The Dead Parent
Being the girl with the dead parent has been a constant trip up for me since my mother died, um, almost 9 years ago. Most of my friends don’t have a dead parent. I do. And it’s weird.
The first thing people say is “Oh, I’m sorry!” Always. Without fail.
I reply “Don’t be.” (It doesn’t matter to me if the sorry is for my loss or for their accidentally bringing up the topic.)
Because, don’t be. She wasn’t very nice, my mom, and I don’t mind talking about her. You didn’t know her, and I don’t miss her. My dad doesn’t miss her. I think maybe she has a brother that misses her sometimes, because he didn’t really know her (and there’s also that convoluted thing around blood-relatives, right? People get… that guilty feeling, tricked into caring way too much about bad people because they’re blood related, but I digress). Nobody really knew her, and that was most of the problem.
That and the alcohol.
I think about her a lot though, because she’s… she’s complicated. Even now, she’s a looming figure, a specter in my life, a domino that caused a series of triggers that lead to my nearly-a-decade-now battle against depression. I didn’t feel sad enough, or so I thought, when she died. I didn’t even skip class when I got the call. I went to therapy for the first time a few days later, sensing maybe something was wrong with me.
Shouldn’t I feel… sadder? Or something? She’s my mom.
The therapist said “Tell me about your relationship with your father.”
What? But… I’m here about my mother. She’s the dead one.
Humor me, she said.
Okay. Me and my dad… we’re close! I mean, less now that I’m way out in Los Angeles, but when I was growing up and living with my folks, my dad was the one that always showed up to stuff. My theater plays. My basketball games. Whatever ceremony for whatever club I was getting inducted into. It didn’t matter that he worked nights, he’d use his dinner break to drive back and see it.
He helped me with my homework, asked me about my interests, taught me about classic rock. We would hang out on the back porch on his days off and watch the sun go down, listen to the “70's at 7” and he would light incense to cover the smoke of his cigar, which he knew I hated the smell of.
When I was but a wee one, he got me up and ready for school, made my breakfast and lunch. Watched cartoons with me like David the Gnome and Fraggle Rock. Sang along to the songs. Encouraged me to do the same.
He never batted an eye when I said I wanted to be an artist, that I wanted to go to art school. He believed me when I said “I can fucking do this, dad.”
The therapist nodded. “That’s great. I’m glad you have that support structure in place. Now tell me about your relationship with your mother.”
Uh… Well. She’s dead. That’s probably her most defining characteristic. Before that… uh, she was drunk. A lot. She drank wine, white wine, which I didn’t (couldn’t) drink for years and years because she drank it. For years I couldn’t drink wine at all. Any kind. But pink wine is quite tasty so…
Right. My mom. Um, she never showed up to stuff, even though she could have. She would just stay home and drink and watch Murder, She Wrote. She yelled at me a lot, because I was messy and I’d leave stuff out a lot. She called me names. We didn’t get along. For awhile, when I was in my early teens, we used a journal to try to improve our shitty communication.
“And how was that?”
I wrote in caps a lot. A LOT. Teenagers have a lot of feelings, right? We always abandoned them after a week or two. It didn’t help anything.
“So you fought quite a bit it sounds like.”
Yeah. And like, things would improve sometimes. When I started dating guys, she treated me better. I think she was homophobic, and really concerned I was gay. But she would act really weird around my boyfriends. Like, flirt with them and stuff. It would piss me off and gross me out in equal parts. It made me hate her even more. Who has a mom that does that kind of stuff?
“You said hate.”
“Do you think maybe that’s part of the reason why you don’t feel what you think is the proper amount of grief over her passing?”
I don’t know. Yeah. Maybe. Yeah. It’s… you shouldn’t hate your mom, right?
The therapist smiled. “There isn’t a law against it.”
No, I guess not.
“But hate can be a very intense emotion,” she continued. “And some people feel it is wasted on the dead.”
It was my turn to nod. Even if you don’t know you’re doing it, it is kind of a waste to hate the dead. What is it going to accomplish other than waste your time and make you feel shitty?
I was released from therapy a few sessions later, my therapist saying that I just needed to take more time to congratulate myself. I’ve conditioned myself to never be content in what I have or what I’ve done, and I needed to learn to pat myself on the back every so often. (Spoiler alert: I still could get better at this, but I know how to take a vacation now, at least.)
But I still grapple with the guilt. Guilt that I don’t miss her. Some residual anger that I don’t miss her because she was a bad mom. The weird feeling that I come off as awkward or strange when people make a “your momma” joke and find out my momma is dead, or anytime I have to explain how she died.
The Cliff’s Notes version is she drank a lot. It destroyed her liver. She died.
The longer version is she drank a lot. It destroyed her liver. The transplant list doesn’t like to give healthy livers to alcoholics (and they fucking shouldn’t IMO) so that was out. The day after Christmas in 2006, she banged her leg on the door frame to the bathroom and it broke. (She was that weak, that what would give you or me a big bruise gave her a fractured bone.) They put her in a cast, but it broke her spirit to not be able to move around without a wheelchair or someone assisting her.
Eventually her internal organs started decaying because her liver wasn’t able to filter her blood of the toxins. She received blood transfusions weekly, but it didn’t do much. She was heavily jaundiced, and seemed to be spiraling downwards. She quickly went from the hospital to a physical rehab center to hospice care. The nurses said it seemed like she had lost her will to live.
The last time I saw her alive was about two weeks before she died. She didn’t know who I was, but seemed to sense we were related. She sort of recognized my dad. The hospice wasn’t giving her blood transfusions anymore, and she couldn’t walk at all on her own. We pushed her around the small park in her wheelchair between the hospice and the hospital proper. She kept asking my dad and I if we were there to “break [her] out”.
To this day, it’s one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen.
So you can see why it’s kind of a bummer to talk about with people, especially if they haven’t dealt with a lot of death in their life. Or alcoholism. Or just, you know, heavy shit. I come off as… so many things. Angry: which I am, because her death could have been prevented. Nonchalant: because I’m not very emotional about her death. Or at least, not emotional in the way you would expect.
And so it’s “Oh, I’m sorry.” Sorry for your loss. Sorry for bringing it up.
The Dead Parent. It’s pretty weird having one.