When I started this project, I thought my main struggle would be with the availability of information. There are only so many letters, photographs and memories, after all. But this hasn’t been a problem. The real problem is what I’m doing with the information I’m getting. If I want to understand my parents, I have to be open to understanding them, and it turns out I’m not. I’m stubborn and attached to my narrative and my original impressions of them. I decided a long time ago that my parents had a bad marriage and they were unhappy. When I come across information that tells me otherwise, I experience intense physical and cognitive dissonance. My brain hardens. My screen goes blank. Every cell of my body says “Nope.”
I’ll try out phrases like, “My parents were really in love, at least for a while”—which is something their early letters seem to suggest—but it just sounds ridiculous, like I’m making it up. What if I made my version up? What if both options are correct? If I’m not willing to really learn something or change my ideas, I might as well just cry into the pages of a composition notebook in the privacy of my own bedroom, because this has all been for naught.
I’ve got two theories about why it’s so difficult to accept new information about my parents. One is that there’s just some serious rewiring that needs to occur for me to change my mind. It’s a big shift. The other idea is that finding information that contradicts my assumptions is actually more painful than finding information that supports them. Because you know what? If my parents were happy, in love, having fun and accomplishing what they dreamed, it’s sad that they fell out of love and life’s complications got the best of them. It is sad. It is so really fucking sad that when I think about it I am filled with grief, and a little bit of terror. I think that’s why I resist the shift in perspective—that would give me something to mourn. I’m still not mourning their disappearance from my life, but sometimes what happened to me doesn’t seem nearly as bad as what happened to them (and between them). I HATE that this happened to them, and I hate that it can happen to anyone. At times, falling out of love, or waking up in the middle of a life that you didn’t want, feels like the saddest thing I can think of.
I could be wrong. Maybe there were problems from the start. Maybe my mom saw marriage to my father as a solid way out of her regular life, and that’s actually what he ended up being. Maybe he was always a short-tempered dick and was just good at hiding it until kids came along. But those sad stories almost seem comforting compared to the ones I may be discovering, which are ones I already knew, but had never applied to my own parents. Life can change you, and you can’t always change yourself.