The balancing act of being in the middle.

Should have Could have listened more.

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I just watched a little-known movie called “Hope Gap” starring Annette Bening as Grace and Bill Nighy as Edward, a long-time conventional married couple.  It drew me in from the start, with the backdrop of the white cliffs surrounding the quaint albeit melancholic seaside town of Seaford, England, the storyline centers around a devoted, though guilelessly happy wife who discovers rather abruptly just before their upcoming 29th wedding anniversary no less that her husband is in love with someone else and wants out.  From here the movie brings in the couple’s twenty-something son Jamie played sensitively by Josh O’Connor who does not live with them but commutes occasionally for visits from London.  The son is dealing with issues of his own, communicating his feelings is not one of his best traits, however, his ability to grow and show maturity and genuine empathy towards each parent in light of being reticently caught in the middle is what most resonated with me. 

This balancing act of providing each parent their respective say and not immediately taking sides is something I did not demonstrate very well when I was put in a similar situation. My gut reaction whenever my parents had an altercation was to immediately take my mother’s side, I grew up amidst a family where shall we say they argued passionately.  I hated these occasions, my whole body would shake, and I vowed I would never ever get married!  But I was young and naive and I couldn’t yet understand the complexities of a relationship nor the common stresses that could suffocate any good marriage.  I just knew I disliked drama and arguments and anything that left my mom bereft of feeling happy.  Also, like Hope Gap so effortlessly portrays in its theme of letting go and endings, despite my parent’s squabbles I could never imagine there would come a day when their absence in my life would be so blisteringly painful and their silence so deafening. They have both passed away, for my dad, it will be 20 years at the end of November and for my mom, this past September marked ten years.

Despite looking back at how conflicted I felt having to pick sides when my parents fought, I have such regrets that I never allowed myself to listen wholeheartedly to both sides of the story.  Even as an adult, I recoiled when finding out that my parents had a “quarrel “and neither one was speaking to the other, I never wanted to insert myself in the middle and really listen to either sides story, I immediately just wanted to comfort my mother.  My father was more of the communicator on paper, he could philosophize and eloquently express his opinions with such a flair for facts and conviction, but he was not perhaps the most articulate emotionally or vocally.  

In Hope Gap the son was able to meet with each parent separately and see them as individuals, two distinct people, and not just his vexing parents.  This was something I never entertained or executed. I at least owed my father the appearance of hearing his side, even if I knew my mother was usually right. I hated feeling in the middle of their disputes, but more than that I couldn’t stand to see my mother hurt or sad.  But despite what I witnessed growing up; I did get married. Next year I will also be married for 29 years! 

I strive every day to be a better listener and communicator in my own relationship. I wish I had had the wisdom and opportunity to be a better listener to my parents because sometimes all someone really needs is to just feel acknowledged and heard. I have carried with me the guilt and shame that I could not accommodate each parent sufficiently, especially as they grew older and I pursued my own life. You always look back and wonder how much more you could have done, the longer visits you could have provided, the sensitive patience, and the genuine listening you could have provide. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of my parents in some form or fashion, as a child, I wanted to believe in fairy tales and happily ever after’s, I wanted to remain their child and just feel protected and loved forever. They did give me that and so much more! 

me and dad circa 1964.

Hope Gap ends with me sniffling and grabbing a box of Kleenex as Jamie their son narrates his final thoughts and gives praise to each parent – “forgive me for needing you to be strong forever.  Forgive me for feeling your happiness, unhappiness, as you suffer so, shall I…I shall suffer as you endure, so I shall endure.  Hold my hand and walk the old walk one last time then let me go.” 

It has taken me a very long time to learn that no one can be responsible for my happiness and that ultimately, I must forge my own path, find my voice, and if you are lucky like me, you will be blessed to have someone willing to stick by your side and take that walk with you! 

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