People Leave You Behind
Scorpions, Frogs, and Snapshots of Being Left Behind
That’s been the unending lesson that life has taught me. It started when I was five. I had no idea my parents were getting a divorce. All I knew was that my mother, my sister, and I were packing. We were moving to live with my aunt a state away. It happened so fast, I don’t even remember seeing my father’s reaction until mom told me to say goodbye.
He was standing in the kitchen. Dad is over six feet tall and he stood leaning against the counter with his fingers pinching the bridge of his nose. I hugged him, and then we took a trip. I didn’t see him again for over a year though my aunt’s house was just over an hour away.
I lost my grandmother recently. It’s been a Scorpion and Frog story for about ten years now. My grandmother was 91 when she passed. And for over a decade it’s just been the three of us — my grandmother, my grandfather, and me. We were all that was regular for the three of us — all that was dependable. I saw them every weekend. Anyone else you could name — my mom, my sister, my dad, aunts and uncles — we could go months without hearing from any of them.
It all struck me hard the first time my grandmother hurt herself. She broke her ankle in two places, and my grandfather called me at work twenty miles away — even though her son lived and worked in the next town. My dad showed very little interest in her care and rehab and the finances that surround that. It was around then that I realized — whenever it was, the day I lost her, I’d understand what it meant to be alone.
They say that children of addicts are conditioned to expect disappointment, and that feeling doesn’t go away without a decent amount of work.
I don’t remember the exact day, but I do remember the general time when my mom stopped kissing me goodnight. We lived in a one bedroom basement apartment. My sister and I shared the bedroom, and mom slept on the fold-out couch in the living room. Every night I padded to the living room where mom laid watching TV, and I kissed her on the cheek goodnight. One night when I was maybe nine she seemed annoyed, and made a grousing comment that I was too big for all of that.
I never put things together in real time. I pieced it all together as I got older. Of course it makes sense that when someone’s an addict, even something they once loved gets to be seen as a burden if it prevents them from getting what they want. I was her son, but I also represented money that couldn’t be spent on drugs.
Of all the stories I have of my mother — fake pizza, being pulled out of school, stealing money — I can find the silver lining of humor in all of them except the time she stopped kissing me goodnight.
“Let me talk to your sister.”
That was the phrase my dad used. By the time he tried to reconnect with us, I was eleven and my sister was fourteen. She was more like him — charming and social. My mom didn’t allow him to visit. When he eventually did, he’d hover in the front yard, and we’d come out in bare feet to talk to him by his car.
In retrospect, I wonder what the neighbors thought. Kids coming from this basement apartment to talk to this random man standing by a white hatchback. Well before that, he’d simply call instead of visiting. After saying “hi” to me for a few seconds he’d ask to talk to my sister. They’d always talk for a while, and I never understood why his time with me was so short.
That was probably the second time — after my mom stopped kissing me goodnight — that I wondered if there was something wrong with me. I got teased at school. But at that age, teasing came and went. We were all kids, and even when kids have their favorites, at some point you all loved “Transformers.” My parents moving on from me was something that confused me even as a kid.
My sister escaped. And when she did, she drove away like Jesse in “Breaking Bad.” The last day my sister lived at home, she had a fight with my mom. My sister had graduated high school several months earlier and hadn’t gotten a job. They fought all the time. Finally, my sister enrolled in the Army, and we just needed to keep the peace until that day.
My sister had plans to go out one Sunday afternoon. She grabbed some clothes from the laundry to iron, but my mom didn’t approve of them. We lived in the apartment above the carpet store. They shared the bedroom and I slept in the living room. I could hear them arguing. When I stepped to the doorway, I saw them wrestling over a top my mom didn’t like. When my sister won, my mom reached down for a heavy sandal on the floor and clubbed my sister across the face.
After a moment of shock, my sister dove on her, and they wrestled on the floor for a moment until my mom ended up on top choking her. I leapt in and pulled my mom off. Mom accused both of us of attacking her and grabbed her things and left.
The next day was strange. My sister decided to find my mother’s drugs while she was gone and hide them. When my mom returned after we were asleep, I could hear her rifling around trying to find them, then talking out loud about what she was going to do to us if she didn’t get them back.
Later on, my sister moved all of her stuff to my grandparents’. When I returned home, my mom was on the phone talking to children’s services describing how we both attacked her. Luckily, my sister shipped off to boot camp a week later, and mom dropped the whole thing.
I know why my sister never looked back. She lives hundreds of miles away now. She had a lot to leave behind. Every once in a while my grandfather would mention he saw Facebook pictures of her and my niece at Yankee Stadium, which is pretty close to where I live. But I understand. Sometimes you toss the baby with the bathwater.
Someone decided to stop being my friend recently. I’m not a kid. Jesus I’m not a kid.
Sometimes I try to put myself back to my younger years and picturing people my age. Were they more together than I was? Were they less likely to be sent into a spin based on an email or a text?
I’m fairly careful about new friendships because new like present new opportunities for hurt.
But I clicked with this person. We had wonderful conversations. I need injections of energy and joy like a senior citizen needs a B-12 shot, and she was that for me.
People leave. That’s why my posse is small. I have a pretty fucked up interview process. Remember that season of “House” where he fired the original staff and spent all season whittling down a list of residents. House was a dick that year. I’m a bigger dick.
We might not even be friends, but I’ll assess from a distance that you might not like me. Next! We don’t even have a shot, because I’ve judged you might leave me at some point.
I’m lonely as fuck, but people perceive me as someone who wants to keep to himself. In actuality, I just don’t want you to be the one to bolt on me later.
More often than not, when I let people in, they bolt. My interview process isn’t fair. There are likely many good-intentioned a person who got shut down because I saw a hiccup in our interaction as a rebuff, and I ran for the hills. I’m convinced that 90% of my online friends see our interaction as an annoyance. And even if I’m half wrong, I’m fucking up a lot of good shit.
Three months ago my grandma left me.
I got a call at home. I’d taken the day off of work because I needed to visit the social worker at my grandmother’s rehab facility. She had been suffering lethargy and listlessness, so her doctor hospitalized her for a few days then sent her to rehab. She was due to be discharged, so I had to plan what came next with the social worker.
I made breakfast and sat watching “Food Network” when the social worker called. She told me my grandma had been sent to the ER, but would I still be coming to meet her?
No, social worker. I would not.
My grandma had been to the ER six or seven times in the last few years, so I didn’t panic. But I did get dressed and filled a thermos with coffee — I’d probably be in the hospital for a while. My phone rang. It was a doctor from the ER, and he asked for my grandmother’s medical history.
All the times she was in the ER before, this never happened. I called my grandfather and told him he should head over. She had been in the rehab facility for weeks at this point, so the only info he got is what I relayed.
Before I could leave, the ER doctor called me again. He told me that his medical opinion is that she needed to be intubated.
I work in healthcare, and I understand what that means for a healthy person — much less someone who is 91 and frail. I asked him what the likelihood would be that she would ever come off of a ventilator. He told me zero.
I arrived at the ER and the lead nurse informed me that my grandmother had suffered multiple cardiac events. They led me to a curtained area where she was hooked up to several machines. They asked my consent to adminster drugs to try to stabilize her heart rate. While I was signing, she flatlined, and staff rushed in to administer CPR.
“Someone should take Chris out of here,” the doctor said as he began to bark out instructions.
I stood outside in the hallway. The lead nurse came to me and told me this would be the time to call family. I started to cry and she asked if I needed anything.
I left the ER and called my grandfather. But he had been there earlier. He knew what was happening, and he didn’t want to come back.
I called my dad next. He lives in the next town. I told him that it was really serious. I felt the need to do this since he had only visited her once in her three previous hospitalizations. He told me that he couldn’t get someone to cover him at work.
When I came back to the ER, the lead nurse asked me if anyone was coming. Nothing I told her would make sense. The doctor called me back in to tell me that their manual compressions were the only thing keeping her heart going.
The fable of the Scorpion and the Frog. No matter the best intentions of the Frog or the promises of the Scorpion, the Frog gets stung and they both sink to the water.
Years ago, I knew that the tiny group of us that cared for each other — it was all we had. And when my grandma went, there’d be no one to take her place, and no surrounding structure to make up for her absence.