My mother self-destructed. Like everyone who self-destructs, she had help.
Today, Mama lives in a nursing home. She’s doing remarkably well there. Everyone comments on it. Though she cannot say more than two or three words in sequence, cannot go anywhere or do anything, except to be lifted into and out of her reclining chair, she seems more at peace than – well – ever, that I can recall.
People are taking care of her, giving her attention, meeting her needs, like someone would take care of a newborn.
The irony and the tragedy
My grandmother wasn’t supposed to have a second child. Doctors told her it would kill her. It almost did. The baby she brought into the world was my mom. I don’t know how Granddaddy reacted to the trauma surrounding his daughter’s birth. But I know how he reacted in his 70s, when Grandmama lay in a hospital dying. He acted out, verbally abusing everyone around, including the doctors and hospital staff, his daughter and his dying wife. How dare she leave him! How dare the others not make a way for her to stay!
We didn’t realize until after Granddaddy’s death how deep were his own rejection and abandonment issues. We did see the anger that resided in him, always bubbling just below the surface and regularly erupting at whoever happened to be in his way. Grandmama taught us to excuse and deny it. After an unpleasant episode, she would whisper, “He has a good heart.” So from the womb, my mother heard about Granddaddy’s good heart and saw his angry heart and almost surely felt herself to blame – for almost killing her mother, for her daddy’s anger and for who knows what else.
Now, at last, my mom is getting to experience what a newborn should experience.
But it didn’t have to look like this. It didn’t have to end where it should have begun, with the middle of the story lost in the chaos of trying again and again to rewrite the start. If Mama had been able to see, to grieve and to embrace the truth about her dad, her mom and herself, my mother would have had a shot at moving beyond the lies that greeted her arrival into the world. She would have had a shot at moving successfully into and through adulthood.
Instead, she self-destructed. It happened right before our eyes. As my siblings and I grew up, married and started families of our own, we saw it – but we didn’t see it. For decades, we too did denial very well.
Then, trauma in my own life began opening my eyes to much that I hadn’t previously “seen” in my family. My new ability to see brought with it the new trauma of realizing I did not know my mother at all.
The first wave of realization broke through after Mama was hospitalized with a near-fatal urinary tract infection. A friend and I had traveled to my parents’ house from out of state. We stayed for more than a week, while Mama stabilized and I searched for a caregiver to employ on her return home.
That week, my friend did me the wonderful favor of initiating a top-to-bottom house-cleaning. I joined in. As we worked, I discovered much that utterly stunned me – evidence upon evidence of unresolved trauma and mental disintegration. Even more distressing, most of the evidence had, for years, been hidden in plain sight.
Like many people with mental issues, Mama had gone to great lengths to hide her true state. Much of the time, when we visited her or talked with her by phone, everything seemed fine. Of course, we wanted it to be fine. Yet, with each passing year, the signs of her distress became more evident, more insistent. Had we not continued to frame her as the person we thought we knew – and to dismiss or explain away what didn’t fit with that picture – we might have recognized the real significance of words and behaviors long before we did.
When we did realize, belatedly, we did everything we could to help. Thankfully, it did help. God intervened and worked major miracles in our behalf and in hers. For example, long-withheld inheritance money – that Granddaddy had willed away from both his children just before his death – came back to Mama just when she needed full-time care.
And so, concurrently, we thanked God, and we mourned. We celebrated the provision, and we deeply grieved the circumstances requiring it. We wrestled with the irony and the tragedy that the man who provided the inheritance had also stolen it in so many ways, just as his mother had stolen a heritage of love from him.
Are you my mother?
Have you seen the children’s book by P.D. Eastman titled, Are You My Mother? A baby bird hatches while the mother bird is out, seeking food for the baby’s first meal. The newborn falls from the nest and goes in search of its mom. It asks everything from a hen to a cow, from a car to an excavator, “Are you my mother?” The story has a happy ending: Mother and baby are reunited.
Recently, I came across that book title online. I remembered reading the book to our girls, but couldn’t recall the exact story line. So, I clicked through and watched a YouTube video of a woman reading the book aloud to her child. As I watched, a light dawned.
Ah yes. Oh my.
Over the last dozen years, I’ve formed several friendships that have proven disastrous. Happily, I have other friendships that are healthy. Yet, at this late date in life, I’ve repeatedly found myself playing with relational fire, so to speak, and getting badly burned. The day I saw the book title and watched the YouTube video, it had happened again, and I had been asking God, “What’s going on? Why am I setting myself up for this pattern to repeat? What can I do to stop it?”
When I read the question, Are You My Mother?, I knew: I was asking the same thing the baby bird had asked. I was seeking the same happy ending.
Subconsciously, I was being drawn to women whose lives bore similarities my mom’s. I was trying desperately to know them as I hadn’t known her, to relate to them as I hadn’t been able to relate to her – and to do for them what I hadn’t been able to do for her. In fact, the first of these volatile relationships had started about five years before the house-cleaning visit that opened my eyes – at the very time I began to suspect my mother was much more deeply troubled than we had realized.
Of course the relationships hadn’t worked. Instead, each had recreated the trauma of not being able to know, or to save, Mama.
Now seeing, I’m actively seeking to break the cycle and to go a different way. That involves learning and facing still more about my family and myself. It requires grappling with my previous profound inability to see. It requires grieving deep losses that, until now, I haven’t even recognized as loss. It involves forgiving my grandfather, his mother, my mother, others who hurt her, the women I tried to rescue and – this is big – myself.
Even more important, going a new direction requires acknowledging and laying down my judgments against God for allowing my mother’s life to play out as it has.
It also means admitting, “I need help.” I need help seeing what I haven’t previously been able to see, before I walk into the big middle of another mess. I need help making different, healthier choices on the front end of potential relationships.
As sure as the sunrise
As peaceful as Mama seems in the nursing home, it’s hard to visit her there. It’s hard to sit beside her, with so many questions begging to be asked, still unable to know her or to rescue her. Especially, it’s hard not to venture off onto the pointless path of “what might have been.”
“Yet hope returns when I remember this one thing: The Lord’s unfailing love and mercy still continue, fresh as the morning, as sure as the sunrise” (Lam. 3:21-23 GNT).
What Mama didn’t see or conquer, her offspring, and our offspring, do not have to repeat. Her life cries out to us to go a different way. With ears and eyes open, I can hear the cry. I can choose a different path.
And thus, facing and embracing great loss, I see something else, something that utterly stuns me.
Hope. Love. Mercy. Every day, newborn.
© 2013 Deborah P. Brunt. All rights reserved.