Friday, February 15, 2008
My mother, my self
Well, predictions of my mother’s impending demise have proven highly inaccurate.
Indeed, she is as far now from death’s door as she was close, just a week ago. She is presently in a skilled rehabilitative center not far from her home. Her breathing is easier, her voice sounds stronger, and she is working hard to get herself back to the home she has made with my youngest sister and her family since my father died ten years ago.
She’s a fighter, that one. Beneath that socially pleasant demeanor beats the heart of a stubborn, tough old bird, whose stamina and endurance have been tested by the Great Depression, World War II, the Viet Nam War, the Civil Rights Movement, the Dawn of Feminism, and the advance of the Age of Technology which, quite frankly, has left her happily behind.
She has known cruel abuse at the hands of parents who arrived in this country fresh from their respective peasant villages in Portugal and the Azores, and from a husband whose alcoholism she steadfastly reframes as “Oh, he was headed into a ‘drinking problem, but he wasn’t an alcoholic. Every once in a while he would drink too much, the way all men did in those days. But, he stopped because he was a good, man, a good husband and a good father.”
Her rhetorical flourish can be relied upon to conclude with these words, “He always provided for us.”
My mother lives by the philosophy that if you repeat a story enough times, it becomes truth. It comes as a package deal with being stubborn and tough. It’s how you survive.
She did the same thing with her latest illness. She simply told herself that it wasn’t her time, yet. She had more living to do. More time she wanted to spend with her family. So, she dug her heels in, put on her spiritual armor, grabbed her rosary and took on the fight.
The Congestive Heart Failure, Diabetes, Kidney Function Impairment and Septic Shock came as Four Horses of the Apocalypse to carry her to the other side. She has taken them on all at once and beat them back from death’s door. Watching her is like watching a Jedi knight battle fiercely against Darth Vader with her spiritual laser.
The Force is with her. Or, to hear her tell the story, St. Theresa, the Little Flower of Jesus, who comes to her bed every night as she falls asleep saying her rosary and whispers encouragement and hope in her ears.
Mother and I have never had what could be described an idyllic relationship. You know what? I don’t know who does. Even the wonderful relationship I have with my daughters is far from being perfect.
It’s the nature of the complex “My mother, myself” dynamic of which so many books and articles have been written. I’m convinced that the same is true for fathers and sons – but, perhaps, even more complex. The sooner we embrace this reality of imperfection and let go of the myth of flawlessness the healthier all of our relationships will be.
When I went to see my mother a week ago, it was to say goodbye and to say the things I needed to say to her before she departed this earthly realm. I thought I was going to offer forgiveness. I thought I would help her find true repentance and amendment of life, and in the process, she might find ‘a peaceful death.’
I look back on that now and shake my head at my own arrogance.
Apparently, I hadn’t remembered the lesson I learned from my father’s dying, the decade before. Along with a whole host of medical problems, my father developed senile dementia in the last year of his life. About three days before he died, I went to see him in the skilled nursing facility where he had been transferred, and was delighted to find that he was enjoying a brief period of coherency. As we took a stroll down the long, sterile corridor, I seized the opportunity to say, “Dad, I just want you to know that I forgive you.”
My father stopped dead in his tracks and lifted his head from the careful study he had been making of his shuffling footsteps on the floor to look at me. His eyes twinkled as a smile over took his face. “Really?” he asked, barely concealing his astonishment. I nodded my head yes. “Well,” he said, his eyes dancing in the mischievous way I remembered as a child, “That’s a good thing. Because I forgive you, too.”
We both roared with laughter, and with every shake of our heads and bodies, another awful, dreadful memory was released from our hearts and forgiven and blessed into the cosmos.
I was relating this story to my daughter as we traveled in the car up to Boston to see Mother, She was quiet for a while and then asked, “Then, what do you want to say to her?”
I found myself surrounded by a profound silence before I spoke.
There are a few words I have never heard my mother say to me. I’ve heard her say it to some of her grandchildren, but never to me or any of my sisters or my brother. The first is this, “I love you.” The second is like unto it, “I’m proud of you.”
My youngest sister confirmed this. “Mother has never been emotionally demonstrative,” she once told my daughter who related it to me.
My sister wins the award for The Understatement of the Year.
As I recall just a few of the stories my mother told me about her childhood as one of the 22 children my grandmother birthed (20 pregnancies) and the 19 who made it to adulthood, I suspect she never had those words said to her by her mother.
And, her mother? My grandmother? She was the youngest and only girl of 16. Her mother died when she was 12. What are odds, you figure, of her peasant mother having said those words to her?
It came upon me with a sudden clarity that shook me to my soul: I am going to mother my mother. I am going to tell her the things she did not hear from her mother and never said to her daughter. I am going to break the cycle, officially, of benign emotional neglect which has, nevertheless, done great relational harm.
And, that’s exactly what I did.
At one point, when my daughter left the room to get a cup of coffee, I seized the opportunity to talk with my mother. She was chatting away, moving the egg salad sandwich she had for lunch around her plate.
When she finally came up for air, I said, “You know, Mother,” I began slowly, cautiously, clearing my throat, amazed at how tight it had suddenly become, “I have to tell you that as I consider all that you’ve been through, all that you are today, I must say that I am very proud of you.”
Her head jerked up from her work on her lunch and she looked at me as if I had spoken a foreign language. “What?” she said, “I didn’t hear you.” Then, embarrassed, added, “I really need a hearing aid in this right ear.”
“I’m proud of you, Mother,” I continued. “You know, I write a great deal. I even keep a daily (well, almost) blog where I hone my skill at writing. Whenever I’m asked why I write, I always say because it keeps me sane. I’ve come to realize that this is just half of it.”
“I write, “ I said, “because you stopped.” My mother looked bewildered and asked, “What do you mean?”
“Mother do you remember entering the writing contest they had on the radio? I do. I couldn’t have been more than 8 or 9 years old, but I remember seeing you at the kitchen table, writing furiously on a pad of yellow lined paper. I asked what you were doing and you explained that the radio station had announced that they were having a writing contest and the first prize was $100. You were going to write about something in your childhood and you planned to win. Don’t you remember?”
A smile of recognition crossed my mother’s face. “Why yes, yes I do.”
“You sat at that table and, you didn’t know it, but I stayed up with you, praying feverishly in my bed. I could hear the lead in the pencil as it made soft swirling sounds on the paper.”
“You wrote until well after midnight – a time your own mother had carefully taught you that, after which, ‘nothing good ever happens.’ Well, you did. And, it was good. Good enough to win second place. You won a $25 gift certificate to Robert Hall Clothing Outlet.”
“I remember, clearly two weeks later, when the awards announcement was made and your name was in second place. We were all delirious with happiness and pride. You took that money and bought us all new clothes for Easter Sunday. I remember telling all my friends that my beautiful new dress came from Robert Hall (quite a prestigious name at the time) and was bought with the money you won in a writing contest.”
“Mother,” I croaked through the lump in my throat, “I was never more proud of you then. You had a 9th grade education and you won second place in a writing contest. I was so proud, I think I popped off all the buttons in my blouse at school the next day.”
“Yes, I remember, that well “ my mother said, as tears glistened in her eyes.
“Why did you stop?: I asked. “Why didn’t you write more and enter again?”
“Because,” my mother said, “being in second place in the writing contest wasn’t half as important as being in first place in the eyes of my children,” she said. “It was enough. It was more than I could have ever imagined.”
“Well,” I said, “”I think that’s why I write. Because you can’t. Or, won’t. At any rate, I want you to know that I was very proud of you. I want you to know that, all things considered, and after all you’ve been through, I am very proud of you.”
“Thank you,” my mother whispered hoarsely. “I’m proud of you too.”
I hastened to add, before my daughter returned to the room, “All things considered, and in my own way, I love you, too.”
My mother looked me dead in the eye, in that way that looks past your eyes and into your soul, The way mothers have looked at their daughters for centuries. The way Eve looked into the daughters she must have had but were never mentioned in scripture. The way Anna looked at her daughter, Mary, who became the Mother of God. The way Ruth must have looked at Naomi.
And then, she said it: “All things considered, and in my own way, I love you, too.”
I laughed out loud, just as I had when my father returned my forgiveness of him.
It was good enough for me. It was good enough for all the years of not ever having heard it from her.
Because, you know, what? Until that moment, I wasn’t exactly sure I had ever said those words to her. In fact, I continue to doubt it now.
Sometimes, the process of redemption takes years, but it is always a circular, reciprocal process. By his life, death and resurrection, Jesus taught us that God is redeemed in the redemption of our humanity.
If you’re lucky, you’ll see it while you’re still on this side of Eden. If not, we are assured that we’ll one day know it perfectly, in that ‘great by and by’.
All things considered, and in my own way, I’m glad to know that love imperfectly here and now. And, not just the unconditional love from the lips of God who gave me life, but directly and conditionally from the human heart of the one who gave me birth.
My mother is right. Being first in the heart of your children is more important than almost anything else on earth. And, the second is like unto it: knowing that your mother is as proud of you as you are proud of her.
Even if you can’t say that out loud. And, it takes over fifty years to do so.
My mother. My self.