As a girl, I saw my mother as vast and distant, a far off place that felt unreachable. When we were alone together there was an unsettling distance to her. She was there, with her eyes averted just slightly so, as if there were something drifting in the middle distance over my right shoulder. A place she would rather be. A daughter she would rather have.
I know that my mother loved me. I also know that each person’s capacity to feel love and to express it to others varies. I’ve been outrageously blessed to love people who are decidedly loving in return. Open, gentle, kind, full of forbearance, compassion and empathy. Wonderful people who inspire trust, intimacy, loyalty and commitment. I’ve also loved people who’ve loved me conditionally, and doled out parcels of acceptance and affection as though love was a teeter totter, the weight of my actions determining the love I received.
My mother loved me. Conditionally. She also feared me, hated me, depended on me, trusted me, and, at points, felt betrayed by me. After my father died, it was just the two of us, my five older siblings grown and gone. I woke in the night when she cried out in her sleep, and I comforted her in her grief. I held her and listened and soothed her when it was especially bad. I clung fiercely to my surviving parent as she lamented that she had to continue to live. I felt soft as sandstone, worn with loss. I tried to keep it together while being slowly abraded by her sorrow and rage. I needed shelter from her as much as I needed nourishment and comfort. I needed to be soothed and to be heard. I needed to grieve.
There is so much that is so intensely complicated in the relationships between mothers and daughters. It terrified me to see in her a potential future self. A friendless woman. A sad, frightened, lonely woman. A self-loathing, scarred woman in whom survived a very small child full of terrible shame and unchecked anger. I saw very little of my mother’s joy in living, or wonder at the little things, or curiosity. Being raised by her with all of her unhealed parts wreaking havoc left me with so many pained places of my own to heal. I was so angry at her, which made it nearly impossible to look at her with compassion.
When she was dying, after years of living with Alzheimer’s, I went to see her. It had been a very long time since my last visit. I sat beside her and spoke quietly, asking if she would just wake up long enough for me to look into her eyes. I called her Lucy (as I had for years at that point) and spoke as if she were a child or a small, frightened animal. I just wanted to see her eyes so I could say goodbye, and leave. I expected vacancy, and fear. Distance and depression. An averted gaze just over my right shoulder. Instead there were her beautiful eyes, clear and lucid, her hands on my face and her tears, and my tears, and her face pressing against mine as she kissed me and I kept saying ‘hi Mom’, and each time I said the word ‘mom’ I felt cracked wide open, painfully and joyfully. And there was laughing through our tears and kisses and her beautiful eyes. Clear and looking into mine. And forgiveness happened, and deep gratitude and love bloomed in me. And it was effortless and unbidden.
I did say goodbye and leave that day. I also returned and stayed there with her for the last few days of her life. I spent it with my siblings. I held my mother’s hand and listened as my sisters sang to her, sweetly, in harmony. I cried with my beautiful brothers. I felt present and calm and honored. I felt exhausted and impatient and sad. I thanked her for my beautiful life, and we talked about our father, and told her he was waiting. Handsome and in love and eager to be done with the long wait for her. In the end it was easy. A softening and a slowing until at last she released the long awaited mate to the first breath she ever drew.
And I can say this now. I love my Mom. I love her so much, and while I am, at times, full of aching for the difficulties she carried in her journey through this life, I hope that there were brilliant moments of joy for her as she passed through. That there were secret pockets of wonder and gratitude and self love in her. I am grateful that she tried her best, that she bore me and raised me, and in the end forgave me as effortlessly as I forgave her.