My mother died July 22nd after a yearlong battle fighting a rare and deadly cancer, mucosal melanoma. It was the day before my birthday and I wasn’t there. Perhaps she picked that day to spare me her death occurring on my birthday. We had thought she would last longer. I had a visit planned.
My brother, sister and Aunt were with her as she took her last breaths and released herself from her broken body. My grief at not being there was enormous. My awareness of my own failings, clear.
I had last seen my mother just over two months earlier for Mother’s Day. I was there to honor her, to cook for her, to clean her home. I was there because I didn’t think she would be around for another mother’s day and I wanted her to feel loved.
During that visit, we had a big blow out – or more correctly, I had one. I was trying to open the cupboard in my mother’s kitchen so I could make her a meal. These cupboards, which have been part of my life for at least 45 years have big giant doors with little tiny rollers. They jam on the rollers constantly. I was in the middle of cooking when the doors jammed and wouldn’t move. I pushed and pulled. I swore. My Aunt came in to help me. They wouldn’t budge. I felt as if it was a metaphor – you may want to connect with me, but I am not accessible. That was the message I heard and it was as if my mother’s very house was speaking for her.
45 years of frustration emerged for me as my Aunt and I tried to get the doors opened. Mom was resting in the next room and hearing us came into the kitchen to see what the fuss was about. She was angry with me for messing up the doors. She tried to open the cupboard herself with her frail, weak and dying body. Something snapped in me. I screamed; “I hate this.” Meaning I hate that I cannot reach you, meaning, I hate that I cannot help you because you have never dealt with your difficulty with emotion, all of the blocks between us. I threw a broken vase (another item of the multitude of useless things piled about and filling every square inch of space; another piece of the ‘stuff’ between me and her) into the yard.
Mom began to lecture me about being emotional. She said, “There is no reason to get upset. Stop it. Stop being upset” – but underneath I could feel her fear of my feelings and intensity. I told her that there was a reason to be upset. I said, “I’m not attacking you. I am trying to help you.” Couldn’t she see that? Why was she yelling at me? I said, “I am your daughter. I love you. I’m trying to help you and I can’t.”
I told her that she sounded like her mother (who was very critical and who I found very difficult). “What did you do about your mother?” I asked. “I left,” she said. “Do you want me to leave?” I asked. “No,” she said.
Then she looked right at me. “I can’t change. My feelings are locked away. I’m all walled off. I can’t find that part of myself. I can’t do it.”
I stopped. There was nowhere to go. She saw the block. She knew what I was talking about. She couldn’t do it and told me so directly. The air went out of me. It was a very real moment and it was the end of our conversation. I couldn’t make her connect. I had to accept her limitations.
I didn’t reach out and hug her. I don’t think it even occurred to me. We went back into our separate spaces. A brief opening of honesty and then the space between us closed.
Here we were, two people who loved each other who couldn’t reach for each other. She couldn’t show me her need for connection. I couldn’t make her be able to connect with me. I didn’t know how to reach past her wall and touch her. What could be sadder than that?
It wasn’t either of our faults. We had such different needs. I need to feel connected by sharing emotion. She felt connection by chatting about the weather, what the relatives were up to and how many thistles she had pulled up that day. She simply wasn’t good at emoting and nurturing. She was trapped in her own limitation. I had pulled back years before as I had given up on connecting with her long ago.
I saw how much I didn’t know how to reach her, how hard she was for me to understand and accept fully. In short, I saw where I had failed her and where we had failed each other.
At our memorial service for her, her friends talked about a woman I knew only peripherally. They talked about how she would call them and invite them for a walk deep into the woods to see the pink lady slippers blooming. They talked about the loveliness of her spirit. They talked about their connection with her. They talked about a real woman whom they had a real relationship with. Somehow, without our family history, these relationships were easier for her. She was accepted and loved for who she was and she was able to love back. These friends saw the part of her that was beautiful.
Now that she is gone, I can see not only how much I couldn’t be there for her, but also how much I needed her. I can see how she wasn’t able to transcend her own limitations and neither was I.
I feel my mother’s spirit sometimes; I feel her presence around me. Her energy feels happy. I have a sense of her beauty. She whispers that she feels young again without her body. She tells me that she loves me; that she is sorry she didn’t know how to connect with me while she was on the planet. I feel closer to her now than I did when she was in body. I talk to her in a way never talked when she was alive. “I wish we could have done it differently,” I say. “I wish I had known how to understand and accept you. I wish we could have been closer. I wish I had found a way to bridge the gap between us.” I know that she wishes she too had had more capacity to love, that she hadn’t walled herself off so strongly from her feelings.
I know my mother loved me, and I loved her too deep down. I know she wishes she had done better, just as I wish I had done better in our relationship. I can feel her love now in a way I could not before. Since her death, our relationship has changed.
I think back to her and I feel empathy for her – for all of us and this incredibly difficult process of living. I look back and see how large and scary she was for me at one time – and how integral and important.
My mother needed me to love and accept her. She needed me to see beneath her Asperger self. She needed me to accept that when I told her that I loved her and she said ‘okay’ that that meant she loved me back. My father had the ability to joke with her and make her feel cared for. My need for her to be different and my disappointments that had accumulated over the years where she had not been able to connect were too large.
I no longer blame her. What is in our hearts does not always come through our bodies. We each have our own limited vistas. We are each doing our best. Sometimes the gap is big and we do not know how to bridge it. Sometimes the love that is there is not able to come out and be expressed. Sometimes our hurt is too big for us to risk being vulnerable.
Mom, please forgive me for pulling away from you. Please forgive me for not being able to accept you fully. Please forgive me for wanting more than you could give. Please forgive me for not seeing the beauty of your soul. I am so sorry. I am sorry that I could not find a bigger part of myself with you. I am so sorry for the parts of me that were not love.
I miss so much what we never had. I miss the relationship that wasn’t. And yet, I feel a sense of gratitude for her giving me this deep look at myself. Thank you for what you did give to me. Thank you for being with me now. I am grateful for your presence and our new relationship. I love you.