morrison to The Fugees to The Samples to Hole to Pulp. On sunny Sunday afternoons, between 4 and 6PM students would put their speakers facing out of their windows, blasting our sets over the quad. Bliss on tap is what we offered.
We called the show SMAK radio. SMAK was an acronym, our little philosophy about life on our campus. It stood for Sensitive Men At Kenyon. Pretentious, right? We thought so. That’s what we loved about it. It was a college thing.
So it made sense, by extension, that the hetero lifemate’s mother would become the SMAK Mama. To me at least.
I’ve been fortunate in the friends that I have. At times I’ve felt even more fortunate in the mothers of the friends I had. They’ve all adopted me in one way or another; I’ve become a surrogate of sorts. I think any mother must recognize that thing that’s missing in a kid whose mother has left. It’s unmistakable. A potent mix of loss and hurt, a healthy dollop of unexplained and often intense anger, a kind of aimlessness. What I lost when Jennifer left has been replaced by a multitude, each pitching in to do their own part, to fill a part of the void, even the void is far too big for them to fill, even in their multitude.
The most significant of these has been “Mom” M, Robin (my step-mother), the SMAK Mom, and, of course, Jennifer herself, though she largely undervalues her presence in my life, and doesn’t like the distance at which she is held. These do not replace the thing that was lost, but my God they can be a beautiful compensation at times.
Kids without a mother wear that fact on their sleeve, woven into the fabric, a part of the stitching. If you look close enough, you see it. If you are around long enough if jumps out at you, like neon. My friends know it. They know when it comes up, they see the tides shift, they adjust accordingly. But my friend’s mothers, and I don’t understand how this ever happened to me—I certainly can never pay back to any of them such a generous and remarkable gilt—but over the years they have opened themselves up to me, let me share with them the things a kid usually shares with his mother, given me the emotional base, though certainly smaller and less sturdy than the one I had as a kid, that a mother can give. It’s always the little things.
My first mother was, obviously, my own mother. I’ve always said, and I maintain to this day, that every kid deserves to have a mother like Jennifer when they are young. She shares the same sense of discovery that kids share. When she is excited by life, and this is true even to this day, she is a remarkable and powerful force to be around. She just lights. That’s the best way I can describe it. She made my sister and I feel safe. We always felt loved. She was always around and she was always fun.
Of course, she was also always inappropriate, something that could be a blast in the right situation, but something that also caused its own problems. I was 8 when she first told me about the time she was suicidal, perhaps a tiny foreshadowing of the things I would have to deal with later in life, but not something I kid can really process, let alone understand. I was 11, and we were in Florida on vacation, swimming in the waves, when she told me about the men she had slept with in her life. I didn’t know what to do with that information. But even with these things, for a kid, Jennifer was a champion. More fun than anyone I have ever known. And more loving, too.
When I hit 13 our relationship changed, abruptly. I was a rebellious kid, I acted out in many ways, but her responses always seemed disproportionate to my crimes. I was told on more than one occasion that she wished I wasn’t born. She didn’t mean it, and I’m sure she doesn’t even remember it, but it doesn’t erase the fact that she said it. She called me a son-of-a-bitch a couple of times, which didn’t speak highly of her either. One time when I shaved my head she told me I was going to grow up to be a rapist.
We waged wars on each other. We fought on a regular basis, screaming at each other, but she always seemed to be the one who escalated the battle, who took it to a personal and hurtful level. My sister didn’t receive this treatment, and I’m grateful for that fact, though it made our mother’s leaving that much harder on her because of it.
I didn’t trust my mother at all from 13 to 18 when she left. I didn’t know who I would get when I rounded the corner in the morning. The loving, wonderful, funny, hilarious woman who I could not get enough of. Or the hair-trigger, pissed off, bitter and vindictive woman who I could not get away from fast enough. I stopped trusting her, but I never stopped loving her. I never will, really.
I think the reason I was singled out has a lot to do with her father, my grandfather. He was a small little piece of shit of a man. If there is a hell, he’s rotting there right now, and although he certainly deserves to be there, his punishment does not fit his crimes. I hope he burns forever.
When I graduated high school my mother was robotic. I think by this point the tether had snapped and she was just drifting, trying to find a way to survive. Still, I didn’t understand a lot of this then, and it felt like a rejection of the things I had accomplished. My school gave out special plaques to the best students in the grade. I won a few of them. I remember my mother saying to one of my teachers, “It’s a good thing you didn’t have a plaque for the biggest pain in the ass, because he would have won that too.” She was joking when she said it, but something in her tone said she also wasn’t, My teacher cocked her head and said, “Your son is remarkably gifted, Mrs. McNeill. I hope you know that about him.” She said that she did.
She sort of just faded away after that. When I came home from my first semester at college, Jennifer said she was leaving. There are other details that I won’t go into here, but we went on one last, final, family vacation. One last, sad, desperate attempt to salvage the unsalvageable. When we returned she picked another fight with me. And I was done at that point. I went after her, screaming, insulting, yelling. My sister joined in. We were crying and slobbering and she turned to me and said, “Maybe if you’d been more respectful to me, Jarret, I wouldn’t be leaving right now,” repeating the very words her mother, my grandmother, had said to me just 4 days prior, on our vacation. I was too stunned to speak. I had no response, one of the few times in my life I’ve been left speechless. She went and grabbed two suitcases, walked past my sister and I as we stood in the doorway, got in her car and drove away. She was gone.
I withdrew from college 2 months later. In the 60 days I had been back at college I had managed to lose 35 pounds. I had stopped eating, replacing food with alcohol; I’d shaved my head and scared my friends. I was suicidal. I came home, went into therapy. A few days a week I would drive up to Mike’s house, my best friend from high school, but he was at school. His mother was home, going through chemo. I’d rent movies and we would hang out. We would talk. About everything. One time I called and asked her if she’d like to see a certain film that had just been released.
“Is it depressing?” She asked.
“Actually, I think it might be.”
“Then I don’t want to see it. I’d rather not be depressed.”
I picked up Casablanca instead. She always liked that film.
While we were watching it she asked about Jennifer. I told her what I was feeling.
“I want to tell you something,” she said. “She will always be your mother. She will always love you, and dearly. I know you can’t see that now, but a mother’s love is permanent. But I want you to know that I love you very much. You are one of my children too, and until she figures all of this out, I’m emotionally adopting you. She’ll come back, but until then I want you to know that you’ll always have a mother. You’re one of my kids. And I love you very much.”
There are very few things in this life that you truly cannot repay, few acts that are so big that no matter how hard you try you cannot make up for them. They are magnanimous. They are giant. They are humbling and pure. This is one of those acts for me.
There are many reasons I survived that time. My father and sister are one. The true friends who stayed around are another. The rest of my family, the rest of my friends, either proved themselves unable to find the right thing to do (which is completely understandable) or utterly useless; almost heartless and stubborn in their belief that I was, somehow, behaving wrongly. I didn’t know breakdowns came with manuals.
The third, and often the most significant because of the unexpected place it came from, is her. “Mom” M. In no small way did she save my life, simply in showing me that she would be there and wouldn’t walk away. In loving me as a child divided by something, an unsolvable math equation. This plus this divided by some unbiological integer always equaled second mom to me. I think the equation was the same for her as well, just different integers applied.
She sent me a letter every two weeks. I still have them in a box. She called me every 2 or 3 weeks. She asked my father and sister up to her house for the first Thanksgiving after Jennifer left. I told her about my girlfriends. She told me about her meditations. I sent her things from Kenyon. She sent me photos from the house in Aptos she stayed in to find peace.
She would pass on 3 years later. It has been a loss, in parts just as difficult, less difficult and simultaneously equal to the loss of Jennifer. I seared red in anger, rained abuse at God. I felt persecuted and singled out. It was all so fucking wrong.
The most ridiculous theory is that greed is somehow a bad thing. Perhaps excess has been confused for greed, because greed can be wonderful. The best of all things. Greed for things to be interesting. Greed for joy. Greed for life. Greed for the things you’ve lost.
After the bullshit ended, after I stopped thinking it had actually happened to me; I stopped feeling sorry for myself. Time heals no wounds, but it can be a lush shot of perspective when you need it. It’s a trite lesson, but I am lucky to have known her, and lucky to carry her with me still.
After “Mom” M there was not the same need, the same desperate jumping at the slightest hint of maternal leanings. The void was still there, will always be there, but I wasn’t going to keep jumping from mother figure to mother figure, each one more blunted, more reflected and therefore less significant. I wasn’t going to insult the women who came next by ignoring what relationship was there in an effort to find something I deemed more significant, when it could never really be there. There would be no more square pegs to fit into my round whole. I had 2 mothers: my real, encompassing mother and my second adopted one.
But that doesn’t mean there haven’t been others, because there certainly have been. The first is my step-mother, Robin. It’s a complicated relationship to define. She came into my life when I was already formed; the adult self had started to take shape. There was not the same guidance and nurturing exchanges you might form when a parent remarries into a healthy relationship. Our relationship exists in the gray area between deep friendship and parental nurturing. She will never be my mother, and I don’t think she wants to be, but she has become one of my best friends, and the older woman who shares the day to day events of my life that a mother would. That is significant and not to be discounted in any way. She knows what I do, she meets my girlfriends. When I get married, whenever or however that may happen she will be the woman I hope will welcome whoever that brave, strong and wonderful person into my family. When I have kids, she will be a grandparent to them. Most people view the “step” at the front of the title as some derogation. I think it is a wonderful thing.
The other woman is the hetero lifemate’s mother, the SMAK Mama. She is something of a surrogate to my, a mother by extension if you will. Part of that derives from the friendship I share with Bob, just as part of my relationship with “Mom” M derived from my closeness with Mike. I love her because I love her son. It’s amazing how friendships can do that; distribute affection evenly amongst the people closest to you.
The SMAK Mama is a boisterous, all feeling, open hearted and remarkably strong woman. We don’t talk frequently, but we share a lot. When something of significance happens in my life I cannot wait to share it to her.
This, of course, brings me back around to the place this all began, back again to Jennifer. Over the past 3 years we’ve begun to speak more frequently. I have not opened my arms to her, it’s more like holding hands, keeping her at arms length, not letting her in close enough to detonate. I don’t know that I’ll ever trust her again, but I know she loves me. We will speak every few months, long, detailed, exhausting conversations. But she knows things about me now. The truth is Jennifer and I share the unique bond of broken psyches. The ups and downs of her personality passed on to me. There are things I can talk to her about that don’t require the same detail and explanation that is necessary with other people. She just gets it.
My child(ren) will be luckier than I was. Robin and Jennifer will be there. “Mom” M will be. The SMAK Mama, and perhaps whoever else comes along. I think Corey’s kids will be just as lucky, because I’ve seen her cultivate these relationships in her own way. She’s not as blatant as I have been, but it hits as deep.
The question I get more than any other from my friends is about the effect of Jennifer’s leaving. This comes up most often around the topic of girlfriends, particularly when the relationship has just ended. It’s as though they don’t trust that things just didn’t work out; I must have freaked out in some way, pushed the person from me.
This isn’t without merit. I’ve ended many relationships because I couldn’t handle the proximity. The biggest effect of all, I think, might be this: You wait for people to leave.
I asked my sister about just this thing the other day. She has been dating Zach for 3 years now, they’ve lived together for a year.
“Did you ever freak out on him? Did you ever expect him to leave?”
She stood on the sidewalk, staring back at me. “You know, not really. Not like I did in the past. I didn’t lose it. There was that one time, which you know about, but it never really came. I just knew with him. You just need to be patient, because you’ll know too one day, but I know you know that. It’s funny, people act like our freak outs were bad things, but Zach proved to me that, as lonely as it can feel, when it’s right you just wrestle yourself to the ground. You don’t let your weaker instincts take over.”
I freaked out on the Italian actress. You must be imagining some prone and fetal position, some regression. It doesn’t work like that. You just shut down. You stop letting yourself feel anything more for this person. It’s over, sliced through with a blade, it just stops. I saw it coming, I knew it was on its way. But I also knew I was never going to fall in love with her.
Still, sometimes I wonder how long it's going to take. When am I ever going to be healed? But what my sister said was right. When it was right, the last time it was right, I didn’t let myself get the better of myself. I fought it all and fought for the relationship.
Perhaps that will happen again. But until then I have a cookie jar of mothers to help me feel better about the whole thing. And they may not even realize it, but I take liberty of their affection for me on a regular basis.