Before You Die
How well do we know our mothers? As children, we focus on our own survival and development. Our mothers support this behavior, desiring us to be happy, safe, and loved. Our mother’s life before us is mysterious except as it pertains to our own personal development. Our mother’s life after we grow up and leave home is a sidebar to our more interesting-to-us life, at least until her life makes the shift to requiring us to take care of her, to take notice of her. Or until we realize that every essence of our being is infused with every essence of her being. Learning about her, we learn about us.
When I was told that my mother had been brutally stabbed by her second husband before he killed himself, I was a young girl. Too young to fathom this fact. And so I did not. Occasionally I would tell the sensational story to garner a reaction from a new friend. It was a scintillating factoid that I thought made me interesting. For the most part, I did not think my family was very interesting. We did not fight. There were only three of us. We diligently pursued our activities and goals, with little demonstrative emotion. This isolated nugget of sensation – that we never talked about – seemed so unbelievable and out of character that eventually I questioned its truth. Did this really happen to my mother or am I making it up? What did she do with the fear and emotion? How has this event shaped her life, my life?
As my mother turns 91 this year, living…surviving another year, I am reflecting on her life and the end of her life. I feel urgency to know what I can of her before her mind fades, before she dies. How much more time do I have with her? For her 90th birthday a year ago, I made the pilgrimage home to visit with her. I set up the visit to have time with her, to ask her the questions I have never asked. So much is unspoken.
- Are you happy?
- You are so successful, why did you end up with men who were self-centered and abusive?
- How did you fall in love with Dad?
- Is there anything you want to say to me?
- What do you hope to be remembered for?
- Would you do anything differently?
- What advice to you have for your granddaughter?
- What does it feel like to be at the end of your life?
- Are you ready to die, afraid to die?
- Do you believe in God?
I mustered up my courage to ask the questions and vowed to keep probing instead of sinking into docile silence with the first answer I got.
My mother was born in 1922. Her father, a physicist, dropped dead suddenly of an aneurism when she was just 7. She told me how every morning she went to her father’s room to say good-morning. Clearly there was a special bond between him and her. On the morning after he died, she was not allowed into his room. She never saw him again and grieving was not tolerated. What a devastating loss for her! Her mother was a no-nonsense, undemonstrative woman who then had to hold the family together in the Depression. She took on boarders, taught school, and did not have a lot of time for my mom. My mother was painfully shy, sad and lonely, and was homeschooled because school was socially challenging. Although she was drawn to art and more introspective and creative activities, she was encouraged to pursue science and academia. She was good at school so she just kept going to school. Kept going until she received her Ph.D. in 1950 – an unusual accomplishment for a woman in 1950. But it was a more passive accomplishment than I realized. She didn’t know what else to do with herself, so she kept going to school. Her first husband was a fellow graduate student. I am not sure what broke apart that marriage other than youth. Her second husband had a history of drug addiction and mental illness. My mother was discouraged from marrying him, but she went forward with it anyway. My father once said to me, as I was embarking on my own marriage, as if to explain the mystery of attraction to himself, “You can’t help who you fall in love with.” What a destructive act of self-sabotage on her part. It did not end well. I don’t know much more than that. There is still a shroud of “don’t talk about that” in our house. It took several years of therapy for her to recover from the violent attack, from the violent betrayal. She moved to Washington and met my father. He thought she was beautiful. She loved being loved. They married in 1961 and I was born in 1962. She was desperate for a baby, for the family she did not have. The story of my birth is told by my parents as if it was a miracle. I was delivered by emergency C-section (her life-giving scar always fascinated me). We both almost died. Post miracle, she was felled by post-partum depression, rejecting the baby she so desperately wanted.
How did she recover from this post-partum depression? What impact did her rejection of me have on me? How did her trauma carry over to me? My main sense of her as a mother is that she was very devoted to me. She adjusted her work schedule to be home for me. She spent a lot of time with me: reading together; teaching me how to cook, sew, do algebra; going to the ballet together. She thought I was wonderful and gave me a lot of freedom to explore my interests. Indeed, I could do no wrong. I remember very few instances when she got angry with me or set limits for me. But there were significant ways in which she was absent. She was not physically demonstrative. Very little hugging happened in my childhood. The only times I remember my mother touching me were when I was ill. I managed to be ill a lot. All sorts of maladies kept my mother hovering over me, from hypoglycemia to migraines. These illnesses kept me home, were an excuse for me to avoid. Avoid parties that made me shy, avoid deadlines that seemed insurmountable to my perfectionism, avoid living in all its messy imperfection. When I was sick, I was allowed to move into her bed where she would lie next to me, reading out loud or watching bad tv sitcoms and game shows endlessly. In her desire to love and nurture, she neglected (or was unable) to model what a powerful and effective woman was. Bereft of her father, abused and abandoned by her second husband, she did not know how to stand up to my father when he was boring, compulsive, remote, abusively inflexible and insistent to her, to me. She and I stuck together, forming a strong mother-daughter bond built on a love of all things female (Jane Austen, Mary Tyler Moore, tea sandwiches at The Birdcage) and a suspicion of all things male (money, sports, confrontation). But her desire to give me freedom meant that she was absent as a parent in many key ways. She was unable to help me negotiate an effective father-daughter bond where I could articulate who I was, what I thought, and say no in a constructive way. My inability to establish a sense of self with boundaries meant a string of intimate relationships where I lost my sense of self and had to end them, and hide at home, in order to regain my sense of self.
The summer after high school graduation before I went to college, my mother assured me that she was prepared for my departure. Her composure at such a life-changing transition was so strange to me and not what I wanted to hear. I wanted to hear that she loved me and would miss me. Some kind of honest and emotional dialogue. It was not to be. When my parents dropped me off at school, my mother broke down sobbing uncontrollably. I had never seen her cry before. I had never seen her cry before! How strange is that? My beautiful, successful, brilliant scientist mom broke down. It was my fault. I never really recovered and spent college dealing with my inability to separate successfully and feel confident in my self.
After college, I never went home again. The only way I could separate and create a sense of an independent self was to leave.
Simultaneously, my mother had a recurring benign growth in her throat. This growth prevented her from breathing. The surgery required to remove the blockage from her airway, damaged her vocal chords, preventing her from speaking. As I was finding my voice, my self, she was losing hers. How I wish I had an audio recording of my mother’s voice before the surgeries! Ever so gradually, over the next 30 years, my father and I spoke for my mother, over my mother, depriving her of chances to speak her truth. As she stopped speaking, she stopped remembering. Speaking one’s truth, speaking one’s stories grounds us, establishing who we are.
Now, in her 90’s, faded and fading, she sits and reads or watches tv. My father meticulously cares for her physical being, desperate that she not die and leave him alone. But her self is locked inside the shell of her body, less and less able to express itself.
On the rare occasions when I visit her, because I am busy busy busy with my more interesting-to-me life, she lights up with complete joy at seeing me. Even though she can no longer walk easily, she travels back in time to her role as an active mom – forgetting her walker in her eager enthusiasm to cook for me or care for me in some way.
In answer to my timid questioning, she whispers her regret about her life and her advice to my daughter, her granddaughter. They are the same: “Be more sociable.” She whispers that God is unknowable, “too mysterious,” and last but not least, “I am so lucky to have you.”
I love you Mom. Happy Mother’s Day.