Heart of gold and the soul of a saint; imprisoned in a sinner’s body, led by a faulty mind. This was my mother’s war. Day in and day out she fought a losing battle against the demons degenerating her mind, leading her to survive by any means necessary. Her desperate attempts at finding normalcy and mending fences with those she had wronged along the way would succumb to the need to feed her addiction. To the unempathetic she was a leech, sucking the blood from anyone who dared show her kindness; a sentiment we often echo as a society when viewing those in destitute. An attitude I quickly adopted as a teen toward my mother when I could no longer excuse her inability to help herself. Truth of the matter is she was sick, unable to fulfill her most basic needs. Her life was a reflection of destructive decisions and a type of solitude only felt by the unforgiven and forgotten.
My childhood prayers were dominated by a common request of asking God to get my mother help, moreover to ensure she got home each night safely. See by the time I turned 13 I had been there for my mother’s schizophrenic episodes, I had spent a summer visiting her in the mental ward, I had seen her choked, beaten and thrown through walls. I was also there while she attempted to cope. I tried talking to her when her speech was slurred beyond comprehension from abusing pain pills. I was in the car when she traded an old VCR for crack. I signed my sister’s excuse blanks when my mother was too far gone to drag herself out of bed. And through it all I prayed, I begged she’d see the light and better herself for our sake. I didn’t care that we lived in a roach filled apartment, or that by her early 30’s she had taken on the appearance of someone who lost all will to live. I still saw the good in my mother. I wanted the best for her and though I begrudged her on a daily basis for her decisions, I knew deep down there was a genuinely good person. I know because no matter how strung out she had become she always wanted for our happiness. There was little she could control, but she understood school and friends meant the world to me, so despite multiple moves, we never left Leechburg. Barely able to care for herself she still pulled it together to make sure our clothes were clean. And the rare occasions (the 1st of the month) there was fresh food to cook we were sure to be served a home-cooked meal. Most importantly she had enough presence of mind to build a strong relationship between us and our grandparents. At the time, I felt my prayers fell upon deaf ears, but reflecting back I realize my Grandparents were the godsend I had requested.
I began dealing with the loss of my mother 20 years ago when I was awoken late one school night by my Pap explaining that I needed to gather my things and go with him to the jailhouse. She had been picked up attempting to solicit drugs to an undercover officer. From that day until college, I turned my back on my mother. Her life spiraled. I mourned. I suppressed any sadness or sympathy I could muster and turned a cold shoulder to her apologies and requests to spend time together. I spent so much of my childhood hiding what she had become, I rationalized away the guilt I felt. She was dead to me.
Thing is I still remembered who she was deep down. The version of her who loved me and my sis unconditionally. The woman who spent the better part of my life encouraging me to conquer the world. Eventually, the anger and disdain subsided. I began to understand her mental illnesses and realized real world problems, particularly addiction, don’t get solved through turning a blind eye or casting someone aside in hopes they can muster the strength to fix themselves. Most can’t. Still, for the past two decades the most I could feel was sympathy for my mother. I remained guarded, feeling that if I became empathetic, if I extended too much of a helping hand she would prey upon my generosity. I would go so far as to pick up the tab when she’d bottom out and I’d answer her calls in moments of clarity where I realized not every call was a plea for cash, but more so a subtle cry for help. The mix of excitement and hurt in her voice each time I answered the phone made me often question if I was right to distance myself. Unfortunately, I was so concerned with protecting myself from her lifestyle that I never stepped in and offered her a way out. She was too far gone in my eyes, perhaps I was just too far removed.
Friday evening I couldn’t sleep. I was physically and mentally exhausted from the long hours of play during the World Series of Poker, yet I couldn’t quiet my thoughts. My mother was on my mind in a way that I hadn’t felt since I was a kid. I questioned why it was so easy for me to treat her like a burden, and why I hadn’t made more of an effort to extend a helping hand in a meaningful way, not just financially. Having come from nothing, I have no tolerance for the apathetic crowd turning a blind eye to the poor souls who have been beaten to their knees by life. Yet, there I laid. It was that internal struggle that finally allowed me to acknowledge I had forgiven her. That through it all I was a better man for having been raised by a woman who did everything wrong but truly ached to make it all right. I closed my eyes with a promise to myself that the next time she called I would answer…
I found out the next day my Mom had passed away late Friday night, peacefully in her sleep.
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