I’ve said it before: my life has often felt like nothing but a series of people leaving me. I’ve sought counsel in a number of places, all with limited success. Somehow I always find that my connections with these people are temporary and I am often left sitting with a good deal of disappointment. In my adult life I have learned to be self-reliant and to lean on these relationships less than I felt I needed to in my adolescence. I am aware, however, that this is not entirely a result of my own growth, so much as it is the result of many difficult lessons that have trained me well. I have become very accustomed to the people I relied on slipping away and leaving me to fend for myself. To be clear, this has never been a demonstration of tough love. Over and over I was left simply because it was easier for these people to do so. One of the most devastating losses I experienced was that of my uncle.
Although he had been a somewhat regular part of my life as a child, he did not become so critically important to me until the few months following my fourteenth birthday. I truly don’t think there was any specific reason for my sudden connection to him. I imagine he enjoyed–or was at least amused by–my love of combat boots and band t-shirts, and for some reason that struck a chord that resonated deeply: Uncle Adam gets me. Uncle Adam is not my mother. Uncle Adam will save me.
For a while this was true. I tried hard to use him as my friend and mentor. I called him when my mother was pushing my limits–which was often. From time to time he would even drive to our house and take me to his for the weekend where I would relax with him and his girlfriend, Emily. These escapes were monumental to me. I found that we liked similar music. He let me have a beer. He showed me the marijuana plant in his closet. One night he cooked the most amazing steak I had ever tasted–still rare and bloody–and he and his girlfriend shared it with me while we stayed up late and laughed. I sipped his scotch and was blissfully certain that they understood me. We retired to the deck to smoke a joint. I was in heaven. I was sure Uncle Adam would save me.
Months passed and his girlfriend introduced me to her close friend Alena. I began regularly babysitting her children and we quickly bonded. She thought I was bright and I felt that I had made a new connection, guiding me safely through the instability that was living with my mother. I had no idea how correct I would be.
Away from the knowledge of my family and even of me, Alena and Emily discussed my living situation at length. They lamented my having to endure my borderline, unfit mother, calling my life a “Cinderella story.” Quietly, they planned to take me under their wing and fix what seemed to be an inevitably disastrous adolescence. Both were aware that I desperately needed a way out of my mother’s unfathomably unhealthy home, and they were also wise to the intense rift this would cause in my close-knit, skeleton-hoarding family. Alena, recently divorced and with new-found space in her house, offered to temporarily take in the girl of whom she had become so fond, and thereby absorb the blows of a family who detested anyone who rocked the boat. Ultimately, I was to live with my uncle, his girlfriend, and their respective children. This, of course, never came to be.
The July of my fifteenth birthday, I could no longer bear living with and being subjected to the volatile and mentally unstable whims of my mother. After having considered her offer for a solid eight months, I asked Alena if it was still on the table. After getting her confirmation, I wrote my mother a letter and found myself in my new home a mere ten days later.
As it happened, the day I moved was my beloved Uncle Adam’s birthday. After an extensive process involving my mother and our therapists, Alena and I made a late-afternoon trip up to his house to update Emily on our circumstances. My uncle was at work, but I made sure to leave him the gift I had bought with the money I had managed to save from babysitting. He had once told me of a certain CD he had always loved but was disappointed to have lost years before. I had been ecstatic when I found it at our local record shop, and I waited anxiously for the enthusiastic thank you that never came.
Nothing came, actually. I had no idea at the time, but my move had begun to pull apart the threads of my family’s years-long tradition to endure and suffer its discordance silently, always letting the blind eye rule. In doing so, I had set myself on a fast-paced course to what became my own shunning. In hindsight, the immediate distance my uncle took from me should have been a clear sign. But I was a child, and witlessly I continued to call, despite my messages never being returned. Soon after, Emily withdrew from Alena, citing a sudden previously-nonexistent empathy for my mother.
This is not to say that I never saw them again. For the first year after my move there were still a number of family dinners to attend, each more uncomfortable than the last. In my hurt, I tried hard to ignore my uncle’s presence. Truthfully, I have never been one who is able to maintain a steely gaze and pursed lips in an awkward situation, and this was no different. As my uncle knelt by my grandfather’s blue recliner, where I had attempted to take refuge, I was horrified to find myself smirk. His words, feigning victimization, were biting. The jeer in his tone was not lost on me. I shrank into the chair as he needled me, wishing he would leave.
Over dinner, I made sure to find seats away from my mother and uncle. Emily’s voice, high-pitched in its phoniness, dominated the conversation. Her eyebrows arched high above her wide eyes as she announced, “Adam likes a lot of things!” My family murmured in superficial interest. I stayed silent.
It was only a few months after this dinner that my family stopped speaking to me altogether. I was heartbroken to lose contact with my grandparents, but the worth of my relationship with Adam and Emily had withered months before. The loss still pained me, but I had long grown accustomed to their absence.
One bright summer day I found myself walking a few blocks from my home when I heard a familiar voice calling my name. The voice was singsong; mocking. I looked up to see my uncle and his girlfriend sitting on a nearby roof. He had recently begun a slate roofing company and it shouldn’t have caught me by surprise that he was in my neighborhood.
“Marieeeeee!” he sang again, waiting for my response.
I felt goosebumps cover my limbs, and without considering the possibility of passerby I inhaled sharply and shouted: “Fuck off!” I waited for no reaction and continued home, where I collapsed on the couch and sobbed, devastated.
Years went by and our relationship was never repaired. I tolerated him and Emily, but even after things began to heal with my mother, my warmth for my uncle remained missing. We did not reach out to each other and they refused to let me partake in any of the preparation for holiday meals, despite my enthusiasm to do so. Whether or not they were oblivious, the strain between us never lifted.
Three years ago my grandmother died, and with her so did the reign of her generation in my family. My mother, now bereft of both her parents, quickly began to spiral downward, her grief flecked with symptoms of her mental illness. My great uncle died soon after, and in an unfortunate course of events, his funeral was held on what would have been my grandmother’s 76th birthday.
My mother stood in the basement of the church weeping silently. She moved slowly, as though her body was that of an elderly woman: twisted and painful. Her eyes glazed over as she whimpered and stared unseeingly at everyone in the room. Furious, I watched as my aunt, now grieving the deaths of both her husband and sister, went to my mother’s side, comforting with her strong arms and voice.
My uncle caught my eye and looked at me knowingly, Emily smiled gently and suggested that the three of us have a movie night sometime. I smiled as minimally as was acceptable and gave a noncommittal, “sure.” I scowled as I walked away, angry at their sudden interest in helping to buffer the difficulties that my mother’s illness presented. There had been a time that I, as a child, had desperately needed them to fill this role. As a young adult, I felt that what they were offering me was both too little and too late. This deflection of their negligible efforts was the first step in severing contact with them altogether.