Perhaps the only relationship in my life more complicated than the one with my mother was that which my father and I
enjoyed endured. For years, and until my father's death, I was completely estranged from my family. But, for the past thirty years (nearly half my life to date), I have been blessed with a renewed relationship with my mother and siblings since his passing provided the opportunity for a rapprochement and the reacquaintance which developed thereafter, albeit with some significant continued tensions over differences in politics, notions of social justice, and even (if not especially) metaphysics.
Evening has fallen on that renewed bond, as my mother, whose somewhat prudish ways prevented her so much as ever having taken a puff on a cigarette, was diagnosed with lung cancer. Having in just the last twelve years survived a bilateral radical mastectomy for breast cancer, a stroke and its aftermath, and a leg fracture sustained in a fall so serious that it required a six-hour surgery the doctors did not expect her to survive, she's done. She is fearful of what comes next, and deeply regretful she probably will not live to see her great grandchildren again (whom she adores despite or because of great geographical distance) let alone watch them grow up. Nonetheless, she has decided to decline treatment, and has been discharged to hospice care in her assisted living apartment, where I spent the evening with her last night. I was taken aback by how rapidly she is declining, her diagnosis being so recent. It seems unlikely she will live to see her 94th birthday the 19th of this month, but the doctors are being especially vague with their prognosis.
After our visit, and still somewhat numbed by it, I went to Denny's for a late supper, it being one of the few places open in our small city after the more normal dinner hour. I decided to log on with my tablet to post a quick note to the "Top Comments" thread, and on the front page, in an eerie bit of coincidence, found Auntie Neo Kawn's superb diary on the Rec List about the impending death of her mother. I found in it both resonance and dissonance, painful parallels and reassuring contrasts. Reading it in the harsh lighting and plastic ambiance of my surroundings with frequent interruptions by an over-attentive server was as odd an experience as were the preceding hours of sitting by my mother's newly installed hospital bed, straining to hear her weak voice.
Now, I dread her funeral nearly as much as her passing itself. It will be held in a church whose narrow and judgmental approach to religion caused me great pain in my youth, and it is not an exercise in melodrama to say it nearly cost me my life at my own hands. I literally pray to God I am not called upon to speak, but if I were cajoled into delivering anything resembling a eulogy, it would go something like what follows "below the fold."
It is assumed that she and my father raised me. In fact, my sisters and I agree we essentially raised ourselves. Father was too busy with his medical practice, civic and church affairs to have much time for parenting. Nobody loved babies more than my mother, but once they learned to say things she didn't want to hear, she had little further use for them. So it was that my two sisters and I went pretty much without parental supervision or interference from kindergarten on, except when we went too far or too obviously across a line into one of the seemingly numerous family taboos. A drama would then ensue involving much weeping, wailing, gnashing of teeth, Biblical admonitions, and shaming. This was sufficiently unpleasant to prompt our developing acute skills at subterfuge to avoid such events at all costs, and to protect the inappropriate level of freedom we had enjoyed too young and come to value highly.
Education was revered in our family, mother having deep regrets for having dropped out of college due to lack of funds, and father being a physician and chairman of the public school board. My godparents and my parents' closest friends were both educators, my godfather being the local Superintendent of Schools. So, we were taught to read at an early age, and think for ourselves. Paradoxically, we were scorned if, as it quite often did, that "thinking for ourselves" led us to conclusions that differed from those of my father, and by extension, my mother, who deferred to his judgment in virtually all things. The skills in surreptitiousness mentioned above came in very handy in this regard, too. Trouble was, it often led to self deception, as well.
To maintain the facade of intellectual liberty, Mother and Father both would more often employ manipulation than edict in their parenting. They would exaggerate potential consequences for behavior they wanted us to avoid, or use the power of guilt. Neither produced the desired effect. The former served to make us doubt the veracity of anything they asserted. The latter just made us miserable after we did what we wanted anyway. A classic example was when I asked permission to attend my first Junior High dance. Now, dancing wasn't considered intrinsically sinful in our church or home. However, what young people might be tempted to do in out-of-the-way corners of a darkened gymnasium whilst sensual and nearly tribal rhythms were playing on over-amped speakers certainly was. So, the response to my request was, "Well, you know it will break your father's and my hearts if you go, but you are old enough to decide for yourself." I decided to break their hearts and hate myself for it. This was a pattern frequently repeated until I knew the script well enough I could play the recording in my head without bothering to actually engage her in the conversation.
Mother was exceptionally smart and capable. She mastered difficult crafts and was an expert seamstress. She was an avid reader throughout her life. But, she grew up in poverty (one of five children raised by a single mother), had an inadequate early education, and as I said, could not finish college. She was obviously capable of profound abstraction, but was not inclined to be a deep thinker. Her favorite genre was Christian themed historical novels. She couldn't stand coarse language, and would abandon any author who employed any words more "colorful" than a "Damn," and even that had to be used quite sparingly indeed.
She was a lifelong Republican, but of an era and wing of that party which had a strong sense of its progressive history when governing, and acting as the "loyal opposition" when out of power. She even served a few terms as a precinct committeewoman, but despite having much in common with his stated theology, became disgusted with the Pat Robertson campaign's takeover of the local and state party structure, due to their bullying tactics and ugly rhetoric. She remained intentionally oblivious to the fact that the entire G.O.P. has succumbed to that very model.
The most difficult period between us, for both my mother and for me, was undoubtedly my "coming out." Deception and especially self deception was eating me alive. I had to break free. I was made to feel unwelcome in their home and by age 19 had moved in with my first (and one my few) live-together boyfriends. He was a libertine, and to them the embodiment of Satan on earth. Mother abetted a particularly ugly bit of treachery. My guy was in county jail on a trumped up marijuana charge (which was later dropped, and which I am certain my father instigated), and I was home alone, worried, and feeling terribly vulnerable. There was a knock on the door of our basement apartment in a stately old house that had been divided into flats, and my heart leapt at the thought it might be the police having returned for me, too. In fact, it was my mother. Father was waiting in the car, knowing that since our relationship already was close to being one of utter alienation, I was unlikely to accede to any request he would make. She informed me that my beloved grandmother, with whom I was very close, had fallen ill, was in hospital, and not expected to live the night. It was a cold October night, and I hastily grabbed my lover's army jacket, which I loved wearing because it smelled of him and made me feel safe somehow, and rushed to the car. Not a word was spoken during the few miles to our community hospital, and I thought nothing of the fact we stopped at the Emergency Room rather than the main entrance. But once inside, two police officers and two orderlies were waiting for my arrival, forcibly took me struggling to an exam room with no explanation just shouted commands to quit resisting, whereupon I was heavily sedated, then transported by patrol car to the same county jail where I was held in an isolation room until a commitment hearing, at which I was unrepresented and allowed no opportunity to challenge, the ensuing Order being obviously pro forma (the Judge was a relative by marriage, the petitioning physician was my father's clinic partner and had never examined me).
I never again lived with my parents, until I moved in with mother after her stroke to act as her primary caregiver. I was the only one of my siblings in a position to do so, and I took an indefinite leave of absence to accomplish it. Neither of us have spoken of my hospitalization, except once, when she broached the subject a few years ago while I was caring for her, and tearfully confessed, "I didn't know what else to do, and your father was so certain it was necessary. I'm sorry I was such a horrible mother." Typically, I assured her she was nothing of the sort, to make the tears and the pain subside.
Despite all of the foregoing, I dearly love my mother, will grieve at her passing, and will even miss her. It may seem strange, but I truly believe there are no villains in this story which I'm reluctant to tell even now, knowing how private a person she has always been, and how mortified she would be to know it was being told. Certainly, if there is a villain, it is not this woman who had to grow up too young to help look after her four younger siblings when her father abandoned his family, was deprived of an education worthy of her intellect, and had been indoctrinated with a form of Christianity which perverted its message of love into a rigid set of dubious moral absolutes, no, certainly it is not she who is that villain. Especially not now, as she weakly trembles at the prospect of leaving earthly life and her remaining loved ones behind.
It's a good thing, indeed, that I am unlikely to be called upon to speak at her services.