Mother’s Day for the Not-So-Happy: Our Story

Mother’s Day for the Not-So-Happy: Our Story

She walks haltingly down a darkened hallway to my room. It’s the middle of the night. She tells me in a slurred voice that it is my fault her life is ruined. She goes on for a half hour or so, then stumbles back to her room. I believe her. I’m eleven years old.

She wakes me up in the morning. She’s bright and warm, has made me Swedish pancakes that are properly thin and eggy, not those disgusting puffy cakes! We talk as I slowly come to, her bell-like voice a call to the day.

How can I put these two women together? They are the same, the person who strikes me with sharp objects and then shames me to clean up the blood, and the person who always shows up at my performances and gets me to art lessons, dance lessons, performances, and so feeds my creative soul.

For years, I shunted the Dark Mother to the back of the closet, and focused on the Glorious Mother that my friends envied: “It’s so easy to talk to her, she’s so cool!” More of a friend, rather, even to dressing alike. I experienced her laissez faire style, when left alone in the house or to wander under the night sky until early morning with friends, as freedom. Never even did homework. Can you beat that?

When in my 20’s I started the long process of healing myself, I reversed the two, began to see all the neglect, the cruelty, the exposure to unsafe situations without any skills to navigate them as signs that she was ONLY Dark…and forgot the other. It was too confusing.

I was lucky. Other older women, and men, adopted me. It could have turned out badly. Discretion was not a strength; I was not a good judge of character. Yet under their wing I began to learn how not only to listen (good at that!), but to be listened to, and to receive kindness and criticism (not always different from each other) without so much defensiveness that I couldn’t let them in. How to be in the company of others without commanding or disappearing, and how to value myself enough to get strong, and how then to lend that strength to others.

So who needed Doti? Surprisingly, I still did. We kept trying, visiting each other. The visits almost always ended tragicomically: the front door to my house left open and flapping in the night, in a seedy part of town; the bite marks on finger and arm because I picked a needless fight with her. In a hundred different little passive-aggressive ways, I tried to give as good as I got, impatient and irritable with her despite her heroic attempts to curb her temper, be pleasant.

And yet…we had our moments. The moments we knew we loved each other. The moments where we were at peace, and laughing. Over dinner, with her not too drunk and me just drunk enough, a meeting in the middle, lively conversation that extended to the personal, the political, the very private…flowing like bourbon (and in the back of my mind, the intention forming, how do I get to this place without the hootch?!).

The work continues: EMDR, CBT, yoga, meditation, rituals, group work, spirituality (I’ve at least 5 different religions under my belt), friendships, acupuncture, Gestalt. Of course, Somatic Experiencing. The greatest aha came, though, during a road trip of the kind she’d inspired in me as a child. I’m alone, it’s the dead of night, and my mind is freely roaming. The thought, this was not the mother I wanted! Rises up and with it fury. Then a sudden cool, and with it, a response from some place of wisdom, you were not the child she wanted, either. And in that moment, the first seed of compassion began to sprout. I was 39.

After it had occurred to me that my mother was a human being, I began to listen and remember to what I’d previously heard of her history. Of her own abuse by a family member, her own mother’s treating her as a rival, or a confidant…but only occasionally as a child to be protected. Of a fierce, creative, intelligent, beautiful woman growing up in the dusty topsoil of the Depression, at a time when females were little more than fools, and one had to make the choice regardless of religion: Madonna, or Whore? When professionally the best gig was still getting married to a man on the rise.

Well, she did.

And she was able to keep it together, for the home and the children, until he left her in true cliché fashion for a younger woman. Her children were 8 and 10. It was 1967, and divorce was only then coming into vogue, which meant that the married friends disappeared, and she was left alone and swinging from a rotten branch.

This doesn’t make it ok, what she did. Within a year, my older brother, who experienced the full force of her wrath with terrible beatings, ran away to our father. Child Protective Services concurred. It only makes it understandable. Just as I can now integrate the Dark and the Glorious, I could feel both outraged at her and broken-hearted for her, the power of paradox. I made the choice, at 10, to stay with her, and found a power of sorts in my loyalty; I even lied in court. She rewarded me with diminished vitriol.

Somewhere along the way, long after the visits ceased being cruel failures, and softened into mutual kindness and a shared spirit of adventure, she apologized. I hadn’t asked for it, wasn’t anywhere in my mind. It was at lunch, she had turned 80 the year before, and uncharacteristically she had become quiet. I looked up, and she was eyeing me with something new. I had seen what looked like general shame in her face and demeanor when she was drunk, many times. But this time, she was sober, and her shame was specific: “I know what I did when you were young. I hurt you, I know how hard that was for you. I’m so sorry.” Those last words particularly, uttered with such shame, such vulnerability. My urge was to protect her, to deny what had happened to keep her from her pain, as her younger self taught me so well to do. Taking a breath, instead, and with difficulty, I uttered, “thank you.” Carefully, haltingly, we found words to begin a discussion of mutual forgiveness and understanding.

To call Doti headstrong would be an understatement! She was dead set against being a burden to others, and to that effect, made the decision, which she discussed with me, to end her life when her mental and physical faculties would become burdensome. Never one to shirk from a difficult task, after she’d voluntarily relinquished her driver’s license and facing her 90th birthday, she attempted suicide the day before her 2016 taxes were due.

Fortunately for both of us, she failed. By now, I was in Denver, a long way from her Massachusetts home. Flying back several times to attend to her care, I visited her in the hospital, where she said to me with a wry smile on her bruised face, “I really made a mess of things, didn’t I?” and we laughed together. I packed her up and brought her to live with me in my 650 square foot apartment, after we’d both agreed, against the advice of my friends, that assisted living was not for her, not for us. We’d wake up each morning to coffee, hers with sugar and milk, mine dark and bitter, and we’d talk about the day, just as we had when I was a child.

She was proud of the work I was doing, turning a healed pain into healing the pain of others. This did not rouse in her a desire to keep on living. Her body was decaying, her mind was diminishing daily, and she was still committed to hastening her death, to end it with dignity. Compassion and Choices showed us, and Colorado, the way, for it was that year that the wise voters of Colorado elected to allow for assisted suicide. But within days of receiving hospice care in our home, she passed without pain, without anguish, and without assistance, peacefully into death. And while I mourned her, and miss her still, it was not a complicated grief. We had made our peace with each other, had spent five months holding hands and watching pretty dresses on TV. Simply loving each other.

So when clients still tortured by memories of abuse enter my office, I can hold both the outrage at the pain inflicted upon them, and the certain hope that the pain can be healed. That we cannot undo the shaping of our experiences, but we can further shape them into something that adds meaning, and power, to our lives.

Thank you, Doti.

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