Reflections on Mothers and Their Children
Another Mother’s Day has come and gone, and consequently I have been thinking a lot about my mother. She has been dead for almost a decade now, which seems difficult to fathom. She was a central part of my life for 44 years. Her loss left a hole inside of me that will never be filled no matter how many years pass. Fortunately, the anguish I felt at losing her has more or less subsided. I remember the pain of her final illness and death, but I no longer feel it deep in my soul. Time does indeed heal all wounds. They are like scar tissue, though. The wounds don’t bother me unless I poke at them too much.
I remember how incredibly hard it was to lose her. In retrospect, I believe that I suffered from undiagnosed panic attacks in the year or so after she died. I constantly woke up in the middle of the night sweaty and gasping for air. Lying alone in the darkness, I would relive her final days endlessly, endlessly. The clock usually read 3:36 a.m. or somewhere in the vicinity. I would thrash about for an hour before I finally pulled myself out of the tangled sheets. Sometimes I would shuffle out of my bedroom to watch sitcom reruns on the living room television or surf the web on the computer in my home office. I tried to read, but I could not focus on the words. For me, the obsessive reader, not being able to read, pardon the pun, speaks volumes.
Yes, she was my mother, and I loved her. What good son could say otherwise? I wanted her to live forever in a world where she was pain-free and happy. It was not to be. Life can be a bitch.
As I have recounted elsewhere in my blogs, my mom’s life was rough, especially at the end. She reared a child as a single mother on a modest income, but she looked forward to a day when she would retire with enough money to travel with friends and see the world. At 64 years of age, she suffered a massive stroke that garbled her speech and left her wheelchair-bound. At 67, she died of lung cancer, a reward for 50+ years of smoking cigarettes.
When I look back now, I remember the petty squabbles, the arguments, and the grief we sometimes experienced, my mother and I. If I am being honest — and why not be honest after all these years? — I caused about 95% of our problems. I deeply regret every negative thing I ever said to my mother. I cannot do anything about it, though. Not now.
I remember once when I was about 15 years old, we were locked in fierce verbal combat, thrusting and parrying as we were wont to do. As usual, I was being a smart-ass, and it infuriated mom. She finally erupted. “Why do you have to be such a little son of a bitch?” she yelled. I came back with what I thought was a witty retort: “I may be the son, but we both know who the bitch is!” Whew. I wish I could go back in time as a 53-year-old man and slap my own 15-year-old face.
But all families face challenges, including smart-ass teenage sons who do not know how lucky they are. They face these problems together. For all of their dysfunction and occasional animosity, family members mostly love each other. They prevail because love is the answer, as John Lennon assured us it was.
Love saw us through some treacherous days. We faced an enormous challenge after my mom’s stroke. Money was tight. Time was short. She was difficult to deal with because she was often frustrated that she could not speak well enough to tell us what was wrong. I did not enjoy the doctor’s appointments, physical therapy sessions, soiled adult diapers, and emotional tension associated with caring for an elderly, disabled parent. Many times I longed to walk away from that whole difficult situation.
Fortunately, I persevered. I was married at the time, and my wife stuck with me until the bitter end. It would have been almost impossible to handle mom alone, and yet I would have done so had it been necessary. I would hate to look back and know that I had deserted my mother in her dotage. I don’t think I could live with that guilt for the rest of my life.
Mom taught me well. After my grandmother, whom we called “Weeze,” died in 1996, I was talking with my pre-stroke mother about our obligations to previous generations. “Weeze did not treat you very well,” I observed, “and yet you were always so kind to her, mom. Why?”
I will never forget the reply. “Whatever else Weeze was, she was my mother. I treated her kindly for my sake as well as hers. I didn’t want to look back on her after she had died and see myself as the shit who abandoned her mother in the woman’s hour of need. For all of her nastiness and unpleasantness, she was still my mother. Now I can have some self-respect. I did what had to be done. I can look at myself in the mirror.”
Wow. Terrific advice. I have tried to live by that advice. It has served me well.
And so here I am as another Mother’s Day comes and goes.
When I think back on my mother with the benefit of hindsight, I no longer feel crippled by sadness. I can see her a little more clearly than I did when she was ill and facing imminent death. For all of the disappointments and struggles she endured, she experienced a lot of joy in her life. I like to think that I contributed to that joy. I wasn’t always the easiest person to deal with, but I trust that any final accounting will find the balance of pleasure and pain in my favor.
I am who I am today largely because of my mother. She was a flawed human being who did not have all the answers, but she did the best she could. She went to her grave knowing that she had always put her son first. I only hope that when I go to my grave, I will be half the person she was.
However long my life lasts, I can look back and say that I was deeply loved — loved without reservation or qualification; loved for the unique quirks and eccentricities that make me this person who, according to my credit report, travels under the alias “Mike Martinez”; loved for who I am even with all my failings and imperfections. That love has sustained me through many dark times. It has given me the confidence to put one foot in front of the other each and every day.
To paraphrase James Dickey, the knowledge that my mother loved me so much — and I loved her— walks inside me like a king.