BY KAREN CORINNE HERCEG
She looks at you like a lover. My younger sister tossed the words casually over her shoulder while making a pot of coffee. It would be an insult to deny what I knew was obvious. Especially now that our mother was gone. She had been an insistent, persuasive force: beautiful, charming and deadly. In fact, she had killed my father. No, not with a kitchen knife, but the incisive erosion of promises, numerous lovers and her love of me. Although she really knew nothing of love. It was all about control and the compensation of loss. It was about emulating the strong, handsome alcoholic father who ignored her and chased women, leaving his wife and daughters with few resources while he philandered his way through local taverns in the wake of the Great Depression. Now my sister and I, middle-aged, several marriages behind us, were attempting to reconnect after my mother orchestrated her recent departure from lung and breast cancer. Hints from the heart chakra gone ignored.
We were "special"—that’s how my mother described her relationship with me. There were no boundaries or rules for navigating the world. Those restrictions were for others. However, there were rules for cleaning and criticism and perfectionism: lists of chores and punishments and inappropriate touch and sexual innuendo. She pitted my sister and I against one another, manipulating our world, distorting our perceptions of morality, deflecting guilt and responsibility. She doled out love according to her whim. It was a cornucopia of mixed messages that rendered me both prey and predator in a world of confusion and denial. We were glamorous and different and created our own tenets.
Others became collateral damage, including my father. He was a kind, gentle man who adored my mother and could not stand up to her or protect us, keep her in line. This is what she needed from him but he was incapable of it. He thought his unconditional love would be enough. I suppose it did win in the end as he lay dying in the hospital from heart failure, kidney failure, and a host of other failures. My mother, realizing it was the end and he would not recover, stood over him as he opened his eyes one final time. I love you she cried in desperation. My father opened his eyes briefly and they were shining at her. He had lived his entire life waiting to hear her say those words with a true heart. Then he was gone. My mother cried for a year, her eyes becoming infected from the abuse of tears and the realization of loss. There was no recovery from this—no damage control. But she pulled herself together, nursed back to business as usual under the care of her long-time friend and lover who became our stepfather. She took care of herself and moved on.
My mother had professed I was the ‘second coming’ when she had finally become pregnant after ten years of marriage. She hated men, and she didn’t want me to be happy either—unless it was with her. I could marry whomever I wished as long as she came first. Grandchildren were permitted—even required—but my primary love would be reserved for her. It was a love out of all proportion to unconditional maternal love; a love that harbored a deep, dark recessive secret I would finally acknowledge after five decades. I was an incest victim of my mother. But more than any of the physical violations, it was the emotional violation that caused the most destruction.
Incest is more common than most people will admit, although more rare between mother and daughter. Of course, we were all about “rare” and “different,” classic words of abusers who normalize their dysfunction by separating it from the rest of the herd. The self-permission of the “exceptional.” But for all her fawning over me there was a cold rupture in the final departure, a narcissistic decision to take her leave when she was ready, dispensing very little emotion in her wake. She left us some money so she thought we would be fine. My father was long gone and our stepfather doted on her despite the fact she treated him like a houseboy.
We were all emotionally overwrought except my mother. She had picked out the outfit for her funeral, made a list of items to be distributed after her death and had her accounts in order. At her request, my sister, a nurse, washed her, did her hair and polished her nails the day before she passed in her hospital bed brought into the Florida apartment where hospice nurses came in and out around the clock. She announced she was done with the world.
I cried on that final morning. Seeing me upset, she called me close to her lips, now dry and parched, and said with a crackling whisper, now you can be free. I didn’t know what to make of those words. Moments before, with barely enough breath, she had criticized me for wearing blue panties beneath white shorts—a distinct fashion indiscretion. My sister and I had flown down from New York the day after New Year’s upon receiving the frantic call from our stepfather that the end was approaching. Who had time to make wardrobe decisions? Then the moment came, all of us gathered around the bedside, the nurse listening to her chest with a stethoscope for the final beat of her heart. They said it took much longer than was typical under the circumstances. It was a stubborn heart. A hard heart.
My sister desperately tried to rise above the situation after decades of struggling to move front and center into our mother’s line of vision. With each failure to become “the favorite” she had lapsed further into illnesses and lost relationships. Despite our numerous attempts to dissect the past and move forward after our mother passed away, she shifted into blaming me for being the preferred one, not being able to accept the maternal rejection no matter how much she understood it intellectually. And here is where I explained to her that the work was to see it vividly and truthfully and not through the distorted lens of our mother’s vision. We must move away from the ingrained behaviors imprinted upon us less we become them. The only way out was to heal through acknowledgement and allowing the feelings of anger, hurt and rejection to release from the physical body, the cell memory, and the depths of the heart.
Blame and guilt are wasted in the healing process, although it is a common default position because allowing the feelings is so very painful. But it is necessary in order to come through the other side of reclaiming the self, the person who was distorted by someone else’s perversion. We needed to take responsibility for our own healing, and that permission would come from no one but ourselves.
I continue to work daily on that healing. That is the only way to forgiveness of the perpetrators and the self. Sadly, my sister no longer speaks to me. I will not allow her to transfer the abuse and the accusations. She continues to spiral further into ill health claiming to reach through a spiritual matrix in the dark of her bedroom at night, reaching through the veil to touch the hand of a mother she believes is reaching back: a mother she hopes can finally see her.
Karen Corinne Herceg has a B.A. from Columbia University and graduate credits in advanced writing. She published a volume of poetry, Inner Sanctions and has written a novel, Diva! A recipient of New York State grants, she has read with such renowned writers as Pulitzer Prize winner John Ashbery. Ms. Herceg studied with poets David Ignatow and Pulitzer Prize winner Philip Schultz. Recent publications include Orange Sullivan Magazine, Chronogram, The Writing Disorder, Literary Mama, The Furious Gazelle, Immortal Verses, From A Window: Harmony and Inkwell. Her short story, Knitting In Transit, appeared in Chrysalis Magazine. She resides in New York where she is a featured reader and an active participant on the Hudson Valley poetry circuit. Follow Karen at www.karencorinneherceg.com, on Facebook and Twitter: @karen_herceg.