A few years ago, actually it was quite a long time ago come to think of it, as I watched the movie about Ghandi, I realized the root of the word “courage” was “coeur,” which means heart in French. I saw the movie on the airplane on the way to Chicago to visit my mother, trying to find some of that courage. Those of you who have read my book or have heard me talk about my mother know that visiting her was one of the most difficult things I would do. I had to gear myself up to be criticized about everything–what I wore, what I said, opinions she might not agree with. And worse, I was her “secret,” as she wanted no one to know I was her daughter–which is one of the themes of my book Don’t Call Me Mother.
People have asked me why I would visit her, why not just never see her again? Good question–but I had a belief, an ethic that I was determined to live out. My mother and her mother broke their relationship about 10 years before my grandmother died, and never made up. I was the witness to this sorrowful outcome of the lives of a mother and daughter. In the room where my grandmother lay dying, fully aware even then how challenging this promise I was making to myself might be, I silently promised to never allow this to happen to me and my mother, no matter what she might do.
I tell this story not to brag about anything, because the relationship with my mother and grandmother caused me a great deal of shame and pain. They were physically beautiful women, but they were broken in some way, and embarrassed me with their tempers and lack of empathy for others. On my mother’s deathbed, a psychiatrist gave a name to what was wrong: mother had a form of bi-polar disorder, which helped to explain her sudden rages, her barbed criticisms. Perhaps it even helped to explain her impulsive arrivals and departures when I was young, leaving me aching and feeling that I’d done something wrong. He said that my grandmother probably had some form of the disease as well.
So where does courage come in this story? As I look back, I see that I was simply unwilling to accept my mother’s terms for our relationship. I believed if I kept visiting her, no matter what it did to me, that she would be won over by the force of love and my continued efforts to try to understand and forgive her. Though she continued to deny I was her daughter even as she was in the hospital with lung and brain cancer, I kept showing up. I would not exit our relationship. Yes, it hurt to do this, but I had watched my mother and grandmother’s mutual infliction of pain and blame for so many years, and saw that nothing good came of it. Misery begat misery, and neither was ever released from it.
One evening, as I tucked her into bed before the biopsy scheduled the next day, she was soft and quiet. She looked up at me and said, “How do you know how to do this, you do it well.” I answered, “I have children. I learned by taking care of them.”
My mother didn’t raise me, leaving when I was four, but I knew she was always a lost child as I was. She lived with her mother, my grandmother, until she was six, and then was abandoned to whatever relatives would take her. That, and whatever genetic seed was planted, I have always believed marked her irrevocably. In the later years, she was a scary person to be around. In the end, she was just human, and still so lost.
I am glad that I went to be with her at the very end of her life. She couldn’t speak, and no longer could attack me. All she could do was cry and look terrified. I got to be her daughter by holding her hand, and crying with her.
As mother’s day approaches, I think of the mothers I had; my great-grandmother, my grandmother who raised me, and my mother. And now I’m a grandmother to three, and I have three children. We are all human too, imperfect. Yet courageous each in our own way as we walk this journey together.
Happy Mother’s day to you all–child, father, mother. We all have a mother…somewhere, and she has a story, her own, perhaps untold and unsung. Perhaps you will write it for her.