I’m Sorry Mom: Part 1

Jennifer Donovan
Sh*t I Wanna Say Before I Die
4 min readJan 9, 2023
Photo Credit: istockphoto.com, Larisa Stefanuyk

“You played bingo today?”, I shout into the phone. “How’d you do?”

“I won,” says the breathy, frail voice on the other end.

“What did you win?”, I shout.

“Oh, snacks,” she rasped. “I have more snacks than I know what to do with,” she complains.

I roll my eyes. “There’s always something,” I think to myself, and chastise myself for being so dismissive.

“What snacks?”, I shout.

“I didn’t catch that”, she says meekly. Every other sentence is “what” or “I didn’t catch that.” She moves the phone from ear to ear, thinking it’s her hearing, but I know she’s too weak to hold the phone to her ear, so it keeps slipping down.

Shouting louder, “I said what snacks did you win?”

“Uh… some potato chips and some candy,” she says, after struggling a little to remember.

I don’t know what else to say. I’d been shouting inane small talk into the phone for almost ten minutes now. I had ignored her first call, but when I saw “Mom” flash on my phone screen for a second time that afternoon, I reluctantly picked up.

You know that feeling of your stomach dropping when you’re on a roller coaster? That’s the physical reaction I have in my body when my mother calls. It was worse when I was a kid. When I was in my room, and I would hear her footsteps coming down the hall, my stomach would violently drop. I’d hold my breath and pray she would just pass and go to the bathroom or into her own bedroom. When she did, I exhaled and went back to whatever I was doing (which was likely reading). When she didn’t, the door would fly open (she never knocked. This was her house, and she owned my bedroom. Not me.) My heart would race as she barked whatever order at me that had to be shared at that moment. “You better be doing homework and not reading, missy!” Or “dinner will be ready in 5 minutes, so get ready to come to the table!”

Such innocuous statements, but delivered with bitterness and venom, as almost everything was. My mother never hit me, but I was terrified of her. From the safety of my bright yellow bedroom, I called her Stalin. Stomping around like a Soviet soldier, “I hate you,” I mouthed at her through the door, trying to match the anger and venom in my head that I heard in her voice every day. I was once convinced my mother got joy from making me miserable. Had she ever actually been happy, I would have believed I was right. My mother was resentful of me. She never said those words, but I felt her resentment every minute of every day. Constantly judging and controlling and criticizing me; trying to shape me into something that could plug whatever emptiness filled her. That stomach drop feeling lasted well into my twenties. I had been living on my own about two years when I realized it had finally gone. It only comes back as a faint shadow of itself when she calls (or when I make a mistake).

Hearing her frail voice again, it’s hard to believe this is the same woman who terrorized me as a child. Of course, she’s not. She is now an almost 91-year-old mother of ten children, lying alone in a bed in a nursing home in the borough of New York City, where she met, married, and began her life with my father. I am a nearly 50-year-old woman living in an apartment with my husband in New Jersey. We are both very different people now, but that child-like feeling of anger, confusion, and helplessness is never far away when I think of her, let alone hear her voice, no matter how frail.

“I better let you go,” her voice barely above a whisper. “When will I get to see you?” she asks.

“Soon!”, I shout. “Not this weekend, but soon! Love you, Mom!”

“I love you, too. Bye for now,” she says. I hang up before she can ask for a more definitive answer.

My mother is at the end of her life now. She is on oxygen 24-hours a day. She barely eats, and she barely gets out of bed, let alone her room. I think about how so many of us surrounded my father in his last moments of life, touching him and telling him how much we loved him. Maybe one of my siblings will be at our mother’s bedside when she dies. More likely, she will be discovered in her room by a nurse or orderly or nun. I imagine I will get a call from my eldest sister letting me know that mom has passed. The words will be met with an intense sadness and an equally, if not greater, sense of relief. I’ll finally be free.

I am crying as I write this. Crying from guilt. Crying from the small amount of love and gratefulness I do feel for my mother. Crying from the pain of absence and the anger, resentment, frustration, and fury. I am not mourning the impending loss of my mother. I’m mourning what never was and what might have been. I mourn what was taken from us.