Last Words – a love letter

Dear Mum

I drove past you today on the school run. It was bound to happen eventually but it still came as a shock. My breath caught in my throat and I started to cry. You looked tired. I could tell your knees were hurting. You’d changed your hair.

H was in the back of the car, still to be dropped off. He asked why I was crying. I told him ‘I saw Nanny and it made me feel sad’. He said, ‘I miss Nanny too’.

But there’s the thing. I don’t miss you. It’s eleven weeks since I last saw or spoke to you and I know I’ve made the right decision. Ending contact with you was essential for my mental and physical health. My recently diagnosed heart problems prove to me that you really can die of a broken heart. And my heart has been broken by you again and again and again. It feels like a miracle that I’m still breathing.

The reason I was crying, sobbing actually; loud, ugly, breathless sobbing, was because I am hurting FOR you.

You deserve better from life.

You deserve to be happy.

You deserve to feel loved.

You deserve to be looked after.

You are a victim too.

Your Mother’s spiteful tongue meant you grew up feeling rejected and unloved. Nanny herself was the victim of a cruel Mother, mistreated and abandoned. She entered motherhood with good intentions I’m sure, but somehow she ended up repeating her Mothers’ mistakes. And your Dad? My Grandad, the fallen hero. You idolized him, he made you feel loved and he spoiled you. But he never intervened when Nan was abusing you. He never discussed or corrected her behavior. His apathy probably caused more damage then you know. In turning a blind eye to your suffering, he set a precedent. All problems will be swept under the carpet. Complaints will be ignored. Retaliation will not be tolerated.

Please leave all truths at the door…

It’s no wonder when you met my Dad at 14, a handsome, hardworking 17 year old, that you fell blindly in love. When he began hitting you, you kept quiet. Because he loved you. Your parents approved of him. They must have done because they allowed him to be alone with you downstairs in their house, when everyone else was in bed. And that’s how I was conceived.

So there you were a very bright and beautiful young woman of 16 with a job lined up in the civil service. Until you fell pregnant with me. I imagine how scared you were telling your Father. I wonder how you felt about his ultimatum? You were rushed into marrying my dad with me growing in your belly. A month before your 17th birthday I came into the world. Your one and only daughter. Your first child. You and Dad moved into a flat in Crystal Palace. He worked long hours. You were mostly alone. No friends nearby. No family. You didn’t drive. Did they move you far away from their family home on purpose? So they wouldn’t have to be involved?

Me age one

My earliest memory, and I could only have been a year old, was of Dad yelling and crying and punching the walls. The impact of losing his Dad was catastrophic. Anyone I ever met who knew my Grandad J, told of a truly good man, a kind man, a provider, a sweet heart. When his light was snuffed out, Dad was traumatized. He lived in the shadow of his Father’s early death, terrified he’d meet the same fate. His drinking escalated. His temper flared. The beatings he gave you increased.

My next memory; we are still in the same flat in Crystal Palace. You, Dad, and me. I had a little doll, an Indian Squaw. She was so pretty. You stood on her while you were cleaning and the brittle plastic was crushed under your feet. It was my turn to cry. It crossed my mind the other day; did you step on my doll on purpose? Did you want to hurt me even then? I wish I knew.

The dinosaurs at Crystal Palace Park. These feature strongly in my early memories. Walking with you, spying the magnificent towering reptiles amongst the trees. Sometimes there were pony rides in a clearing. Then we are in a house. Our first family home, in Penge. You made me a costume out of blue crepe paper. I am little Bo Peep. I stand in the school hall with Cinderella and Snow White. There is a prize for the best dressed. I wish with all my heart ‘Pick me! Pick me!’ It’s not me. On the walk home, heavy hearted I spot a diamond ring on the ground. Of course, it’s not a real diamond. It’s plastic gold with a pink plastic gem. But to me it’s a precious jewel. The winner after all. Did you put that ring there for me to find or was it really lost treasure?

Crystal Palace Park dinosaurs

My brothers arrived in quick succession. You had five children by the age of twenty five. By the second boy I found it impossible to hide my disappointment. I wanted a sister, who never came. You would let me have the baby bottle of rose-hip syrup from the hospital; a sweet but temporary distraction to my disappointment.

In those early years, I was utterly devoted to you Mum. I thought you were the most beautiful, the kindest, the best Mum in the World. As a toddler I’d fetch warm water and cotton wool balls when it was time to change my brothers’ nappies. I always wanted to help, to be useful. I’d brush your hair and rub your feet. In fact I can remember squabbling with the boys over who would get to pamper you, back then I think we were all devoted to you. Can you imagine if you asked them to rub your feet now?! I remember happy times. Picnics in the woods with our Auntie and cousins. Swimming at the public baths. Bedtime stories. I felt loved, I definitely felt loved by you. But I never felt safe. How can you feel safe when your Dad is an alcoholic who frequently smashes up the house and beats up your Mum?

Me age 5

The only ‘quality’ time we’d have with Dad was on a Sunday. He would take us to Chislehurst ponds to net fish for tiddlers. You would often stay behind. We’d walk behind him in single file. There was no mucking about, teasing or chasing. He expected total compliance. Ironically, net fishing in rivers and lakes with my boys is now one of my favourite pastimes. But there is much splashing, laughter and fun on our trips and we are all in the water together, not huddled on the muddy bank.

I never saw Dad in water, not in a swimming pool or in the sea. I never saw his bare feet. As an adult I realise how strange that is and I wonder if he was afraid because he couldn’t swim? Or whether it was a sensory aversion? What I do know is that the more I reflect the more I think he was Autistic like me. After all it’s a genetic condition, a different neurotype passed through generations. Think about his need for control, the strict routines, the repetition, the inability to regulate his emotions. It makes me sad for him. I know how lonely it is growing up feeling different, uncomfortable in your own skin, unsure why you don’t fit in anywhere, embarrassed by your fits of emotion, often anger. I also know what it’s like to use alcohol to be able to socialize, how your inhibitions drop, how you can suddenly talk to people you barely know. The trouble with my Dad was, he never questioned why he was different, not to my knowledge anyway. He allowed himself to be angry at the whole world. He let alcohol consume him. He punished the people who tried to love him. And he became a man his family feared.

Did I ever tell you Mum that I did eventually see Dad’s bare feet. N and I took him on holiday to the Isle of Wight with us, it must have been 2006, before we were married. He was on the beach in socks and brown leather lace up shoes. He stepped in a rock pool by accident. His shoes were soaked. How I cried with laughter. He looked mortified. He took off his socks and shoes and laid them in the sun to dry. His feet were the whitest skin I’d ever seen. Painfully white. He rolled up his trousers above his skinny ankles. I was struck by his vulnerability then and confused how I could feel this combination of pity and warmth towards someone who had ruined my childhood. Someone who would be out of my life for good, just five years later. As you know, he didn’t die. That would have been too easy. Maybe I’ll write about that another day.

We also spent time as a family on our annual holiday to Mullion on The Lizard in Cornwall. Neither of you could drive so we’d get the train down to Red Ruth where a taxi would collect us and take us to the caravan park. Dad was different in Cornwall. I think he genuinely loved it there. Every day we’d walk for miles (in single file of course) to Mullion Harbour. Or we’d take a bus to the surrounding beaches, Polurion Cove, the Lizard. We’d eat picnics on the cliffs overlooking the sea. We’d play in the sand, paddle, rock pool (rock pooling is still one of my all time favorite pastimes). You would sunbathe and dad would sit and read his newspaper.

Cornwall late 80’s

In the evenings we’d go to the ‘night club’ at the caravan park. That was where things would get difficult. Because dad would sink pint after pint, through the bingo, the kids games, the entertainment show and then finally the late night disco. He’d end up dancing alone on the dance floor while my brothers and I tried to stay awake. The younger two would usually be asleep stretched out across two chairs or in a pram. What was going through your head then? Did you ever ask him to let you take us back to the caravan so we could sleep? Did you long for the loud music to finish like I did? Long for the walk in the cool dark back to the caravan. He’d usually be too drunk to start an argument. The fact the caravan offered no sound proofing and he’d have to pay if he smashed up their doors, must have motivated him to control his temper.

I remember one time we were getting ready to go out in the evening and you and I were being silly in the shower room, tickling each other. You accidentally pushed me and I fell backwards smashing my lower spine against the rim of the shower tray. The pain took my breath away. I burst into tears and you looked terrified. ‘Don’t say it was me, say you slipped!’ you whispered urgently. Then you carried me to the sofa where I laid in agony, furious that you were so scared of him even on holiday.

But it all changed. You’ve never attempted to explain why but I’ve had eleven weeks to reflect and dig through my memories, trying to make sense of the hurt you’ve caused me. You told me more than once, that you’ve never felt truly loved. That you were never someone’s ‘number one’, never put first. You told me that’s why you’ve always put the men in your life first, because you just wanted someone to love you the way you believed you should be loved.

So Mum, I think I’ve worked it out. I think I finally understand why I went from being someone you loved to someone you bitterly resented. I loved you completely, wholly, obsessively. YOU were MY number one, my best friend. I looked after you. I was your helper. I was like a ‘mini mum’ to my brothers. You were all I wanted and I could never imagine leaving you. We were in a bubble and I was happy to stay there.

For the first 11 years of my life I was your constant companion

But then at around 11 or 12 years old, when I started secondary school, and especially at 15 when I started puberty, I became aware of life outside our bubble. I made friends. I realized I was good at ‘other stuff’ besides housework and rearing my brothers with you. I realized I was academically gifted. I was told I could have a bright career. I realized that I wanted to have a boyfriend. That maybe I wanted to get married and have children of my own one day. Simultaneous to these realizations about the wider world, Dad’s violence towards me had intensified. And as you know, you did nothing. So there I was, angry, scared, let down and faced with the realization that I could leave our bubble, could make my OWN life away from the control and violence and social isolation.

At the time, I thought you must be evil, to let me suffer so much. To ridicule and belittle me, shame me about my looks and my body. My teenage years are a horrible blur of arguments and physical assaults, degradation. But I understand now. I let you down. I stopped loving you as much as I did before. I went from being a devoted daughter who made you feel loved and important and worthwhile to being an independent and fiery young woman who wanted to get away from you. And that must have hurt you deeply.

And we all fall down…

I’m sorry I hurt you Mum. It was never my intention. I didn’t want to upset or reject you. I wanted to save me. I think it made you jealous when you saw I had friends and boyfriends. It made you angry that I dropped out of University because you would have killed for the chance to pursue your higher education. I remember you studying your Biology (GCSE or A level)? while we were at school. You got an A. You knew you were capable of so much more than child rearing and minimum wage employment.

I think you saw me find a husband, two in fact, who were genuinely good men. Who loved me and supported me despite my emotional and mental instability due to my undiagnosed Autism and Bipolar 2 disorder. You would criticize me as wife for not ironing their clothes, for being a rubbish cook, for standing up to them when I was cross or unhappy. Yet still they loved me, laughed with me, stayed with me. I think that made your resentment grow even deeper.

I’m sorry I hurt you Mum. I’m sorry I left you. But the things I pursued for myself were only the same, entirely normal and natural things my peers aspired to have. My successes in my career, in my relationships, as a Mother, should have made you proud. And it’s not like I didn’t have my share of pain too; my first born lost to a rare lethal chromosome disorder, my first marriage lost to my mental health issues, my body carved up by breast cancer…my life has been anything but easy. Yet still you view me with bitterness and resentment as I if I stole your winning lottery ticket.

In recent years since I had children, we have both tried to get along, to become closer. I genuinely think we both wanted that. But there was always an undercurrent of resentment. For my part, I admit I have never been able to shake off my deep anger towards you for the way you failed to protect our childhood (yes, I know you were scared but we were your children and we had no one but you to protect us). Beyond childhood, my teenage years, I have been unable to forgive you for the shaming, ridiculing, hitting, the inadequate preparation for puberty and becoming a young woman. You failed me on every level as an adolescent and despite prayers and therapy and the passing of time, I have been unable to forgive you…because you have continuously failed to acknowledge and admit your mistakes. You have flatly refused to apologize. And without that, it’s been impossible for me to move on.

Eleven weeks ago Mum, when we had our final falling out, I begged for that apology. I was desperate for that fresh start, to hear you admit the pain you’d caused me. Because I wanted to forgive you. I truly did, God’s honest truth.

Words spread poison, lies crawl like creepers

But during this eleven weeks a lot of stuff has come to light. And it’s apparent to me now that ever since I was a teenager, you have been spreading rumors and lies about me to people I love, or loved. Such was your resentment and anger that you wanted or needed to discredit me and as such you’ve caused irreparable damage to my relationships with other people in my birth family. What did you tell the Uncle who attacked me to make him do that to me? What did I EVER do that was bad or wrong, that would cause him to attack a teenage girl who had grown up adoring him? What did you tell my brothers to make them call me ‘the bike of St Paul’s Cray’ when I was actually known as frigid amongst my friends for rejecting boys’ sexual advances. What did you say to my brothers as adults that has made them complain to me about how much time you spend with us, as if we have been a burden to you or selfish with your time? Each time this has been raised, I’ve felt mortified, thinking ‘we barely even see her!!’ These brothers of mine who (so you told me) take all your money, live like slobs, mistreat their women, made you cash in your pension, look after their children when you are exhausted from work and caring for your own parents…I realize how naive I was now to listen to all your complaints about them without realizing that you would of course be complaining about me. And since I now know the lies you’ve told them about me, about ‘how much you do for us’, does that mean what you told me about them, was a lie? I guess I’ll never know.

Mum, I have neither asked nor taken anything from either of my parents my whole life. I have always been acutely sensitive to how stressful your life is and how overloaded you are. I have tried everything possible to make your life easier. Do you ever tell anyone the good things I do? All the times we’ve taken you on holiday with us or for weekends away, usually at N’s expense. All the practical help, doing stuff in the house, running errands, all the little thoughtful adhoc gifts and surprises be that hand wash to match the color of your bathroom, special blankets for your dog so she doesn’t wee on the floor, or drawing chalk pictures on your driveway during lockdown. We never asked you to babysit unless it was an important medical or school appointment because we knew you were already stretched to the max. We would never be so selfish, unlike others in the family.

As you know, I wrote to Grandad last year, begging him to reconsider a couple’s care home or moving to our local town, because I could see how the constant long distance traveling to them and caring for them was killing you; he never even acknowledged my letter. You told me how upset he was but me, he ignored completely. In my opinion he’s quite happy to throw you under the bus and let you see out your life clearing up after them like a servant. It’s what suits them best. He doesn’t want to factor your needs in, he never has.

Talking of Grandad, his recent and most spiteful message to me talks of my ‘appallingly bad behavior over the years, (often nasty)’. What behavior is this he talks of Mum? What have I EVER done that was appallingly bad or nasty? I’d love to know. And it’s interesting because in recent years, despite being the only one of your children who has made the effort to visit him and Nanny on a regular basis, I’ve often felt his inexplicable disapproval. And I’ve asked you outright ‘Mum have you said mean things about me to Grandad as he treats me differently’ and you looked shocked and said ‘You have to trust me! I would never talk badly of you or do anything to hurt you’. How gullible I am.

Now the thing is, bipolar and OCD and anxiety aside, I’m NOT mad nor in crisis. I am seeing clearly for the first time in my life. You have been campaigning against me for almost three quarters of my life!! Did you honestly think I’d never find out? And it hurts, Lord knows the tears I’ve cried the last eleven weeks. And yes, my heart is broken. For all my health problems, I’ve never had trouble with my heart, but since recent events my heart is now firing off blood clots into other parts of my body blocking my arteries. Maybe it’s bad timing. Or maybe you really HAVE broken my heart.

As for my brothers, I love them. I feel sad for them. I feel angry. I think they’re cowards. Friends and family have made me understand that their desire to silence me, to sweep my allegations under the carpet, is both selfish and driven by fear. The past has scarred them deeply and they don’t want to deal with it, not now anyway.

And so I say goodbye and walk towards the light

So before I say goodbye for good, I want to say that I love you Mum. I’ve never stopped loving you. I want to hate you but it’s too hard. Seeing you walking by yesterday as I drove H to school, all I wanted to do is jump out the car and hug you and tell you to get in. But I couldn’t and I can’t. N said I care too much. That I let pity overrule me. He says we are better off without you and I know he’s right. But still; I love you. I want you to live well. I want you to be happy. I want you to know that I’m thankful for the first 11 years of my life when I know you truly loved me. Your life as a parent started painfully young and without the support you needed from your own parents. The choices you made later on, when I pursued independence and you punished me all the way…I don’t blame you for. I blame my Dad. I blame your parents. For letting you down. For mistreating you. For denying you the help you so clearly needed. For letting the violence against you continue in plain sight because it was more convenient for them.

I still wish you’d been braver, stronger, kinder. I wish you’d tried to break the cycle of abuse, I wish you’d been proud of my achievements. I wish you’d helped me fly instead of throwing stones behind my back.

No one knows how much time anyone has left on this Earth but I pray you spend your time left doing things you enjoy with people you love, instead of sacrificing yourself blindly to people who use you. Maybe not having me to blame and resent anymore will be the push you need, to do what makes you happy. Take care Mum xxx

Lizzy Van Tromp

10th September 2020

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