An excerpt from Haystacks to Heroin
It’s complicated with my Mother. I used to have a repetitive dream about her. It was in my last few years at boarding school, a time when I felt very disconnected from my family. My brother was at one school, my sister at another, while my father was emotionally unavailable. I was terrified I was going to lose her too. The dream was of her dying, I’d wake covered in sweat, my heart pounding. Always in the same place, her ghost hovering just inches above me. I could feel the terrifying weight of her, heavy and potent, pressing down on to me, her death about to smother me and take me with her.
It’s complicated with her because I loved her so fiercely and trusted her like no one else, yet her childhood trauma had given her little opportunity—before she found herself with three children, after six pregnancies—to develop into a self-assured mother and woman.
Many times in my young years, when I needed her to stand up for me and show me how to be visible and self-evident, her own childhood experiences directed her choices. One of those times was in my early teens. Each month, somewhere between the 14th and the 16th, the same deep dull pain would stretch out across my pelvis, gripping my insides. James pains is what we called period pains back then, a name passed down from the 3rd formers before us.
I’d always rejected Mum’s suggestion that we go to the gynaecologist in town. She says he’ll check if there is anything wrong, and maybe put me on the pill to make the pain go away. Somehow, I know gynaecologist equals male and old, and I’m not going anywhere near an old man whose primary job is to ask me to take my knickers off and play around with my fanny.
It’s the school holidays and this month when James arrives, I’m at home. As usual, I’m clutching my middle, rolling around on the floor, moaning because it hurts so much. Being a farm household, we don’t really do pain, no one has much patience for it, but I know this must be real because Mum looks sympathetic.
‘I’ll go,’ I tell her, ‘But only if you promise I don’t have to have an examination.’
‘Promise’, I say again, looking straight at her.
‘Mum, honestly. Promise me, if I go there will be no examination?’
The doctor’s room is compact and tidy, I don’t pay much attention to what else is in here, just that there is no bed. Still, my heart beats a little faster. I am on-guard, my senses alert. I’m okay though, because I’ve been clear, and we have a deal.
The doctor is ancient, much older than I thought he’d be. I reckon he’s about a hundred and twenty-five. Slightly hunched with fluffy white-grey hair that goes in many directions. He’s small with busy hands. I have no interest in this man; I just want the script and to get out of here. I’m not paying much attention to the exchange of words between them. That is, until I hear him say, ‘We’ll just do a quick examination to make sure everything is alright.’
Those words I hear as if they have been broadcast. They sail across the room, from his old flappy mouth, right past my mother, and they blow my head off. My head has been blown off, my heart ripped out and it has landed thumping on the floor, beating, bloody and raw.
My eyes dart instantly to Mum, sitting to the right of me. She’s a little closer to him but facing me. I look straight at her; my eyes widen a fraction with the question that hangs between us. My look holds my trust, my belief, my hope. There is silence. A silence that thumps in my ears, stretching out, waiting to be filled. She says nothing.
She looks down, and away, and she says nothing. I stand up and walk on leaden legs behind him to the cubicle, resigned and defeated.
The cubicle is small and plain. I’m told to take my bottoms off and get up on a high table. I keep hoping—but not really believing—that she will pull back the curtain and say, ‘Sorry, there’s been a mistake.’
Lying there, cold vinyl against my bottom, I disconnect from my body while old fingers, connected to an old man, do their work. The violation and the penetration feel worse because it has been served with betrayal.
I hate my Mum. I hate her for being weak, for not protecting me. I hate her the most, because I walked into that office trusting that I would not be touched. When she said nothing and turned away, it is not the first time that she has taught me, that no does not mean no. That I do not get to choose who penetrates my body.
It feels like there is no oxygen around me as I leave the building. My heart is still on the ground seeping blood, silent tears are sliding down my face. I won’t look at her, I am working hard to turn my pain into anger. I climb into the back seat of the car and lie down with my head behind the driver’s seat. I’m crying quietly. Mum gets in but she doesn’t start the car. She sits there. I know she is hurting because she has let me down.
My mother had not yet learnt to say no to men, and she is unwittingly teaching me the same. For both of us, this will come later.
I hear her light a cigarette, then inhale deeply. She pauses and without saying a word or turning around, she passes it back over the seat to me. I inhale the forbidden ciggy and my tears flow a little easier. It is complicated with me and her.