In grieving Dad, my mind has turned to my mother, who died in 1999. I love her for who she was and her many gifts to me, and I have long since forgiven her for the things that I once ached to receive from her.
If I want to, I can call to mind the feel of resting my head on her bosom, dozing on a long car trip, comfortably settled between Mom and Dad on the plastic-covered bench seat. I can’t exactly say that it’s a recollection. It’s more like a muscle memory, as if the tissues of my face can reconstruct the very feeling of her. She is soft and warm, a little damp with perspiration, and smells faintly of Shalimar talcum powder.
But I also remember Mom being perfunctory when I expressed feelings of hurt or sadness. Which seemed to happen often. “Stop crying like a fire engine,” she would tell me, exasperated. Her lips would compress above her strong jaw line.
A few years into my marriage, she bluntly told me that I would lose my husband if I continued my commitment to career. Prohibited from pursuing the career she had imagined in law, she found success in her role as wife. She believed I would succeed only by doing the same. Implied in her warning, I thought, was a threat that she would be on my husband’s side if I screwed things up.
This doesn’t seem like much of a homily to my mother. But I couldn’t have felt for her what I did by the time that she died if I hadn’t spent time pulling apart the threads of our relationship and reassembling them with the advantage of time, distance and age.
Several years before Mom passed away, when she slid more deeply into dementia, a blanket of sadness settled on my shoulders. I felt immobilized and I had no idea why.
This fits my pattern: having been well trained to ignore feelings of sadness, I don’t recognize them. They rise up. They demand my attention. When they are persistent enough, I attend to them.
Realizing that I was losing Mom made me examine our complicated relationship. I knew she loved me, sometimes with terms, but ultimately unconditionally, with fierceness and loyalty. I wasn’t like her. I would never be like her. But I knew she loved me.
By the time she developed lung cancer, I was at peace with my relationship with her. I forgave her for not always being able to give what I wanted from her. As cancer ate away at her personality and memory, love glowed in the gaze of her fading brown eyes.
Loss and forgiveness. They go together.