Before I divorced him completely, he said, “The problem is that you’re hostile toward me.”
“I don’t feel hostile. How am I hostile?”
“You don’t act hostile, but I know you feel it.”
“I don’t feel even a little bit hostile.”
“Yeah, but I know you are hostile inside like your mom. I think you’re always guarding against that same hostility. I think you have to be careful not to become like her.”
THERE! Right there is where I want the conversation back. Right there where I sunk into myself and believed him that I had to work even harder to be nice, or I might become Mom.
Her name was Donna, named after her father. She was a recluse and she struggled with demons I never understood. Food, God, family, marriage, then diabetes. She raged at Dad when her blood sugar dropped, several times a day, and that’s what I needed to watch out for.
That’s what all of us need to watch out for. Mothers who failed to heed Dr. Sears and Foster Cline. Mothers who yelled so the whole neighborhood could hear. Mothers who were quick with a sandal across the butt. Mothers who sabotaged our diets with M&M cookies. Who picked us up late from ballet and didn’t notice we were stealing their cigarettes. Mothers who scoffed when we asked for therapy.
But mainly, Mothers whose lives added up to nothing.
I left that man after 16 years. The same number of years I’d lived with Mom.
Now it’s 2010. I spent April of this year in her room, cleaning; I filled two dumpsters, and I replaced her food-crusted keyboard, but kept the computer there for now. At night, I’d read her old notebooks or work her logic puzzles. I’d lie in the spot where she died, while my sister, home from her job, logged in as donna and played Bejeweled a few feet away.
With the door closed, we traded secrets about Mom. Then, Barbara told me what it was like to be there in those last months. It was gross, and it was moving. The anger and sadness could take you at the oddest times. Barbara said, “It was such a pain in the ass, and then after she was gone, all I could remember is the good stuff.”
Mom was all those things I said before. At the same time, she fought overeating and its guilt every single day of her life. Those demons just pummeled her. They pummeled her. But they also made her generous and compassionate. She knew what it was like for other people to fight inside, and she saw it in them quickly. She kept my heroin addict boyfriend in the family years after I dumped him. She took in all the lost friends, hungry immigrants, and incontinent dogs. She forgave me for so many nasty things. Too bad she never forgave herself. Her demons won in the end, and the diabetes shut her body down, one organ at a time. From her, I learned that every one of us gets some set of demons. And every one of us makes a life of living and dying with them. Mom fought hers from inside that room, hidden from the world at a game of Bejeweled. Only now do I understand that nobody’s life adds up to more or less than anybody else’s. That’s what I figured out lying in her bed a month after she had gone.
It’s 2010, and I can’t remember anymore why I ever agreed to the idea that I must not be like my mother. Give me that conversation back so I can say this one thing more:
“Fuck you. I plan to be just like her.”
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