Through A Dark Secret And Tragedy To Renewal
By Adam German
I was driving to a Halloween party on the 31st of October 2001, when my cell phone rang. My stepfather said he had received a call from the police that my mother had been in an accident, and I needed to turn around and head back to the house to pick him up. From there, we needed to go to a hospital in Pennsylvania.
I knew why she was there, but he didn’t. According to him, she was in Buffalo visiting family. According to me, she was in Pennsylvania visiting her lover. She was cheating on my stepfather, the man who resurrected a sense of family from the debris left behind from my father’s abusiveness and neglect.
I want to tell you more about my mother. Born in Buffalo, she was in university by the age of 16 and had a master’s degree by 21. She was a learning disability teacher, and took on students that regular teachers couldn’t teach, custom tailoring curriculums to each learning disability she came across. She did this for almost 40 years and she was good at it.
She moved to Canada after marrying her first husband. Together they had my brother but later divorced. My brother’s father wanted to be with someone else. To this day, no one really knows how the divorce went, but the end result is that my brother hasn’t known his father at all since then. He was 3 years old at the time.
Then she met my father. After the marriage the abuse started. Before I was born, my mother had miscarried a couple of times. During my childhood, whenever the topic was discussed, the white elephant in the room was whether the miscarriages were caused by my father’s fists or by nature. Given what I know about my father, I’m inclined to believe the former.
This lasted for 17 years until finally my mother could take no more. She fell into the trap that many people do and tried to stay together for the children. That only led to more angst and violence which ended in a very messy divorce.
Then there was relative peace for a while. My mother met my stepfather and together they built a house my mother had always dreamed of having. A 6,000 square foot, 25 room house, sitting atop 2 ½ acres of land in rural Canada, an hour’s drive from both Toronto and Niagara Falls.
However, my mother then became ill. So ill she could no longer work. With a mortgage lent on the basis of two incomes rather than one, money became tight almost immediately. So tight that I started working part-time at the nearby butcher shop and gave what I could to the family. I bought my own clothes. I took myself to work, and asked my friends to take me to football and rugby practices. In return, I gave them gas money from my own pocket. I was 15 at the time.
My brother then started to go through a drawn-out phase that ended with him cutting all ties to my mother. I asked my brother long after how he could’ve gone that far, but he did not have an answer. I think that not knowing his own father, and then having to grow up in the hell that came along with my father, he vented his pent up anger on my mother. I was 18 at the time.
Out of the four people I came into the world with, the only two left were me and my mother.
After my brother left, my mother became a different person towards me. Up until then, we had fought constantly. Curfews, who I was hanging around with, and my grades were the main events. Then my mother started letting up and treated me more like an equal. This was nice for a while as it was the first time I’d been able to come home and just sit and talk with my mother. She reciprocated by telling me more about her life too.
She told me she’d recently met, on a website, an old flame from her high school years. She told me that she went to see him the week prior, when she said she was going to Florida with one of her friends. My mother showed me the emails they sent back and forth, page after page dripping with romanticism.
She would talk on the phone with her friends openly in front of me about this relationship, and how blissful it felt. It didn’t seem to matter she was openly admitting that she was cheating; my mother was in her own world. I think to everyone around her, including me, she sounded delusional. To herself, it must have sounded like she was finally taking control from an uncontrollable life.
I drove to Pennsylvania with my stepfather that evening. He was in the passenger seat saying to himself, “Why was she in Pennsylvania? She was supposed to be in Buffalo.” Each time I heard him, I debated to myself whether or not I should tell him. He was a good man then as he is now, but I decided that since I didn’t know how the rest of the night was going to turn out, I shouldn’t tell him. It wasn’t an easy decision, but the drive from our house to the hospital was 5 hours and there was a lot of time to mull it over.
We arrived at the hospital, parked the car and went into emergency. We approached the desk and said we were there to see Lynda German. The nurse shot a glance at me, turned down the corners of her mouth slightly, and steeled her eyes a bit…at least that’s what I thought I saw as she picked up the phone to alert someone who was apparently waiting for us. She hung up the phone and told us to have a seat.
Five minutes later an orderly came out of the elevator, stopped for a second as he scanned the people waiting. The second his eyes came upon me, he started in our direction. His eyes had no steel, only the dispassionate look of someone who had done this before; “Thanks for coming. There was an accident and Lynda didn’t survive.”
He said some more after that, none of which I remember. It’s as if my head was shoved into a bubble. My vision tunnelled slightly and my eyes fell to the floor. I wasn’t hurt or roiling or anything. Actually it was the opposite. It was like I was on autopilot, that my brain was just told something that it refused to digest. I raised my eyes to the orderly again, who was still talking, but the only words I heard were “Would you like to see the body?” I immediately answered with a surprisingly level “Yes”.
It was like a dream. We walked towards the elevator and we rode up the lift, all the while the orderly still talking. The noise of his voice filled the elevator, but still none of it made sense. The door separated and we followed the orderly down a row of curtained off sections, when we stopped. The orderly turned around, looked at me and finally, falling silent, held back the curtain. I maintained eye contact with him as I went in, and turned to look at the stretcher only after I’d completely entered the room. I brought my head around to see my mother’s body covered in a sheet up to her neck. Her head had retained the shape I grew up with, but it was bruised and cut badly. Her lips were pale and parted, resembling a grimace. Her hair was limp and she wore, what was later explained to me, a death mask. When a cadaver is laid on its back, gravity pulls the blood to the bottom of the body. The hair roots, no longer having circulating blood connected to carry nutrients, quickly go limp and lifeless.
I walked to the right side of the stretcher, and my stepfather went around the other side. His face broke like the rock it had always been, and all he could do was hold her hand and weep. I was still in shock; the insulated feeling, that enveloped me since the lobby, had grown stronger after seeing my mother’s body. Now that my senses of sight, touch and smell were confirming the same information my ears had heard earlier, my head simply couldn’t handle it. Nothing escaped my notice; my attentiveness was still intact, but the ramifications and gravity of the situation were so immense, that my mind simply decided that it couldn’t process it all. Perhaps later, but not then.
Together we stood over her body, me holding one hand, my stepfather weeping while gripping the other.
It was then I said to myself, I couldn’t tell him why she was in Pennsylvania. For the years he stuck with us, no matter what happened, and he was the man who saved my family. He gave me a warm home, when all I had was a cold house. All the years he stayed, he never got abusive, he always came to my football and rugby games, and I always wondered why? Why would he put up with the never-ending hardships that came along with being with my mother? Why not just walk away and live an easier life?
I got my answer while I watched his soul crack open and crush him. Why? He loved her, deeply. That’s why he stayed. There was no way I was going to tell him that his love was here because she spent the weekend with another man.
And she died on the way home.
We spoke to the doctor who tried to save her life. It was his final day before retirement, and my mother’s case was his last before finding a golf course somewhere to live out his golden years. He said a lot of things but the only words I remember were, this wasn’t how he wanted to end his career. This wasn’t the way I wanted to lose my mother either I felt like saying, but decided against it. It didn’t matter anyway.
He explained that she’d been in a single-vehicle accident and wasn’t wearing her seatbelt. The car was heading towards an off-ramp. The ramp curved right while elevating to meet a bridge going perpendicular over the highway. My mother’s car went straight off the incline and rolled end over end twice, before resting on its roof.
The doctor then brought out a bag, filled to the brim, with what the police were able to scavenge out of the wreckage. Sitting on top was the portable CD player I gave her. She wanted to listen to music in her car as she drove, and I gave it to her.
I flicked open the player and saw the shattered disc mixed with little bits of windshield. My heart broke even further.
We signed some forms, said some things to some people, and walked together back out to the car. It was a long drive back home and neither of us spoke a word while we drove, except my stepfather repeating over and over, “Why was she there? I just don’t understand.”
I can barely remember crossing the Canadian border, but I do remember getting close to the house when my stepfather asked if I could get a hold of my brother. Since he’d left, my mother had forbidden any contact with him. Despite the restriction, I knew how to reach him and called his cell. After leaving him a message to call me immediately, I sent emails to all the accounts I knew of and even paged him. He called back and I told him the news. Without hesitation, he said he would be up from the States that afternoon.
That began the preparations for the funeral, the service itself, and the long haul towards leading a normal life. Funerals are strange things. During preparations and the actual service, the bereaved are busy taking sympathies and organizing everything. You don’t really have time to let what happened impact you. It’s only after all is said and done, and you’re sitting in the house that you grew up in with the departed, when all is too quiet except the intermittent and muffled weeping coming from another room; that’s when you realize what a mess you are. You get a glimpse of how much time you’ll need to learn to live with this change, and from that vantage point it looked like forever.
I had maintained my silence in the following weeks about why my mother was in Pennsylvania. However, one night I came home from work to find my stepfather seated at his desk poring over a stack of papers. Beside him was a bag that looked familiar. It was the bag my mother packed for herself the day she’d left to see her lover. The police in Pennsylvania had found it crushed in the trunk after the car had been taken for further inspection.
The papers were the email exchanges between the two lovers, and they read more like romance novels then emails. I know this because my mother took those emails everywhere, showing her closest friends the latest updates as they came in. Everyone’s name was listed as people in the circle of trust, including mine.
Without waiting for me to ask, he said without looking up, “Your mother was having an affair apparently, and you knew about it.” I had opened my mouth to reply, more out of habit then for any real need to say anything, but no words came out. My throat closed and I turned to go up the stairs to my room.
With each step I took, my soul twisted at what must be going through his head. He had finally learned what the rest of the circle and I knew long before. When I made it to my room I sat down on the bed and cried again, not for my mother but for my stepfather, and how unfair it all was for him. I’m sure that was the day when my stepfather’s tears of remembrance had dried up for good.
However, I’m here to say that you can get on with a very productive life despite the challenges of losing loved ones. Even if it is tragic, the feeling of blackness, despair and hopelessness fades. It takes a lot of time. It took me two years of living in a depression, not seeing the point in making new friends or developing any current friendships. To me then, all people end up as dust anyway, so what’s the point I’d thought.
For two years my head was in darkness. I would cry for no reason. I would get angry for no reason. You might imagine turning to alcohol, but I never wanted to. I needed to stay clean and sober, to continue with my day-to-day life as that was all I had left. One foot in front of the other, I needed to force myself through the fog. The direction I was headed didn’t matter, as long as I kept moving. When it all became too much, I used marijuana to allow me the ability to turn my head off, to get away from the blackness for a while. During these moments, I needed to see myself out of myself, to be able to see just a little further out into the darkness, to make out where I needed to go in order to find the light again.
I’m not encouraging substance abuse, nor recommending it. I am saying, however, that during times like these, you have to turn inwards and look at all the parts that make you: the flaws, the good, the bad, the vices, the strengths, the weaknesses and everything in between. We all lie to ourselves to some extent but, when you find yourself trapped in the darkness, you have to rip yourself apart and put yourself back together again.
You must be utterly blunt and honest about not only who you are, but why you are as well. Without this deep self-retrospection, you’ll never heal. This isn’t easy for anyone, and the substance I used to let me out of my head wasn’t addictive, but it wasn’t a prescription either. We all have our ways, and I’m simply telling you mine.
Slowly but surely, and day by day, my head coalesced back to something similar to normal. It wasn’t a sudden change, but a slow transformation. I realized I was getting better when I could fully enjoy conversations, and completely lose myself in the moment with friends and remaining loved ones.
After my mother died my stepfather found a new love. It was a member of my mother’s circle of trust, someone who I’ve known even longer than him. It was obvious they were cut from the same cloth as she had been through a lot in her life as well. Before they got together my stepfather asked me if I had a problem with it. If I did, then they wouldn’t be together.
I didn’t need to think about the answer. He and I walked a road of hell together, and have both come out of it stronger and closer. I knew he deserved happiness, and that he didn’t deserve what my mother did to him. As for his new love being my mother’s friend, on the surface it might seem cold but from my standpoint, I couldn’t imagine a better person for him. I immediately gave my approval and they have now built their own house together, are having fun travelling around the world, and playing with their grandchildren.
I’ve moved on myself. I live in Japan with a daughter and two stepdaughters. I am in love with one of their mothers and, unfortunately, it isn’t my daughter’s. However, thanks to the lessons and confidence my stepfather taught me, I was able to navigate through a divorce without feeling like my past was coming back to haunt me. I love my stepdaughter’s mother more deeply then I’ve loved any other. I’ve been able to do this in Japan, and in Japanese, which I taught myself. In the midst of writing this, I’ve experienced the earthquake, tsunami and radiation threats that the world watched breathlessly. The earth moved and skyscrapers swayed, but it was nothing compared to what I’d experienced exactly a decade prior.
After the funeral, I said to my stepfather that I recognized he’d had a hard time with my mother, and since I’m not his son by blood, I wouldn’t hold it against him if he wanted to part ways. I knew his reply before he spoke, and without hesitation he confirmed that he’s always considered me his son, and nothing is going to change that.
Thanks to him, he provided the base foundation that my biological parents couldn’t give me: a home and a strong sense of self. No matter where I go in this world, no matter what happens, I always know, that in a little town in rural Ontario, there’s a house that will always welcome me back, no matter how long I’ve been gone…and make me feel when I arrive, that I only just left.
Adam German Bio:
Adam German was born in Brantford, Ontario, Canada and grew up in the nearby village of St. George, Ontario. After graduating from Wilfrid Laurier University with a double major of Communication and Contemporary studies, Adam went to Japan in 2003 and currently lives with his partner and daughters. He is currently working in real estate marketing and is 30 years old.
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