There are some relationships for which I cling to the concept of spiritual immortality. After all, there is no down side to this argument. If I physically return to stardust or ashes at the end of my mortal life, what harm is there with my belief that my spirit lives on? If there is a place where my energy will hover without my physical body, physics might even support this theory, as matter only changes form. And if I become nothing but the energy that seems to flow in and out of humanity, finite objects or the gases of our atmosphere, at least there is some peace and a cosmic usefulness in that.These sorts of thoughts rise uninvited as the holidays in our family have a history of Christmas tragedy. It started when my grandmother died on Christmas Eve. My mother was eighteen and in her first year of college. A year later when my grandfather remarried on Chrismas day, my Mom was institutionalized with what they used to call a 'nervous breakdown'. She never quite recovered her trust in humanity, a result sad enough even all by itself.
Her claim of seeing my grandmother's spirit in church on Christmas Eve, a church her mother was too sick to attend, resonated with longing and anguish when my mother told the story.
"She was right there, listening to my solo. I was singing Shubert's Ava Maria during Midnight Mass and I couldn't remember the next lyric. Did I tell you they used to pay me to sing, which was why I went at all? My father was angry I left her bedside, but I was in college. I needed the money as he was drowning in medical bills. My scholarship only covered so much. When I saw her there... it seemed so real... so real I knew she was dead."
Her words were repeated with new embellishments each and every year. By the time I left home she swore an angel had appeared to her, telling her not to worry. Then she thought she left the mass half-way through in some sort of mystical haze. She said she had walked home in the freezing cold all by herself, although it would have taken hours. She also believed when she found her dead mother she was surrounded by angels. She later claimed her mother had reappeared again over her bed that next morning.
No other person in the family verified any of these events, however, and I began to see that the visions had been and were a way of relieving emotional stress for my mother. It didn't matter whether or not they were true. As she told them over and over again, the ones that weren't became real.
That was awkward but always the diplomat, I added, "Thank you grandpa, you mean my mother's mother, right?"
"I love you because you look just like my wife."
This wife was short with blue eyes and lovely wavy brown hair. My mother had a luscious raven mane and dynamic brown eyes like her father, but my grandmother was a redhead with hazel eyes like mine.
My father claimed this was the reason my mother refused to bond with me. "It is too painful," he said. "You are like a ghost who throws kindling on your mother's eternal fire of suffering whenever she looks at your face. At Christmastime it is even worse. By the way I told your principal you can't play Mary again. It makes your mother too nuts. She can't help herself. You know her brother died too, and you are a spitting image of him, right down to the dimples."
"I thought he died when she was only seven," I said, as nobody even had a picture of him. Mostly I was angry I couldn't be in the play. So what if she won't come. How could a kid even remember what her brother was like, I thought. Yet I remember things quite vividly too, if not always with great accuracy.
In an effort to rid the family of sad thoughts, my step-grandmother had burned all the momentos and family pictures. She did this the day after she and my grandfather got back from their honeymoon. My mother was forever resentful over this abomination, as she called it, and used this to justify her hatred of her step-mother from approximately 1939 to 1984 when her stepmother left the planet.
As a sort of memorial to her mother, my mother cried every day from Thanksgiving until New Year's. Her anguish was so real, if she had been dressed in black and placed at any wailing wall, she would have blended in anonymously. Because of this I do not harbor any doubt that a powerful woman sets the emotional tone in her household. Once she brought our Thanksgiving turkey home, we knew she would wallow in misery for months.
She was incapable of reciprocating his or any others' deep feelings, although they stayed married as a couple until his death. Like many mentally ill people, she recruited him as a caretaker, though she resented him for accepting the job.
The understanding that she was a borderline personality, suffered with intermittent epilepsy and severe psychotic bi-polar episodes was a revelation many years later. It helped us to have a name to cope with the destruction her illnesses had left in their wake. By some magic, my father loved my mother until the day he died, for which I will be eternally grateful. She needed love more than any person I have ever met.
As the years passed my mother became completely unlovable. She was the cause of so much suffering in my own life, I had to struggle to forgive her long after I left home. Frankly, I didn't rise above anything as that forgiveness was necessary to save myself. One learns that living with resentment becomes the ultimate act of spiritual suicide.I harbor no ill feelings now but I rarely think of my mother in any sort of loving way. Why do I write about her still? Perhaps a mother of young children will seek help, or her family will compel her to. It is also my belief that others suffering need to hear a story of survival. Or maybe being a witness to her wretched life is the only way I have ever been close to her. Loving her, however, would require a complete restructuring of memory. I honor her as my mother, which can be done without emotion. This sounds harsh even to me and is certainly almost pathological to someone accustomed to normal people. The level of detachment necesssary to cope with a mentally ill mother, however, is beyond the grasp of a child. It is too complex to be practical or achieved even by many adults.
I do respect my mother's early attempts to overcome her disease and I am saddened that her life was so miserably unhappy. No one should suffer like that, particularly when the core of the problem is not a choice but underlying mental illness or a personality disorder. Whether there would have been a treatment for her or not, there is no doubt the poor thing was chronically unhappy and disfunctional. I would not wish her illness on anyone.
However, people do not become saints just because they die of natural or unnatural causes. Families who sell themselves this lie belittle the courageousness of the people who survive and create fertile ground for other abuses to sprout in the shadows. I could not be complicit in falsehood and deceit about her life, as I could not be about my own. Truth truly is what ultimately sets us free, acceptance lifts us back up and forgiveness lightens our burdens so we can go on.
Except for his obsession with my mother's problems, my father's flaws and weaknesses were merely human. In fact, I have felt his strong presence since I moved to the country fifteen years ago. He loved the land and the serenity of nature all his life, so it didn't surprise me to learn he was mildly related to Thoreau of Walden Pond.
One afternoon, when my father had been dead eight years, I had this intense feeling of warmth surrounding me and experienced what I could describe as an airy and surreal contentment. Not accustomed to being so infused with happiness although I often feel well and happy, I recognized this was decidedly different. I was standing at my kitchen sink, looking down at our woods when I thought, Dad is really going to love this place.
That thought was so powerful I accepted not only the concept that he could visit, but that he would. Even I judged this as bizarre at the time, so I won't be offended if you do. It was as if I had forgotten he was dead, and yet it wasn't like we had a habit of him coming over. Once I left home at 18 and moved from New England to California, neither of my parents ever visited me. In other words, these thoughts were not especially welcome or based on habit or reality. My parents weren't being unkind, by the way. They didn't visit any of their kids who moved, except my youngest sister while she was going to school in Boston, an hour away.
My parents' lack of interest in my adult life did not seem odd, however, until I was pregnant with my first child. My male boss was making conversation during a baby-shower co-workers threw for me and kindly said, "So, when is your mother coming?" I looked at him blankly, all 8.5 pregnant months of me, and answered, "What do you mean? Why would she comehere?"
I wasn't being coy. It had never occurred to me that the woman who never called, wrote or remembered my birthday would have any interest in her first grandchild. I had dutifully called my parents every week and visited every other year out of a grave sense of duty and honor. That was just how our family was. Those who abandoned the flock were in turn rejected.Obviously embarrassed at pointing out my familial deficiencies, my boss croaked out, "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to imply anything. But doesn't everybody's mother come to help them when they are having their first baby?"
"I wouldn't know," was my truthful answer.
Oh, yes, my father might have protected me or compensated for her deficiencies, but he was so busy trying to contain her his hands were full. I really do understand. Mental illness coupled with active addiction are truly horrendous health problems when inflicted on a family.
It is terribly sad for children to grow up this way, but the scars can fade over time with help. The hangover is not so easily remedied, but awareness, acknowledgement and admissions that life was difficult then also help. Validation is a wonderful thing if it goes like this: Life was tough. You suffered. Get over it. Move on.Yeah, I know, not always so easy until one day you have your own family and you learn that you are indeed lovable and loved.
I suppose this explains why I was praying to my God during that first pregnancy that He help me become a good mother. I was terrified with my background that I could be abusive and cruel. The mere thought of becoming my mother made me feel almost suicidal with dread and fear. Thankfully that was not to be my fate. Although I share my mother's personality, I am my father's DNA on the inside. It confused a lot of people in my family, who adored the charismatic side of of my mother, but feared I might develop her dark side.
Nature is a wonderful, wonderful thing, however, and I do advise all women to find a way to breastfeed - the longer the better. Those hormones that make us want to mate in the first place? A different set are also there to help us fall in love with our babies and empower us to become the kind of mothers they deserve.
It didn't happen immediately with my daughter (I was drugged and in excruciating pain from a difficult delivery), but as soon as I was coherent, all I wanted was to have my darling infant with me. Nothing else mattered then and when I shake off all my worldly concerns, nothing else matters now either. Our kids our are world. The rest is just cake and frosting.
When I took my baby girl home I vowed to protect her from any and all suffering. I tried my best and with good fortune upon us, even she would tell you she had a good childhood. My darling was joined by my other darling, her brother, and it was even harder to keep it all together. It occurred to me that my mother's five children were possibly enough to make even a sane woman crack a little. I managed to be good enough, like most parents, and the kids grew up and became good people.In 2000 my son was launched into his first semester of college and we turned our attention back onto ourselves. We had been so invested in their lives, we had no idea what a couple of spawned salmon could do to return to the self-centeredness we had earned.
Yes, I was lucky. I survived not only my childhood but the cancer and treatment needed to eradicate it. The anxiety rises once in a while, like it does for everybody, but I've learned one thing. Our expiration date is coming and when it does? We role model not only how to live but how to die.
We didn't have to wait long. I was diagnosed with cancer by that first Christmas. Actually, it will have been seven years this Saturday, December 15th, which is also my 31st wedding anniversary. Everyone seems to fear cancer, but as horrible as some life-saving cancer treatments can be? Eventually survivors learn to feel gratitude that there was a treatment for them. Not everyone is as lucky.
"You'll be fine," was the sole encouragement I got from my mother with a sort of back-handed tribute to my ability to survive. "You're a fighter. I never worried about you." She had called as she was curious about what kind of cancer I had. She thought it prudent to be tested in case it was genetic. She was 81 years old at the time but still amazingly narcissistic.
About eight months after my diagnosis, my treatment was finally finished. One afternoon my daughter and I walked back to a pumpkin patch my husband had planted over the summer. To his initial surprise and our delight that day, he had planted what are called 'baby' pumpkins accidentally. The patch was so plentiful he would later give them away to family, neighbors, friends and a food bank.
It was August and the sun was beating down on our backs reminding me of radiation and making me uncomfortable. I was just getting my strength back and walking was still exhausting. My normal joyful exuberance and enthusiasm had left the building temporarily, but I was desperately trying to act normal so that the searching, concerned look that had been in my daughter's eyes for months could start to fade.
Now the youngest grandchild is four and there is talk of another baby in the next year or two. I know that my daughter is counting on me to be around. My son jokingly verbalizes that he expects me to last long enough for his kids, too. He clarifies the timing as he says slyly in front of his girlfriend, "But that won't be for at least another five, maybe ten years". I wish I could promise him I'll hang around, like I so foolishly did when I was young.
My daughter turned and looked at me with her huge brown eyes and long thick eyelashes. As her degree was pre-med, she had researched my illness and all the treatments with a scientific detachment. She has her father's reserve and isn't given to mushiness or fluffy chat.
"You know what, Mom? When you were diagnosed, all I could think about was that you might not be there when I had my first child. I couldn't bear to think my children might never know you or love you the way I do. I am so glad you are alive."
It was such a tender moment and the sadness and joy and love I felt all at the same time? What I really wanted to be able to do was tell her I would never die. Just for her. I would stay alive until she no longer needed me, because that was how much I loved her. I would find a way to overcome nature, heredity, and mortality. I wanted to swear I would never let her down, but I didn't. I have many flaws, but I do not lie to my children. Even when it comes to questions I could answer with reassurances. If nothing else, I owe them the truth.
All I could say was, "I know, sweetie. I want to be there too. If it happens that I don't meet them? Tell them how much I love their Mommy and tell them that I love them too."
I replied, "There's only one way to spoil children and that is not to give them enough love. You know that."
He was eight years old when our first granddaughter from my husband's oldest daughter was born. Having been bumped from that 'baby' position, he was less jealous than you would imagine, until we moved to the northwest. Then our granddaughter started flying up herself and we would have wonderful, long visits. The summer he was thirteen he claimed we were 'spoiling' her in every conceivable way.
It wasn't the material aspects that disturbed him. Although he was not being neglected, the focus of attention certainly wasn't on him.
We were driving by the fairgrounds having just come back from a miniature shop of doll house furniture. My granddaughter and I were making tiny little foods and plates and other things out of clay, and had gone shopping only for inspiration. He said, "You never played all day with us, Mom, when we were her age."It occurred to me that he'd never had grandparents close by and didn't understand. He was only six months old when my father died, and although there was a watercolor dedicated and given to my daughter, Grandpa had left nothing for him. His paternal grandparents were a great distance away, and when we visited the focus was on my husband. My only solution was to tell him the truth.
"I'm her grandmother and the most important thing I can give her is unconditional love, just as I do with you."
He contemplated this for a few minutes before he extracted a promise. "Okay, but you'd better be that nice when I have kids, or I'll get really mad." He's always been kind of an old soul who makes deals like this to keep life fair, and so of course I promised. I hope I can make good on it someday.This holiday season, unlike some of those Christmases Past, will be celebrated by the four of us and our newly extending family. As we share our time with each other, we will certainly eat, drink and be merry. There will be no morbid crying, sadness or dragging up those tragic events or revelations or any emphasis on suffering. I look forward to some great hugs, more tales of the city and lots and lots of laughter.
If I am not exactly on my knees, I will be thinking how lucky I am. I will memorize every detail so I can remember the beauty and joy of this Christmas, when hard times lie ahead. One day our hearts may be heavy with burdens or concerns of death and dying, but in the meantime? May your God bless your family as abundantly as my God has blessed mine.
In the ancient words of my very Roman Catholic ancestors, Dominus vobiscum.
Written by Elizabeth Madrigal
© 2008 Elizabeth Madrigal