Fear — And the Mysterious Case of the Disappearing Parent
It’s Halloween time, the moment for the spookiest of stories. This mystery is not gory. Indeed it is the most fearsome kind of story because, in it, there are subtle, slow burning embers that have the potential to suddenly erupt into flames among our beloved characters…
Janie, a laughter-comes-easy lover of books and animals, had confronted specters over her forty-plus years of life and by far, being a parent gave her the deepest shake right down to her very core. But in order to unravel the mystery in her mid-life, we need start at her beginning. She grew up in a ghost town, or that’s what it felt like in the heart of the Ohio cornfields. There were only five houses in Shenandoah – two were occupied by elderly couples who kept to themselves, one was deserted completely save the rats and one had another farming family in it with a girl Janie’s age named Mercury Jones.
Fortunately, Mercury was just the right constellation of traits for best friend material. Named by her father Wade, who would have preferred to be an astronaut and live amongst the stars than work the fields as he had been forced to do since boyhood, Mercury was gregarious, fearless and perpetually game for any adventure.
Janie’s family was predictable. Her mother and father both seemed to breathe hard work. While her father was tending the crops, Janie’s mother was baking or doing laundry while patiently taking care of her baby brother. Life at home was boring and Janie found herself wandering over to Mercury’s every chance she could find. The moment Janie stepped up the cracked cement porch stairs of the Jones’ house, she could feel the excitement in the air enter her body and make her tummy twinge. There would be music playing with a hip-shaking beat. Mercury’s Mom would be singing while doing any number of surprising activities that had nothing to do with hard work and responsibility. Whether it was painting a mural of flying cats on the walls or building a mini Eiffel Tower replica, Mercury’s Mom never failed to fascinate.
Janie and Mercury would create wild fantasy worlds of their own in which they were glorious leaders of kingdoms with fantastical creatures. They would be so engrossed that they often would lose track of the time and even the fact that their bellies were empty. That is, they would lose track until they would startle with the sound of the screen door banging shut signaling Wade’s return from the fields.
Janie would race to get her things and attempt to leave quickly through the side door at the urging of Mercury and her Mom. At times, she was able to make a quick escape. But when she did, she felt shameful like she was a coward shrinking away while leaving the sheep vulnerable to the wolf. When she couldn’t escape, which happened more often than not, she witnessed a drunken Wade, angry and out-of-control. He would find reasons to yell, hit and hurl household any-old-things. His aim wasn’t too great – sometimes they would hit a wall and sink to the floor as his body, at times, would too. But the worst times, they hit Mercury, her Mom, and Janie.
Janie decided she couldn’t tell her parents ever. Besides making a pinky swear with Mercury that she wouldn’t tell, she just knew they wouldn’t understand and they might not let her return. And she had to go back – for Mercury. Janie felt as if each time she encountered wild Wade, she grew a new layer of protective scar tissue over her skin and the callouses only grew thicker and thicker.
The years went by and Janie had the good fortune to go off to college in the nearest big city. Janie eye-balled each new person in her life assessing whether they met the safety criteria. Do they have the potential to be wild? If so, she made a quick exit. But despite her caution, she made many new friends and still talked on the phone every Sunday with Mercury. Mercury did not have the same good fortune and had to stay home to take care of her Mom who had become disabled from injuries over the years.
The summer after graduation, Janie had planned to return home to see if she might coax Mercury to share an apartment in the city with her. She knew she’d have a better chance convincing her if she made her plea in person. She went out with her group of college friends the night before she left town and that’s when she met Jim. Jim was kind. That was the best way to describe him. He sauntered up to Janie at the pub with a wide warm smile and had question after question for her wanting to know who she was, what she did and what she loved. Instead of leaving the next day, Janie hung around hoping to hear from Jim. And she did. Days turned into months turned into years and Jim became her constant companion. When they married, Mercury was at her side with tears in her eyes. Janie had all she could possibly hope for in a partner. He allowed Janie time to lift away the callouses carefully and expose her hopes and dreams, her beauty, her shame and her fears. And when they married, she knew they would protect each other from the dangers of life.
She didn’t hesitate in bringing baby number one, Jessie or baby number two, Jeremy into the world. Why should she? They both had decent paying jobs, a nicer home than her own growing up and a loving partnership that was the envy of most. It wasn’t until Jessie and Jeremy became school-age that she started to notice a problem. They went to a school only blocks away from their home with many friends living close enough to walk to their houses. But when Jessie began getting invitations to have playdates at other’s homes, Janie said “No.” “She has too much homework to do.” “We have family plans.” and “She’s worn out from the week.” were just a few of the go-to excuses Janie would offer. Jessie accepted it while she was too young to really understand. But as she grew, she began to fight back. “Mom! It’s not fair! How am I supposed to have friends if I can’t ever go to their houses? Mimi’s having an overnight and I haven’t even been allowed to go for a little while after school.” Jessie would storm off and Jeremy began to take her cue and get upset about his own experience of injustice. Jim typically defended Janie in front of the kids. But when both kids cornered Jim when Janie was off on an errand run expressing their disgust with their Mom’s flat “No.” every time an invitation was extended, he too began to worry that there was a problem.
Jim asked Janie before going to bed that night, “Why aren’t you letting them go?” “Jim, It’s this world.” Janie would say. “You watch the news. It’s just too dangerous.” Jim gently responded, “What are you so afraid of?” Janie couldn’t provide a better answer beyond the fact that she was trying to be a good mother and look out for her children. She felt like Jim was beginning to take their side when she most needed his support. Power struggles became daily occurrences with both kids and it felt like they were finding ways to pick fights. Jim became irritable too with the undercurrent of disagreements steadily running through the household.
One day, a thought popped into Jim’s head and he blurted out the question before considering its impact. “Are you not letting the kids go to other’s houses because of the Jones family?” Jim knew the whole story of Janie’s involvement with Mercury and Wade and as he uttered the words he also knew, he was right but it might hurt Janie to hear it. And as he suspected, Janie was furious for Jim suggesting that it might even relate to something from so long ago. “Why couldn’t he see she was just trying to be a good parent?” But the very next day, the Mom of one of Jeremy’s classmates, the one who had always reminded her of Mercury – not by her looks but by her wildly joyful energy – approached her in the parking lot with yet another invitation. “My son just loves Jeremy. We’d like to have him over after school for a snack and some baseball in our backyard.” Janie gave her usual excuse in her most generous tone. But as she got in her car, she froze unable to move. It hit her like a ton of any-old-things Wade had slung in her direction. She had a ghost that was haunting her. And that ghost was standing between her and her family. Somehow it had begun to chisel away at their relationships, separate them by anger and fear. Janie, still frozen, examined her hands on the steering wheel. Was she becoming a ghost herself? Was she disappearing? Were those callouses so thick that she couldn’t break through to her very soul which had always valued friendship, creativity, love and laughter above all else.
“Mom, are we ever going to leave this parking lot?” Jeremy said startling Janie out of her reverie. As Janie drove, she played back in her mind all of the moments that she had said “No.” to her children’s friends and their families. She began to view herself differently. There had been an apparition manipulating her thoughts and terrifying her into submission. The shade had been so real, so present, it had compelled her to make decisions based on what? Fear or thin air? What was she really afraid of? She hadn’t allowed herself before to play out the scene of her fears but she knew the only way to get rid of her haunt was to confront it. While alone on her own cracked cement porch stairs, she imagined Jessie and Jeremy meeting Wade after he’d spent a long day in the cornfields and she cried every tear she had inside of her. When at last not one more drop would come, she stood up and yelled out into the Fall air – “Go away, ghost! I want myself back! My kids need their Mom!”
Janie ran back into the house and dialed up Jeremy’s friend’s Mom quickly while she was feeling courageous. The woman who answered even sounded like her dear friend, Mercury as she expressed her gratitude that Jeremy would be coming over. Janie would not disappear. She would not allow her past to force a shadow on her present and future. With each “Yes.”, she returned to the parent and the person she recognized as true.