It’s a funny thing, mother/adult daughter relationships. Nineteen months before my mother died, I struggled with guilt. Seven years after her death, I still struggled.
Would she have wanted this? Would she have wished to imprison me in a vault of heavy emotion and burdensome self-loathing?
I honestly didn’t know.
During the last several years, I’ve met many adults, women, mostly, whose own parents have died or are facing imminent death. I’ve counseled and advised friends to put aside childish emotions and embrace their parents despite their humanness, their ungodly imperfection.
Not because I did any of this before my mom’s stroke. Only because I wish I had.
I was not fortunate enough to know my father, who died when I was five. For most of my growing-up years, Mom was my everything: Mother, Father, Ally, Nemesis, Support, God.
She was, however, never my friend.
I think she tried. Sometimes, I did, too. I now wish I’d tried harder. I wish for this every day of my life and probably always will.
For many years, I analyzed our journey in blogs and journals, which provided a skeleton outline for my memoir and master’s thesis/project. I dug through photos and scrapbooks for solace and information. I have always been my family’s historian. When I was a child, I would spend hours looking through my mom’s high school yearbooks and photo albums. (I used to get in trouble for tearing out pictures glued into her scrapbook, for good reason, because old photos and pages would get ripped, rendered unrecognizable.) Throughout my life, I’ve read old prayer cards and notes and newspaper articles layered in the family bible between the Book of Genesis and the gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Most of these treasures have been laid to rest in Mom’s cedar chest, an engagement gift from my father, one that has found a permanent place in my living room.
Perhaps the most meaningful and informative thing she left behind was a journal she maintained in the 1980s and 19901 after I moved away. Contained within the orange plastic binder are stories of heartbreak and devotion to Jesus and His Blessed Mother. Mom also wrote about the economic hardship she endured while maintaining a home paid for by Social Security and meager wages she earned as a nurse’s aid at a long-term care facility. Things spiraled downhill after 1981, the year President Reagan signed the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act. For my family, it meant that I would continue to be paid my dependent child benefits received because my dad was dead, but my sister would lose hers completely because she didn’t enroll in college the summer after her senior year in high school. (I am appalled that this act applied to all dependents, regardless of household income. That it was considered a form of financial aid is ridiculous, especially to those of us whose widowed mother’s income barely met the poverty line. I’m sure I’m not the only child who signed over her monthly checks to her parent earning $3.85 per hour at a lousy job.)
Reading her notebook continues to give me insights that are helping me write this memoir. However, it still tugs at my heart because I know I had plenty of opportunities to positively impact her life and our relationship, but because I had grown distant and callous toward her in my adult years, I blew it. Why couldn’t I humor her and accept her offers of lunch at Burger King after Sunday mass? Why didn’t I try to find out where we could go to furnish her apartment with a couch? Why didn’t I visit her more often in her apartment and invite her to visit me in my house? Sure, she treated me like crap sometimes and annoyed me most other times, but I believe now I could–and should–have looked beyond these things and moved forward, not without her but with her right by my side.
Too late, I realized I had always expected my mother to be perfect even though I knew full well I’m not or ever will be. Before her stroke, I refused to acknowledge she wasn’t just my mom but a woman as well, a mistake I hope I can spare other adult daughters who happen to read my story.
Since most of us aren’t gifted with psychic abilities, we will never know what’s ahead. I certainly never expected my mother would endure a stroke that would essentially end our little dance of Love Me/Love Me Not. Oh, the memories, the history I don’t have as a keepsake, and I can only blame myself for that.
That she survived her stroke and lived another nineteen months served as her curse but my blessing and redemption. I could love her in a new way and fill her to capacity with that love. But it was nevertheless an extremely painful time, not only because her life was impacted so severely, but because she whom I had known my entire life was lost forever.
I’m sure I’m not alone in my feelings of guilt and regret, so for those of us who are struggling with these feelings, I hope we can encourage each other along the path to self-forgiveness. But for those for whom it is not too late to evolve in your mother/daughter relationship, I hope you can use my experience in a positive way.