A small dock floating a bit out in the warm Atlantic Ocean was my favorite spot on our annual family vacations to Key West. It was close enough to swim to, but far enough to call a commitment. I had asked my mom countless times to swim out there with me, but there was something about women never wanting to get their hair wet that a seven-year-old couldn't quite possibly comprehend.
So when my mom surprised me one day and asked if I wanted to swim to the stranded piece of wood, I immediately became suspicious. We dog-paddled out in silence and hoisted ourselves on to the dock. Up and down we bobbed, the breeze coating our wet skin with goosebumps, our feet dangling off the dock's edge like unanswered questions.
"When we get back home, sweetie, your dad's not going to live with us for a while," my mom told me, looking out at the ocean. "We need to take some time apart."
There was something about the juxtaposition of this perfect summer setting — the clear, turquoise water, salty ocean air and apparent tranquility — with what my mom was saying that made her words sting even sharper.
"Are you getting divorced?" I asked.
There was a long pause — it felt like a lifetime — and just when my mom was about to respond, I slid into the water and began swimming back to shore. I wasn't mad or taking sides. I just felt sad — sadder than I've ever felt before. As I was swimming, it dawned on me why my father hadn't come with us this time.
A year later, my parents were divorced, and that's when all of my anger came pouring out. It was a textbook split — the shouting, the cursing, the every other weekends. You know the drill. Even though I was eight years old, I all of sudden felt very grown up. I asked my mom sternly which of them had asked for the divorce and when she answered, "I did," I immediately decided to side with my father.
At the time, it was easier to stand by the man fiercely dedicated to his whiskey and heartache (forgive the country song sound of that) than the woman who had seemingly caused all of our pain. It didn't matter that I was often terrified when he drove drunk with me in the car. It didn't matter that he'd cause wild scenes in restaurants because the waitress brought me fish sticks instead of chicken fingers. It didn't even matter that he wanted to deeply punish my mom. What mattered was that I loved him, so I stood by him. In retrospect, I was probably afraid of him and his temper, but the truth was, I felt sorry for him and wanted to make him whole again.
So I left my mom utterly alone — and have felt incredibly guilty about it ever since.
Maybe it was the lingering shame, but more likely the wine that made me think it was a good idea to apologize to her for my insensitive behavior for the umpteenth time at Thanksgiving dinner a few weeks ago. This would be the moment, the ultimate cathartic climax, when we could put the past behind us, and she would, once and for all, forgive me.
But all she did was laugh.
"You could be such a cruel child, Skylar," she said while sipping her wine. "You once didn't speak to me for four days because I cut my hair!"
"Oh my God," I said. "When are you going to get over that?"
"Never," she said and laughed some more.
It was clear that I wouldn't be getting my grand moment that evening, just an embarrassing bunch of childhood stories. The next morning, my mom crawled into bed with me at six in the morning.
"I hate you so much," I said groggily.
"That's too bad, because I love you so freaking much," she said, grabbing my face and squishing my cheeks the way she did when I was a little girl.
She then handed me a cup of coffee — the real way we say "I love you" in our house — and kissed my head.
"Get dressed," she said. "We're going shopping."
And so we did.