Today I am thinking about my mother in a more complicated way. She goes into surgery to have her shoulder replaced, the third joint replacement that she has had in five years. This is the second time that she has been in the hospital in the past month. The last time was for a MRSA that she picked up who knows where, possibly from yet an earlier visit to the hospital, possibly from contact with the general public in her docent position at the zoo.
Perhaps I tread constantly over the territory in which my mother was mean, petty, self-absorbed, and abusive because, in being mean, petty, self-absorbed and abusive she had power and strength. Now, despite her girth, she is quite fragile, living with constant pain and immobility, repeatedly in the hospital for one thing or another. I'm thinking about how long she has been fragile in ways that I really did not comprehend at the time.
I write a lot about my parents and the ways that they failed. They weren't the best parents, what with their rages and projections and general abdication of a lot of the responsibility of parenting. I've been trying to comprehend the breadth of the consequences of that type of parenting in order to understand how it set up the rules that led me to create the person that I have become right now. I've been trying to comprehend the breadth of the consequences so that I can forgive them or at least understand them somewhat separately from myself.
The rages and projections and abdications were never the entire story, however. They weren't the best of parents, but they also weren't the worst. At many crucial points they actually did try, and even sometimes succeeded. To write only of the times that they failed is dishonest, and doesn't quite allow me to get to the truth that, bad or good, I did love them. Yet, I cannot find the honest language, the right words to describe that love. I fall into the language of Hallmark, or of sentimentality, or a list of good things, all of which do not help me figure out a way to understand what I feel. I don't know how to understand it because it is so confused with obligation and guilt, and seems so incredibly remote while also too painfully close, in fact, so close that it is like a stab in my gut.
I've been thinking about how to approach that love -- or whatever you would call that emotion --through understanding and forgiveness. How do I circle around it or describe it? How do I enter and comprehend it in the same way that I can comprehend the anger? How do I do this and also leave aside guilt? Guilt frustrates the understanding. No. Guilt prevents the reconciliation of the anger and the sympathy.
I begin with this fragility. When I see my mother as fragile, I see her as a child. I want to protect her as I would want to protect a sick or hurt child. This image of her as a child is not a stretch of the imagination, either. She, in many ways, was always very much like a child and very much cultivated a childlike aspect. This drove my brothers and me nuts when we were teenagers, and we showed a tremendous amount of disrespect toward her because of it. We wanted a grown woman for a mother, not someone who frequently stammered and expressed herself in baby talk. This no longer makes us crazy, and she doesn't do it as much either. When she does, I now feel protective of her.
But I'm still not getting to what I mean. Let me try in another way.
My parents want me to come down to help after the surgery. I'll skip the next few paragraphs that say that a visit down there would be prohibitively expensive and would not fit in with my schedule. Also, I am a self-absorbed asshole and the worst daughter ever. Let's jump right into the the reasons that they want me to come down there.
They say that they want me to "help, but I would be the worst "help" in the world unless you define "help" as "being a pain in the ass." Pain in the ass, I can do. Help? Not so much. Seriously, there is very little that I could do; and, really, they don't want me there for "help." They just want me there. My mother gets very worried before every surgery, afraid that she won't survive it. She wants her children and grandchildren about her. Furthermore, she feels rejected that I didn't go down for Christmas and because I haven't yet followed through on my promise to visit later in the year. (See? Worst daughter ever.)
I try to think of this without guilt. Guilt is not useful. I try to think of this with compassion; but the compassion doesn't connect here. Here is sympathy for a scared woman. Instead, the compassion connects earlier. Not in my life, but in hers. It's for the little girl that she was, with her mother for a mother. The child who was criticized within an inch of her life, whose every movement was wrong, whose very existence was an affront and an inconvenience. The child that grew up understanding love as something so constrained by conditions that you could hardly recognize it as love. The child who constantly apologized for deigning to take up space in the world. The child who grew up desperately wanting approval and affection and some unfettered form of love, but who had been so perverted by her own upbringing that she had no idea of how to offer that love and screamed in rage and disappointment when she did not receive it. The child who had no idea how to be a woman and who hated herself. The child who became a woman who fears that she is very very alone.
My mother feels every bit as alienated from me as I feel from her. This much I can understand.