Honoring My Mother Eight Years Later
For as long as I could remember, my mother had a problem with drinking.
There was always upheaval whenever she drank. For the most part, I can remember her being normal when she wasn't drinking and I credit my father with being able to help her control the excessiveness that caused the upheaval. But he died, leaving her a young widow of 38 and also leaving a woman who was completely unprepared for life without the man who seemed to be her guardian and her shield, often more than her husband, her lover or her best friend.
I know that he loved her. For he cared enough to put up with so much. So, as a child, I put a mental salve on that part of their life and in my mind assumed that he knew things about her past that she could only share with him because of how horrible they must have been. It was only many years later, that I found out that I was right and by then, it was too late to tell them both anything I might have wanted to tell them. They were both gone.
My Mom was funny. She was usually what most people described as the “life of the party”. When she was around and as long as the drinking didn't get out of hand, she drew people to her. But whenever the drinking took over, there were always arguments. And she argued with anyone over anything. It didn't matter what or who or why, she was beyond reason once she passed that point of no return. I was quite literally, embarrassed to be her child.
It was painful for me as her only child because as children tend to do, I took some measure of responsibility for her actions. Its of no use to tell me that I couldn't have been responsible for we all know that little children tend to blame themselves, unreasonably, for the behaviors of their parents.
I grew up uneasily aware that anything might set her off and so I became an advocate, of sorts, of perfection. What a tough way for a kid to learn about the world! I knew that if a rug got kicked up, there might be hell to pay. I knew that if the bathtub wasn't scrubbed to perfection, that I might get dragged out of bed in the middle of the night and be made to scrub it again. I knew that the kitchen must pass the white glove test every night, every meal, every day or there would be hell raised and God knows I didn't want that. I was too young to understand that her angers and frustrations and unhappiness weren't really directed at me but were misguided attempts to lay blame for her misery. That doesn't matter, however, when you are a child and you believe that your mother hates you.
My Dad was the barrier between my mother and me. As long as he was alive, I knew that he would intervene when her unreasonable behavior towards me might get ugly. Is it any wonder he was my hero?
But he got sick in my 11th year and died when I was 13.
If you are a fatalist, you would believe that his death was meant for a reason and that possibly that reason was to drive my mother and I closer together, or to force her to realize that she was sick and needed help. But neither of those things happened. At least not at that point.
She descended into hell. Literally. She drank almost constantly. It was May when Dad died and the weather had turned warmer. We had no air conditioning so like most people back then, we made use of fans. There was a floor fan which sat in the living room and I remember coming home from school that May and finding my mother lying on the living room floor, dressed only in her panties, passed out drunk with beer bottles littering the carpet everywhere.
How long she had been drinking and how much was anyone's guess. I remember feeling scared. At 13, I knew she was in serious trouble and that I, too, was also in trouble for I had no idea how to help her or even how to avoid her, for her anger at my Dad's death seemed centered on me. I felt as though I was living in the Twilight Zone standing in that living room, that spring day in May. It wasn't normal to come home from school at 3:00 PM and find your mother in a darkened room, darkened house, passed out drunk. I wanted to run away and be normal. Like my friends whose mothers were waiting with cookies and milk and eager to hear about their child's school day.
I felt utterly and completely alone.
And worse....I was.
When she came to, there was always a misstep, a mistake, a ball dropped by me that she would pounce on and terrorize me over. It didn't matter that I had done nothing to warrant her treatment and that I had done almost all any human being could do to avoid her wrath. What mattered to her was that she needed an outlet for her angers and frustrations and grief and I was that easy outlet.
I was her target audience.
I had been the luckiest little girl in the whole world when my father was alive. I knew that I had a mother who was different, but I was able to successfully compartmentalize her and her behavior when my Dad was there. He loved me. And that made everything else bearable. Once he was gone...everything changed and I no longer felt safe. The remaining years until I graduated from high school, were spent in a hellish nightmare. I longed to be at school or at friends houses...anywhere but at home where at any second, I would be reminded that I was living with a person who was completely and totally out of control and had no idea what she was doing and who she was doing it to.
I had an Aunt Sarah and a grandfather whom I lived with off and on during those years. As I grow older, my love, appreciation and thanks to them, grows, for without them and their vigilance in watching over me, Im not sure where I may have ended up or if I would have survived.
I was different and I knew it.
As a teenager, the worst feeling in the world is to feel different. Marching to the beat of a different drummer isn't what most teens long for. I lived with dread that my secret would be found out and I learned to become a shadow at home.
I don't really know how I endured those first few years after my Dad died. I think I was so busy trying to get along with my crazy mother that I never really allowed myself to grieve for him. It hit me many years later as I began to heal myself and I finally allowed myself to remember him and when it hit, it hit hard.
I remember one day, in my late teens, particularly. I decided to go to the cemetery. I stood there and said some prayers, but I didn't cry. It was one of those autumn days that are made just to remind you that winter is coming....grey skies, chilly winds, leaves blowing all around. I walked back to my car and stood there for a second looking down the hill at where my Dad lay and I was suddenly overtaken by this incredible feeling of loneliness. Not for myself, but for my Daddy, whom I felt I was leaving in this cold, dark place and all of a sudden, a dam burst, and I began crying. Not just crying, but sobbing and wailing. I know I spoke. I know I said words, but I have no memory of what those words were. I only know that it finally hit me that my sweet and loving Daddy was gone and I stood there leaning against the car crying my heart out for what had been lost and what could never be re-gained.
I don't know if people know that exact moment when they feel they transition from childhood into adulthood. Perhaps it had been happening all along after my Dad died, but I remember feeling, that day in the cemetery, very much the way I imagined an adult felt. I knew that I would never be able to go back to that little girl who grew up safe in the warmth and love of this wonderful man and something inside me began to accept.
My Mother's life was horrible. It was really a tragic story from her childhood on. So when she died 8 years ago today and my husband found her AA personal inventory as we were clearing things from her apartment, I read her story and for the first time and I saw her as the person she was. Long before I was even a glint in God's eye, the damage was already done to her by an abusive father of her own and a mother who did her best with 8 children, but fell short.
In her own words, she described a childhood that sounded as though it was straight out of Dickens and a guarantee of unhappiness in later life. I read her life story and why she began drinking and I cried.
I saw her the way she was. Flawed long before I ever saw her flaws. Unable to cope and not knowing how to reach out for help.
My Dad was her savior. In her own words, he saved her life. When I think of that, of how much she depended on him, of how much she needed him and how much he rose to all of that and then how it must have felt to have him taken away from her long before it was time, something inside me hurts.
I spent my adult years trying to pretend that the years after Dad died, never really happened. Its easy to do when you are raising a family of your own. However, God has a way of bringing you full circle to face your demons and I was no exception. I was repeating the pattern, only without alcohol. I was angry. I was abusive and I was justified.
I was a victim and I had the right to be unhappy and miserable and in being that way myself, I felt that I had the right to take anyone elses happiness away as well.
Oh the tangled mess our minds and psyche's create in us!
It took many years of therapy to begin to undo the mistakes made in my childhood and it also took being told that I could be a victim for the rest of my life, I had that right. But that in doing so, I would never be able to fully be happy for I would always be blaming my mother for everything and in essence, still re-playing that tired, old tape and I wanted to stop the cycle and be fully and completely happy and raise happy children and have a happy life.
And so I began to put all the pieces back together again.
When my mother died on January 28, 2007, I had begun the long journey of forgiveness.
“It is in forgiving, that we are forgiven”
I not only needed to forgive her, I needed to forgive myself. I needed to stop hating my mother and learn to accept her for what she was and all that she endured. And I needed to stop the guilt that I had lived with most of my adult life for hating her and what she had done to me.
Alcoholism is a hideous disease and often can end, as in my mother's case, in end stage liver disease. What I didn't know was how it slyly and stealthily steals the mind of the alcoholic and leaves behind a shell of a human being.
And so she died because of the very thing she felt had saved her from her demons....alcohol. And even now, 8 years later, that sad thought is hard for me to consider without tearing up and getting a lump in my throat.
I honor my mother today for all that she taught me and she taught me a lot. I was never very good at math in school, but I can add a column of figures in no time flat..just as she could. I know the difference between a pansy and a petunia and I owe that to her fabulous gardening skills. Im an excellent cook because she was. Im organized (almost to a fault) because “everything has a place and everything belongs in that place”. Im a martinet on doing it right the first time because “if you had done it right the first time, you wouldn't have to be doing it again”.
But more than all of those somewhat superfluous things...I honor her today for the struggle that was her life and her ability to stop drinking finally in mid life as she tried to turn it all around. What a great life lesson she passed on!
I am no longer embarrassed or ashamed of my Mom.
And I miss her and I used to think I wouldn't.
When all is said and done, we only get one mother. I never thought I would say this..but I am so glad she was mine!