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The Day My Parents Went Off Script

Preston Street, Ottawa, June 2019
Preston Street, Ottawa, June 2019

I shouldn’t even have seen the email, simply titled “News,” until the next morning, but I go to bed way too late and when I noticed it was from my mom, I clicked on it.

“I’m sending the same message to your brother,” she had written. “Your sister already knows, I had her on the phone. I decided your father and I should no longer live together—basically, I told him to leave. It’s easier to type it than to say it. Sorry.”

It felt like a kick in the guts. Half sleepy, I read the message over and over again until the words were imprinted on my mind but they still didn’t make sense. Then I went to bed, because what else could I do?

“I have to call my mom,” I told Feng the next morning. “I think my parents just decided to…”

I was at a loss for words. “Divorce” wasn’t the correct term—they never got married because it’s a bourgeois institution. “Split up” didn’t seem to be the right word either. You “split up” with a date, not when you’ve been together for almost forty years.

“I think my mom told my dad to leave,” I eventually said. “No idea what’s going on.”

“Well, could it be because your father…”

Yeah, it could be.

Context—you probably need some. If you ask me, my smart, kindhearted and artistic parents succeeded at a lot of things. Like, my two siblings and I hang out with them for fun and none of us use drugs more than necessary—yay, A+ for parenting! However, like many French, my parents never got ahead in life. Even though they are very educated and have always been working, they are struggling and this is not the result of bad life choices. Ten years ago, my dad decided to go back to being a full-time artist—not the safest and steadiest career path, so their financial situation got worse.

“Good luck,” Feng said, clearly not getting involved in some French drama.

I don’t blame him. I use the “good luck” line when he deals with his own Chinese drama.

I grabbed some coffee.

My mom and I are close. As far as I knew, she had gotten sick of the lifestyle, but not necessarily of my dad. Maybe it was “just” an ultimatum because she was tired of being the responsible one and really, my dad had to get his shit together.

I launched Skype.

No matter how much coffee you ingest, there’s absolutely no easy way to call maman to ask why she told papa to leave.

There’s also absolutely no way to be prepared for an answer you don’t expect.

It wasn’t “just” the lifestyle and my dad’s apparent inability to understand you need money to live on. The problem was much, much deeper than I had thought and involved an oh-so-French cliché.

I was taking a shortcut through the Experimental Farm when I called and I had to find a rock to sit on.

Have you ever had all your beliefs shattered in five minutes or less? That’s how I felt. I was completely confused—we had gone completely off script. I thought I know my parents, their respective strengths and weaknesses and I really thought they loved and respected each other.

I hang up with my mom and did the most illogical thing—I called my sister. I had never ever called my sister. We don’t have this kind of relationship. Over the years, we went from hostile to friendly but we don’t… well, talk, I suppose.

Yet, I called her and we talked. It was weird. The whole day was weird.

“Note that they don’t seem to be fighting for custody,” I joked. “With my luck, I’m going to end up with dad who can’t cook.”

“Shall we call him? And by that, I mean can you call him?”

I sighed. Being the oldest sibling sucks sometimes but I wanted to hear the other side of the story. My parent’s relationship isn’t technically my business but I needed to know if one of them had been an asshole.

Third phone calls of the morning. My father picked up right away.

“M. X? We need to talk.”

“What do you know?”

He sounded like a child about to be chastised. He sounded like he was scared of me.

“Everything. More than I wanted to know, frankly. And before you ask, I’m calling on behalf of your other two kids. We played paper-rock-scissor. Clearly, I lost.”

Let me put it this way—I read a lot, fiction, non-fiction, magazines but absolutely none of the life-related material I have been ingesting since the age of four (early reader) had prepared me to ask my father if he had slept with another woman.

Tip—this question is best asked bluntly.

Also, can we go back 24 hours to when I thought my parents’ relationship was rock solid and when I was the child?

“Troubleshooting” with my dad took a couple of hours. I hang up fairly convinced that he had indeed screwed up but not screwed around which is a major difference in my book and in the relationship I have with him.

I called my sister back to report on the latest findings, the second phone conversation in years but the first of many—at this point, I just bought more Skype credit.

This was last November. Another sad, unrelated family event happened shortly after, causing more emotional turmoil. For a while, my heart sank every time I was getting an email from my parents or siblings—surely, it wouldn’t be good news.

My dad refused to tell us where he was and what his plans were for a few months, which was both worrying and suspicious but, in the end, everything made sense and nothing was suspicious. I was hoping he would sort things out with my mom but as far as I know, they haven’t been in touch.

Both of my parents seem okay. My dad moved to a different part of France, my mom’s life hasn’t changed much although she sounds happy. They never mention each other.

So why am I crying right now?

Because their separation affects me more than I thought it would—and my parents splitting up was never on my long list of worries in the first place.

It feels completely unreal.

You’d think it’s easier to deal with such a mundane life event when you’re an adult and not a helpless child. It probably is, but as an adult, you also understand things—or try to—at a deeper level. I keep on wondering what I missed and how it went so horribly wrong. In a way, their relationship was a model to me and it makes me question my own relationship with Feng. Am I going to wake up one day and realize I’m living a life I don’t want and I made too many sacrifices?

Most of all, I find it terrifying that you can apparently spend forty years with someone and then one day leave and start a new life without this person. Really? Is it this easy?

There’s a practical aspect to it too—it was comforting to know my parents had each other, it’s deeply upsetting that they are apparently better off without each other.

I may have reacted differently if I had seen it coming, if one of them was abusive or if I had grown up in a hostile environment. In this case, the separation may have seemed like a ceasefire. But I didn’t hear the gunfire in the first place.

It’s been six months. I’m not angry with either of my parents, I’m just sad. It wasn’t supposed to end like this… was it?

Damn, it hurts.

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