I know what people are thinking, “She starts a blog, posts a couple times and then flakes.” Well, not so much. In the early hours of May 3rd my mother suffered a heart attack and was gone before they could get her to the ER. She had been ill. She had a host of circulatory problems that would put her in the hospital at least once a year. In the past she had three strokes, three heart attacks and when she passed away she had five or six stents in her. But she bounced back each time. She had just been in the hospital for almost a month, but was making a strong recovery. She was doing her rehabilitation diligently, excited about being out of the hospital and her future plans.
And then she was gone.
We always knew that one days she would go in and not come out, but we did not think it would be *this* day. Especially not after we thought the worst of it was over.
And then all the arrangements of course.
I have been trying to figure out what to say. When my father was dying, we knew it was coming. We had a couple weeks to prepare and process. He and I talked about it. I could grieve as it was happening.
This was different.
I cried when I was told of course, but since then..nothing.
My relationship with my mother was different. My mother was a cold person. It was not selective, she just had a very hard time connecting to anyone. Friends, other relatives. She could be charming and friendly, but it was all surface. She would not put in the effort to keep in touch with any of them. She wasn’t mean, unkind or hateful, she just couldn’t connect. Was not emotionally available. I think in five years she only called me two or three times. The onus was always on the kids to call her. It was only after she died when I spoke with her surviving aunt that discovered that she was stuck in a cycle. My mother’s family had been well to do and her mother and father had pretty much dumped her with the nanny and relatives as soon as possible so they could get back to traveling and parties and all those things the upper-class socialites do.
Between that and the other ugly family issues that lots of money can hide, I have a profound distrust of the trappings of wealth.
Anyway, my Mom. Attachment disorder much? And that came out to how she dealt with her children from birth on. Mom’s way of dealing with a crying infant? Check if hungry, check diaper. If both of those are in order, leave them alone. They will stop crying eventually. That was how she advised handling her grandchildren. Yeah, that was my childhood. I was provided for materially, but never nurtured. None of us were. She had little to no sympathy for our pains (band aids yes, but hugs and comfort were not in her skill set), was not encouraging and almost never supportive of our goals and never praised our accomplishments. I did drama for two years in High School, she never attended a single performance. My high school graduation, I was running late to get to the family dinner out they had planned (and I called ahead saying I was running late), so my mother insisted they go without me. She had certain standards we could disappoint, but if we wanted someone to be proud of an accomplishment, we talked to Dad. If we had an emotional crisis, we couldn’t talk to either of them.
I remember when I was 18 they told me that the dog I had since I was two had to be put to sleep. I balled my eyes out and they…just sat there. Waiting for the storm to pass. Imagine being a pet lover and trying to find a shoulder to cry on with that pair after you had to put your dog to sleep. Crying over a breakup? Keep that one to yourself.
But they did come to the ER after my car accident and took me home. Materially functional, but not emotionally functional.
On top of her attachment disorder, Mom was also clinically depressed through our childhood. So she was either completely withdrawn or having emotional breakdowns, or doing all those weird things desperately unhappy people do to try to find happiness, such throwing herself into religion to the point it embarrassed Dad, etc.
And she had good reason to be depressed. First of all, her family kept her from achieving personal academic goals (this was back when good girls did not go to college for a career, they went to college for their “Mrs. degrees”) and then she was blocked from having the life they planned for her. She was a daughter of an Army officer, grandaughter from a very long line of Army officers. She married a Navy officer and was supposed to be the wife of Navy Commander or Captain someday. Only Dad decided he wanted out after two pulls (8 years). So without consulting her at all, he did not re-enlist and dragged her military socialite self and my two older brothers back to his miniscule hometown in Maine.
When they finished unpacking, she told him she wanted a divorce. He convinced her to stay on and try it out for a year. Within a year she was pregnant with me and felt like she was stuck there. She considered aborting me and leaving anyway, but was guilt tripped into keeping me by my father’s mother. (I have this from her and my Father’s mouth.) So her life did not end up they way she thought it would and she was emotionally ill equipped to cope with that unexpected path she ended up on. And she was angry about it. Very angry.
For on top of her problems connecting with others, she was also stuck in a time and place where the wife did what her husband told her to and that was it. Even if she did not have the attachment disorder, she was so depressed and resentful she probably did not have much energy for the rest of us anyway.
And depressed people who can’t connect also tend to be horrendously self absorbed. Dad was working long hours through most of our childhood and it took years for him to kick in where he realized Mom was failing. At that point, someone had to do something or they were going to loose the one good kid they did get: My sister.
So for most of our formative years the three older kids ended up “free range children” (“feral” might be another word to put to it), fed and clothed and pretty much left to our own devices.
Which created its own situation of severe fuckupedness. My parents were checked out, and bad things happened.
That is not to say my mother gave nothing. Her heart was a locked door, but her head was open to all. My mother was very smart, very well-read, and she and my father created an environment that encouraged that. My parents never talked down to us. They may not have nurtured, but they did inform and guide intellectually. They gave us books and encouraged reading and discussion. They taught us how to learn, analyze and think. They taught us how to express ourselves. They had adult, topical conversations over the dinner table and if we wanted to participate or get their attention, it was up to us to know enough to contribute and keep up.
My abiding good memory of my mother when I was seven Dad was traveling for work a lot, leaving Mom at home with three hellions. So she started to read to us every night. We would sit around (O.K. on) the dinner table while she read all The Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit, The Fellowship and the Ring and got halfway through The Two Towers before Dad was home again more regularly. Now thinking back on it, I once had a science project on sharks and she helped me get two dogfish to dissect. One time she took me on a whale watching cruise (I was big into cetaceans as a kid) that can only be described as spectacular. Once we had some sort of history project presentation in junior high and Mom actually put together my realistic Viking costume (no horned helmet, which was fine by me, they look stupid). She found a copy of the Lord’s Prayer in medieval Norse for me to read, and copied it in calligraphy onto a sheet of parchment. Those odd moments where she reached past herself to engage. What she could not give of her heart, she gave of her mind.
She had a sense of humor that surprised people. Normally she was stoical, proper lady, but every once in a while there was an earthy, silly side that came out and shocked, and delighted, everyone. I remember watching a Robin Williams stand up video with my sister. We thought Mom was safely tucked away in her room, but when Williams cracked this joke:
“What’s the proper thing to say to a flasher? ‘I don’t do miniatures.'”
There was this great peeling laugh from behind us that slowly subsided into a chuckle as she walked back down the hall with her coke.
And she liked beer. Despite being raised in a household of fine scotch and sherry after dinner, my mother just liked beer. The sad thing was as the whole micro-brewery movement got going, she was on medication that precluded her drinking.
Originally, she wanted to go away to the University of Colorado and study archaeology, but her family sent her to a liberal arts school in New England instead because young ladies did not do such things as research and dig around in the dirt. I sometimes wonder who she would have been if she had been raised in a different family.
Fortunately, the “occupation for a proper lady” was not something my mother carried over to her kids. Neither of my parents told my sister and I that there was anything we could not do because we were girls. That concept simply did not exist in our household. My sister is now an aerospace engineer with a Masters in Electrical Engineering (though Mom did often give her a hard time for not dressing like a lady).
I remained a perpetual disappointment. Though oddly, being “the emotional one,” I became the one both of them came to when they had some kind of emotional crisis. Not that it stopped either from being perpetually disappointed in me.
So my parents were my father, a good man disappointed by life who made all the wrong decisions for all the right reasons, and my mother, a good woman disappointed by life and unable to connect with anyone. And there was me, an emotional, creative child in an stoical family of academics who were unhappy.
My Mom actually told me she felt I had been born into the wrong family. She was trying to be kind and explain the problem she and dad has coping with me, even tried to put it in cute terms (“you were like the little eager thing who bounced out of the stork’s basket too soon”), but after the “I wanted to abort you” confession, that did not go over very well. “You had emotional needs I could not fill.”
So my childhood was not healthy, to say the least.
There was so much fuckupedness in my childhood to process it took me a while to get around to my mother. And frankly, it is not easy being angry at your mother. Not teen-angst “you didn’t give me what I wanted” angry. The “you betrayed your trust” rage. So there was about two years when we did not speak. Mom was a widow trying to remake her life again and I knew that she did not need me lashing out and recriminating her for failures decades ago. But when it was over I told her why I needed that time. Not in an angry way, but in a cool, logical way she could understand. And I think that was when she realized that maybe her parenting skills had not been sufficient.
But we got past it and we were friends. I called every couple weeks and we would catch up, talk about books, politics, etc.. I know I had a crap childhood, but I forgive my mother for it. In part because I realized she had been as unhappy as I had, and she, like my father, was struggling to do their best.
I remember my mother told me that when her mother died, she felt this profound sense of loss. “My husband was lying next to me, my children were down the hall, and all I could think was ‘Mommy’s gone and I’m all alone.'”
I feel no loss. My mother is dead and I will never speak to her or see her again. And I feel…well, not nothing, but not grief. Not the way I grieved for Dad. So I have been waiting for it to hit me, to process, in order to figure out what I want to say, and it hasn’t.
And this is especially troubling because I am emotional and I worry that it is going to hit me at some bizarre moment.
The more troubling notion is that it has hit me and this is it. This is all the feeling I can muster. My mother wasn’t a great Mom, but she was my Mom.
Have I become as disconnected as she was?