Food for Thought: Why do parents leave?

My grandmother left my mother and her sisters, due to their abusive father, in 1963 and to this day she has never had any contact with her family. Is she alive? Is she dead? Did she find happiness? Did she remarry? Did she have a new family, perhaps one that helped her to forget about the family that she created and who needed her so badly, when she left them behind with an abusive and alcoholic father and forced them to grow up quickly?

And if she had have stayed, would I even be here today? Would her act of desertion have forced my mother into the arms of my father, a bastard of the 10th Degree? Or would she have turned into a completely different person, one not doomed to repeat the choices of yesterday?

My grandmother’s desertion is an act that I, as her first-born grandson, consider so heinous because I have seen its terrible impacts; yet it is an act that her daughters forgive her for. They say to me, “you have no idea how bad it was. You have no idea what it is to have a parent leave you, knowing that they’ve had no other choice they could make.”

Unfortunately, at 38, I do know what it’s like to have a parent make a decision to walk away from their relationship with you. And, unfortunately, both my parents have done it to me.

In 1997, my Dad and I – 13 years after he had left my mother for another woman and a new family – had a massive falling out when he finally worked out I was gay. Not long after (within months), he found out he had cancer. He instructed one of my step-sisters – the only one of 3 step-sisters and 1 step-brother that I actually had a good relationship with – that I was not to find out, knowing that she was the only step-sibling I was close to and that she would, of course, tell me. For two years we played tit-for-tat through her, which was cruel to my step-sister, then finally I won the stubbornness battle because he died in 1999. I refused to go to funeral and now, almost 15 years later (at the end of August), I still have not been to his grave. At this point it is no longer pride that keeps me away – it is a broken heart. Perhaps this year shall be the year I finally deal with this, however that’s a completely different story…

In 2012, my mother – who is challenging and eccentric at the best of times, and whom I have a love/hate relationship for because she was (and is) physically and emotionally abusive – had a bad accident at home, resulting in five months in hospital. When she got out, two of her sisters (each who lives over two hours drive away from her) and I (I live interstate) went out of our way to spend time with her and do things for her, like ordering her groceries online each week and helping her to get to and from doctor’s appointments, however she came to resent it. Within two months of her release from hospital, she stated to her two sisters (and to me, by phone): ‘as soon as I’m done with having to do what I’m told by you lot, I’m never going to speak to any of you again, I’m cutting off all contact’. We just thought she was being her usual rude, ungrateful, manipulative and dramatic self, however it turned out not to be the case. I had a great conversation with her by phone on New Year’s Eve, then on New Year’s Day she didn’t answer the phone, even though I had arranged to talk to her that afternoon. She didn’t answer the next day, or the day after, or the day after. When she didn’t answer on her birthday (January 10) I knew something was wrong. I rang one of my aunts and discovered she had visited a few days before, only to be sent away by my mother as she was ‘too busy, going out’. Since then, she has ignored all phone calls and mail, and didn’t even bother to get in touch with us when I sent her a note to let her know that her sister’s husband, her brother-in-law, had passed away.

After a year and a half of not hearing from my mother, it has dawned on me that she has made the same choices – consciously or unconsciously – as her own mother, and has decided to abandon her family.

Do I understand it? No. Do I want to understand it?. Yes. After many decades of having no interest in what happened to my maternal grandmother, suddenly I have found myself actively tracing her online these past few weeks. Why? And why now? As much as I hate to admit it, I think it’s more because of my questions about my own parents than it is for any true sense of interest in her, as I have never really viewed her as my ‘grandmother’, more of a curiosity of my family tree, since my cousin and I (the only descendants of her children) will probably never really know her.

If I did meet her, after all of these years, and if I was only allowed to ask her one question, of one word, I would no longer ask ‘why?’, which used to be my question of choice.

Today, I would ask: ‘how?’

For it is the ‘how’ that I will never understand.

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