In the days following the news of my mother’s death, I kept thinking of the lyrics to an old song by Journey – Mother, Father. Each time, these lines brought me to tears.
‘She sits alone, an empty stare
A mother’s face she wears
Where did she go wrong,
The fight is gone’
My mother was a few days shy of her 90th birthday when she died on March 31, 2017. This was, for her, long awaited, and for her husband and five children, very much expected. As I stood in my kitchen on the phone with my father and sister in Florida, the wind was knocked out of me – I knew, but it was still a massive gut punch. My husband encircled me in his arms from behind as I started to fall – I was not expecting that at all. Not even a little bit. I sobbed silently, listening to the call and understanding that things would never ever be the same.
I had known for many years that my parents decision to have me so late in life would leave me alone and without them before I was ready, but I actually had my mother for 50 years which is pretty darn amazing. In my work as a therapist and in my personal life I know many many people who had so much less time with one or both of their parents.
My mother was a force of nature and in many ways, I am her daughter. She was an avid volunteer her entire life, most notably serving as President of the Lenni-Lenape Girl Scout Council in New Jersey. I have great memories of going to meetings with her when I was too little to be in school.
I even got to meet Princess Teata, a real live Native American princess. Another great memory was being taken to a place called North Jersey Training School where people who were not able to live at home with their families stayed. I learned to accept all people, regardless of any differences from a very young age.
It would be unfair to talk about only the good and leave out the rest. My mother was a complicated woman, strong, independent and, unfortunately, clinically depressed for most of her life. There were some long stretches when she did not get out of bed for weeks, even months at at time. I was too little to understand, and sadly in that time, treatment was not talked about for clinical depression. Her volunteer work saved her I think, it gave her a purpose and a way out. When I work with clients who are depressed, I often encourage them to find something, anything to look toward to help them pull up and out of the sadness and despair.
Our relationship was complicated and ironically I now moderate groups for ‘dysfunctional families’ yep, I have that badge. She was raised during the end of the depression and often talked about people coming to the door asking for something to eat – those images haunted her and she was always willing and able to share what we had, even when there was not an abundance, to be sure that everyone had something. That I have inherited from her proudly, that ability to give and share and to pay it forward.
It would seem that when two people are very much alike it can be harder to get along well. Also my mother was a woman in a great deal of emotional pain and for some reason she felt safe to release that in my direction. She was, as I noted, a late in life parent and as a result not terribly well engaged with me or my life. A lot was expected from me at a young age and I learned to take care of myself and my own needs along the way. I also learned over time to set healthy boundaries with her and learned to accept her for who she was and not expect her to be more or to be something else. This lesson alone was huge as I have applied it to the rest of my life. Expectations of others can truly be the root of so much pain and suffering. Acceptance and learning to Forgive and Let Go.
So, at the end of her life, I took time to talk honestly to my mother and let her know that it was okay for her to leave when she was ready. As a retired hospice nurse, she understood, even through the veil of dementia, what I was trying to communicate to her.
I was so fortunate to have the opportunity to work through things long before she died. I cannot imagine how it would be now if I had not been able to do that.
My mother taught me to bake, taught me to crochet, taught me to be generous. Yes, I am her daughter.