Since I moved to Vermont and now have more time than I ever thought I’d have, I decide to make it a practice to call my mother everyday. It was a penance, a pledge, a way to assuage the guilt that haunts this relationship, devoid of real love and driven by obligation. She is in her late 80’s. I never, in a million years, thought she’d live so long. She’s still smoking. Not long ago she told me in a fit of anger that “she lives to smoke”. So far, no signs of lung cancer (so she tells me) and no emphysema.
I’ve only visited her in her south Florida home once since my dad died 4 years ago. Guess I thought she’d die soon after dad, and I kept waiting, but a moment came when the timing worked for me, my brother was going to be there too, so I could depend on him to pick me up at the airport. Mom still drives and gets offended if you suggest that she might be slowing down – and that her judgment might not be what it once was – but there is no way I’ll put my life in her hands when she sits behind the wheel. Driving she tells me is still one of her last remaining pleasures, like smoking, and she has no intention of giving that up ether.
The visit was brief, enough to reassure myself that she can still manage on her own, her house, her car, her swimming pool. The contact with my brother and his beloved dog, a spaniel, named Baxter, was pleasant enough. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen him. To say our family wasn’t close is an understatement. But back to the phone calls.
I would usually call in the early evening, and never seemed to time it right. She was either on her way to the bathroom, just about to eat her dinner, just making her dinner, or not feeling well. The request was always could I please call later. Sometimes I’d forget and later wouldn’t happen so the next day I would get an earful of how she waited and waited and waited by the phone, expecting me to call back and how distraught she was when no call came. Of course the fact that she could easily call me on that very same phone didn’t occur to her.
The calls were OK if we kept it light; I referred to them as our Hallmark Card greetings. Most of it was taken up by my listening to a litany of her various doctors’ visits for all sorts of ailments, from back pain to constipation, to lack of appetite. She was always shocked that her health should be in decline. It’s as though the woman is incapable of connecting her age (88), and her actions (smoking for over 72 years for instance, or her life long addiction to laxatives) with any outcomes. She has always had a mind/body problem, a total disconnect. Unfortunately I have a terrible time repressing my true feelings for her. It takes a monumental effort and a constant reminder that “she is old, she is alone, she is unhappy, don’t make things worse” – but last night I did make things worse.
Mom was telling me how she’s been throwing out a lot of “meaningless junk” and some of that “meaningless junk” turned out to be letters and thank-you notes written to my great grandmother, by grateful foster children that she had taken in, probably during the depression so she could make some extra money. My mother, thinking that this was some shameful evidence of the families “low class” roots, threw out these precious remains of my great grandmothers existence. We had so little in our family to indicate that we actually had a family that lived and breathed, this evidence of my great grandmothers impact on the world was to be cherished, but all my mother saw was shame and destroyed it. I went bonkers. My mother is an idiot. I pretty much told her that, as she cried and yelled, and ultimately hung up on me like she always does when there is any attempt at meaningful discussion or a rising conflict. Escape reality. That has been my mother’s modus operandi as long as I can remember. As a kid, when dad got drunk, she would go and hide in her room, locking the bedroom door and I’d be left to fend for myself.
But I couldn’t let this go. I called her back and left hurtful messages on her voice mail, telling her she was a “destroyer” – this accusation driven by the memory of the day my dad died, when I sat on the bed in their room with her, and she found all the letters I had written to him carefully bundled and saved in the top draw of his dresser, and I watched in stunned horror as she fed them into her paper shredder. I wanted those letters, those hand written letters, some pages long, that I sent to my dad over the years. I never knew what he thought about them or if he’d even read them. Now I knew he not only read them, but kept them, kept them close. I can only surmise that it was some sort of twisted jealousy on her part, destroy the evidence that I cared for my dad more than her, and he cared for me too, he cared about what I thought, what I wrote. Those letters were often raw, I told him what I thought about him, how I recognized certain traits in myself (sexually adventuresome was among them) that we shared. I could never have written such letters to my mother…they would not have been welcome or tolerated.
Needless to say this did not end well. Now I’m stuck. I’m in limbo. She’s probably waiting by the phone tonight, waiting for me to call. I promised.