It was my mother's ultimate revenge. It was her final stand. It was her declaration of independence. Even though my father had died in 1990, it took her years, so many years to finally get to that moment. In the final months of my mother's life, as she made plans and preparations for her burial, knowing her diagnosis wasn't getting any better, she moved out. Literally. My mother bought another cemetery plot many towns away. She decided she didn't want to spend eternity with my father, and she wasn't about to be pushed around any longer, even in the afterlife. So before she died in 2006, she packed up her burial plans and moved out.
It was the culmination of her life and, in many ways, my life and my sister's. We grew up in an abusive home. There, I said it. It's not something we talk about often. No one ever wants to talk about it. While there were some good moments that dotted our childhoods -- and yes, there were some -- more often than not, we experienced incredible verbal abuse, and often the punishing beatings with my father's hands, or his belts, or an electrical cord that had been bundled up at the end. In the basement of our house, my dad had built a family room with 1970s wood grain paneling that created just a small crawl space between the paneling and the cement walls behind it. I vividly remember hiding my dad's belts in the crawl space because if he couldn't find them, then he couldn't use them. In retrospect, that probably just made him reach for other things, like the wood dowel he'd use on us. It didn't take much to set my father off. I got beaten for making too much noise playing basketball in the back yard. I got beaten once for slamming the back door too hard because I couldn't get it to close. I got beaten once for wanting to go on the Super Slide at a local carnival and for nagging too much.
The entire neighborhood knew about the short fuse. Growing up, my sister and I knew not to bring friends over to the house because you never knew what could happen. Growing up, I remember my sister and her friend running from the house when my father was in one of his tirades. Growing up, I remember the looks from neighbors who would often end their friendships with the family, shut their doors and pretend to look the other way. Growing up, I remember wondering when my mother and father ever could have ever been happy. When. When was it. Because I'll be damned if we ever saw it. I don't know if it was fear that kept her with him... fear of him... or fear of raising us without him... that kept them together. While my father never laid a hand on my mother, and I think that's what made him think he didn't have a problem, the same couldn't be said about us. While some folks went on family outings each weekend, I often remember starting the weekend at Doctor Westfall's office in Canton. He was a psychiatrist. My dad saw him. My mom saw him because of my dad. My sister and I waited in the waiting room. It was the routine. It didn't help. My father had a promising career as a high school English teacher, which crumbled under his illness. He would eventually drive a taxi cab for a living -- a man who once went to medical school -- flunking out of his own life's ambitions. I often tell people he "took a few years off" to drive a cab. But that was just a lie. All these years later, I've come to recognize my father was mentally ill and never properly treated. It's not an excuse. It's a fact. He had a rage problem, major mental problems, and no drug or treatment was able to get control of it.
The day he died in a car accident in 1990 is really the day my sister, my mother, and I began life again. It was a struggle for my mother to transition into being a single parent. It was a struggle for my sister and me. But it was also a new beginning without beatings and abuse and secrets in the house. Imagine feeling a tremendous relief at the death of your father. In many ways it was. And what a guilty feeling that was. I have no doubt that his stifling influence on our lives would have crushed many of our dreams growing up. My mother cultivated those dreams instead and let them blossom and gave us the childhood and young adulthood we always wanted and deserved. So when she was diagnosed with a terminal lung disease, it was the unexpected sucker punch to a family that had already gone through so much. But my mother had grown into quite an independent woman herself. She went on her own terms.
And that brings me back to moving day. At one point, my mother let us know before she died that her plans for eternity were changing. She was moving. It was the culmination of her own catharsis, coming to terms with an abusive marriage, coming to terms with the fact that she hadn't gotten herself and us out of that situation so many years earlier. My mother got a cemetery plot at an old cemetery along route 128 in Peabody where members of her family are buried. It's miles away... and an entire lifetime away from where my father is buried at a cemetery in West Roxbury. It's been years since I've been there, but I know a couple of things for certain. The plot next to my father still sits empty. And the double gravestone on top, which you often see for spouses, the grave stone that was eventually supposed to be etched when my mother died, sits empty too. There's only one side filled out on the grave stone. That is it. Etched in stone. Or not etched in stone at all, for that matter. That is my mother's final stand. It's a reminder that it is never too late to make a change. It's never too late to get out of an abusive relationship. And if you witness that type of situation, never look the other way.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
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