Today is the second anniversary of my mother’s death. I’ve written extensively here and privately about my experiences in grief. I’ve written about her death two years ago being the final somatic death which followed so many other of her deaths I felt I had grieved over my recent lifetime.
Last night, when going over photos of her, the one below in particular, I wept silently while my husband slept beside me, oblivious and recuperating from a sinus infection.
This photo was taken about six years ago in my parents’ house in Canada. A place we used to joke about having in case there was another military draft. Now it feels like a good idea to hang on to in case Donald Trump becomes president.I wept for many reasons. I feel now / today / this moment and felt during that moment that I weep because I will never have that sweet older lady in my childrens’ lives any more.
She wanted so very much to be present in their lives. She was, in her way. I got in the way. I see that now. I sort of robbed them of her sprite-like ways because I was so hurt by it, her lack of an anchor, as a child. I wanted to protect them from that, but I see now, that by just being their mother, I was protecting them from that. They weren’t going to be with her 24/7, as I was, yet I couldn’t really unplug from those memories, at least not then. I was aware of it too. What I mean by that is that I was aware that I was in the way and yet I wanted to be out of the way, and yet, I wouldn’t be out of the way. I was and am so hell-bent on providing for them a healthy life that I suppose in some ways I’m stifling an unanchored life…? that doesn’t make sense. I sense now that I’m becoming my own judge, jury and executioner. Breathe.
Mom used to say, “Jesus said to ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’ or something like that…” and I’m being a little flip in my treatment of that memory, but she did often say something very similar to that, depending on the tenor of our conversation and her state of mind.
As I wept last night, my throat hardened and tightened and I knew that it was because I was and have been disallowing a truth for almost all my life: that I loved her and needed her so very much and that as much as I wanted to hate the physical incarnation of her addictions: her, I know rationally that doing so limits my exposure to her, even now in her death. So I thought and mostly felt some more (even though it was reeeeeally difficult to feel the feelings) and said to myself, “I do love you, and I always did and I guess I always will, even though I hated how things went down between us.” And my throat softened.
I always have to allow that reality, that caveat (that she was messed up too). I’m not one to paint a dead rose as one in bloom: shit was hard between us. We were each others’ teachers, of this I have no doubt. I am easily able to say now, that I am grateful for her being my mother and that she taught me the most important lesson of all: to get real with yourself, because she had such a hard time doing it herself.
I realize that Mom was an instrument of God for me and my brothers and that her mission was to teach us, in one way or another, about the dangers of addiction and alcoholism. And to live as an example, as harsh as it was (and it was harsh) so that we would be able to break a cycle. So that we would be able to live consciously and as deliberately as possible.
Mom was such that there was no patois of our dynamic, after all, she was an actor and an illustrator. As good as she was at stringing words together, Mom really seemed to fail at times in speaking and writing… it sometimes devolved into a bathos and her notes to me could cut like a backhanded compliment. “It was the booze talking…” I remember her saying one time. In vino, veritas, I would hiss back. In a way, she ended up unduly sacrificing herself for our sobriety. The tenor of our relationship was mostly mistrust, which really … sucked.
If my mom existed so that I could spare my sons an alcoholic mother and hopefully influence their own lifetimes in awareness of alcoholism and their genetic predilection, then her existence and my forgiveness of her is not for nothing. That’s the lesson I feel I’m steeped in right now. That’s where I can step into forgiveness. For me, right now, forgiveness has to be or at least look like a transaction.
I have actually begged for her to appear in my dreams. She does, sometimes.
The current book I’m reading, A Manual for Cleaning Women — Selected Stories by Lucia Berlin, is an emissary of sorts for me right now. In it, Berlin writes clearly about alcoholism, witnessing her mother’s and her grandfathers’ own travails and also her own. The shakes and delirium tremens, the self-loathing and mental anguish. Through her, I have a glimpse of my mother’s struggles and demons and I am leaning toward “forgive the drinker, hate the booze.” I suppose I could’ve used this book a few years ago. But it is what it is. Mom and I were as good as we were going to be around the time she died, we’d had several real adult and womanly conversations. Berlin has also made me a little braver in my own writing. Life is too short to have to fear what other people (through their own filters) think of anything I do.
When Mom aged, she softened, as so many of us do. Gone were the harsh and defensive edges of projected self-recrimination and doubt. At least around my kids, they were softened or completely worn away. She still had her self interest, poised above all others, but her kindnesses toward my children were absolutely sincere. In a way I was envious of them, their ability to be so at ease with each other. She had no worries about failing them and they had no fears of not living up to her expectations. It was like a little team of back-patters. I am happy that they all had those moments together.
I recall a day when she wanted to be with us, but logistics made it difficult (or maybe just I did) and so we all played Monopoly with her on the speakerphone. One of the kids would roll dice for her, the other would move her token (usually the thimble) and the other one would deal with her bank (that was usually my oldest son). She just liked being on the other line, hearing us all play together. I remember wishing she’d had an computer or iPad or something so that the boys could play online Scrabble and Pictionary with her; she would have loved it.
The day she died is different from today. Two years ago, it was Labor Day. Everyone in my family was with their own families, no one was alone to have to hear the news. I remember, clear as it happening right now, that when my father called that day, I was on my deck with my husband. I just knew. You know — how you just know? I just knew. Dad’s voice was unsure, but upbeat, like he was calling me to tell me that he’d cracked up my car but that everyone was ok… “Your mother has collapsed in the driveway. She’s in an ambulance now… the officer here wanted me to call you…”
…. ‘Officer…?’ ….
We went over to their house as soon as we could. I’ll never forget it. The angle of the sun. The heat of the day. The wait in their front hall for an update. Then the update from the officer, “Mary didn’t survive…” and I thought he had the wrong person… “Mary? Who is Mary… ” … “Your mother, I’m sorry… she didn’t survive…”
Then the drive to the hospital. And the phone calls and texts to brothers — where was my younger brother?? — and cousins and in-laws and close friends from the back seat of my own car as my husband drove and my father sat, granitic, in the front passenger seat. It was about 4:30pm at that point.
So tonight, I will have another root beer float, as I did that evening when I’d found out she’d died. She was on her way to get one that day. I got mine from the Baskin-Robbins down the street from the hospital. I remember for weeks after that, just telling people that my mother had died. I told my cleaning ladies. I told people I barely knew. I always got a hug for it. The freshness is still there, of that moment. I feel like that’s the greatest gift of being sober and in touch with your feelings: that joy and pain and all the others in between are right there, just beneath the surface teeming to leak out. We should let them every once in a while, it keeps us real. If your mom is still around, give her a hug for me. If she is not, think softly of her for yourself.