My father died 16 years ago today. In one way, his death seems like it just happened yesterday, but in another way, it seems like at least a century ago; I am left with a hazy, vague impression of events that might as well have been from a movie I saw long ago.
I guess time blurs the edges of pain. Maybe time blurs everything.
Between the anniversary of my father’s death today and Mother’s Day yesterday, I have been thinking a lot about family. I was an only child, so I am the only one left to remember.
My relationship with my father was always good. Straightforward, solid, steady. Predictable. Consistent. I knew he loved me, although we didn’t say it; no, we were both much to stoic for that kind of mushy nonsense. Instead of words, it was his actions showed love. He took care of me whenever my mother was too busy, too self-absorbed, or simply too forgetful to do so. It was my father I could always depend on: for unexpected pop quizzes on random topics; for a cheese sandwich on gooey white bread with extra mayo and a teacup of whole milk anytime I was hungry; for endless rides to and from school; for help whenever my car(s) broke down; for listening to my ramblings about life on long walks from the time I was old enough to walk all the way up until he got too sick to walk anymore.
My relationship with my mother was much more complicated. My mother herself was much more complicated. My mother was fierce, difficult, egocentric, demanding, and stubborn. She was also funny, smart, strong, über-organized, and quite independent. I once took this quiz, “Do You Have A Narcissistic Mother?”, and let’s just say the score was significant. Very significant.
From the time I was born until the time she died, my relationship with my mother was a challenge. I would often feel exhausted in her presence, sometimes falling into what I called a “coma nap” when I visited with her, which felt like being dragged under into a deep, deep sleep by a force more powerful than myself. Mom was shockingly self-absorbed, rarely showing any interest in me or anything I did or anything I was interested in; for instance, she never even asked what subject I got a Ph.D. in, nor did she ever show any interest whatsoever in my studies. As another example, I once traveled all over Europe for a summer, and upon my return, she did not ask my anything about the trip. At all. Not one thing.
That is certainly not to say that Mom and I didn’t have many good times, because we did. I can remember staying up late with my mother and watching Benny Hill, laughing until we cried. I remember her selling her high school ring to buy my high school ring. I remember her rescuing me from a wannabe molester like a superhero. I remember how I escaped the “coming out” horrors that many Lesbians endure, and I believe that this was likely, at least in part, because my mother decreed publicly that it was fine with her, and everyone was always too afraid to go up against my mother. I fondly remember playing cards with Mom, her friend, and my ex every Thursday night for several years after Dad died. I remember Mom coming immediately, without questioning, driving over 4 hours, to help me move out of my apartment when I was young and had just discovered my first girlfriend cheating on me…although I also distinctly remember her saying “I told you so”. (My first girlfriend and my mother were mortal enemies; I realize now that it was because they were simply too much alike).
When I first wrote about my mother, I wrote: “Love her or hate her (and I still vacillate between the two, even after her death)….”
Doing a Mother’s Day collage yesterday, I realized that it is time to amend that statement, because I no longer feel hate when I think of my mother. Now, I just feel love…it’s a complicated, difficult love, but it’s clearly love nonetheless.
In doing my Mother’s Day collage yesterday, I suddenly felt a kind of burden being lifted from me; one I wasn’t even fully consciously aware of carrying. The cloak of hurt, anger, anxiety, perfectionism, and angst that has been wrapped around my shoulders/neck ever since before I can remember was lovingly unraveled and discarded. I feel that I can finally breathe freely now.
It turns out that the answer was stunningly simple and had been available all along: My mother wasn’t perfect. Nor am I, nor are you, nor is any other human ever born.
I have come to believe over the years that most people are doing the best we can with the resources we have at the time. Sometimes it’s good enough, sometimes it’s not. Sometimes we win, sometimes we lose. Sometimes we succeed admirably, sometimes we fail miserably. Sometimes we hurt others, sometimes we get hurt.
I realized while doing the collage yesterday that I needed to forgive others, starting with my mother; to forgive myself; to accept that life is not perfect, others are not perfect, and neither am I.
Of course, I know that this isn’t earth-shaking, ground-breaking insight. Countless others have figured this long out before I did; in fact, the Japanese tradition of wabi-sabi has been teaching this lesson for centuries. I’d read about wabi-sabi years ago and truly didn’t understand how anyone could accept, much less embrace, imperfection.
Now I finally get it…better late than never, right?