This past Saturday the 27th my mother surrendered to cancer, almost a year to the week that she first told me she was dying. I got the call from my uncle while my fiancé Julia and I were out to dinner. We both went home and cried. So much for the rest of our evening.
The whole thing was not unlike how my father told me my parents were separating when I was 13. They’d been fighting a lot, and mom was drinking heavily. They really hadn’t told me much, but children can sense when something’s wrong. I was watching Saturday morning cartoons, and my dad came down with a severe look on his face – a look I’d not seen from him before.
So much for the rest of my teenage years.
This is not a eulogy, nor am I attempting to speak ill of the dead. I’m speaking honestly of the dead. During one of our last conversations, Mom told me the following:
“Honey, one day you’re just going to have to accept the fact that I was not a very good mother to you.” That’s the closest I would ever come to receiving an apology. I also believe that it gives me permission to say what I need to say.
And what I need to say, is that I’ve been grieving my mother – or rather, our relationship, our family – for over 30 years.
Mom’s passing wasn’t unexpected. Even before my mom knew that she had cancer, I could sense something was off. She kept telling me she was “healthy as a horse,” but my mom never, ever, told me an entirely straight story. One of her friends said her secrecy was to “preserve her dignity.” That’s what my mom’s friends have always done though: euphemistically defended her utter inability either to be truthful, or be a mother.
So what I feel inside is a combination of numbness, and sameness. Everything feels, sadly, quite the same. My mom’s passing has not impacted my day-to-day life, save for a kind of exhaustion that permeates my whole body. I have to force myself to get up, to do things. So I know I’ve been impacted by my mom’s death.
The short version of what happened to our relationship is that Mom began teaching English at a private school in Raleigh, and fell in love with one of the administrators who also happened to be a woman. She felt romantic love – probably for the first time in her life – and found herself trapped in a marriage that she never realized she was trapped in. That was the beginning of the end. Her drinking was simply a side effect of all those pent up emotions, because I rarely saw my mom drink when I was growing up. Even if she had been, I wouldn’t have been able to tell. My dad, who was busy focusing on his own career (really, they both were) seemed completely blind-sided.
Mom would come to pick me up, and be drunk. I would tell my dad, who could also clearly see my mother’s condition, and he would send me with her anyway. My guess is he was concerned with appearances, or maybe just didn’t like me challenging his authority. Regardless, there were times I’d have to grab the wheel out of my mom’s hands when she was nodding off on the road. Eventually I told my dad I no longer wanted to see her, and for almost two years I hated my mom.
The typical things that always accompany alcoholism began to occur. Mom’s life fell apart, she went to rehab, relapsed a bit and then was able to stitch a small stretch of sobriety together thanks to AA. To regain my love, she bought me things – clothes, CDs, food, nearly anything I wanted. Material things were always her way of showing love for someone. But it was never really her money. I came to find out it was my grandparents’ money. They had given her a credit card, in addition to multiple other credit cards she had opened for herself. My uncle related to me that she would secretly call her parents and ask for money in the early days of my parents’ marriage.
Those bills went unpaid for years. She ended up declaring bankruptcy at one point. In her house in Colorado, my uncle and I carried out 55 gallon trash bags full of unopened credit card statements, store bills, phone bills, as well as tons of beer and wine bottles hidden in the master bedroom of her house where she never slept. What was strange is that my mom left money stashed all over her house. So there was money to pay the bills. She simply never paid them. My poor uncle was left with the task of seeing that all those debts got settled. I got the task of cleaning out her storage sheds (two in North Carolina, one in Colorado).
Years before her diagnosis I would literally beg my mother to help with her storage units, knowing eventually I’d end up having to deal with them. I would ask over and over, and she would say it’s no big deal. “I can manage it.” But she couldn’t, and she didn’t – all the while claiming she was doing the best she could and simultaneously doing nothing. My guess is that, like the unpaid bills, she hoped she’d be long gone before she’d have to face her loved ones cleaning up her messes for her.
While cleaning out one of the storage units, I came across the documents finalizing my parents’ divorce. Dad had always told me he asked my mom to leave and initiated the divorce. My mom said that she didn’t fight to get custody of me because she knew that she was in bad shape and probably couldn’t have handled it. For years I accepted those answers.
However, having been a participant in both AA and NA for the better part of ten years, I’ve known many single moms. Moms who fled their husbands. Moms who had no idea who the father was. Moms who had been pregnant in the streets. And every single one of them fought tooth and nail to keep their kids. Even the ones who lost custody because of their addictions desperately fought in court and in the rooms to gain custody and/or visitation. I’ve watched them weep uncontrollably. (To be fair I’ve seen many single dads do likewise.)
Mom never once lived in the streets. She knew who the father was. She might’ve been in a very bad way with her alcoholism, but was in treatment and in the rooms trying to get well. I’d developed several issues with her version of the story, and suddenly it all became clear.
As it turns out, she was the plaintiff. Her name was listed first.
She wanted the divorce, petitioned for it, and got it a year later in 1988. Whether it was the alcohol talking, or her frustration, or just selfishness, she’d become tired of being a wife and a mother. I know in my heart it was something she always regretted, but regret is not a mechanism for personal change.
My dad, whose pride was already wounded knowing that mom had left him for a woman (which in the mid-1980s was taboo, if not outright scandalous), probably couldn’t handle another bruise to his ego. Hence, his version of things.
So this is not a eulogy. This is a story of secrets. My parents’ marriage was one secret after another, secrets based on shame, on fear, on embarrassment and disappointment.
Secrets are unique in that they require work to maintain. When someone asks “can you keep a secret,” they’re asking if you have the physical ability to carry it, similar to asking if you can lift a heavy box.
It’s stressful to keep a secret, and in my opinion it’s unfair for an adult to place that burden on a child. Which they do, either by direction instruction or indirect transference. My uncle, until I saw him last summer, had no idea about what caused my parents marriage to end. I’m beginning to suspect that my dad never told his siblings the full truth of their relationship either.
Finally, secrets prevent healing. Our culture teaches us to bear our hidden burdens for the sake of others. But those emotions, those hurts, will come out eventually – in odd and unexpected ways. Anger that seems to come out of nowhere, over nothing. Unending depression. Ruined marriages. It is of benefit to no one to bury the past without examining it. One way or another, it will eat you alive.
But I’m letting all that go now. I will no longer be the keeper of the secrets.
As Anne Lamott, one of my mom’s favorite writers, said: “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”
I only wish I’d known that I had this power long ago.