525,600 minutes

Zoe told me that she loved me today.

Via text. Unsolicited.

Where she actually had to think about it and use her thumbs and had a chance to backspace rather than pushing send. Not the usual drive by at bedtime that we half-heartily exchange ‘Goodnight, love you, see you in the morning,’ while barely hugging. It shouldn’t seem like a big deal, your kid saying they love you. But here in my world – it stopped me dead in my tracks. I pinged Rich to tell him – yes, he said, it was in the family chat. What?? She said it in front of the whole family? Yes, I see now, the family chat. Where there was nothing to hide behind.

In order to understand why it’s a big deal, you have to understand the last year of our relationship, Zoe and I, and the roller coaster that it’s been. And that it certainly did not include any real ‘I love you’s…’ in either direction. I spent months having pretend conversations with her in the car – sometimes angry, sometimes sad, sometimes resigned – never ending well. It’s likely she did the same. I spent months tip-toeing and seeking support from anyone I could – basically blurting out this endless story to perfect strangers in the Kroger line just to hear someone say ‘you’re a good mom…you cannot let this affect you.’ Oh, okay, perfect stranger, thank you. Would you like to use my Kroger Savings Card?

The downward spiral of she and I started with in the spring of 2019 when we could not get this child at all involved in the college hunt. On my end, I was getting thoroughly annoyed at doing all the work as I was not the one going to college. So maybe I was a little kid cranky. Those grades aren’t going to cut it. Have you picked any schools? Have you set up any visits? We need to get moving on this. Are you going to do anything?!? I repeated these words over and over (as did my husband) and we eventually ended up at tours of University of Pittsburgh and Penn State (both set up by me), but, in the end, that was it. Shrug.

Fast forward to a few weeks after application season opened in the Fall of 2019, and Zoe got an almost instant acceptance to Old Dominion. Oh! That was easy! With money offered? Oh boy! We never even saw her Common App – forbidden by Zoe to look because she ‘wanted to do it herself.’ Oh, great! That’s what we want too – for you to do something by yourself!! For the over twenty crowd – the Common App is a one stop shop for college applications. Fill it out once and *zing!* off it goes where ever you want. No more sitting at the kitchen table with an erasable Bic, writing the same essay over and over. We weren’t even sure where she’d applied. Plus, we’d been assured that her high school counselors basically held the kids’ hands throughout the application process What could go wrong?

Fast forward to another few weeks later when we did open the Common App just to answer that one question – where’d she apply? – and realized that her essay was a bit on the Felicity Huffman side. No, she didn’t join photo shopped herself onto a rugby team or pose among sunflowers with borrowed field hockey gear – but we were a bit surprised to learn that she was in a fairly busy band and had embellished quite a bit of the story of her life. As we’d followed her wishes and not looked until after the applications were sent, well, shite…now we felt a little like parents who’d never been through this before. We certainly would have stopped the train – at the very least to give her a chance to correct the numerous punctuation and grammatical issues – but it had already left the station. So, we crossed our fingers and prayed that none of the schools would ask to come watch one of her gigs. Incidentally, she’d also applied to Pitt, Penn State, NYU, NC State and VCU. VCU because we’d forced her to and the others because she had big dreams. Good for her! All she had to do is keep her grades up and nail an SAT!

We did ask, though, about the band. The response? I am in a band. I’m sorry? There’s no way an IB/AP student doesn’t know she’s not in a band. Right? She had to know that playing guitar in her room for thirty minutes a day did not equal being in a band that practices three hours a week, fifty weeks a year (as written). As she stared us down, insisting it was true, I flashed back to the day six months prior when I’d asked her why she was telling people she had autism – and I got the same stare – and the same ‘because I do’ answer. My stomach turned a notch.

Okay, but what about your embellished life story? We were told to over-dramatize to give us better chances. Another stomach flip. Rich and I both realized this likely would not help her at all – that these elite schools might not like a mis-spelled, grammatically incorrect essay about unbelievable traumas. We thought that was the worst of it, though, crossed our fingers and put it out of our minds. Acceptance dates were months away – no need to stress, right? Then on a random Tuesday, Zoe came home sick from school, a rarity, and I had a ‘something’s not right’ mom-panic – this kid never comes home early. Had she heard back from Pitt? Was it bad news? Oh gosh. I thought I’d just pop into Common App and check, real quick, just in case and, oh, while I was there…additional questions??? Maybe just a quick peek.

Which is when the concrete slab landed on my head. Or my heart. Or across my face. Or everywhere.

Her application started out really well, actually – she’s a very good writer when she takes her time with it. But at some point her answers went from filling out a college application to a therapy session with the sole purpose of working any and all issues with her stepmother – real or imagined. To say I had a better understanding of how she really felt about me was an understatement. It was right there in black & white – and also sitting in the hands of admissions officers at Pitt, Penn State, NYU, NC State and VCU. Venom? Laced with it. As I tried to digest what I was reading, I sneaked a peak out the front window – sure that I’d find the Department of Child Services camped out on our doorstep. I was emotionally exhausted within five minutes – years of epic mom-ing swept away with the click of a submit button.

Full disclosure – this wasn’t the first found blurbs of my shortcomings. We could walk into Zoe’s room at just about any moment, open a random notebook and find a page dedicated to my faults. Or on a text string on her phone. Or overheard while talking to a friend. Braille, smoke signals, sign language – pick a format and my name has been disparaged. Easy enough to dismiss as ‘kids…am I right?’ but still painful. I often wondered if she left these writings for me to find on purpose – perhaps a strange way of seeing if I’d be pushed away or go away or abandon my effort. I developed a thick skin, but with holes where the jabs could filter in. But those writings were all private to us – living under her bed or within her phone. Now they were displayed to the world – or at least to universities up and down the east coast. I was about ready to pack somebody’s bags. I just wasn’t sure if they would be mine or hers.

In a cry-laughing response, I realized ‘oh good, we finally know the source of all her difficulties!’ Poor grades (me), low SAT (me), divorce trauma (me), dysphoria (me), anxiety (me), inability to sleep (me), abusive childhood (me…oh, and Rich, he got dinged with that one a few years ago)…the list went on and on. It was hard to tell if her writings were a quest to get into to college or a plea for someone to come save her.

We signed on with yet another therapist – the poor man – this time on a family journey – all hands on deck! It was rough. We went further into the mud. The accusations continued and I got tired of insisting that, no, I was not responsible for any of the above – Rich with me, urging both kids to take responsibility for their own paths. And they began to, mostly. But the one thing that wouldn’t go away was the thing that destroyed me the most – the allegations of child abuse. There was none, mind you. Verbal, physical, sexual – there was none. And yet it is the thing that creeps into my head to this day – that my child was so sure I was an abusive parent that she’d written to six universities to tell them so. And if that, then who else? Was this why her friends were never invited over? Was this why her friends’ parents never wanted to meet us? How long had this tale been weaving its way around our small town? I really didn’t care about our small town – I just wanted our child to acknowledge the lack of truthfulness. I just wanted our child to apologize for basically assassinating the parent I was trying to be. I just wanted out child to hurt as much as I did.

We moved through autumn, rotating around each other for months. Trying. Failing. Trying. Flailing. We sat in therapy – Rich and I trying to explain how the kids were thrown into my lap and that it was an impossible situation and how we knew it didn’t go very well at times and how we were sorry. None of this was new – we’d talked about it often in our home’s open forum. But that’s the fun of kids – they don’t hear it until they are ready to hear it. Say it 14 times, bang your head against the wall – say it again and it just might stick. I threw myself at Zoe’s feet over and over – apologizing for not being the parent that she wanted and, maybe, this time it stuck. This time the word order code was cracked. This time she maybe heard me.

We’d drive home and Rich would say how well it went and that we made real progress and all I’d want to do is lay in bed, Airpods in, depressing songs blaring…a not so subtle message to Rich that I Just. Couldn’t. Talk. And I felt kind of terrible about that because I knew I wasn’t alone in my sorrow. But I also felt like I was barely there for myself, let alone there for someone else. Was this another of the universe’s tricks? Put so much space between you and your child at such a high rate of speed that when it comes time for their next step, you are ready? No tears or anguish? Just a pat on the back for good luck as you leave them at the dorm? Why did it seem that she was getting all the therapeutic answers she wanted and I was getting none? When was I going to feel better? The chasm between Zoe and I did not shrink, despite the talks. Trust destroyed, feelings crushed – we privately agreed to coexist, putting on a happy face for Rich while knowing nothing was resolved. Which is how we went into 84 days of quarantine. What could go wrong?

Zoe told me she loved me today.

The thing that couldn’t be fixed by anything at all? Evidently a pandemic was the answer. Forced interaction. Both of us understanding that we could not survive an indefinite amount of isolation with anger boiling just under our skin. We had to start trying to like each other again. We had to start getting to know each other again. We had to try to forgive each other. And the baby steps began. And we had 84 days to keep taking them, at our own pace – ignoring the accolades from our housemates that we weren’t ready to hear. A step here, a step there. A leap back. Another step forward. We started having spontaneous morning meetings to find out what each were up to that day. We started offering assistance to each other. We started talking about other things, normal things, parent-child things. A step forward, a leap forward, two steps back, a step forward. We can both send the other in a spiral with a wrong word or a wrong look or a shrug or an eye roll, but we seem to come right out of it within hours – each acknowledging the hard work we’ve done and each promising that the hard work doesn’t get erased by a hiccup. We seem to have accidentally gotten immersed into each other’s lives again when we were both doing our best to remain on our sides of the fence. Thanks, phased openings.

Trust? Someday. Mostly actually. 10% of me still thinks she will follow through on her promise never to return home if I’m still living here. Six months ago, I was fine with that and likely would have forwarded her luggage – although it made me so sad and conflicted for Rich. Now, I hate that 10% – I don’t want to think of it because it would mean that opening myself up again was a mistake and it would shut the door of my ability to trust yet again. And, when that happens, the fallout often extends beyond those who deserve. Plus, I want her to come home. I want to hear about her adventures, I want to continue to see her growing into someone I enjoy being with and, selfishly, I want her to gain the maturity to understand just how difficult of a role I was put in. For that, she’ll have to face some tough facts regarding her biological mom – and that’s going to suck.

As far as the abuse claims? I have no idea where her brain is on those. It crosses my mind not-too-often as to whether or not she still thinks I was abusive to her. If I think too hard, the anger and hurt returns and I spiral all on my own (well, except the part where Rich enjoys the role of punching bag). I’m told that it’s something she won’t even have the ability to reconcile until she’s in her mid-twenties – and being patient is not my forte.

But today, she told me she loved me. Unsolicited. Just because.

Via text.

Where she actually had to think about it and use her thumbs and had a chance to backspace rather than pushing send.

But she pushed send.

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