A few weeks ago, my stepfather called to let me know that my mother was in hospital and would be undergoing heart surgery. He told me to call him for details. It was a brief voicemail. Very out of character. His voice also rang of despair. For many years, my mother has been — very successfully — living with a rare, chronic, incurable disease the end stages of which often include heart failure. For as many years, I knew that I would one day receive a call like this one. Given the status of our relationship for the last four years, I was confident that I knew how I would react. I was wrong.
When that Karma bitch came around to do what she does best, I knew that I would sit myself a front row seat, grab a tub of popcorn and watch the show play out while my dysfunctional life with my mother flashed before my eyes to remind me of why she earned this comeuppance. After decades of being the object of her contempt and neglect…after decades of clawing my way back up from the pit in my soul that abuse left…after years of trying to come to terms with the recovered memories of her being not only complicit but instrumental in facilitating the sexual abuse inflicted upon me as a child…this would be my turn to be strong on her, to watch her be vulnerable and scared then choose to do nothing. I would enjoy the satisfaction of watching the Karmic Wheel spin full circle. This is not what happened when I got the call. It’s not at all what happened.
I had my front row seat. What I also had was an ache in the pit of my chest. My mother has always been terrified of death. Honestly, who isn’t? But my mother has always been almost phobic about it. Given her chronic illness and what was now happening with her heart, the ache I was feeling in my own heart was for the terror she must be experiencing. Almost exactly to the date, two years prior, she was in the same hospital, in the same ward, authorizing multiple revivals of her father’s failing heart.
I didn’t know what was going on with Henry’s (my mother’s father) health until several weeks after he’d taken ill when the three strange visitors arrived on my doorstep, investigating a spontaneous confession he made in the hospital. Prior to their visit to my home, Henry starred in what I believed to be a series of nightmares. Now, at the risk of sounding utterly insane, I’m not sure what they were. Like my mother, Henry was nearly phobic about death. I believe that the thought of one day possibly having to answer for the things he did was the basis of Henry’s phobia. Then as death finally approached to give his body relief from his diseased heart, his chest was cracked open only to be revived to its painful, compromised state…the process repeated several times. It was during the space between one of these revivals that Henry made his excited utterance. It is my completely uninformed, unscientific, gut belief that Henry felt that the evil deeds he had done were anchors keeping him bound to this earth. The three strange visitors almost instantly achieved clarity in Henrys deathbed confession, expressed remorse both that it happened at all and that they couldn’t do anything further to achieve justice because it had been over 30 years, then closed the investigation. With that, I felt a lightness I never experienced before. It was as if the confession of this unspeakable act perpetrated upon me cut loose an anchor holding me down. Just like that, this part of me was free. Afterward, when the nightmare repeated itself, I told Henry that I am no longer a weight holding him here. I repeated this through prayer to my Higher Power. Two weeks later, Henry finally passed away.
Now my mother was the one in the bed. Checking in on her daily, her situation was not as dire as Henry’s was two years ago. Still…it must have been frightening for her…and it was surprisingly so for me. I was conflicted. Each note of sympathy my heart played, my head countered it with disgust at myself for feeling it. Still…I couldn’t stop.
We had our first and final confrontation over what happened to me as a child four years ago. My mother took no responsibility. My mother had no remorse. My mother told me that her allegiance would always be with her father over me. It was that day that I decided that I couldn’t have her in my life any longer. I howled and cried for the rest of the day when I got home. It was the day that grown-up Judy severed all hope that inner-child Judy had that things might ever be different. It hurt. But it was right. The amount of self-healing that has been able to occur in these four years is extraordinary. There was still anger but the rage was gone. That in and of itself is nothing short of miraculous. It has given way to enhanced compassion. I believe it gave me the ability to handle the information I received from the three strange visitors with the composure that I did. It is unfortunate that this is the way it needs to be…but it does.
Somehow I thought that coming to this decision would relieve me of the painful reflection that comes along with being a child whose mother is in poor health, possibly approaching the beginning of the end of her life. I try to see the Brightside in as much as I can so I don’t go mad. I thought this relief was the brightness in this incredibly dark place in my life. Wrong. I find myself instead struggling to find good things to cling to. At first it was like trying to find a needle in a haystack. My mother was deliberately absent from my life, even when she was physically present. During those times that we did interact, it was rarely pleasant. I had more rage for her than I did even for her father. It’s a mother’s job, her animal instinct, to protect her child from danger, not place her in it for her own personal gain. That to me is unconscionable. I swore it was unforgivable. Now I find myself here at a crossroads, finding it impossible to walk away. Instead, I dove head first into those haystacks.
The needle that shone brightest was It’s a Wonderful Life. As a child of the ‘70s in Queens, before the million cable channel options afforded to us, every Christmas season we were under the relentless assault of repeated broadcasts of this film. It seemed that whenever my mother was home and it was on, she watched it. Not blank way we do when there’s nothing else on. Each time she was entranced. I would hear her act out some of the dialogue. I would see her cry. Although we sat in the living room together watching the same movie at the same time, it was for her a solitary experience. I realize now that’s likely the reason why she cried at every viewing. The point this film drives home is that no matter how lonely you feel, if you’re doing it right, life is not a solitary experience. The things you do, the words you say, the places you are, effect others, often in entirely unexpected ways. My mother always cried when everyone in the town came together to help George Bailey during his time of need. He didn’t have to ask. Because of the person he was during the whole life he lead – mistakes and all – when he was in trouble, he had people lining up to help him. As they did, they shared what a positive impact he had on their life. That his life mattered. I wondered if the reason she cried just then was the same reason I did; would I ever have a George Bailey moment in my own life?
I lived a goodly portion of the first half of my life feeling like George Bailey did in the first half of the movie; like the world and everyone in it would be better off had I never been born. Unlike George Bailey, I felt this way because some of my earliest memories were of being told just that…and I believed it. The rage I mentioned earlier that I have recently been relieved of was largely directed at myself. I felt like I constantly had to prove to myself and others because I started out as a mistake, I subsequently needed to earn my right to be here. If I made myself useful, I would be needed. And being needed is almost as good as being wanted. Almost. Not quite. I watched George Bailey walk through the “what if” world Clarence created for him. I wondered if I would see something similar if Clarence talked me off one of the many ledges I teetered upon. I wondered if there would ever come a time where someone would tell me that one little something I said or that I did made a difference in their life. As it turns out, there are a lot of someones and somethings. I have been blessed with these beautiful moments personally, most importantly with my baby girl who gives my life meaning with every breath she takes. Through the years, my friends have told me that their lives are better because I’m in it and have missed me when I’ve been gone. Each time I write parts of my own story, inevitably someone tells me that it has given them courage to face and move past what has happened to them in their own lives; some of them are people I don’t even know. I am George Bailey and It’s a Wonderful Life.
My mother never had any friends. My mother kept away from family. My mother very much retreated within herself, becoming the center of her own universe. One of my dearest friends asked me recently if I think that my mother’s self-centeredness was her brain’s way of dealing with her own childhood demons, just as repressing memories was my defense mechanism. I told her that believe that’s true…but it doesn’t condone her transformation from victim to perpetrator. Most of us would live lives as perpetual victims rather than become abusers ourselves. My mind still couldn’t help but wander back to the tears my mother shed during It’s a Wonderful Life and the thought of her frightened in her hospital bed. Is she scared of running out of time to ever have her George Bailey moment? To be at the end of your life alone — even if it is a direct consequence of choices you’ve made — to feel as though you have come and gone from this world invisibly, absent of any positive impact is a heartbreaking idea. To move on from this consciousness to the next, having to answer for the sins you’ve committed and feel you have nobody feeling empty from your loss is an ominous fate.
I can’t erase the things that my mother inflicted upon me. Not from her life or mine. In my recovery, I am told that in order to truly heal myself, I need to “forgive them even if they are not sorry.” I have not yet reached the level of enlightenment necessary to do this. What I can do is what happened two years ago with Henry when the three strange visitors came. I can cut each of us free from the anchor to the past that keeps us bound to it.
I can give my mother a bit of a George Bailey moment by letting her know that her life has meaning in mine. It turns out that my mother was wrong in her original assessment of my life. I am not a mistake. I belong here simply because of the life my mother created and gave to me. How she feels about that has nothing to do with me and everything to do with her. I can only be grateful for the gift. I am.
I wouldn’t be the person I am today if I didn’t have the experiences that I did. I wish there was a different way for it to have come about but this is how it was meant to be. I can only embrace the end result. I listen closely. I am compassionate. I make people laugh through adversity. I am one of the helpers.
I inherited my way with the written word from my mother. My rage has always prevented me from admitting that but I’ve always known it to be true. The written page is where my mother’s intelligence and articulation unite to become melody. I can’t say that I share her perspective on anything she’s written but it is always so eloquently put forth and enjoyable to read. My writing has been my personal savior in so many ways. It is how I define myself. It is how I connect with others on more profound levels.
For a variety of reasons beyond my control, saying these things in person was not meant to be. I no longer question the wisdom of the Universe. I have learned to just go with it. Besides, it seems fitting that I utilize my mother’s gift to me of the written word to express my gratitude for it. I hope that my letting go and the peace I’ve made with the Universe about our past allows both my mother and me to move more freely to the next places that each of us will go. I hope that my prayers reach her, as closed off as she may be, so that she is less fearful and feels less alone.
It’s a wonderful life. I thank you for it, Mom.