With Mother’s Day looming around the corner, I’m thinking often of my own mom whom I lost last October.
During a layover in San Francisco recently, I was overcome by a shockwave of sadness ― little girl, drippy nose, twisted mouth sadness ― while perusing the Mother’s Day greeting card section of an airport gift shop.
I cried because I miss my mom. I want to hear her voice and her laugh. I want to touch her small, dry, papery hands. I want to call her and tell her a funny thing one of my kids did and ask her if she’s watching “The Voice” and who her favorite contestants are. I want to ask her if she still loves Bill O’Reilly after all that’s been revealed about him in the last two weeks. But I cried for deeper, more tragic reasons, too.
As children, we interpret what we receive from our parents as love unquestionably. As we grow up, we begin to see that our parents are, in fact, human and flawed. We realize that the way we saw our parents when we were children was, if not an illusion, an image distorted by our need to survive and our lack of a basis for comparison. The pain that ensues is more acute for some than others, but it’s a loss regardless of the acuity.
My mom and I were not close. Over the years, like a lot of women my age and from my generation (the so-called latchkey generation), I’ve sought assistance from trained therapists to help me come to terms with the discrepancies between the relationship I wanted with my mom, the one I actually had with her, and ― most painfully ― the relationship I eventually had to admit we might never have. By the time my mom finally passed away at the end of 2016, I had already mourned a thousand small deaths along the way.
I don’t mean to give the impression that my mom and I never experienced closeness; we did. We shared many lovely, loving moments and I cherish those memories. But my most consistent work in therapy has been to recognize ― and ultimately try to accept and forgive ― that her diminished capacity for loving me was a result of her own pain and brokenness. She was limited, but she loved me. She may have been incapable of loving me the way I wanted and needed to be loved, but that didn’t mean she didn’t love me. Hers may have been a version of love disguised by and hidden behind her own pain and flaws, I told myself, but what she offered me was still love.
Except sometimes it wasn’t.
The icky, sticky, black tar truth is that my mom was cruel and abusive almost as often as she wasn’t. Her limitations were such that, at times, she seemed to be completely cut off from any influx of compassion and kindness. She had a wellspring of hate inside her ― self-hatred, bitterness ― that would erupt in a downpour without warning upon those closest to her; my dad, my brother, and me. Having a relationship with my mom was like sharing a bed with a poisonous scorpion; danger was near and imminent at all times.
The icky, sticky, black tar truth is that my mom was cruel and abusive almost as often as she wasn’t. Her limitations were such that, at times, she seemed to be completely cut off from any influx of compassion and kindness. She had a wellspring of hate inside her ― self-hatred, bitterness ― that would erupt in a downpour upon those closest to her; my dad, my brother, and me. Having a relationship with my mom was like sharing a bed with a poisonous scorpion; danger was near and imminent at all times.face-to-face with my mom. For the next 45 to 90 minutes (it felt like several hours), I sat and said nothing while my mom upbraided and attacked me with her words, spewing hateful insults my way. I was a horrible daughter, a despicable person, a failure as a parent. I was doomed, she spit, to ruin my beautiful children and suffer the punishment I deserved.
“Having a relationship with my mom was like sharing a bed with a poisonous scorpion; danger was near and imminent at all times.”
For years I came away from painful interactions like this one looking for that little seedling of love buried beneath her cruelty, trying to cull together a measure of compassion and understanding, however small, in order to protect myself from the depressing truth that sometimes she simply didn’t love me. But on this particular occasion, I realized ― finally and unequivocally ― that this was not love. Not only was she malevolently wishing misfortune upon my life, she was wishing it upon my children’s lives, too. The perverseness of it flipped a switch inside me. This woman who was supposed to nurture and protect me was, in fact, dangerous.
Outwardly, not much changed between us. I saw her, called her, arranged visits between us and my kids. But the self-preserving veil I’d been wearing had been lifted off my eyes for good. I couldn’t un-see what I’d seen. The matchstick flame of hope, the one I had guarded for years, that I might one day have the kind of relationship with my mom that the little girl inside me still wanted had been snuffed out.
I’m unqualified to diagnose my mom as mentally ill, conclusively. As far as I know, the only medical diagnoses she ever received were for anxiety and depression, and some (like my dad) would argue that anyone with her particular brand of health issues was bound to develop anxiety and depression. I don’t disagree. But the medical professionals I’ve consulted have suggested she may have had Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, or both. I will never know for sure, but I am fairly certain that for the last ten or more years of her life, my mom was fighting and losing a war against an increasingly powerful, fetid, undiagnosed mental illness.
There were occasional loving moments between us after that particular day (mercifully and predictably. This was a pattern of anger, abuse, and denial that had gone on for twenty years. It wasn’t going to suddenly disappear.) As a grandmother, she displayed great tenderness, compassion, generosity, and kindness. My children experienced her as a sweet, fragile old woman that loved them and I’m grateful for that. This and the knowledge that there were forces at work within her she couldn’t control aid me in the process of understanding and forgiving my mom. But the sad and tragic truth is that my mom’s death means I’m no longer in danger. I’m finally safe.
Despite all this, I still miss her. For most of my life, I have mourned the loss of the woman and mother I wanted my mom to be. Now, I mourn for the loss of who she truly was, too.
When it comes to my mom, the ratio of good to bad was grossly out of balance. But good has a funny way of bleeding itself into dark, shadowy corners, healing everything it touches as it creeps. It may be nihilistic, but sometimes I think I’d be willing to endure more buckets of bad just get one new droplet of good; a savory memory of her sweetness.
I have a theory that we are born with a keyhole inside of us the exact size and shape of our mother’s love. I’ve been loved and cared for like a daughter by many wonderful women throughout my life and the positive impact they’ve had on me is immeasurable. But none of their keys are the exact shape and size of my mother’s; none of them are able to turn the lock.
“Sometimes I think I’d be willing to endure more buckets of bad just get one new droplet of good; a savory memory of her sweetness.”
I cried in the airport gift shop for all these reasons and because the tiny coal of hope I once held for my mom and me ― the one I thought I had snuffed out years ago ― still burns. The futility of this should be pathetic to me, but I cherish it. I cherish it because life and the afterlife are big and unfathomable and mysterious and so who knows? Maybe our story isn’t over. And I cherish it because it reminds me that, however banged up I may be, my humanity is still in tact. I have not emerged undamaged, but I have emerged and there is hope in that.
I don’t want to stain my mom’s memory. I don’t share all this to enact revenge upon her.
I say it because this Mother’s Day all of us are bound to hear or read an entreaty to “hug your mom” or “be grateful your mom is still with you” from someone who has lost their mother and that may not be the entreaty you need.
I say it because I’m a little ashamed by this part of my personal history, but I believe the truth sets us free and I’m trying to heal.
I say it because mental illness is still stigmatized and as long as that’s the case, people aren’t getting the help they need.
But mostly, I say it because I am not a perfect, blameless victim and sometimes I think all of this is my fault, even though my logical mind (and the mother in me) knows it isn’t. Verbal abuse is incredibly subjective, which makes it uniquely prone to being internalized by the recipient. I believe this is what happened to my mom and that it made her physically and mentally ill. I don’t want to repeat the cycle of illness and abuse.
Call it clairvoyance or call it wishful thinking, but I think my mom ― wherever she is and in whatever state of matter she’s in ― is sorry. I sense her ushering me towards the health, wholeness, and forgiveness that eluded her. In this way, my healing honors her and her memory.