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When my mother died, I didn’t know what I felt. Throughout my life, I had been struggling to shed the influence of her searing and shaming words, her anger, at times rage, above all, her depression during my childhood. How many of us spend adult years still trying to get the attention and love that we never got from a distant parent? We know it’s not going to happen, but still we play over and over again the same roles we played as children. Once I was part of a therapy group that helped people reenact painful scenes from their family past in order to help rid those events of their power. The therapist at one point walked up to one fellow and said to him, face to face, “Your mother doesn’t love you!” – over and over again until the message really sank in. The guy looked so stricken, but the therapist went on to remind him that he was a splendid man in spite of his mother’s inability to connect with him. He didn’t have to look for the love that was never going to come. His mother had done what she could, but that was all in the past. His present was his own, and he was getting along just fine. The therapist might have been talking directly to me too, but I can’t say I ever stopped trying to win the love and approval of my mother. When she died, she was a different person in many ways than she had been when I was growing up, but, sadly for her, she never got over a fundamental hurt and disappointment that rooted itself deeply in her, probably when she was a kid looking for approval and love from her distant father. These things seem to go on and on through generations.
Several scenes came to mind in the days following my mother’s death:
- There were many times in her last years when our phone would ring, and she would be calling in a panic, saying something like, “John, I have no pulse – you have to come right over!” I would have to remind her that if her heart was no longer beating, she wouldn’t be talking to me on the phone. Or she’d be calling from a hospital where she was being treated for one or another of her ailments. “I’m dying – you both have to come right away!” I’d hang up and report to L that my mother was dying again, and then we would go see her. Invariably, the baffled nurses would report that her vital signs were fine, and she was rapidly recovering from a setback in her diabetes, or whatever it was. We’d step into her room and find her calm and smiling. She’d beckon us to sit on either side of her bed, grasp our hands, and then she’d talk about being near death and wanting to say good-by. Her face would be radiant with love and peacefulness, her mind quick to see the humor of everything, her soul resonant with ours. These moments of real joy were so rare in her life of much anger and depression that she could only interpret them as a sign that death was imminent. Soon she’d be out of the hospital, back home and as grim as ever.
- She told me a dream once in which she was visited by the spirit of a girl she had known slightly as a teenager. She had seen her, the older sister of a friend, only once when she was visiting that family’s house. The sister said nothing but stared at my mom as she was going upstairs to leave the two girls alone. Mom thought the girl didn’t like her, yet in this vision she seemed a kind of ministering angel, kindly and lovingly showing her something about the approach of death. She also told me of a series of dreams in which the walls around her were crumbling to dust, and she felt those were signs that death was not far away. There were many dreams like these in the years before she died, from her late eighties to her mid-nineties, all of them before she began to show signs of dementia.
- She had a way of trying to wander off after the dementia set in and would also fly into furious rages if her desire to leave was frustrated, even though she might have nowhere to go. It was after this sort of behavior had started that she lost a leg to diabetes and spent time in a rehab center. Visiting there one day, I was talking to the director of the facility about her condition when she managed to propel her wheelchair down the longest hallway she could find and then to push her way out of an emergency exit. A staff member stopped her, but she started fighting with him from her chair. Despite her 94 years, she was still strong! She seized the wheels in rigid arms and wouldn’t be pushed away from the door. As soon as the attendant started to push her a little, she would quickly wheel the chair in a 180 and try to ram the man down. He called for help, and the director, a woman accustomed to balancing her psychology training with direct action, left me to deal with her. The two of them got the chair moving back down the hallway toward the front desk where I was standing. My mother kept resisting all the way, occasionally succeeding in turning the chair back, but she was losing this battle. So she started shouting, and when she got close to me she raged in a powerful yell: “Why don’t you get me out of here? What kind of a man are you? You’re a bastard, you’re not a man at all! A real man would get me out of here! You bastard!” The manager tried to sound reassuring as she struggled to control the chair. “Please…(yanking the chair back in the right direction)…please don’t take it personally! It’s not …(more struggle).. about you!” I left as they were getting her close to her room, her furious invective echoing in the halls – and also in my mind down many decades of shaming words that had been all too personal and aimed at nobody else but me.
- Another moment came back to me from childhood, as it often does. One time, she responded to me with real love and feeling when as a boy, I was swinging a wooden mallet in our playroom – alone, of course – imitating the exploits of Prince Valiant, and the head flew off, crashing through a window pane. I was mortified and went to confess in deep shame, in tears, and she hugged me with gentle humor, imagining what I must have been doing. Quietly, she held and rocked me as we both sat on the living room sofa until my crying was done. That one and only time.
My mother was a beautiful person, though the beauty within her shone out to her friends and acquaintances far more than to her family. While it’s easy now to see how depression affected her, and through her the rest of us, to my mother such a thing did not exist. There was plenty of emotional pain and hurt, but she saw those as injuries caused by what others did to her. She spent a life in motion, getting away from those people, always looking for the person who would change all that, someone she could rely on. It was only at the end of her long life that she found an acceptance that allowed her to let go of that search and die with peace in her heart. And it took me a couple of years before I could really feel the love that had always been there and the grief that flowed from losing her, so long before her death.