The look on my father’s face that day is vividly etched in my mind. Other than that, the memory of what happened is more scattered words and a mixture of excitement and fear. He picked me up at school for the first time ever. I was five or six. I know I stood only slightly higher than his waist and had to look up at any grownups. The bell hadn’t rung and a lady whispered to my teacher who gestured for me to follow the lady.
I saw Dad in the office. When he spied me, he shrunk down and opened his arms. I readily let him embrace me then pulled back and asked where Mommy was.
“I’m going to take you out for ice cream.”
The next thing I remember was digging my spoon into a huge dish of cookies and cream. My father had something steaming in a cup and held a spoon in the other hand. He didn’t eat much. He was being really quiet and I began to feel nervous.
“Mommy. Sick. Not well. Home. Good girl. Be strong.”
I’m sure there were other words. It was “sick” and “be strong” that made the greatest impression.
When we arrived home, Mommy was lying down. Daddy brought me into their bedroom and I tiptoed around to the other side of the bed to see her face. She gave me a weak smile.
At the time I had no idea how bad things were going to get. I thought parents were invincible. They could do anything.
Over the next couple of weeks I was the best girl I could be. I behaved in school. I came home and helped Daddy with dinner. At night I would tell Mommy a story from one of my books. I had to make up some of the words. I couldn’t read them all but I knew the stories pretty well. At times there would be tears in Mommy’s eyes and if they broke loose I would wipe them away.
I’m not sure how much time passed. I know the weather turned hot and sticky. I used to stay home with mom over the summer but that summer more often than not I was shipped to camp. I hated it because the place was on a lake and they forced us to swim. None of the girls wanted to go in the lake. The bottom was slimy and the occasional fish touched you. In addition, the others made fun of me. My clothes were either too small or too big. Daddy didn’t know how to shop. And my hair was usually messily tied back. He wasn’t good with hair either.
The food was terrible so I often pretended to eat and dumped it in the trash. At home the food wasn’t much better. Dad bought a lot of pre-made stuff which was often over spiced. The majority of our meals were heated in the microwave.
My mother rarely left the bedroom other then the necessary trips to the toilet. Weekly showers were not enough to erase the smell of her sickness which still no one had explained to me exactly what that illness was. It was frightening to watch her suffer.
My father constantly told me to be a good girl and Mommy would get better.
“Don’t cry. It will make her feel worse.”
That I remember clearly. I thought all of it was my fault. I wasn’t being good enough. I wasn’t strong enough. I was not, in any way, enough.
As time went on the things that happened had a greater impact on me and therefore the memories have lasted over the years. Scars aren’t always visible to others. Even though I was never hit, I was wounded. My father’s words and the bullying at school shaped me over the next couple of years. I turned grotesque inside. My subconscious told me how ugly I was. Nothing comforted me. Not even food soothed me.
On my eleventh birthday, my father wheeled my mother out to the dining room. He lit the candles on the store bought tiny cake decorated with pink flowers.
“Blow out the candles and make a wish, baby girl.”
That pet name annoyed me. I blew hard wishing my mother would suddenly be well. Only ten of the eleven went out.
“I guess your wish won’t come true. You can try again next year.”
This was the fourth or fifth time I wished for the same thing and the wish hadn’t been granted. I wasn’t enough.
Father cut the cake. He took a tiny bit of it on a fork and put it in my mother’s mouth. She drooled it out.
“I have to put Mommy back in bed. Eat your cake and clean up.”
I did as I was told. When everything was put away, I headed toward my room. I heard voices in my parents’ room and stopped. Although he was calm at first and I could barely hear the words, his tone made me nervous. As the volume increased, so did my anxiety.
“I can’t do this anymore, Margaret. I have a life too. When is it my turn to be taken care of?”
“Please, I need you,” my mother’s shaky voice implored.
“My bags are packed. When the nurse arrives tomorrow, I’m leaving. Patricia and I are moving to Arizona.”
That was far away; that much I knew. I wasn’t exactly sure how far. I quietly went to my room and pulled out a book from school. Inside there was a map of the country. I placed one finger on where I thought we lived and another on Arizona. It didn’t look too bad. Then I remembered how to read maps. I looked at the legend and realized to get to Arizona they probably had to fly.
Tears began to trickle down my face. I slammed the book shut and made a beeline back to their room. Shoving the door I burst in and cried out, “Don’t go. Please don’t go.”
My father approached me.
“Stop crying Lorelei. You’re a big girl now. You have to take care of your mother.”
He stood stiffly in front of me glaring down as if I were an unwelcomed rodent. I sniffed sharply and brushed the tears off my face. I straightened my spine and pushed back my shoulders.
“I’ll behave if you stay.”
“You will behave regardless of what I do.” He moved around me and picked up a suitcase. Glancing at my mother he said, “I’ll sleep on the sofa tonight.”
I followed him out the door and in my best grownup tone of voice I said, “How can you leave us? She needs you. I will cook and clean and do the laundry if you just stay.”
“Nothing you do can keep me here in this hell.”
“Then take me, father. Please, take me with you.”
The nurse arrived the following morning. He said he was moving out. She promptly called social services.