“You know,” Aunt Jeanette told me at my niece’s wedding reception a week ago, “your brother was always your mom’s favorite.”
I nodded, agreeing with my aunt, a neutral observer of my growing-up years. Her intention, I understood without a doubt, was not to hurt me. Her motive? I don’t think she had one.
Tired and alone in the dark, riding in the backseat of a car during the two-hour trip home, I meditated on Aunt Jeanette’s opinion, something I hadn’t really thought about for years. Fact: If birth order were the Olympics, I was the bronze medal in my mother’s eyes. (My sister still argues this point with me, believing she was third best, and while I still disagree, I respect her opinion.) If I wanted, I could list, rapid-fire, the evidence to support my assertion, but frankly, I cannot think of a single purpose for doing this.
The truth, I knew, did not negate the love my mother felt for me, nor I her. Rather, it served to explain why, whenever I visited her before her stroke, she openly grieved the fact my sister or brother wasn’t there. Why she asked, dehydrated and confused out of her mind in the ER following her stroke, if I had called my brother yet. Why, whenever my sister joined me on my weekend pilgrimages to the nursing home, she criticized and made fun of me to the point where I stayed home during my sister’s out-of-town visits.
I wonder what it’s like to be a favored child? I imagine it probably brings with it more burdens than blessings, having to meet expectations and live up to the sort of love that is unwarranted, let alone impossible to reciprocate. Is this an attribute you can list on a resume or use in any meaningful way? Does it comfort you when life re-shuffles the cards and trumps your royal flush?
Aunt Jeanette and I agreed we didn’t understand parents who cast children in the role of “favorites.” I have always been conscientious about doing this with my own two children, hyper-vigilant in my quest to love them equally. As far as I know, I’ve succeeded in this aspect of parenting; I hope they think so, too.
The next morning, I stood in my kitchen, refreshed by sleep and coffee, when I was struck by how much this truth was a blessing, a gift from my Aunt Jeanette. It was an invitation to wash away the perceived depravity of my relationship with my mother, one that has buoyed irrational guilt to the surface of my consciousness almost every day for more than ten years. I realized that Mom’s stroke and death had compelled me to return her to the pedestal upon which I’d placed her when I was a child. I know many of us do that after someone we love dies, that we tend to martyr them and turn against ourselves with weapons of denial and self-flagellation.
“Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sins.”
Mom may not have loved us children equally, but I know she loved us, loved me, unconditionally. I’ve always known that. As for me, I now understand that just as much as she did the very best with what she had to work with, so, too, have I, and never more so than when it came time to act as her caregiver. Our love for one another was far from perfect, but our bond was pure and true and strong.
It was enough. It was always enough. And guilt is no longer welcome in my home.