Reality has invaded my mountain fantasy: Today I visited my mother.
She is frail, tiny and rapidly moving past old toward ancient. Her mind is absolutely clear and sharp as she approaches her 97th birthday this month, but her body is failing: she can barely see or hear, although she remains ambulatory, zinging me up and down the hallway at a surprisingly fast clip. A skin cancer, which she’d developed in a small patch over her lip years ago, has recurred, covering her forehead and her back. She refuses treatment; both my cousin and I are worried about infection invading the gaping sores.
My theory about people is that whatever true personality traits exist within them come roaring to the fore as they grow older. And so, sweet young people age gracefully into kindly elders with twinkles in their eyes and candy in their pockets. Selfish, mean or vindictive people become grouchy, grumpy, eccentric hermits.
My mother’s tendency is toward the latter: she’s suspicious and self-protective, fighting with staff, convinced everyone is out to get her.
I remember thinking years ago, when such ideas came unbidden and always felt subversive, that my mother relished – no, absolutely needed – to have an enemy to keep her juices flowing. Someone, somewhere, was always doing her an injustice. To this day, she trusts no one completely, not me, not even my cousin, though he comes closest in her heart. I wonder if that’s partially why I, too, find it hard to trust fully.
My cousin and his wife, both blessed with abundant patience and loving kindness, simply shake their heads over her antics and continue to watch out for my mother. She adores them, rightfully so. I, meanwhile, shake my head and breathe a sigh of relief that my mother chose not to live near me, even though her decision hurt mightily at the time.
I sat with my mother for several hours today, holding her hand and talking with her as best as I could (a combination of charades and screaming). The conversation was stilted and lagged in many spots. There is no connection between us anymore, not really. What once tied me to her – a vegetable soup of emotions including approval-seeking, fear, a hunger for love and acceptance, among others – seems to have dissipated over the past few years.
I am saddened to discover I feel this way, but not surprised. I am almost – I admit shamefacedly – a bit relieved to have the burden of seeking her love lifted from me. Perhaps it means I am finally beginning my own steps toward self-acceptance.
My cousin and I compared notes and observations during dinner. He confirmed what I already suspected: I am being punished for divorcing. He sees the disparity in the checks he writes for her: he confided that my mother has spent a shocking amount of money (tens of thousands) on my brother and she has sent generous checks to my sister to fund her elaborate vacations, her evening gowns, an expensive urn for her cremated cat.
Meanwhile, in the past year, my children have received $20 each for their birthdays. I received $20 for mine. There have been two unexpected $250 checks that my cousin “tricked” her into sending: one for Brainiac’s solar car efforts and one for Gambit’s chess expenses. We also received a nice Christmas gift: $200, divided four ways. And now that my cousin is charged with sending birthday checks, he has upped the amount sent to my children.
While it’s never been about money for me, it hurts to my core that it comes down to that and she is showing me exactly what I am worth to her.
I could feel much of what was happening simply based on my mother’s statements and the disapproval in her voice whenever we talk. I knew where I was headed in my family ranking two years ago, when I humbled myself and asked for assistance in purchasing my home. When my mother refused, saying I should consider subsidized housing because that’s where I belonged if I divorced, I realized I would never ask her for anything again, could never expect anything from her again, and whatever I gave to her had to spring from my own heart, based upon non-reciprocated love.
I can never tell my mother all of the reasons why The Ex and I divorced without revealing other secrets, but in fact, it shouldn’t matter: maybe I am selfish or foolish, but I think my mother should love me even if she believes I am wrong, as I would love her. She should trust that I did what I had to do and that it was not a decision made lightly or impulsively.
I remind myself that her slights over the years have only made me stronger, that I find my own perverse satisfaction in proving that she cannot buy me or manipulate me with her purse strings. I managed to purchase my home on my own, cashing in everything I had and accumulating the debt that keeps me awake at night – but I did it without her and despite her. I love my nest: more importantly, I love that my children and their friends love it; I am beyond grateful for the warmth and happiness and security that emanates from my walls.
I try not to lose sight of the good she has done for me; this, in fact, is what prompted my visit: a smattering of guilt over staying away and acknowledgement that she is, warts and all, my well-intentioned, flawed mother. I recognize she is old, lonely, probably scared, and possibly oblivious to the damage she does. She, like all of us, needs someone to care. I remain that someone, in a much altered form, of course, for my visits are no longer based on getting her to love me, but on her need to be loved as she grows older. I do care.
My pleasant respite has segued into dutiful daughter ministrations for the duration of my trip. But my cousin and his wife are by my side to shore me up (and feed me well), and I live with the knowledge that I am doing exactly what I want to do, without thought of reciprocity or recompense.