May 9, 2010

Tough Love: The Long Road Back to Mom.

She and I are close friends today, but we went through hell to get there.

My mother is a warrior.

Growing up, she’d always been the lynchpin of our family, organizing the finances, putting dinner on the table at 7 every night, tending the garden and making sure everything was in order.

She was also an alcoholic, sitting in her corner chair in the living room sipping an unlikely mixture of Scotch and orange juice.

When I was 21, I finally realized that I held a lot of anger toward her that I’d hidden beneath a veil of idealization. I refused to speak to her for five years.

My absence broke her heart, and she gave up on the idea that we would reconcile our relationship.

In my late 20s, I relented, and began a relationship with her that was tentative at best. She smoked a couple of packs of Marlboros a day, and walking into my childhood home with its smoke-stained brown walls and hazy air repulsed me. There was something about my mom that frightened me – she was obsessed with every detail of my life, and on a psychic level I felt that she was attached to me in a bizarre and unhealthy way.

After 12 years of meditation and another 8 years of therapy, I healed a lot of the wounds that I felt had come from my relationship with her.

I knew that I could never have a successful relationship with a woman if I didn’t face the anger I had toward my own mother.

By my mid-30s I no longer held her responsible for my pain – a pain I brought with me as a soul into this life. I began to feel compassion for her; she’d been raised by a cold and emotionally unavailable step-mother after her biological mother died from polio when my mom was only three. My dad was a jazz musician and made little money, so she had to support our family on a $9 an hour secretary’s salary. My sister Julie was a special needs kid, which caused a lot of anxiety for my mom; smoking and drinking was her way of coping.

Four years ago my mother went through a life-altering experience. She lost her left leg due to poor circulation. I remember how brave she was lying in the hospital bed when the doctor told her he had to amputate it. She was philosophical, as she has been about everything in her life. After the surgery she quit smoking and drinking hard liquor. Her aura became clearer and for the first time in over 45 years I could be around her without wanting to leave the room. My mom continues to cook a huge Passover and Thanksgiving meal for the family, making her way around the kitchen on a prosthetic leg, refusing help even with the dishes. She looks younger than her 82 years, her hair still a natural jet black. I’m grateful she has all of her senses and her sharp, Ivy-league mind. She fills her days reading the New York Times and playing Sudoku. She’s the keeper of the family archives, spending hours sorting through old letters between ancestors. She recently showed me a book written in the 1800s that traces her patrilineal roots to 1650 in Massachusetts.

She is still a combative and tough woman. She shrieks at my dad and utters strange guttural sounds that express her displeasure at his disorganized life. My dad loses his keys, wallet and his notebooks on a daily basis, and helping him keep his life together gives her a raison d’etre. They’ve fought adamantly with one another for over 50 years, but somehow the agitation keeps them vital. Today, I am deeply grateful for the things my mother has imparted to me throughout my life: a love of art, culture and the power of observation. I can tell her anything, and I know that she understands me. Although she is stoic, and rarely expresses her own feelings, I know she sees me and loves me for who I am.

Years ago she told me that when she died she wanted her ashes scattered in the Hudson River. She commuted to Manhattan for 30 years taking copious notes of the birds and wildlife she spotted along the banks of the river from the train, and published her findings in a nature journal.

When that day comes, I will go back home, ride out into the turbulent murky waters in a canoe and empty her ashes into the winds.

Until then, I will cherish her last few years on earth.

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