My mother passed away in December. And in Upstate New York, there are no burials once the snow starts flying until well into spring. Spring is here and the burial is now just a few weeks away.
As the time draws closer to lay my mother in her resting place, next to my father, her father, and an infant son–my older brother who was stillborn–there are a bevy of emotions that swirl through me, and accompany me throughout my day. Emotions and thoughts that I haven’t been willing, up until now, to put on paper.
I was reminded earlier this week, “If you’re not scared, you’re not writing.” I am about to write about things that scare the hell out of me–revelations and fears that are difficult to shed light upon.
First, my mother’s death brought my own death that much more into reality. I am now the oldest living family member of our immediate family. It’s not a place that I particularly like to hold. It just is, and one I’ll take over the alternative. While death is always imminent, it’s not something we like to think of or even talk about. When I was a young child, I came to the knowledge that my life would one day be over, and I sobbed for hours. My parents sat on my bed not knowing how to console me. Reasoning just didn’t work. As my father held my little sister in his arms, he said, “If we didn’t die, the planet would be filled with old people.” That just didn’t matter to me.
And even now with a deeply devoted spiritual practice where I tap into divine energy and feel the peace of what we’re promised when we cross over to the other side, I don’t particularly want to leave this planet–especially my family. I want to watch my grandchildren grow, revel in their accomplishments, watch them love deeply, and enjoy life. I want to guide them and be there by their side to share my wisdom. I want to lessen their suffering so that my experiences buffer their own mistakes and pain. It’s the wish I had for my children–only I was too young and lacked the experience to make their lives a little easier (perhaps a lot) when I was raising them.
With this final rite of passage for my mother, I am also having to face that, as a friend once said about her father, “while she may have loved me, she did not like me.” I am different from my family. I was always looking over the next mountain for the next adventure. Mom was completely comfortable with staying very close to her own backyard. And I expect that I did things she wished she could have done–like leave bad marriages and pursue my passions.
To my mother’s defense, she did not have an easy life. Her own mother was institutionalized because of an infectious disease that affected her brain and literally drove her crazy. My mother was essentially motherless as a teenager and left with the responsibility of running her father’s household, even after she married my father. My grandfather’s house is where I was raised. Shortly after losing her firstborn, mom’s sister brought home her “illegitimate” infant son. I cannot imagine the pain my mother felt hearing a baby cry at all hours of the day and night, just a few short weeks after losing her own. I’m not sure I would have risked having another child after that. But she did.
I can, however, imagine the fear my mother had with bonding with me, just a year after losing her first born. The fact that I wasn’t a boy might have added to some disappointment she carried with her as she cared for me.
Additionally, my mother attempted to have a career in nursing when I was a teenager. She shouldered the burden of running the household and going to school––and then got sick. She gave up on her dreams, settling for her role as a candy striper at the hospital and then eventually caring for an elderly woman in her home and then weekend residents in the neighborhood.
And as far as my dreams, she made sure I had money to buy books and nurture my passion for reading. She just didn’t speak up for me when my guidance counselor said I’d never be a writer, and didn’t even address my interest in the theatre when I was asked what I wanted to do when I grew up. And I always felt that maybe she had a little bit if envy when I did take action to do just that––be a writer, even with raising two children and working part time.
The mandates to “keep quiet,” and “don’t rock the boat” were always in the backdrop in our family. That’s the way she was raised and she expected me to do the same. I did for a time, and then I spoke up. I left marriages that weren’t good for me, something she later admitted that she wished she had the courage to do––to leave my father.
But still, whenever I did anything that swayed outside of her way of doing things, she made sure I knew it was’t acceptable. There was one time when I went back to New York to help her during knee surgery–surgery that was delayed during my flight to NY and required that we spend days waiting for additional pre-op tests. I kept myself busy cleaning her house, tending to the yard–only to be told I was a “nothing but a snooty bitch” because I wasn’t processing her recycling the way she did it. That unleashed a torrent of things I hadn’t said to her for years (keeping quiet) and created silence between us for months––silence that she broke.
Recently, I was told that I was not named executor because I was “not to be trusted.” Apparently, she even spoke those words to the family attorney. I was deeply hurt and offended that that was the reason. I had assumed it was because I lived 3000 miles away and that it made sense to have my sister take on the responsibility. It showed how little my mother really knew me. I am the woman who didn’t prepare adequately for her divorces by putting money aside in hidden accounts because she couldn’t be unfair to her husbands. That is a person who can’t be trusted? No, this is a woman who didn’t know how to care for herself. And that my mother modeled very well. I also know that my mother trusted very few people, particularly those close to her, so I’m endeavoring not to make this a personal issue.
Yet, even with our differences, I had a remarkable visit with her during the last five days of her life. We had more intimacy than I ever experienced with her. While my sister had the burden of care taking my mother for over a year, I was able to do some things for her that made her smile. From the time of my arrival she fretted over her hair, which hadn’t been colored in months. She said this without even having a mirror to check her appearance. So I washed and cut her hair and painted her nails. I bought a sweater and gave it to her just two days before she passed. It’s the sweater she will be buried in. On the morning that I returned to San Diego, I said good-bye to her, knowing it was the last time I would see her alive. I was grateful for those final hours with her that felt so healing.
However, healing is a process and I find as the time draws near to say the final goodbye, there is more to be done.
Knowing that she didn’t really know me or see me, I considered not even going to the services. Yet, she did the best she could. She wasn’t raised in a time where individuals strove to develop personally. Her generation didn’t question the rules or the beliefs that might limit them. They lived life as they were taught. They hid from the truth. It was just too scary. I broke those rules. I summoned up the courage to really look at my life and how to live it with as much presence as I can muster.
And so I will honor the woman who gave me life and is in integral part of my amazing family. My children and grandchildren are a part of her legacy, and to not honor my mother, would also mean I would not be honoring a part of who they are. I won’t do that.
So when her casket is lowered to the earth, I have hopes that I will experience another layer of peace with my mother. Peace over her not really seeing me for who I am. Peace for not having the love and affection of a mother who was distant because she was likely too afraid of another loss. Peace that we couldn’t have a mutually supportive relationship as women.
I find it interesting that these thoughts demanded to be written on Good Friday and were revised over the holy weekend. Perhaps with the crucifixion of any hope of my mother actually being the mother I had wished for will come the resurrection that we both can have peace with who she was in my life––and how that has allowed me to be who I am in mine.