“Well then,” Rabbi Straus counseled, “you’ll need to give yourself permission to mourn twice.”
The rabbi was new to our congregation, and I hadn’t met him yet; we were talking by phone. “Mourn twice?”
“Once for the mother you had, and once for the mother you didn’t have.”
I’d just told Rabbi Straus that my mom was under hospice care and was unlikely to last much longer. And I’d provided him with a brief background: Mom was not a nurturer; she was difficult, and had caused her children a lot of suffering. With her death imminent, I’d felt some urgency about pre-empting any assumptions Rabbi Straus might make about Mom. I couldn’t bear to hear anything resembling a mother’s love is unconditional.
When I level with someone about my mother, I’m always a little startled to be believed. Somehow, I expect a lecture: surely she meant well; shouldn’t I have moved on by now, forgiven her?
And because my three sisters and I are very close with one another and have been so devoted to Mom, the claim that Mom was destructive or disturbed is bound to confuse. She can’t have been that bad—you all turned out so well! runs the cheery skepticism.
She was that bad. But when do I make the case, and when do I let it go? If I smile and let things roll off my back, I feel I’m in some way complicit in the abuse and rejection that my sisters and I survived. If I try to set the record straight, I worry that I sound shrill or not credible.
Mom died on August 2nd, and shortly afterward I spoke candidly with an elderly relative. “Your parents treated you girls horribly,” she told me. She also observed that Mom “lost interest” in us once we grew out of babyhood. I was infinitely grateful for this validation, as I was when Mom’s physician reported that my mother had several previously undiagnosed psychiatric conditions as well as dementia.
I know this will sound odd, but lately I’ve been haunted by my own generosity toward Mom. Why did my sisters and I move her back here nine years ago? (Tellingly, she’d opted to relocate from Berkeley to New York just as my sister and I were starting families in the Bay Area.) Why did we obsess over hiring only the most loving caregivers for her, include her in seders, bring her to the kids’ recitals? Why the spontaneous Happy Birthday medley we sang at her bedside on her 89th birthday, just eleven days before she died?
What is the world supposed to think of those acts, but that they were the natural outgrowth of a wonderful relationship?
What I’ve begun to realize since Mom died is how humiliated I’d always felt by the way she treated me—how deeply, if irrationally, ashamed. By integrating Mom into our loving families, my sisters and I were rewriting our story, joining the community of adults concerned about aging parents. We couldn’t have the real thing, but at least we’d fashion a soothing retrofit. It was what we could do.
One painful aspect of losing Mom is the use of phrases like “your beloved mother” in some of the many well-meaning cards and e-mails I’ve received. It’s been an important part of my mourning process to thank each person in writing—with honesty.
Mom was a difficult person, I explain, and the challenge for me now is to sort through some very complicated feelings. I greatly appreciate the support of community at this painful time.
I know my rabbi is behind me on this.
Published in the Piedmont Post, September 7, 2011
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