Photo credit: https://unsplash.com/@bencehalmosi
Originally published in PS I Love You.
If you haven't read part one of this story, then you might want to start here.
After revealing that we would visit my mother, who had been gone for four years, we stopped at a hotel several hours from my mom and her husband. My grandma called my mom and told her where we were staying. I sat in utter disbelief, while we waited for her to get there since I had believed I would never see my mother again.
It was like she had died, except that occasionally, I got to hear her voice. I have since learned that this is a significant distinction.
My grandma's voice intruded on my thoughts, and she said:
Don't tell her you have lice.
(Gross, I know. I have thick, curly hair, which made this unfortunate situation a terrible ordeal.)
My mom finally arrived, and I remember being overwhelmed with conflicting emotions. On the one hand, there was this incredible sense of joy and completeness, a rightness surrounding a reunited mother and child after a period of separation.
Happiness seemed to win out, and the reunion went on for a time. We stayed up late, simultaneously hugging and weeping while reconnecting until it exhausted us.
The next morning we got up and were all getting ready when my mom turns to my grandma:
Ma, I didn't pack a brush. Can I use yours?
And then, with a straight face, she hands her daughter my hairbrush. It had been sequestered and placed in a Ziploc bag because she was apprehensive about getting lice from me. I said nothing. This moment revealed so much more about their relationship than I realized.
Suddenly, amidst all the bustling of getting ready to head to my mom's house, there was a quiet moment with just my mom and me, and she said:
I wish you could just stay here.
Time slowed, and I could feel myself breathing deliberately while I savored these words. I repeated them in my mind, one word at a time. I wish you could just stay here.
I told her I would love to, but I was supposed to move into my dorm room with my best friend in a few weeks. She sighed, and the quiet vanished. It was time to go, and of course, my sister and I wanted to ride with her.
Stories about all the fantastic things happening in her life filled the time we spent driving in the car. The house they had bought with their new identities (and government-furnished credit scores) was middle class enough not to garner any unnecessary attention, but far more beautiful than anything she had lived in before. She had this job she loved, driving all around the state, filling and emptying vending machines, basically working whenever she wanted, and making substantial money.
"And Danielle, you will never believe what they offer at the college here. An equestrian degree. Just think, you could go to college and ride horses every day." After all these years, the lure of living with my mom and having my own horse was a powerful pull for 17-year-old me.
I had loved horses since she had placed me on a pony at the age of two. I had asked for a horse every year for Christmas until I finally stopped believing in Santa. My grandma let me go trail riding wherever we went on vacation. I honestly think that the moment my mom uttered, "I wish you could just stay here," that I had already decided what I wanted, but perhaps the horses tipped the scale.
Maybe it was the horses, but more likely, it was the incredibly tense week that followed this car ride. The friction and underlying anger and resentment were taking hold of everyone's sanity.
My grandmother and I had gotten into a terrible fight about an imagined offense I had committed before we even embarked on this trip. It had escalated to her hitting me with a broom until my grandpa finally took it from her and pulled her away. I think he only intervened because he could see that I was one more whack away from yanking it out of her hands and returning the favor.
Looking back on this fight through the eyes of the 36-year-old woman I have become, I am sure that it happened because her anxiety had already whispered terrible things in her ear about the outcome of this trip. I hadn't known what we were going to be doing, but she had.
Being there, and staying in my mom's house, caused her anxiety to increase from a whisper to a full-blown roar.
I understand now how it must have felt for her to see us showering love and attention on someone who had left her to do all the heavy lifting of parenthood. Things like many lice treatments and tediously combing through my hair…
Then, just like that, it was the day before our return trip home. My mom informs my grandma we have decided to stay here with her. In all of my mental pictures of my mother, she was strong-willed and defiant. I realize now that this was probably the only moment in her life where she had openly and courageously gone against her mother's wishes without the aid of drugs to numb the fear.
The words had barely escaped her lips before all hell broke loose, and the slurs became deafening:
Sure, now you want to take them because I've already done all the work.
Danielle, you are going to throw your life away and end up just like her.
Fine, if you stay here, you stay with nothing.
I remember piping up at this point and stating how that wasn't fair. After all, I had about $3000 saved in a box back home and enough books to fill a small U-Haul. I didn't care about all my clothes or other possessions, but I wanted my books. My grandmother refused to send them, and when I offered to pay for the shipping with my money, she stated that I had no money. It belonged to her now as payment for my car (which she was keeping) and room and board.
Of course, if I got in the car, we could forget this whole incident ever happened, and I could keep all my things. More hateful words swirled around us, but I don't remember them all.
I remember my grandmother telling my mom that my sister was only 14 and not staying because my mom had zero legal rights to keep her. She was forcibly hauled into the van while she screamed and cried. My grandma then turned to me and demanded I get in the car.
It terrified me that somehow she could coerce me to get in there. I took a deep breath and said:
No. No, I will not. Even if you somehow manage to force me to get in that van, I turn 18 in two weeks, and I will find some way to get back up here. I promise you I will make the trip home, and the next two weeks, absolutely miserable.
And that was it. The fight when out of her eyes, the tears appeared, and the van rolled away. My mom and I stood in the front yard, both of us shocked that I hadn't gotten in the van. We walked into the house, unprepared to face all the truths about each other that we would uncover…starting with why her head had been so itchy.
Keep an eye out for the last part of how my reunion with my mother went.