My mom died last week. It doesn’t even feel real to tell people about it, even though we’ve been expecting it for about a year now. Most people I know don’t know much about my mother because I rarely mentioned her, or if I did it wasn’t to say “Oh, my mom and I went for pedicures,” or “It’s so great that my mom keeps my kids so I can go grocery shopping.” Most of my memories of my mother involved guilt, pain or embarrassment (though objectively, she couldn’t help a lot of things she did). My mom was not at my wedding, or my college graduation, or my baby shower or my kids’ birthday parties. The hardest part of dealing with the loss of my mother is the fact that I’ve been dealing with the loss of my mother since I was a child. Though she was a stay-at-home mom and was there in body, in spirit she was absent, or even worse cruel and abusive. I have always longed for an even modestly good relationship with my mom. And I told her so, at the very end. This isn’t intended to speak ill of the dead, but I think sugar coating our relationship would only be detrimental, so I’m going to be quite frank here.
I remember loving my mom once, the way a child should, with every fiber of my being. I was very young at the time. Perhaps her depression hadn’t fully taken hold or perhaps I was too innocent to know the difference. I was probably younger than 5 and I recall thinking I would be lost without her. But as I grew, so did her bipolar depression, and she was there less and less. Most of my childhood memories involve living in a filthy house while my mother mostly napped and watched soap operas.
As I matured, her seeming hatred for me seemed to blossom as well. She was abused as a girl and I’m assuming it happened around the time that her loathing for me appeared. Perhaps subconsciously she longed for the childhood that I had, free of fear. She began with cruel nicknames to shame my body, which gave me body image issues that linger to this day. Tiny titties. Thunder thighs. She would say them “jokingly,” but as a parent, I would absolutely never say these things to my children and I’m a even more horrified that this even happened when I reflect back on it. She would make inappropriate sexual jokes. In my teen years, she began with allegations that I was sexually promiscuous, as she called me slut and whore and said she sniffed my underpants and “knew what I was up to.” I knew this behavior was unacceptable at the time, but I didn’t realize that she was passing the abuse down. She never physically harmed me, but she did plenty of psychological damage.
Because of our relationship, I went into a downward spiral in my teen years. As if being a teenager doesn’t suck enough, being a teenager with such an unstable parental influence really sent me over the edge. While I fully take responsibility for all my insanely stupid actions during this period, I do think the abuse leading up to this time was a catalyst for my self-imposed destruction.
As a young adult, I gave birth to my oldest daughter and everything changed for me. Living apart from my mother and finally taking some adult responsibility, I began to pick up the pieces of the life I had worked so hard to derail. I worked hard, often 2 jobs at once, to support my family. I went back to school and obtained 2 degrees while working and caring for my child. And all this time, my mom existed separately from me, seemingly disinterested in my life. We were courteous and as long as I stayed away, her cruelty subsided. Over this period of time, her mental illness increased. Maybe it was gradual, maybe she was that sick for a long time. I don’t know because I was mostly absent and at the time I didn’t really care.
My parents separated in my late 20s. Most children dread a divorce, but I was the kid who always wished for my parents to divorce and for my dad to take me away. It was the best thing for him and I’m so happy that he got out, or I’m certain he would no longer be here either. But this separation came with a price and that price was for me and my sister to gradually take over the role as my mother’s caretakers. I was in denial about it every step of the way, though the signs of increasing dementia or depression or whatever was happening to her mind (which went virtually unnoticed by the “medical professionals” at Kaiser) were blatantly obvious. Her hoarding and isolation increased. Her driving was a threat to society. Her physical health spiraled out of control.
For the last few years of my mom’s life, she would go with major symptoms that she either didn’t notice or didn’t report. I’m not a doctor, but I feel fairly confident that if she had sought help for her cancer symptoms earlier, she may still be here today. Maybe on some level, she didn’t want to be here anymore. When they discovered her cancer and completed the surgery to remove it, it was almost a full year after she developed obvious symptoms. It was stage 4 cancer and very aggressive. They tried to treat it, but with the myriad of other health problems they couldn’t be as aggressive as they needed to be. So my sister and I did all we could to take care of her, which meant she eventually had to go into a nursing facility as her mental and physical health took a turn for the absolute worst. I can’t tell you how many hospitalizations and scares she gave us over the past few years. I always feared I would go to her apartment with her groceries and find her dead. In the end, at the very least she had the nursing care she needed and hospice support to keep her comfortable.
In the last few weeks of my mom’s life, I saw a big change in her. Her meanness had subsided over the past 5 years, but she actually began to act kindly toward me for those few weeks. She would call and ask how I was. She would take an interest in what my kids were doing. It’s bittersweet that for a few weeks I had a mom, the way everybody should have a mom. I guess that was her parting gift to me and to herself. So now I’m left here, to deal with all of it. Everything I have suppressed for three decades. Every hurt feeling. Every bit of longing for love. I wish I had the guts to say something to her earlier, but I honestly could not deal with her answer. In her final days I told her that I wished our relationship was better and that I was sorry. I was prepared to forgive my mom without ever hearing an apology. I know that her life was so colored by abuse and mental illness and I didn’t even know if she was capable of recognizing the damage she did. But in the end, she said it back. She said, “I’m sorry.”