On Balance

Published on October 13th, 2016 | by Bernadette Murphy

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SLIGO: Bernadette Murphy is a MUTHA on Wheels

I need you, Mom.       

Where ARE you?

A series of texts scrolls across my phone as I return to cell-phone range after a hike.

My daughter, 20, has been living in Italy for the past three months as an au pair, her version of a junior year abroad, done on the cheap since her parents’ divorce ate up all disposable income. While there, she used her days off to see the country on her own: Rome, Milan, Florence, and Venice. Her independence thrilled me.

When the au pair gig finished, she flew to Dublin to visit family and then arranged to work for a small family-owned company in exchange for room and board for two weeks. She left Dublin early this morning to make the four-hour bus trip north. When she arrived there, I was out hiking.

Now her panicked, backlogged texts leap across my screen.

I try to reach her, but get no response. It’s likely the problem will already be solved when I finally reach her, just like she handled all the other little hiccups during her sojourn.

But then I scroll back to read her previous texts, the ones I hadn’t seen in the flurry of what arrived.

I can’t stay here.

This man scares me and makes me so uncomfortable.

He freaked me out from the moment I met him.

This is a mom’s worst nightmare. I’m 5,000 miles away when she needs me. It’s not the first time I haven’t been present when she wanted me there.

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Adrian Scottow / Flickr Creative Commons

“You wrecked my senior year,” she’d said through clenched teeth two and a half years earlier. “It’s been horrible: senior prom, applying to college. Ever since you left, my life has been ruined.”

The dam that had held back these feelings was breaking.

“You’re the adult here,” she said. “You’re supposed to take care of all this!”

I’d moved out of the family house six months earlier and filed for divorce. I’d been holding out, trying to make it until this child, my youngest of three and my only daughter, finished high school. After a particularly rancorous fight with her father, I packed a carry-on suitcase. I told her what was happening. She and I held onto each other as if we were grasping life preservers.

Then I picked up my suitcase and walked out the door, leaving her behind.

I believed I had no other choice. He refused to move out of the house and would have dragged her into the melee if I’d insisted on taking her with me. Friends offered me a one-room guesthouse above a garage, two blocks from her high school. I’d hoped that by being nearby on a daily basis, I could soften the blow. I’d hoped I was doing the right thing.

But with her anger filling the car now as she let loose on me, I wasn’t so sure.

“If there was some way I could have done this without hurting you, you know I would have taken it.”

She nodded. Over the past months, she’d tried valiantly to be a good sport, but it ‘d been hard. She didn’t understand the choices I’d made. How could she, when I didn’t understand them? Leaving her that day had been the most difficult part of the divorce process.

As her words hit me like poisoned darts, I also appreciated her honesty. I never could have spoken to my parents with such candor. Though I wanted to dodge her words, I also wanted to cheer her on. The façade she’d kept up about managing fine was rupturing, revealing the truth. In saving myself, I’d done the one thing I’d most wanted to avoid: I’d thrown her into the fire.

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Wheels by Apionid / Flickr Creative Commons

I am a woman who’s spent most of her life being so worried about hurting the feelings of others that I didn’t know how to take care of myself. As a child, I cared for my three younger siblings because my mother’s bipolar disorder made her too ill to care for them. I learned how to put everyone else’s needs ahead of my own.

When I got my first period in 7th grade and my mom was in Camarillo Mental Institution getting electro-shock therapy, I didn’t tell anyone because she would have been mad that she’d missed that milestone. The truth was, between her institutionalizations and nodding out on psychotropic drugs and alcohol, she missed pretty much all the milestones. Still, I waited until she returned home, and when I next had a period I pretended like it was the first one so she wouldn’t be upset and go into a deeper depression.

My father, meanwhile, taught me never to anger a man. When I was nine, I upset him in a discussion. After that, he simply didn’t talk to me for days, pretending I didn’t exist. Being erased by the one consistent parent in my life shaped me profoundly. Without his acknowledgement of my presence, I ceased to exist. I had already lost my mother to her illness. I couldn’t afford to lose my father, too.

But I did. When my first book came out, he objected to a few sentences I’d written about my childhood and didn’t speak to me for two years. The lesson was clear: Speak up and you will be punished.

The man I married took a page from the same playbook. If I brought up a perspective he didn’t want to hear, he’d begin an hours-long argument. Eventually, he wore me down. I learned not to defend myself in those arguments – that would only prolong the torture – and to tiptoe around him lest another marathon filibuster get started. Yet I remained married for 25 years, despite the fact that he showed no interest me as a human. Before leaving him, I asked my therapist if maybe I could just have an affair instead.

“Why would you want to do that?” she asked.

“It might make be feel a little less miserable. And it wouldn’t be as hurtful to him as leaving.”

“Don’t you think you deserve something better?”

“Yes. But not at his expense.”

It took a long time to learn that I can stand up for myself. If people refuse to see or acknowledge me, that’s their issue; I still exist. I can hold out for relationships that feed me and enrich my soul. I can trust myself. I don’t quite have a solid handle on this new perspective yet. But I’m getting closer.

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But my daughter needs me now, just as she did her senior year of high school, and I can’t reach her. I pace, realizing I don’t even have contact information for her new job. How could I have let her take this job and not have checked it out ahead of time?

I’d blithely trusted that she’d be okay, just like her older brothers were okay when they took trips abroad on their own, forgetting that a woman alone in the world faces different challenges than a man. Especially a very young, somewhat naive woman. I should have prepared her better.

After an anxious hour, a flood of texts arrives. At first, I feel relief. Then alarm.

I have to leave. It’s almost midnight. I don’t know how to, but I need to leave.

Piecemeal, I get the story. She’d taken this position to do office work for the man’s tour company. The man had said he lived with his wife and kids, but when she arrived, no family was there. His wife recently left him, he explained, and took the kids. He lives forty minutes away from the nearest city, Sligo, and at least five miles from the nearest little town.

He’s creepy, Mom. I get a really bad feeling from him.

Two young ladies from Spain, working under the same room-and-board arrangement are also there, sharing an in-house dorm. They are also making plans to leave.

I knew when I arrived it was bad, but I didn’t trust myself. I thought I should try it out for a while and see. But it’s no good. I need to go. He started a debate at dinner and forced me to state an opinion. Then he called me stupid and said I didn’t know what I was talking about. He’s angry and mean.

“If you need to call for a taxi tonight, do it,” I tell her. “You can get a hotel.”

It will cost a fortune. And I don’t think there’s anything nearby.

“I’ll pay.”

I think I’m okay tonight. Besides, there’ll be no buses at this hour and the Spanish girls are with me. But tomorrow, I need to leave. What do I tell him?

“Just tell him you have to go.”

But he’ll be mad. He wants me to work for him. He’s already fed me dinner and given me a place to sleep. I owe him.

“No, you don’t. He got you there under false pretenses. If you need to be rude, be rude. Take a taxi if he won’t drive you back to Sligo. Whatever it takes, you leave.”

I am proud of myself for being this forceful with her. I wish I had been as firm with myself when it came to leaving the marriage. Rather, I made myself prove that something was definitely, unimpeachably wrong before I made a move. But her gut instinct is enough for me.

Once I get back to Dublin, what will I do? My return flight is three-and-a-half weeks away. The cost to change her flight to an earlier date is astronomical in high-tourist August.

I email cousins in Dublin. “Of course I’ll take her,” Sandra writes back. I pledge my lifelong gratitude. “Don’t be silly. If it were my daughter over in the States, you’d do the same.”

We have a plan. In the morning, she’ll tell the man she needs to leave due to a family issue. If he doesn’t drive her back to Sligo, she’ll take a taxi. There’s a 12:15 bus from Sligo to Dublin and my cousin’s son will meet her at the bus station. It’s all set.

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The Swagman, Sligo by Jim Grey / Flickr Creative Commons

When I awaken the next day, she should be almost to Dublin (where it’s eight hours later), almost to safety. But my phone is flashing a huge text from her that came in during the night.

Oh my god. Craziest morning of my life! The man gave me a five-minute ride to the bus stop in the nearest town and just left me there. He just happened to forget to tell me that the local buses aren’t running today. I ended up waiting for two hours for a bus and then gave up. I decided to hitchhike because no one was coming. A car with a lovely middle-aged couple picked me up because they had seen me waiting forever. Then on the way to Sligo, we witnessed an 87-year-old man run into a tree with his car and spent the next hour helping him and calling the ambulance. My bus to Dublin was at 12:15 and we finally got to the bus station at 12:20. I thought, OK, I missed it and the next one wasn’t for two hours. But then it turns out they hadn’t left yet. So I just got on the bus.

I reach her as she’s almost to Dublin.

I feel a little mentally and physically beaten up, but I will survive. At least I got a good story out of it.

When I can breathe again, I compliment her on her resolve, her resilience. “I love that you listened to your gut.” I still can’t believe she hitchhiked – dear lord! — but I don’t bring that up. I tell her how proud I am of her for taking care of herself. How is it she knows something that has taken me nearly 50 years to begin to understand?

Where do you think I learned it? she writes back.

I’m sure she’s referring the physically risky things I’ve started doing since the divorce, like motorcycling and ice climbing. But I’m wrong.

The words she sends next are the balm I have waiting for, though I don’t know till I read them that I have been waiting. They are the absolution I desperately need.

You did it two years ago, Mom – on a 10x bigger scale. You’ve mastered it. I’m just here learning.

“I’m going to cry,” I write her.

Why?

“I didn’t mean for you to be hurt during that time and I know you were. But I’m glad it helped somehow.”

It did. You showed me how to stand up for myself. It was hard figuring out my college financial accounts and living arrangements, but you pushed me to do it and I learned that I could.

She’d wanted me to handle all those things, like I’d done with her brothers, had wanted me to be the mediator with her father as I had throughout her life. My stepping away had angered her at the time, but had also shown her how strong she was, a fact for which both of us are now grateful.

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Stronger by May Miau / Flickr Creative Commons

I’ve heard that a broken bone is actually stronger after it heals, that the body makes extra calcium at the site of the break. Over the past few years, I’ve felt amazingly broken. But at this moment, I sense for the first time genuine healing.

When I left, all I knew was that I was in pain and had to do something. I didn’t yet know the repercussions of my actions. In taking care of myself, I hurt my kids, whom I love most in the world. I caused deep and abiding pain. But by standing up for myself, I taught my children – most especially my daughter — that they need not be cowed by angry men. That they can hold out for being treated well.

Can I say it was worth it? I’m still not sure. But when I see this strong young woman get off the plane after four months abroad on her own, I know that she – like me – is stronger at the break.

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Bernadette Murphy’s memoir recently published–so we asked another MUTHA to give it a read and share her review! Here goes:

What Bernadette Murphy does in Harley and Me, her new memoir about riding across country on a Harley Davidson is to take all of the fear that has taken over her middle aged staid life, post divorce, post kids leaving home and take the wildest risks she can think of. We all know that mothering is all risk. We have no idea who we’re going to bear, adopt, raise when we decide to have children. And it’s one of the wildest rides we take. But by deciding to put all of her mutha blanking amazing middle age chips on herself to reclaim that deepest core of self is truly crazy and thriling. While it’s not something most of us would do–we all have to take wild leaps some times to stay alive. For most of us the book is likely be armchair inspiring, but it will probably help you take the next risk you should take: yes to something dubious, no to something you know will be awful ahead of time. – Joanna Clapps Herman

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About the Author

Bernadette Murphy

Bernadette Murphy is the author of, Harley and Me: Embracing Risk on the Road to a More Authentic Life (May 2016, Counterpoint Press). She has published three previous books of narrative nonfiction including the bestselling Zen and the Art of Knitting, is an Associate Professor in the Creative Writing Department of Antioch University Los Angeles, and a former weekly book critic for the Los Angeles Times. Her website is Bernadette-Murphy.com.



2 Responses to SLIGO: Bernadette Murphy is a MUTHA on Wheels

  1. This is awesome. Love the structure and writing style, and also obviously the message. I have so much faith in our young women.

  2. Elizabeth Beauvais Elizabeth Beauvais says:

    Beautiful and moving! What more incredible legacy can any mutha pass on? Thank you for this.

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