Grief: Anniversaries, Distraction, Deflection, Freedom

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Monday will be the one-year mark for Mom’s death.

I feel like a twerp for even going on about this, given the hurt and chaos in our actual, living world.

But I will indulge and as usual, I will be candid.

I have been on vacation the last couple weeks and I’ll own it: I’ve also been reluctant to write about anything, because I know it will lead me to writing about her. So I rationalized, during my insidious stint of writer’s block, that if I don’t write about anything, then I don’t have to see the reality: that she’s been dead a year, so that way I’m not legitimizing it. I’m denying it. But that’s not fair, because so much of my life, even before she died, was so confused in its balance; sometimes she weighed quite heavily, other times she was like the ether.

My kids each have a different appreciation of me, based on our relationship. It’s impossible to treat them all the same, but by and large, I do try to manage them all equally, unless a situation requires a different influence.

My brothers and I have readily admitted to one another and allowed of the other the basic fact that we each had a very different version of our mother: firstMom, angerMom and then sandwichMom. I had mostly angerMom.

What this past year has given me, with all the ups and downs, all the grief and all the guilt, all the confusion and clarity, all the repressions and all the disclosures is the following: freedom.

My mother, whom I loved very much, but who was a terrifically complicated and distant person, is now dead a year and I am free.

I am free of disappointing her.
I am free of reminding her.
I am free of being dismissed by her.
I am free of conflicting with her.
I am free of worrying about her.

I don’t think she ever wanted to be married. I said that to my father today. He told me he found a picture of her at her brother’s wedding. She had caught the bouquet. She was not smiling. She was grimacing, almost frowning, he said.

This is not to suggest in the least, that I was a mistake or that I was not meant to be here. I can say this with conviction because I believe these things occur, these folds in time and wrinkles of “happenstance” with absolute destiny, with intention. I am one of those people who believes that there are no mistakes in the universe, that everything is as it should be. I believe this because the alternative is folly. That believing there is somehow a better or more appropriate circumstance than what we are experiencing, ever, can be maddening.

Of course we can change our circumstances, once we come of age. And that’s the trick: once we come of age.

As a child, I had no choice. I had to do what I was told, and I had to endure the circumstances before me. When I came “of age,” however, I was not 18. I was more like 23-ish.

I remember when I bought my first car. I came home with it. Home was my parents’ house. I was commuting to college because that was the hand I was dealt. Things were tenuous in my home, regarding my mother’s grip on reality and sobriety, so naturally being the only girl in the house, I took on a maternal energy and tacitly performed the management of the house. Not when I was 23, but when I was 5. That duty stayed with me until I moved out. The day before I married my husband of now 20 years.

Back to the car. After I graduated from George Mason University, I had a well-paying editing and writing job. I was about to be engaged, (but I didn’t know it), I bought financed a used (by 2 years) 1992 Eagle Talon TSi. It was electric blue and it had huge tires; probably 10″ wide. I loved that car. It was fast, nimble, responsive. It had electric windows and a CD player. Its seats made you feel like you were in a cockpit, the dials were abundant and the dashboard lights were red-orange, like a BMW’s. I loved that car. It loved me.

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My then-boyfriend drove it home and I drove my parents’ car home so they couldn’t say I let someone else drive their car. It was a Saturday. My father was home, not working.

My mother saw me get of their car and Dan get out of my Talon. She thought he’d bought a new car. She commented to Dan on what a “smart-looking new car” that was and he said something along the lines of it not being his and her eyes went straight to me. I smiled and said, “It’s mine. Isn’t it beautiful?” and she turned on a dime, like a viper, and in minutes, my father came out in a lathering rage, yelling and telling me that I was going to wind up penniless and that I just ruined my credit and that my life would be a wreck because I had acted recklessly and bought such an impractical car.

That was not the reaction I was expecting. I was hoping for something along the lines of “Oh wow, honey. That’s a big responsibility, that’s a big step; are you sure you’re ready?” Not the gesticulating, wild-eyed, operatic invective I received.

I tried to love that car after that evisceration as much as when I first drove it, but I’ll admit that experience muted it for a couple years. Two years later, I was married and out of there and we eventually traded it in for a Ford Explorer in 1997 after we’d experienced an unusually snowy winter and simply couldn’t get to work in a low-profile sports car.

Until we bought the Explorer, I had to bum rides with my boss who drove a 4×4 and was never fired. My husband kept his sports car though. Hrmph. My credit was not ruined. My score is fine. I have not wound up penniless and destitute. Yet.

I mention this story because until my mother died, or until last week anyway, I would’ve been afraid to tell it. I would be afraid even of speaking out in a way that was seemingly against my parents. It’s not speaking out, it’s just telling a truth.

I was speaking with my father the other day about Mom. We were sharing memories and reactions to those memories. I was my usual defiant and candid self. He said, “This sentiment contradicts with what you say on Facebook, when you posted a few months ago, ‘I miss my mom.’ What was that?”

I thought, “you must not read much of what I write” (which relieved me), and I answered, “I have always missed my mom. I have always missed the idea of a mother, a true compassionate leader and balanced supporter. That’s always been missing.” He nodded, seemingly to let it process and said, “Oh.”

I just finished “A Watershed Year” by Susan Schoenberger. It’s about a woman whose best friend and unrequited love dies from cancer and how she goes on to live with his pre-death missives sent to her posthumously via an email program. Inspired by the first of those notes, she decides to adopt a four-year-old boy from Russia. (This is before Putin really went off the deep-end.)

In her anticipation of finalizing the adoption, she waxes about what motherhood meant to her. Schoenberger cites numerous examples: tissues in the purse, band-aids, school plays, under-the-table-with-teddy-bears tea parties and the like. The most poignant example to me was that a mother who’s on a strict diet will share a half gallon of ice cream with her daughter after a jerky college boyfriend dumps her.

I thought romantically about such examples and then was quickly jerked back to reality and cited my examples of the bare minimum I would have liked from my mother: getting out of bed consistently and feeding me consistently. Then they grew on each other: picking me up from camp, not competing with me for my friends, not flirting with my boyfriends, not embarrassing me on the school bus, not cruelly disclosing embarrassing personal events, not asking me about people who hurt me and then telling me she enjoyed their style, or their company, that she saw nothing wrong with them… so many simple examples; but the most simple of which: just getting up. We never had band-aids.

I see this list above I’ve required of a mother and I can say with 100% assurance that I’ve absolutely complied. That in itself is such a fantastic feeling, that I’m really NOT becoming my mother, that I can see now I’ve made it.

My oldest and I finally went to get his driver’s permit last week. This was the day after we toured Georgetown University and bailed on the George Washington University tour. He wants to go to GU. Granted, it’s only the second college he’s ever toured after my alma mater, but he’s in love. He has something to strive for now, a prize to keep his eye on. We will tour UVA and W&M and some other schools up north, and maybe Duke, but I have my sister-in-law to thank for starting this process early, when he still has a good amount of time to apply himself academically and altruistically. I am NOT telling him to stay nearby, I am NOT envious of his friendships, I NOT competing with him in the least. I am NOT telling him he must take care of me in my old age, as my mother did and father has proposed throughout my life. I am free of that comparison now.

Being balanced and normal to my sons is not hard for me. It’s a pleasure. I don’t worry about my being obsolete in their lives one day, I sort of count on it, in a measured sense. I want to play second eighth fiddle. I don’t want them living in my basement all their lives. Trust me. I am free of that specter.

So what this freedom has granted me also is a sense of balance that my feeling guilty for any of the blessings life has given me, is really stupid because I have worked hard for all of them. My presence of mind, my college degree, my jobs after college, the house I own, the kids, choices I’ve made, all of it. I did it all and I can write what I want and say what I want and be cool with the things I have. I have almost always felt gratitude, but not without the weight of Catholic Guilt which requires you enjoy what you have, but only a little, because Jesus sacrificed so much for us and the nuns and priests take these vows of chastity … (I’m a really shitty Catholic.)

My 47th birthday is coming up in a few weeks. It was on my mother’s 47th birthday that we moved into a house in the D.C. suburbs and the fragile, remaining wisps of her functional life broke away, like dandelion seeds, and never ever returned. If ever there was a chance of getting her back, her deep-seated, and languid reaction to our move to Virginia made certain that would never happen.

So yes, Labor Day is going to be hard for me. But not too hard. I will think of her, and of the day, and of the circumstances and of my final vision of her, and how I dealt with it all. I will say a prayer, for all of us whose lives she affected, and then I will move on some more. As I said in my first post after she died, “it’s complicated.”

I have many wonderful memories of my life, even with Mom. I read in Psychology Today last week that the human brain needs five positive experiences to cancel out or compensate for just one bad one; this must be why we tend to hang on to or remember sadnesses more than not. What I’m unsure of (because it wasn’t detailed) is whether the circumstances need to weigh the same. If the good:bad ratio must be with the same person or the same intensity, then Mom is hosed. There simply weren’t enough or enough intensely good times to cancel out the bad. That makes me a little wistful; but this is the deal my soul made with me, this is the life I was given.

I’ll do what I can to ensure that the balance of my life has more positive than negative. I hope five times more positive… wouldn’t that be nice? I think it’s possible. It’s up to all of us to do what we can, always, to see even a potential good outcome from any considered morass. Short of mental illness, it’s about free will. How we perceive everything is all on us.

Thank you.

4 responses »

  1. Molly, when you write about your mother I can feel it in my heart…I have a mother that is dysfunctional and I love her but she is hard to live with and be with…and I have always dreamed of having that storybook mother…but i won’t …
    and while i am not ok with that…I am ok.

    • Michele, thanks. Yes, in the process of it all, in our awareness of our lives, it’s that acceptance, the “and while i am not ok with that…I am ok” -ness that saves us and helps us see our own limitations too.

      These are our stories, they happened to us and no one else has lived them. Keeping that in the hip pocket helps too.

      Love is complicated.

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