I’ve been asked by more than one reader about my mother. Apparently she’s missing from my blogs lately and people are curious about my very complicated and volatile relationship with her. It’s like reading a book and there’s a protagonist and you’re just so curious about what really happened to them. I’m not sure if in my case if it’s more Patricia Cornwell or Stephen King. The truth is, I haven’t spoken to my mother since October. Now, before you judge me…..
The last time I saw my mother was at my aunt’s deathbed. I held my aunt’s hand and watched as she succumbed to the cancer that had been periodically visiting her body for the last fifteen years. She was ravaged by pain and regret and although we had a falling out, attributable mostly to my mother and my desire that my aunt stop enabling her prescription pill habit, we were able to communicate both our love and our sorrow before she passed. I comforted my mother in her sorrow and ignored her painful outbursts aimed at my aunt’s husband and myself. It was time to put aside petty things.
I thought the pain and the sorrow of losing her sister would be enough to make my mother realize what she was inflicting on her children and her grandchildren. She was not speaking to my sister. My sister had been angry and said angry words, and according to my parents they were unforgivable. They decided to never speak to my sister again, and in doing that had not spoken to their grandchildren either. I played mediator for a period of time, and had clung to a small vestige of hope that all of it could be resolved. I talked my sister into visiting the hospital with me while my aunt was still cognizant enough to know she was there. I watched from the doorway as my mother snarled at my sister and rolled her eyes and the disgust was palpable. My sister’s egregious act was by telling my mother and my father she was angry, she was hurt and they had caused it. For this, my mother could barely even look at her as she sat crying at my aunt’s bed side.
I was certain death would be the catalyst to bring us all together. After all, hadn’t my sister and I forgiven my parents so many things? There were instances of neglect that were so painful, and yet we saw past them. We had overlooked my mother’s drug addiction for years and had forgiven my father for enabling it. Surely, words spoken would not be the straw that broke my family’s back. Yet, even in the tragedy of death, they could not see beyond their own selfishness. First one, then two holidays past and they refused to see my sister or their grandchildren. I pleaded and ranted at my father, and still he held steadfast.
So, how is my mother? To be honest, I have no idea. I haven’t spoken to her in three months and neither will I. It seems cold dead hearted to abandon my parent when she needs me the most, but I’ve extricated myself from the guilt I’ve carried all these years. I cannot have a relationship with her while she’s on drugs, be them prescription or not. It has been her decision to not speak to my sister and her grandchildren. Now, she’s locked up in her house, sleeping in a recliner when she’s not watching Law and Order and I can’t imagine a more miserable existence. I once believed loving her could make a difference, but it hasn’t nor will it ever.
I’d like to say at least I have my father, but I’m no longer speaking to him either. His choice has always been to allow my mother to erode our family. He has chosen not to see his grandchildren. He has chosen to disown my sister. There was a time when I understood his pain, but those are bygone days. The history speaks for itself and my parents have to live with the choices and decisions they made. It sounds harsh and simplistic, but it’s anything but. I’m a parent and I love my child more than my own life. I cannot imagine she could say something so egregious I would cut her out of my life. I cannot imagine saying to her that her pain and the words she may say in it, are unforgivable.
I’ve thought a lot about this. After all, I was grateful I had sat at my aunt’s bed side and said goodbye to her. I was grateful I heard her apology and I was able to give mine. It’s beyond sad to waste moments that could be spent loving and understanding each other. But I hug my sister, this woman who was once this baby I loomed over in her crib. I had loved her wholeheartedly. She was a prelude to the daughter I would one day call my own. She is a beautiful soul, yet in so much pain directly caused by my parents. They did not keep us safe and did not protect us. She wears the open wounds of someone who longed for comfort and never received it.
It is a miracle neither of us are drug addicts or in prison. Instead, we turned to each other and found the comfort in our family of two. Our family expanded with our children and we swore we would do things differently, and we have. Our children have never felt alone in the world. We had each other. I remember laying in bed at night, whispering to each other in the room we shared, trying to cheer her up with funny stories. She deserved better. I deserved better.
So since my father insisted I had to choose a side, I did. I thought of my sister crying in a hallway with my mother smacking her and my father standing feebly by. I had pulled my mother off her and demanded my mother to leave. She didn’t and my father didn’t make her. But in that moment, we became all that each other ever had. So if my parents can’t forgive my sister for the words she said, then they have chosen to be alone. We are surprisingly happy and well adjusted. Not having to watch my mother slur her words and lash out while high on drugs is a relief. Not having to wonder why my father didn’t and doesn’t do more to prevent it is no longer an issue. We have each other. Maybe that’s what got us through it all.
Tomorrow my daughter is one step closer to fleeing the nest. It’s a monumental birthday and I’ve had moments of pride, delight and depression. I cannot remember a life before her, and it’s near impossible to picture a life without her in it day by day. She will move on and forge her own path in this life and I will be standing on the sidelines, cheering and offering support and guidance when asked. Only when asked.
I had this life once I was not happy with. I had this life that racked my soul and made me less than. She was a witness to this and it weighs heavily on my mind these days. Did she see enough to want to live her life differently or did she see too much to know better? Children are subjected to the life we inflict on them. I think of the paper cuts of childhood that still sting in my life. Will she be sitting, typing on a blog, and think of those things she has seen?
I had this life once where I was living with someone very unlikable. He was not always that way. In the beginning he had dazzled me with his charm and the ruse of very human like behavior. It was not long after it began that I saw the cracks in the foundation, the fissures in the carefully crafted illusion. The reasons I stayed, in hindsight, were not valid reasons. I thought I was saving her from something untenable, but instead the pain was inflicted anyway.
The day I told him we were over, he threw that pain into my face like a punch. How can you do this to her? He had demanded. You’ve ruined her life, he ranted. I had stood there, taking shots, knowing every single word had a kernel of truth. He hated me enough when I ended us that he punished her for it. Those years of his declaration of fatherhood dissipated in hatred of me.
I’ve been careful over the years since the break up to maintain some sort of dignity for him for my daughter. It’s not always been easy as I’ve had a cadre of lawyers attempt to protect me from him. I’ve never wavered in my belief that the best thing, the only thing I could have done, was to claim our independence. It’s been painful, not because I miss anything about the us that was, but because leaving him, leaving the state, did not end his presence in my life. I had hoped to maintain their relationship, but he chose otherwise.
Then came the news, he had fled the country. It has become something out of a Lifetime movie. He’s all over the internet. My daughter has questioned time and time again why he hasn’t called, and here’s the answer. I agonized over whether to tell her just before her birthday. I wanted her to have a day free from the drama he has caused. But then I reminded myself she has been unrelenting trying to find him. Trying to find the father he was.
I told her and she looked at me, with tears in her eyes.
“I’m sorry he’s put you through this” she said to me, and I saw what a wonderful mature young woman she has become.
I told her how sorry I was too. She told me she just wants me to have someone who is kind and loves me. I told her I wanted the same for her. And then she looked me in the eyes and said, “I’d never settle for less than that.”
I knew she meant it and I wish I had figured it out sooner. Then I remind myself, it’s all a journey to this one moment, this place you’re supposed to be. We endure the pain and hardships so when we get where we are going we can make the decisions clearly. It’s taken me a long time, but that’s been part of the journey.
My heart opened and I’ve learned to love. I’ve learned that pain is part of the process. I’ve learned the most important thing in my world besides my daughter is being true to myself. I’ve learned that even the simplest gesture of affection can be fulfilling. I’ve learned to cling to happiness and to not let the sadness overcome me. I’ve learned the best part of me is the one I’ve hidden away.
My daughter has seen the transformation in me. Maybe it isn’t too late.
Cancer has always been on the periphery of my family. My great grandmother died from it, my grandmother Tumor died from, yes, you guessed it, a tumor. My aunt had colon cancer at thirty five. It’s always been there lurking.
Now it has invaded my immediate family. My father recovered from surgery, the tumor was small and supposedly all gone. It has not invaded the surrounding tissue or lymph nodes. He’s home from the hospital and resuming life, albeit with the knowledge he had cancer. It was there and now it’s gone. Gone. Stay gone.
I would be remiss as a human being for not wondering when it’s my turn. When does the Russian roulette of junky genes call my number? My new attitude has been “if it’s not happening right now, it’s not happening.” A mantra I’m repeating over and over as I lay in the dark blocking out whatever negative thoughts might try to creep in my conscience. It’s not happening to me right now, so it’s time to concentrate on my father, on my daughter, on this life I’m navigating.
I keep telling myself I’m different from my family. I have never smoked, and they all were heavy smokers for at least 20 years or longer. I’m a vegetarian. I attempt exercise. I meditate. I try to wash whatever bitterness I have on my skin off in the shower. But it’s still a roulette wheel isn’t it. If it’s my turn, then it is.
I’m not going to change the life I’m trying to carve out because of fear. Fear has never been a friend of mine. It’s led to rash decisions that have reverberated through my life. I won’t allow fear to dictate my future. Or cancer.
I am the captain of my own destiny. Or something profound like that.
Tomorrow is my dad’s surgery. We’ll find out whether or not his cancer has spread and whether he needs chemotherapy. As usual, I am blindly optimistic and steeled to deal with any bad news. It’s almost silly I will be sitting in a room for hours with my mother whom I am still not speaking to. It’s not enough to bring us together. Only one thing will and she knows it. But I’ll be there for my dad before he goes under and after. I’ll thank him for being the person who gave me the ability to sail through life relatively unscathed because I will undoubtedly find humor in everything.
Cancer is unfortunately a fact of life now, but it doesn’t have to be our entire lives. It’s just a small stitch in a quilt of so many good things.
Just as I began my search in earnest for my love of all things food, my father is diagnosed with colon cancer. It was a devastating blow to all of us. There is the worry and concern for my father, and then the worry and resentment my mother is in no way able to take care of him. There was one day of complete worry about the future for him or if there would be one. Then he saw his surgeon and hope sprang eternal when he was informed he would have a less invasive surgery and basically resume a normal life.
My sister and I sat at the table with our parents, and we both pleaded the case for healthier eating. My father is the type to eat a dinner, a second helping then a bologna sandwich an hour later. Their cupboards are stocked with chips, sweet treats and enough carbs to fuel the Boston Marathon. Their freezer is overflowing with frozen food and ice cream. My sister and I insisted he needed to change his diet not only for this latest health set back, but also because of his twenty year battle with heart disease.
The first thing my mother did is angrily insist his diet does not need to change. Our relationship now is cold and distant, there is resentment and anger simmering between us like a volatile moltov cocktail waiting to explode at any moment. There have been several times I’ve pleaded with my mother to not bring boxes of Ho Ho’s and Twinkies into the house. She insists my father should have more willpower and be able to not eat the things he shouldn’t.
When I first returned to Kentucky, I began cooking healthy foods for my father. We attempted a strict heart healthy diet in hopes of helping him lose pounds quickly after yet another heart stint was necessary. My mother doubled her efforts to bring home his favorite fatty foods and by the time I moved out, the diet was long forgotten and he had returned to enjoying fried foods with mom again. My mother also refuses to smoke outside despite begin informed by a Cardiologist she should for my father’s health.
So, I thought about food again but this time as a way to nourish and heal the body. I’m making double steel cut oatmeal this morning and I wish I could convince my father how it’s not only healthy, but delicious. I believe the biggest obstacle to my father changing his eating habits, is indeed my mother. She likes the attention on her and her illnesses. Yesterday, when we sat at the table, she began crying and everyone there completely ignored her. Within seconds, her tears were dried and she stomped off to another room. My father’s health has now become the focus of our attention and she does not like it.
I’m now not thinking about my love of food, but what it does for my body. When I eat healthy, I feel healthy. With the gene pool I’ve been cursed with, it’s more important than ever that I am mindful of what I do put in my body. It’s not enough I’ve given up meat and maintain a vegetarian lifestyle. I’ve given up coffee and have replaced my tea with decaf. I’m insisting my daughter make healthier choices. Who knows maybe by example I can convince my father to replace his ice cream with Greek yogurt.
Since moving back to hometown, my life has been a whirlwind of chaotic. My mother is still addicted to prescription pills and my aunt has now received a death sentence since discovering her cancer has spread. My father is becoming brain addled and depressed. My daughter is angry her father has disappeared from her life. My immediate future feels thrown to the fates.
I’ve been told by a professional I am amazingly well adjusted to the stress in my life. Maybe it’s just my mind’s eye looking back at what was before. The chaos of a past relationship that left my soul bruised and battered. Left me less than what I was. Recovering from the day in and day out pandemonium of that time was a slow and arduous process that led me here. I’m no longer pretending to be happy, I’m optimistic I am.
I was told today by someone who can count down their days on the calendar that being happy is the most important thing. So many hours are squandered in the not. So many days mourning what is just out of reach. So many good things are rare in life, and we let them slip away out of fear and complacency.
I’ve taken many chances in my life. I’ve followed treacherous paths. Some were fulfilling, some were a dead end. I’ve finally figured out what chances are meaningful and which are not. I’m slowly putting myself out there, despite the fear of hurt and pain, and it’s been a growing ache. I try to fall into old patterns, I try to push away someone who means more to me than I ever thought possible. I try to say what I want, without letting loose the words. Because for the first time, words are difficult.
They expose me for the flawed and vulnerable person I’ve become. They reveal all my insecurities and fears. They damage and bruise those around me before I can even stop their flow. So many words I wish I could take back. So many I wish I phrased differently. It has become my burden, yet I know I must overcome it. Because happy is mine to lose.
I think of that someone who can see their life’s end on the horizon. They are at peace because they found love and happiness and thankfully not too late. As someone who prides herself on punctual, I’d like to get there fifteen minutes early.
My mother was bemoaning what a horrible year she has had. In an effort to point out how we should all be thankful for what we do have, I mentioned an article I read about a Palestinian doctor whose three daughters were killed by mortars during an attack by the Israelis. This, two months after his wife and mother both succumbed to acute leukemia. In an effort to make sense of his losses, he is promoting peace in the Middle East and says it will be his life work to ensure his daughters’ death would be the last in a long-standing war. There was silence and then my mother rolled her eyes.
It would be easy to look at my mother and label her a depressed person. She has been to varying degrees as long as I can remember. My aunt said my mother is not capable of handling emotional turmoil as most people can. I scoffed at her diagnosis, which excused and allowed my mother’s bad behavior. Perhaps it is our entire history, which makes me unable to find sympathy for her. I look at the upheavals in my life, the pain I have endured, the disappointment and I look at my mother as simply ungrateful and spoiled.
For the first time in years, her prodigal daughter returned for Christmas. Her husband stood by her this year despite her devastating their lives with her selfishness and refusal to quit a myriad of pills she consumes. Her sister survived her third bout of cancer. Her grandchildren are healthy and happy. These things apparently are not enough to be thankful for.
My father is blind to her manipulations and nefarious plotting. Early this year, my sister and I determined our mother no longer wanted to be employed and simply wanted to stay at home taking various pain pills and muscle relaxers. We staged an intervention that quickly spun out of control. There were wounds opened and salt copiously poured and all the while, she sat there seething with anger. When we asked her why she did not want to see a psychiatrist, her reply was “Because I don’t want to.”
There, in a nutshell, was my mother. Our entire lives she has been a depressive person. There were uncontrollable rages and hours spent locked in bathrooms. There was an incident once where I ordered her out of our house as she pummeled my sister who had been begging at her bedroom door. My father has seen all of this, and still he sits beside her, mute to demanding or asking anything from her, and feeds into her desire to be completely taken care of. She does not want help because the dynamic of their relationship would most certainly change.
Despite all of these incidents, she has never seen a counselor. Because she has never wanted to. Her behavior has served her well over the years. As cruel as she can be to my father, he loves her unconditionally and takes care of her ever need. He even turns a blind eye to her current addiction and swats away our feeble attempts to get her help. When she is passed out on the couch, he simply tells himself she is tired. When she was unbelievably cruel to us as children, he put the onus on us to get past it. I said it before; she is my father’s favorite child.
She’s lied to him. She’s been fired from job after job for behavior she could most certainly control. She’s quit the other jobs because she has hated a manager or a co-worker and simply could not tolerate the environment any more. She’s lost friends and family who no longer could tolerate her behavior. She’s devastated my father financially this year with money spent on prescriptions, doctor’s visits and being fired from yet another job. Yet, there he is this Christmas, waiting on her hand and foot and scurrying to fix what she has broken.
I watch all of this and I think of that Palestinian doctor. There are worse things in life than watching this train wreck of a family. He has no one to sit at the table with him, even if there is resentment and anger served along with the ham. I look at my daughter, so smart and beautiful, the whole world to be explored. I have not been the best mother, but I hope she looks at mine and thinks to herself, I am grateful for what I do have.
1. Denial – Arrive at parents and pretend your mother did not just insult your hair, your makeup and your kid.
2. Resistance – Resist the urge to be defensive and/or drink copious amounts of rum.
3. Relief – Celebrate the arrival of your sister and her family and the brief relief you will get from the onslaught of motherly guilt.
4. Annoyance – Tell your father firmly for the fifth time you do not want to try the peanut butter fudge shipped to him from Michigan and shoot your mother dirty looks as she questions what color your hair really is.
5. Organization – Meet with sister, synchronize watches and decide what time for each event and when you will be leaving.
6. Enthusiasm – Fake it while your children open gifts.
7. Anger – Suppress it while your mother begins bemoaning the fact she was fired from yet another job and overplaying her victim hand. Fight it when she begins crying how much pain she is in and how she cannot go back to work, yet she joins in with you and your sister who is now doing a kick line and singing Christmas carols badly.
8. Bargaining – Tell yourself if you do not confront and/or argue with your mother there is a place in heaven for you.
9. Depression – Gorge yourself with food to numb the fact this is your holiday.
10. Passive Aggressiveness – Giggle with your sister as you close your eyes in every picture your drunken uncle attempts to take. Do not feel guilty. The pictures are so blurry you can’t even tell who is who. This is followed by much merriment as your sister takes a few of the many magnets on the refrigerator and throws them on the floor, ornaments off the tree she then throws behind the tree, and a knick knack or two that will never be found.
11. Enlightenment – Realize you still have two more days to celebrate Christmas and this is not going to ruin your spirit.
12. Acceptance – Accept this is your family, the only one you get, and drive away, squealing your tires and grateful you have survived it.
A Christmas Present to my Sister
I can remember the morning our parents brought you home. I ran outside, the sidewalk was wet from rain, and jumped up and down on the top step of the porch as mom carried you, swaddled in a yellow afghan, into the house. I looked down at you, examined you to make sure you had ten fingers and toes; I kissed your cheek and welcomed you not only into the house but also into my heart.
For days, I would stand on a chair next to your crib and watch you sleep. If you cried, I would pop the pacifier in your mouth or pat your stomach until you drifted off again. I would help mom bathe you and change your diapers. At some point, I would resent your intrusion on my life, but not during those first few months. I was in love with the idea of a baby sister and you were mine just as much as mom’s to take care of.
Over the years, I took my job as big sister very seriously. We had our moments of war, and then peace as we played and sought comfort from whatever was happening in our household with each other. You were a pest in the highest degree, and I am still bitter over you throwing away my hundred crayons set and writing on my baby doll. You loved to smear your face with food and gross me out at the table. There were bugs exoskeletons you hung on my sweaters and sucking the oxygen from the backseat as we went on long car rides. Yet, you were my first audience, the one I cared about entertaining the most.
We would lie in our beds at night, sharing the same room for what seemed like twenty years, and I would tell you stories. Making you laugh was always my goal and you had the best of them all. In you, I found a respite from any pain from my childhood. I would make up wild tales and you would demand more and more. We even shared the same imaginary friend.
I wanted to protect you from the harsh realities, and sometimes I succeeded. I would tiptoe to your bed at night, and put my finger under your nose making sure you were still breathing. The thought of losing you, was unbearable to me. You were my other half, and I would never be whole without you.
There were times I let you down. Times I let myself down. I left you when you were still barely a teenager and went off on my own. Mom would call me nightly to talk to you about your behavior. Maybe you felt I abandoned you. I tried to bring you along with me, but at some point, our lives veered off in different directions. We were both grown, both moving on with marrying and starting families. We did not always see eye to eye on everything.
I moved away and I thought we would drift apart. We did momentarily, both so consumed by the choices we had made in our lives. I missed important events. I feel like I missed everything. Yet, somehow, that bond we cannot explain and probably do not want to, kept us together. I could call you, and you could tell from the sound of my voice exactly what I needed. It was the same with you. You were miles away, but you were always wherever I needed you.
Coming home again, I am amazed at how easily we fell back into the relationship we always had. From the first embrace in the driveway because I could not wait for you to get into the house, we are what we always were. Sister, best friends, each other’s sounding board and psychologist. We are two halves of a whole and distance cannot erase what we have built together.
I am proud of you and the children you have raised. I watch you in awe that the baby I stood over is now this woman. We laugh a lot together, with our secret jokes and our silliness, excluding everyone else from our shared world. We commiserate, rant, and rave and at the end of it all, we know we do not have to agree on everything.
From the minute you were home, I knew you would be one of the most important relationships in my life. You make me a better me. You have reminded me of who I once was, and I found her again. All of those years being your substitute mother, prepared me for my own daughter. I would not take back or erase a minute of our lives together, even the worst of times.
This Christmas is my first at home with you and your family in a long time. I am happy we will be sitting at the table, laughing at each other’s antics, while everyone else looks puzzled at what is so funny. Later tonight, one of us will call the other and we will talk about whatever happened, be it good or bad. We will wish each other a Merry Christmas and for a moment, I will wish I could go back to when we were kids.
Christmas morning, before even the sun had risen, you would bounce on my bed, up since the night before so excited about Santa’s arrival. You will beg and plead with me to get mom and dad up so we can open our presents. We will drag them grumbling out of bed and we will sit on the floor in front of the tree while dad, always dad, passes out the presents. The best part is that no matter what toy we have received, we will look at each other and say, “Let’s go play.” Then we will scamper off together, making a blanket fort in the gap between our twin beds in our room, and spend the rest of the morning, until we are dragged from our fun for family obligations, playing together.
This Christmas, we will spend it playing with our kids, and we will appreciate and hold on to those moments as precious because we have seen how fleeting they can be. We will know, that someday there will no longer be toys and blanket forts and make believe Barbie worlds. Life moves so quickly and someday our children will have moved on just as we have. Yet, it is always there isn’t it. That wonderful memory that we share.
I can still look at you, even in adulthood, and say, “let’s go play” because you are even today, my best friend. The one I want to share my toys with. The one I want to share my pain with. The one who understands me and all my complication. We have the best gift of all. Each other.