Things my mother never did.

I think I know what’s wrong with me. No, that’s not true. I know I know what’s wrong with me. Or at least, I know one of the things that’s wrong with me. The Big Thing.

I have been putting off writing this, because the act of writing it, of putting it on paper, makes it a real thing. A real thing I can’t run away from, a real thing I’ve got to face. I’ve spent a lot of time over this last year 2014 alone; alone with myself and my thoughts, taking time and space – the likes of which I’d never allowed myself before – to process and to grieve a string of losses and difficult life events. And as 2014 drew to a close and I thought about the ways that I wanted 2015 to be different – and I want it to be different in just about every which way – I kept coming back to one thing: the truth must out.  We are only as sick as our secrets, and until I start telling the truth about the darkness – difficult as it may be – the darkness is going to continue to own me.

Summer 1988

So here goes. For as long as I can remember, I have been living with a tension between two powerful and conflicting emotions: anger and guilt. It wasn’t until the death of my mother two years ago and the subsequent unraveling of my nuclear family that I began to realize how profoundly this tension had been affecting me, how it had affected my entire life.

I am angry. I am angry with my mother. I have been angry with her for a very long time. You see, for most of my life, I was the parent, and she was the child. She was a fragile dove that needed to be protected, and she leaned on me to help her, to fix her, to save her. But I was never very good at it. I am angry with her because she knew that I was ill equipped to give her what she needed, but she insisted upon it anyway. I am angry with her because she set me up for failure.

And you would not believe the guilt that my anger produces, the way that it spins through my stomach like so much fire. The guilt is relentless. I am haunted because I think and feel such awful things about the person I loved more than anyone in this world. I am guilty for admitting these things, for saying them out loud. Guilty for being a horrible, selfish, ungrateful daughter. Guilty for not wanting to grow up to be like my mother, for – in point of fact – being terrified of growing up to be like her. And, most of all, guilty because I let her down when she needed me the most. Guilty because she died on my watch.

Mom frosting cake

Guilt and anger are a potent enough cocktail, but when you mix in grief and regret it’s enough to knock you sideways. And it, that, is what has been keeping me stuck. I never wanted to be like my mother when she was alive, but now that she’s gone, I can’t seem to stop embodying her worst traits. The chronic anxiety, the depression, the self-isolation, the use of alcohol as a coping mechanism, the stubborn refusal to ask for help. My 2014 was a dark year awash with all of these things, and all of them – I can only assume – have been some sort of twisted, semi-conscious attempt on my part to keep her alive.

Please don’t misunderstand me: my mother was wonderful. She was kind and sweet and loving and generous. She was a much better person than I am. But she was always so unhappy. She wanted more from her life than what she got. She gave up on her first dream of becoming a professional tennis player because her parents didn’t support it and she wasn’t strong enough to stand up to them. She was never very happy as the office manager of my father’s law practice, but she was good at it and it gave her the flexibility to raise a young child (me). But I grew up, and dad closed the law firm, and there were still so many things that she wanted to do. She wanted to go back to school and pursue a master’s degree in psychology, she wanted to refine her (already impressive) culinary skills with additional classes, she wanted to volunteer for political campaigns and charitable organizations, she wanted to travel the world. More than anything, I think my mom wanted to feel that she had value. That she could make a contribution that was important, a contribution that other people would notice and appreciate. But she was paralyzed to take that first step. There was always tomorrow, next week, next month, next year. And as the years went by, I watched her put together a life built on deferred dreams, a life where she preferred to look back on the past with fond nostalgia, and a resignation that her best years were already behind her.

But here’s the thing about dreams. They don’t die quietly. Hers certainly didn’t. They tortured her with visions of a life un-lived and she stuffed them down and pushed them aside and put everyone else’s needs before her own and she drank to dull the sharp edges of pain and longing.

Mom Dad Wedding

As she got sicker, the signs that had always been there – that I’d been too deep in denial to acknowledge because, in spite of the very personal resentments I’d harbored toward her, she was still my mother, and therefore, perfect – grew stark and outlined in thick edges. She had always lived with a bit of a disconnect between fantasy and reality (don’t we all?), but that disconnect turned borderline delusional. Her already small frame whittled away to nothing, her eyes turned hollow and vacant, she stopped making sense. I implored her to get help and her only response was to invent a therapist she was ‘seeing’ to get me off her back. (I know this because, well, Google. That, and she was a terrible liar.)

In the end, dying was the most purposeful thing that she’d done in years. She’d made up her mind that life wasn’t worth living anymore. She shunned all help. She shunned me. And she drank until she didn’t hurt anymore. She drank until she disappeared. And when she died, I started disappearing, too.

So here I am, two years after her death, still sitting at the cross streets of anger and guilt, streets intersected by avenues of grief and regret. It’s a four way stop full of monsters, and until now, my foot has been placed firmly on the brake pedal. And so, for this New Year 2015, I made a pact with myself. I’m going to start doing all of the things my mother never did. I’m going to do them actively, defiantly, and on purpose. Things like asking for help. Things like telling my truth, even if it’s uncomfortable or ‘inappropriate.’ Things like pushing myself out of my comfort zone and signing up for big, scary adventures. Things like not putting off my life. I’m going to take her mistakes and self-sabotage and heartache and unfulfilled dreams and use them as a road map to do the opposite, at Every. Single. Turn. And I’ve already started: I’m in the process of shopping for the most amazing therapist ever, I’m nearly two weeks into an thirty-day alcohol and sugar-free detox during which I’m digging in and focusing on my creative work, and soon, I’ll be leaving on a solo trip to Europe. And there are other things too. Things I’m not quite ready to talk about, but that are quietly, actively at work beneath the surface of my life.

Rejecting my mother’s life and her choices in such a cold and calculated fashion makes me feel like a malicious, rebellious child. And maybe that’s what I am. But at this point, after all of the darkness, after all of the self-sabotage and regret, making this choice sort of feels like life or death.  Along the way, I hope that I can finally learn to let go of the anger, and forgive her. I hope that I can finally learn to let go of the guilt, and forgive myself.

It’s worth a shot.

Until next time, friends.

disneyland

 

Ghosts.

stub020

Grief experts will tell you that with time, eventually you’ll get to a place where the memory of a lost loved one will make you smile and think of happy times, rather than dwell on the pain of the loss.  How long this takes is, understandably, unique to the situation, and to the person who has suffered the loss.

It has been a year and a half since I lost the most significant person in my life, my Mom, and I’m not there yet.  The passage of time has helped – the nightmares that used to come frequently now occur only once every so often and they’re less wrenching and raw than they used to be, and certain triggers like a photograph or a song or a movie don’t affect me as much as they used to.  But there’s still that ever-present ache that tugs at my insides whenever I think of her.  And I’m never not thinking of her.  I keep myself busy and distracted so that for a time, I can forget.  But, like a shark that has to keep swimming in order to breathe, I have to keep moving, or I will drown.

Unlike other loved ones that I’ve lost, there’s very little peace to be found around my Mom’s death.  She haunts me like a wounded ghost, crying out for my help.  Help that I wasn’t able to give her when she so desperately needed it.  No matter how many people, especially those with intimate knowledge of the situation, tell me that I shouldn’t feel guilty or hold myself responsible for her death, I can’t help but think what if?  She was closer to me than anyone else in the world.  She trusted me; she told me secrets that she never told anyone else, secrets that I, in turn, will never tell.  In many ways, from a very young age, I was often the parent, and she was the child.  She took care of me, but I took care of her too.

caramel apples

But for the last year or so before she died, and in particular, the four months between my Dad’s cancer diagnosis and her death, I didn’t understand her behavior.  It was crazy, it was irrational, and it scared me.  She would send me emails at 3 a.m., rambling on about one nonsensical thing or another, she wouldn’t shower for days, she refused to eat and her body became rail thin, and worst of all, she barely seemed to know who I was.  The most terrifying thing of all was the blank stare, as though she was looking through me, (me, her person) and I didn’t exist.  Then the phone calls came, hysterical.  ‘Mom,’ I said, ‘I think you’re having a nervous breakdown.  I’m worried.  I think you need to talk to a professional.’

I put the resources in her hands but I didn’t make the calls.  I left it up to her, and of course (I can see now), she didn’t and couldn’t do it.  She told me that she had found someone, a psychiatrist, but when I looked up the doctor’s name online and couldn’t find any record of her, Mom said that she was ‘really new,’ to her practice.  I knew she was telling me lies; that she’d made up an imaginary doctor to get me off her back, but what could I do?  What should I have done?

It’s those questions and those relentless what ifs that will drive a person crazy.  I was my Mom’s best friend and she was mine.  She leaned on me so much throughout her life, but when she needed me the most, she pushed me away, and slammed the door in my face.  And even worse, I let her do it.  Was she suffering so much that she didn’t want me to intervene, and she just wanted the pain to be over?  Or did she desperately want my help but was trying to protect me, and she just needed me to push harder and to be tougher and to not take no for an answer?  These are the questions in which my nightmares take root.

me and mom kitchen

Recently, I was in New Orleans to celebrate my sister Marion’s birthday, and we had our palms and tarot cards read by a lady named Miss Irene.  Miss Irene is 86 years old and has been reading cards since she was 16, a total of 70 years.  She looked at some lines on my palm and told me that I’d lost a lot of people that I loved and that they were now my angels watching over me.  Be skeptical if you want to be – I am – but I’m telling you, this lady was no joke.

I wonder:  when will the ghost that’s haunting me become the angel watching over me?  When will the good memories of my Mom – of which there are so, so many – replace all the pain and the guilt and the terrible, relentless what ifs?  We were so very different in so many ways and yet, we were the same.  No matter how much I’m my own person, for the rest of my life, she’s in me.  I am her and she is me.  There isn’t a moment in the last year and a half that she’s been gone where I haven’t wondered, ‘What would Mom do?’ or ‘What would Mom think about this?’  There are times when I’ve done exactly what she would have wanted, to honor her, and times when I’ve deliberately acted out and done something she would have hated, like a rebellious teenager out to assert my independence.  No matter.  She is always, always top of mind.  Being as kind, as compassionate, and as lovely as she was is my greatest aim, and avoiding her pitfalls is my greatest challenge.

For better or for worse, my Mother – the way she lived and the way she died – is the ghost that I am living with.  Pain aside, maybe it’s not such a bad thing to be haunted.  At least, as a ghost, I won’t forget her.  She is always, always with me.  She is the thing that pushes me to be better.  She is the thing that threatens to destroy me.  She is the thing that I will never stop chasing, and the reason I will never stop striving.  The source of the ever-present ache is this:  no matter what I do, it’s impossible to make a ghost proud of you.  It’s impossible to make a ghost happy.  I know that.  But I can’t, and I won’t, stop trying.

Until next time, friends.

Mom and Eadie

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