Saturday, April 18, 2009

Things change and stay the same

My mother was complicated, but our relationship was not. In retrospect, I realize that it never changed or evolved the way that I would have wanted or even expected it to. It has always been the same and it has always revolved around her. Even when things change, they stay the same.

My mother was diagnosed as a manic depressive in her late teens. It was called bipolar disease later. Whatever the term, no one ever talked to me or my brother about that disease or what it meant to our lives. No one ever asked if we were OK, or scared, or angry. Everyone acted like she was perfectly normal and the crazy things that happened from time to time were not to be discussed among outsiders. When she would have an "episode" when I was a young child, my grandmother and grandfather would do their best to take care of everything and then when I became older I inherited that task. During these times I learned to watch out for her.

My mother was beautiful, intelligent, and talented. But she always felt that she was better than she was, better
than us or the rest of the world. It was her disease that gave her this confidence but at the same time it made it impossible for her to realize her potential. Throughout most of my childhood she alternated between depression, laying on the couch watching TV day and night, and intermittent episodes of mania during which we all lived in a state of unreality. There was a constant battle between realities - hers and the rest of ours.

I loved my mother and I have always felt that she did her best to love me. Like all children, I always tried to gain her love - whether by "being good" or getting good grades or keeping my room clean. It was not until I had a daughter of my own that I fully realized all that was missing. It happened when my daughter had just came home from the hospital after she was born. I was feeling insecure and tired and asked my mom to help give me her first bath. I thought that maybe this would be the moment - three generations of women - making a memory. I would tell my daughter the story when she was grown. In her usual form she just told me that you just give her a bath - you're a smart girl, figure it out. And that's when I finally did. There would never be any hallmark card moments between me and my mom and I would just have to accept things the way they were. I made a peace within myself - this is how it is and I didn't want to live without her, so I would try to believe that this was the best she could do and that it wasn't her fault. And I always knew that things would be the same until she died. That I would have to tip toe around her and her moods. That I would not be the center of attention. That my true feelings would not be heard. That I would never hear that she loved me or was proud of me and I would have to be all right in just knowing that she was.

Then one day she called to tell me that she felt a mass in her rectum. She hadn't even gone to the doctor yet. I felt nauseated but knew that it was probably real. I made plans to visit, once again putting my own needs and now the needs of my own children on the back burner to look after her.

I arrived at her apartment to find a thin, frail, sick woman. The house was in disarray and it smelled. She could barely walk. She hadn't made any appointments. When I saw her I started to cry and told her that she looked terrible and why hadn't she called be earlier. To that she responded that it wasn't nice to say that she looked terrible. Still living in her bipolar world. For the rest of the week I took care of her - not trying to keep her from sleeping with the milkman and trashing the house, but trying to keep the house from burning down when she dropped her cigarette, cleaning up after she went to the bathroom, and making doctor's appointments that she refused to keep. The whole time all I could think was this really happening, just as when she was manic and did crazy things. Will I forever question the reality of a situation? When she died, what I knew would happen did. She just slipped away without any words of wisdom, goodbyes, or even a will for that matter.

Now that she is dead, I miss her terribly. I want to call and tell he what happened. I can't erase her cell phone number from my phone. I want to feel like I still have a chance to change things between us and to be closer. But now that will never happen. Just as I knew before that it would never happen.


1 comment:

Kai Elizabeth said...

There is so much in your piece about your mother that I can relate with. The tip-toeing around her moods, the questioning of reality, the unfulfilled emotional well that is left by being the daughter of a mentally ill mother. My mother suffered from depression my entire childhood. I have memories of her shrieking at my father when I was 4, crying when she picked me up from kindergarten when I was 5, and curled up on the couch weeping when I was 6? 7?. Then, when she was feeling better she would overcompensate; indulging my brother and I with elaborate christmases, me with shopping trips, mother/daughter weekends; filling up the reservoir for the next crash.
The emotional behaviors I have learned from growing up in my mother's world have been at times impossible to unlearn. But she is still here and we are still working on it. Recently I became angry when, in a moment of desperation upon losing my job and meeting my mortgages (yes I have 2) I suggested that my daughter and I might have to move onto her property until I could get stabilized financially again. Because I was vulnerable, I asked her not to tell her husband, that I just needed the conversation to be between us. She balked and said how could I not include him when I am asking to move in with them? Suddenly I was caught in her emotional web. Instead of exploding I was able to reach down articulate the feeling she had triggered: that she had just taken the most sensitive and desperate piece of our conversation and shoved it back down my throat. She actually seemed to acknowledge it, apologized and we both agreed that although difficult, our conversation ended up being an important one.