And we let go

by jexmas on December 7, 2010

My mother lasted another seven years. During that time, she was happier than she had ever been. After she had recovered from her surgery, she started seeing a psychoanalyst and went to see him five days a week until she became too sick. Then he visited her at the hospital and he came to her funeral after she died. Her meetings with him changed her in ways that probably surprised her.
I went to see him, too, because he called and asked to see me. He tells me he is concerned because my mother appears to be so neglected by the family. I am taken aback, incredulous. He mentions my sister living so far away in Perth and I tell him she has been living back in Melbourne for the past five years. He is taken aback and we both realize how misleading my mother has been, how much her sense of loneliness, neglect and abandonment dominate her mind and how the idea of failure is never far away.
Over the next few years when she saw him, my mother softened and, by becoming more reflective, let go of some of her demons. My father, however, was not one of the demons she could release and she persecuted him until the end. Their relationship was deeply flawed from the start. They lived in a sado-masochistic swamp. My father always maintained he loved my mother and could not understand why she was so awful to him, which seems inconceivable to me still. How could he not know? But I know he loved me and I could accept that from him. He was gentle and kind. And weak, subtly angry, and passive to the end.
My mother’s distrust of him had become entrenched as hatred and she could not be in the same room with him without being cruel. Since he was almost completely deaf by then, he did not acknowledge anything she said and did not register by any expression that he was impacted in the least by the slings and arrows she fired in his direction. She needed someone to be there in the room with both of them to say things about him out loud, to be witnessed and to be heard. It was almost unbearable to stand there and put myself in his place as her belittling comments and remarks rolled off her tongue as if I or anyone else who was there agreed he was hopeless and pathetic and defined by his unbearable habits, such as the way he chewed his food.
I had moved to the United States by then and, as my mother became overwhelmed by her disease over the next few years, was talking to her on the phone and visiting Australia more frequently. In the last few months of her life, I was talking to her almost every day. Our phone contact had improved considerably from the low point it had reached about a year after I left Australia. I had used a relationship with an American man as the primary reason to leave and, when he and I broke up less than a year later, my mother expected I would return to Australia. I could never have told her I felt as if I had been on vacation in the two years since I left. I was free.
When I told her I had decided to stay, she said coldly, “I thought things were getting better between us, but now I can only think of you as a distant relative.” She could not tell me how hurt she was by my decision to stay and pursue my own life. She could only hurt me instead.  I reacted by telling her angrily, for the first time in my life, what it had been like to come home from school and find her unconscious on the floor, how frightened I had been by her lack of control and how I had felt the impossibility of making her see what she was doing, not only to herself but to her family.  She responded by gasping, “I…I…I only have one breast!” and hung up.
That day, after our conversation, I went for a walk up onto the hillside overlooking San Francisco Bay. It was the middle of summer and, although it can be paradoxically freezing and foggy at that time of year, it was sunny and warm. I sat down on the grass and hugged my knees. I started to cry and cried and cried and thought I would never stop.
When I called her a few days later, she said, again coldly, following through on her threat to treat me like a distant relative, “Yes?” I found myself apologizing for making her upset and she was somewhat conciliatory because she had been to see her analyst in the week since we had talked and could say she imagined “something good” coming out of it for her.
When my mother died, I knew the exact time she slipped out of reach forever. I was flying across the Pacific Ocean, sitting in a kind of quiet suspension in my cramped seat in the darkened cabin, looking out at the stars and the ghostly, billowing clouds. At some moment, I just knew she had left me. I could feel it in my body. It was also at that moment, something in me opened and feelings I had carried for her my entire life began to leak out. My body cried and the tears leaked out of my eyes, and I could not stop them. Rolling slowly out with the tears was the recognition that I could not, in the end, stop her from dying.
When we landed in Sydney, I called the hospital and the nurse told me my mother had stopped breathing an hour earlier. Another nurse had been with her and had left the room for a few minutes. It was then my mother slipped away, while she was alone, and crossed an abyss into the oblivion of which she had been so afraid, yet by which she had always been so seduced.
My mother’s body is so still, so lifeless, so different in some sense from what I had imagined. Her nose looks narrower, her skin waxy, and her expression is one of complete repose. I am both shocked by the suddenness of seeing her body and, at the same time, am relieved. I can see she did not suffer, but was peaceful when she died by herself. My sister is sitting quietly beside her in a chair. She lives a few blocks from the hospital and came as soon as she was called. Remembering this now, I am confused for a minute about whether it was my sister or my father sitting there and I realize how alike they are. I remember this attitude they both share, sitting in a chair looking down, concentrating on their fingers intertwined, so out of reach. My sister and I did not say very much to each other. I bent over and kissed my mother’s forehead. Her skin felt clammy, not completely cold, and something essential had gone. Her spirit had gone and it was hard to say she was more than a dead body.
I stayed in Australia for five more weeks and, during that time, do not remember speaking to my sister again other than briefly to discuss funeral arrangements, but she was not welcoming, did not invite me over to her house to spend any time with her or her children, and the chasm between us became too wide to cross.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: