Waking the Dead: A Mother’s Day Past Due

They say that hate is the other side of love. The intensity of each a measure of the other. It was a sentiment I considered trite before her death. My bond with my mother was… a lot of things. Most of them unhealthy if truth be told. Above all was a love almost impossible to characterize in its intensity. Maybe the best way to characterize it is in the hatred I felt when she died. Like most hatreds, or loves for that matter, it was illogical… complicated… as much about me as about her. Very real nonetheless. Now, over four years later, I can view it like modern art. Messy, unsettling, nothing I want hanging on my wall… but true. A portrait of both of us.

My mother’s story is too remarkable to express here. Suffice it to say that I have often considered writing down her own story when I feel like I can honor it. It was not an easy life. Many might presume familiarity, but the truth is that no one actually knew her. I was the secret keeper, dubious honor that it was. I knew the most of her… but knowing the most of her meant understanding that she alone knew the dark corners of her heart and mind. I knew the most of her… pathological liar, completely devoid of any sense of self or self esteem, irresponsible, procrastinator, deluded, deeply damaged, insecure… I know that sounds like the hatred talking. It isn’t. It is the unconditional love talking. For all those things, she was also selfless, hard working, loving… and all I had.

I believe I said unhealthy. Growing up, she and I were all each other had. Looking back, it was an environment she fostered. While my maternal grandparents, my aunt, my cousins, were all in our lives… they were kept at a remove. Trust. That bone deep sense of who it is you’re real with, was reserved for she and I. You and Me Against the World was our anthem. I can remember her singing it as it played on the record player. She didn’t raise my half siblings. Remember, a whole life beyond the confines of this. My father and his family were not involved in my life. It was burden and blessing. Most of my life was spent seeing it as the former rather than the latter. For all her faults though, there was nothing she would not do for me, sacrifice for me… she wanted the world for me. As little as she thought of herself, she thought the world of me. As unhealthy as she was… well I was (am) just as unhealthy in different ways.

Nothing she wouldn’t do for me… maybe that isn’t quite true. The one thing she wouldn’t do, maybe couldn’t do, was stand on her own. I was 38 years old when she died. 30 of those were spent first in her care, then with her in mine. She was in poor health and refused to care for herself. She was in poor mental health, then again she always had been. I resented it. Gods how I resented it. When the doctors would tell me how unhealthy she was, then say how she could live 30, 40 years more like that… the darkest corners of my own soul wished her dead. A terrible admission, yet one who anyone who has been a longtime caregiver can identify with. Looking out into a yawning future without change, that would always be wrapped around her needs. I had pushed off grad school, moved back to a town I hated, was in an incredibly dysfunctional relationship with my husband… it was endless.

And then she was dead. My grandmother, her mother, had just died. Peacefully when it was her time. The whole family knew. Mom just… died. Days later. She was fine when I went in to wake her for her breakfast, dead two hours later when I went to give it to her. And then my world went blank. It isn’t hyperbole. I don’t remember. Days. Weeks. Months. A move from California to Kentucky that is spotty at best. Almost a year in Kentucky that I only remember in glimpses. I was virtually an agoraphobic. It was over 2 years before there was any ability to hold a timeline. 3 before I was functional enough to work. It wasn’t over though.

My first thoughts, coming out of the haze, were of hatred. I hated her. I hated her for… everything. I hated her for not being there. I hated her for dying. I hated her for… for leaving me. I hated her for not haunting me the way she had always threatened to do. Those threats were now promises not kept. The years the doctors talked about, the years I had been dreading, were promises not kept. She had betrayed me. She had left me. It had always been her and I. Above all else. Before all others. Suddenly it was just I. What I had wanted since I was in my early teens was now true in my late 30s and I was furious. I couldn’t think about her without rage, rage that turned to tears that only fed more anger. Every sin that she had ever committed was being held to account like I was the one weighing the measure of her soul.

Eventually, that gave way to just trying not to think about her. She had left me, abandoned me, so I was going to abandon her. I refused to mourn her. I refused to let my thoughts dwell on her. If it took me unawares, I shut the tears off in a wave of anger and activity. I wanted no part of it. And yet, it was just another one of the games we used to play. I was playing hard to get. I was taunting her spirit, begging her to haunt me. Begging her to make herself known… to still be here. When it didn’t work, the anger would take hold again until I could tamp it down once more. In a bitter cycle that was really more about not admitting to what I was really angry about… who I was really angry at.

Don’t get me wrong. There is still plenty of guilt and anger to go around. I know that I will feel guilty every day of my life for unkind words and deeds, even thoughts. I will feel guilty for wishing her gone from my life. I will always be angry at my half-sisters for presuming to have any rights at all to a woman that they did not know, a woman who lied through her teeth to buy a moment’s affection… no, a moment’s forgiveness, from them. Angry at myself for being angry with her for those same lies instead of understanding what drove them. Guilty that I have wished since her death that she had been denied that closure, not for sake of the closure itself but for the idea that having it let her stubborn ass let go of life. There will always be guilt and anger, it’s just that now there’s more. There’s forgiveness. And there’s her.

I might not have known my mother, but I did know her best. I knew her as a woman who had been deeply damaged by her life. A woman who’s choices had cost her dearly. I knew her as a woman who felt selfish for making selfless choices. I also knew her as a woman who was so deeply unhappy. Her heart was sick and sore of the life she regretted. Her body was sick and sore. I had known for some time that her life had become burdensome. I was just selfish enough to want her to keep on living… for me. In the last year of her life, she was given the greatest gifts life had ever given her. A form of reconciliation with my half siblings. Something I had and have no right to resent her for (them… well that’s another story for another day). As much as I hated her dishonesty with them, I don’t care. I don’t care about them or what they think of me or her. I care about her. It gave her peace.

I was so angry at her for leaving me. For not haunting me like she’d promised. I should not have lost faith in a woman who famously as a parent never made a threat she didn’t carry out or a promise she didn’t keep. Of course she haunts me. When I drive through Lexington, looking at the beautiful rolling pastures, I think about how beautiful it would be to her. When I am out schooling the horses, her voice is in my hear. I even hear her in my own words when I am giving a lesson. For some reason, the only WinterSolstice Arabians hat I can find is the one with her name on the back, not mine. I wear it to shows and she is with me. When I am waiting tables I think of the hours she put in doing the same thing. When I put something off, I think about how I hated it when she did that. She never left, I just had to stop being too angry to listen to her… a problem I often had.

Nothing changes in life or death, just the dance partners. Our history really isn’t a mess I want on my living room walls. I am my mother’s daughter, far too private to want the world staring at it. It would also be far too distracting. It also isn’t a finished work. Her ashes, something she always said she didn’t want stuck in some box somewhere, are still on top of a bookcase. They are flanked by my grandfather’s hand painted duck decoys though so I’m not sure she’d hate it too much. I still need to figure out how to get her where I want her. She always wanted to go to the big events at Lexington Horse Park that we would watch on TV. Maybe save some for the race track. Hell, I think she’d be happy if I found a way to feed them to the horses and they ended up in the shit pile. You had to know her. Still. I’m working on it. And me. Her… well she has the next life to finish that project.

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