I haven’t spoken to my mother in about four months. I wrote to her one morning a note I had been thinking about for some time. I wrote it on a card, one of those free ones that the Nature Conservancy or Unicef sends you, sort of bland note cards with a picture of plump blue birds or robins on them. I said that I’d like to take a six-month break. No calls. No letters. If she needed something she could call Fred. And I said, thank you for your support. So it wasn’t a mean note. I wasn’t feeling mean. I felt like I was gasping for air.
I told this to one woman a few weeks ago and she looked puzzled. “Did you have a big fight with your mother?” she asked. “No,” I said. Another woman spoke confidently about how she went through a phase of being estranged – that was the word she used – from her father, but that now etc. etc. And someone else said how most people do what I’m doing when they’re teenagers and that I never did it as a teenager so I’m doing it late.
No, I answered to him. I don’t know anyone who’s doing what I’m doing, or who has done it.
Except maybe Philippe Petit who is the man who strung a wire between the two twin towers, the World Trade Center, in 1974 and walked across, back and forth, for 45 minutes. He described in his book how when he had one foot – his left foot -- on the wire and his other foot – the right one -- still on terra firma, how his right foot was still attached to all he had known, the world as he knew it. He described too how just before he moved his right foot to the wire there was an inner scream, a mad desire to run away – after having toiled for years to make this dream come true.
This summer I took a trapeze workshop one weekend. I work at Omega and I get one free workshop as part of the deal and I signed up for trapeze. I’d never thought about trapeze before, but after leafing through the catalog 100 times it was the only workshop I wanted. I’m not a jock. Why did I want to take a trapeze workshop? I wanted a new experience, something that would take me outside my world. And I wanted something physical.
But it was terrifying. It was literally one of the best weekends of my life, but it was terrifying, awful in ways I had not at all anticipated. It’s one thing to say “I want to break through” and another thing to actually do it.
It was terrifying to climb that narrow skinny ladder, feeling at any moment I could fall backwards. And then to climb up onto this tiny fucking platform that wobbled three stories up. “How high are professional trapeze rigs?” I asked Tony, the old trapeze artist on Sunday at lunch, when it was all over. “Same height,” he said.
But there’s one moment in the trapeze process that sticks in my mind more than anything.
You stand, toes at the edge of the platform. Sure, you have cables attached to you, but to the brain they mean nothing at this point. You’re holding to some kind of firm bar with your left hand and with your right hand you’re holding the trapeze bar, which, by its sheer weight, is pulling hard. Just before you jump off the platform you have to let go first with your left hand and bring it to the bar. For me, that’s the scariest. To have that open space.
Anyway, these images are in my head as I think about what to do with my mother. It is one of the main things I think about.
A couple of weeks ago on a lovely Sunday I almost got in the car to go down and see her. This was the kind of day when we could walk around her garden and she could show me this shrub that she’d thrown in last year and how it was doing, and how the string beans came up this year. My mother’s gardens are always messy and unprofessional, but there’s always a lot going on in them. She grew up on a farm – a real farm way out in British Columbia during the Depression where if you couldn’t grow your food you were in trouble – so she knows dirt and plants and how sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.
I almost went. I thought about it and it seemed real and okay to break my six-month fast early and go. And then I told Fred what was on my mind. He didn’t say much, but the strength of the urge to go began to fade, like a pimple that had swelled and swelled, and then popped.
Since that Sunday I have felt stronger in this urge I have to say good-bye to my family of origin. My mother is the hardest one. My two sisters live in California – far away – and stopped talking to me about 18 months ago, so there’s no challenge there. And my father lives even further away in Europe and he’s pretty easy to say good-bye to too. But my mother, an hour’s drive away, and in many ways less conflict-laden is harder, really hard. To say good-bye, and I mean really say it, end things, is terrifying and yet it is the step that feels so important to take.