This Sunday will be the third anniversary of losing my mom, as I am about to become a mother myself. Back on the first anniversary of when she died, I wrote about it in a note on Facebook, which I called The Year of Missing. Part of that post…
Through misplaced praise and resentment, my headstrong, needy and impetuous mother fostered strong independence in me, so I never realized how much she was a part of me. Those incessant phone calls, the ups, the downs, the constant management of the relationship, it all shaped me. I look around my bedroom, with her artwork hanging above my bed, the little brightly-colored tin mirror in the shape of a mermaid that I bought with her guidance, the photographs I took myself with an artistic eye inherited from her, she’s everywhere. And she’s gone.
At the time, some of the comments made in response to the note surprised me since they were in praise of my mom and how well I must have been raised. I had never considered her as someone whose mothering deserved praise, but that’s what people saw in what I wrote.
The deeper story is that my mom was a complicated and troubled woman. With the distance and healing that the past three years have afforded me, I have an enormous amount of compassion for the suffering she must have endured. How much despair must a mom feel to break her 5 year old daughter’s dolls and stuff them back in her toy chest? How consuming must her pain have been to tell her daughter at 9 years old that her thighs were fat? How uncomfortable must she have been with her own identity to say to her daughter at 12 years old that her new feathered haircut made her nose look big? How shattered must she have been to be more capable of brawling and broken dishes than of keeping food in the house and making sure the homework was done? How desperately unhappy and enmeshed she must have been to be so threatened by her own child’s growing independence that each milestone was met with persecution.
I used to explain my relationship with my mom tersely as she did everything in her power to ruin my life. I see that differently now. Living out the legacy of her own abuse, my mom’s adult life was mostly in ruins and therefore her children were collaterally damaged. On and off estrangements from her family. Short-term friendships. Pervasive paranoia about betrayals. A failed marriage and a long line of romantic heartbreaks afterward. Career aspirations that fell flat due to unstable behavior. It was as if my mom’s emotional growth was stunted at about a pre-teen level, and shortly before she died I asked her if anything happened to her at that age. She said she didn’t know. So for much of her life, she simply didn’t have the skills to build happiness or see her own worth, and her mind was too chaotic to reflect upon and remedy that. I don’t condone how my brother and I were raised, but I do bear the responsibility of creating a new family legacy.
I tried for many years to cut her out or distance myself from my mom, yet that never quite worked. Sometimes I’d go months without speaking with her until it felt too unsteady and I’d call. Balancing out my own life with the resentment I harbored while managing a relationship with her taxed my peace of mind. Then several years ago, I decided to take on an active role in my relationship with her. Instead of harboring and cultivating anger, I let it go. I (mostly) stopped my bitchy ways. I called her more. I listened better. I developed respect for her and what she had accomplished with her artwork and boundless creativity, and told her so. I stopped blaming her for my problems. And she responded with tenderness and appreciation. A space was created where we could apologize to each other and be forgiven. I felt myself loving her and saw the love she had for me, which had always been there. That this dovetailed with the time I went vegan is not a coincidence. To live compassionately is to have compassion and build compassion.
It is heartbreaking to me that my mom’s life was cut short only a few years after we got right with each other. Though there were her typical complaints and emotional tirades, she started thriving and enjoying herself a bit. Then a mysterious bout of liver failure took her life a week before her 65th birthday. The woman who’d wanted to die for so much of her life passed away in my arms at the very point where she most wanted to live. Though I am at peace with her being gone, I still cannot think about that without my throat clenching up.
Now that I’m on the cusp of becoming a mom myself I think a lot about what kind of parent I will be. While the example given to me isn’t something to emulate, there are certainly aspects that I intend to keep. As a child, creativity was celebrated. I had irreverent, whimsical birthday parties. I was surrounded by color. Acceptance and commitment to social justice were emphasized. I bore witness to the soothing powers of a bowl of popcorn and a cup of tea. So I will decorate my child’s room with my mom’s artwork. I will play the Rolling Stones. I will cook excellent pasta sauce. I will explain the symbolism in Botticelli’s La Primavera.
This journey has had great value for me. Having gone from surviving to thriving, I have such resilience and strength that nothing can take me down. So in this new legacy, I am living as the possibility of compassion, devotion and stability for my child and myself.
Though it’s sad she’s gone, I am fortunate to be able to miss my mom every day. I know she would have loved being a grandmother to this baby.