“I remember his eyes. They are just like mine. Every time I look in the mirror I see him. I try not to look at my self too much.”
― Ida Løkås
“Enough Jenna! It’s just done ok? Stop it,” Jenna’s mother clutched her bathrobe with one hand, the other balled into a fist at her side.
She was shaking with anger now, the towel wrapped around her head threatened to fall down. Everything was in fact threatening to fall down. The house fell silent for a moment and suddenly a crevice seemed to split open the tiniest bit in the space between Jenna and her mother.
Catherine was barely twenty-eight but with three children and a divorce to handle with an idiot while also starting a new marriage to a man eons better, she felt more like she was twenty-eight going on fifty.
Jenna stared past her mother at the couch with its dark textured pattern and fought desperately not to let even a single tear well up in her eyes. She hated crying. Especially over the topic at hand. It hurt both ways and a frustrated knot in her stomach reminded her of that fact constantly.
“It’s just that…” the words wouldn’t come easily, another side effect of being only eight years old with limited vocabulary skills to call upon, “He’s my dad. I don’t want to call someone else that. Doesn’t seem fair.”
Catherine scoffed loudly and pointed her free hand at the fireplace mantle, “Do you see any birthday cards for you or your brother Jenna?”
“That’s because he doesn’t send you any. Does he ever call you?”
Part of Jenna wanted to scream, kick the walls, tear her hair out. Anything seemed better than these questions. They were too close. “No he doesn’t,” she finally answered.
“Right. He doesn’t call, he doesn’t write, he doesn’t do anything he should,” Catherine felt as though steam was about to come pouring out of her ears. The anger flushed over her face and down the back of her neck.
While she was often proud of her oldest daughter’s outspoken nature at such a young age, she was also equally flustered by it. How could such a talkative and bright little girl not see the simplicity of the situation? It was like the words flowed at such a constant speed from her little mouth that they somehow physically blocked her from really seeing anything.
She was just too trusting. The simplicity of that fact unnerved Catherine the most. Her daughter had a way of wanting to believe so fiercely that those she loved were good and pure. Her small hands were clutching at false hope and misplaced trust.
It would seem to be a common quality among children of divorce but Catherine knew…she knew this was more than simple hope. She knew the trusting nature would not be outgrown and she struggled with how engrained it was in her daughter. She feared the worst of that quality.
Jenna turned her head to the stairs and listened for her brother. She could hear him talking to his toys in his room. Almost nightly she wondered how he remained so unfazed by it all. How he managed to smile and laugh and clap his little hands in delight at life.
It had become a ritual in fact. Every night she prayed to God to keep her family safe, ticking off all the names she could think of on her hands. Then she’d ask for help. She prayed that God would make everything better and put all the pieces back the way they had been.
Finally she would recall her father’s face. The shape of his eyes, the way he smelled, the color of his favorite work boots, she shut her eyes tight and imagined it all. It got harder every night and more often than not panic would set in for a few minutes.
“He’s not my dad though,” her voice was smaller now but that familiar panic was rising, “I don’t want to be adopted by him.”
It wasn’t that she hated her mother’s new husband. He seemed nice enough. He could be impatient and sometimes when he yelled Jenna wished she could crawl inwards like a snail to hide.
There were many times where she imagined she was invisible. The appeal of being unseen meant to her that she would be left alone. It meant she couldn’t mess up again and she could sit in a hide-away corner and read her books.
Books that didn’t judge her or tell her she was too young to understand. Books that reminded her that they were once a blank page that listened to someone and became a story. She wanted that. She wanted her own blank page that would listen. Her story was just as important as any other right?
This new dad was trying and on some level Jenna knew he meant well but this situation was just too much. If she accepted him, if she became his daughter legally, it meant giving up. To Jenna it meant that her father really and truly gave her up. That he didn’t want her anymore. Her tiny spine shivered at the thought.
Catherine watched her daughter closely. Part of her shouted out that she should comfort Jenna and explain that it was for the best. That part was often quelled. Her own childhood had not been an example of compassion or physical love that she could go by for this situation. Too often anger simply won out and this moment would be no different.
“I’ve had it Jenna. This is happening so let it go. Your dad doesn’t try because he doesn’t care. He doesn’t want you. I don’t want to hear it anymore,” with that she stormed past and stomped back up the stairs.
Pain is often a very selfish thing. The person feeling it nine times out of ten is focused on themselves. Even when the pain is felt both ways and neither party intends to harm the other, it’s still very much a selfish emotion. In that moment it’s fair to say that Jenna was only thinking about herself as most eight-year-old children in pain do.
While Jenna would choose to block out much of her early childhood, there were a few key moments she kept clear. This was one of the clearest. Once her mother was gone she let the tears flow. She felt like such a cry baby. She felt frustrated and broken and tired. All in one moment she had lost and the realization made her lighter, emptier. Jenna wrapped her arms around her chest trying to keep herself together.
Her mother was right but it didn’t hurt any less. Knowing the truth didn’t make anything easier or less frightening. It brought on a whole new set of questions, of doubts, of sickness. A slick cold feeling snaked its way out from Jenna’s chest to the tips of her hands and her feet. This pain was purely selfish and would remain so for years after.
With mothers, pain evolves. The pain for ones self remains but a new one grows onto the old. Catherine not only carried the weight of her divorce, she carried that same weight for each of her kids as well as their pain. Jenna was stubborn to say the least. She had a knack for digging in her heels and pushing, pushing, pushing at the same time.
The moment the words had left her mouth Catherine knew they had been too harsh. It was just so hard though. It wasn’t fair that she and her new husband were made out to be the bad guys just because they were ones making the hard decisions.
How do you explain all the fights, all the loss, the betrayal, the self-doubt, the loneliness, the hurt? How do you take that explanation and shrink it down further for a small child to understand? All the work in the background is not for your kids to know. It’s so hard to walk a thin line, to do the right things when they appear unfair from the outside.
That night, after everything was over, Catherine lay in her bed fighting the dread in her gut. She contemplated her decisions and her words. It was all growing and morphing into such a complicated mass of knots. Nothing seemed to get any easier and the fight was slowly crushing her. In that moment it was hard to know things were going to be all right. Hard to imagine that one day her stubborn loudmouth daughter would grow to idealize her, to emulate her as best she could.
Jenna stared up at her own ceiling, her face finally dry of tears. Her eyes ached, she hated that feeling most of all. Breathing out slowly she closed her eyes and thought, “Dear God, please watch over everyone I love and keep us safe.” In her chest her heartbeat pounded out the seconds but her mind remained silent. This is where she should ask for help, where she would imagine his face to remember him.
A light wind started up outside Jenna’s window. With her eyes still closed she focused in on the sound until she could no longer hear her heartbeat in her ears but only feel it. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven…slowly she counted her way into oblivion. Slowly she let go of the image she had fought so desperately to keep her head. No more.
He would remain in her head for years to come but only as a shapeless, faceless, thought. Something that looked back at her in the mirror now and again. There would be times when she would stare at herself, at her eyes, her chin, her nose, and wonder if her mother saw him there too. She would see him in passing in her brother’s smile or hear him in his voice. As the years wore on though he would fade from them both. The mirror would stop reflecting him, the shapeless thought would drift away.
There would be a day when Jenna would look in the mirror and finally see herself alone and smile. And yet it wasn’t quite enough. It wouldn’t be enough until the day she looked in the mirror and finally saw her mother looking back. When she could smile and reflect without wincing.
He had given her up and yet it wouldn’t matter. She had a father, she had always had a father. Though there was a time she had called him ‘step-dad’ in her head, there would also come a time when he would be all she could remember, all she wanted to remember. There would be a day…