“Is it all right if I lick my plate?” she asks, grinning across the table at my husband and me. “No, Mom,” I answer over the noisy din of the Saturday night crowd. “It’s inappropriate and we’re in a restaurant.” Dejected, she stares expressionless down at her plate where the ice cream had been moments earlier.
It’s day four into my mother’s week-long visit and day seven can’t come soon enough. The morning she arrived after a four-day train ride from East Coast to West (she doesn’t fly) she asked if she could do laundry; more specifically, she needed to do laundry because she wasn’t wearing underwear. It was information that my husband and I didn’t need to know ever, let alone before our morning coffee. An hour later when she pulled out her dentures at the table and began licking them clean, it was only after my vehement protests that she agreed to go rinse them in bathroom. The following day while browsing through the women’s section at Nordstrom’s Rack, she farted audibly, loudly, several times without pausing to acknowledge her misdeed or apologize to nearby shoppers. From several yards away I pretended not to know her, a tactic I’d perfected while still in junior high. When the coast and air cleared, I approached her and chastised her for being so impolite. “I know,” she confessed, “but I’m gassy.” The idea of excusing herself for her emission or better still, to the restroom, is lost on my mother, as are most common manners. Years earlier within 15 minutes of meeting my husband for the first time, she went into excruciating detail about her recent bowel blockage, self-administered enema and resulting aftermath on the bathroom floor. By the time the waitress brought our appetizers to the table, I insisted that we never speak of it again.
My relationship with my mother has been tenuous for as long as I can remember. She named me Amy; it means “beloved.” But it wasn’t to be, at least not by her. Within a year of my birth she was diagnosed with severe bi-polar disorder. Her emotional acrobatics, regular bouts of acute psychosis and subsequent hospitalizations were among the few consistent things in my childhood. Her illness rendered her incapable of recognizing any needs beyond her own. That coupled with her failure to adhere to many basic societal norms was crippling to my emotional, intellectual and social development. My childhood memories consist mostly of her either sleeping the day away, or sitting at the kitchen table wearing a house dress, pillow-matted hair and vacant stare, chain-smoking cigarettes. When properly medicated and reasonably well, she worked as a nurse, usually at night. Our roles often reversed with her relying on me to help her get out of bed and ready for work. Like most children of single working mothers, I learned to feed myself; a skill that proved useful even when she was home. Meals consisted of boxed macaroni and cheese, scrambled eggs, pancakes from a mix or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Not one to care much about her appearance, she’d often wear frumpy, layers of mismatched clothes. My wardrobe consisted of equally mismatched and ill-fitting thrift store clothes. Absent are any mother/daughter memories picking out outfits for school, or even a pretty dress for a dance. Assistance with homework and praise for academic accomplishments never came. The fare for a car ride with her was being forced to listen to her sing opera off-key along with the radio. She talked incessantly about herself to anyone willing or unwilling to listen including strangers, and as they walked away, she’d continue the conversation with herself. Words from her children went through one ear and fell out the other. For better and often for worse, our parents are our earliest teachers. What I was learning and not learning poured out of me like a broken faucet along with all of my insecurities and need for attention. I was a weird kid, with a weird mother and I was teased mercilessly for it. But more brutal than that, I was mostly ignored.
By the time I reached my early teens my resentment was boiling over. Frequent, explosive fights ensued during which I’d scream horrible things. At age 15 I went to live with relatives in another state. In the years that followed my mother became better at managing her illness and eventually re-married, creating a new life for herself while remaining emotionally detached from mine. At her request, my older sister and I were her maids of honor and I made a rare flight home. Years later when it was my turn to wed, she informed me she wouldn’t be attending because her husband didn’t want to make the trip and she didn’t want to come without him. Though greatly relieved my wedding day would be free from the stress of having her there, the familiar pain of her disinterest in my life still stung. She poked the wound further when the day before my wedding she called and prattled on about minutia in her life. I interrupted to tell her I had to go because I was getting a mani/pedi and she asked why. I reminded her I was getting married the following day and she nervously giggled and admitted she’d forgotten. I tried not to take it personally, but how do you not? It was then I realized there was not a single rough patch or joyous moment in my life during which I’ve wanted my mother to be there, a mother, yes, but not my mother.
There are many things I want to say to my mother. That I know it’s not her fault and I forgive her, but it would help me heal if she could acknowledge the impact her illness had on my childhood and the adult I’ve become. That even now, the things she says and does prevent us from having a meaningful relationship. Sadly, attempts at doing so escalate into her angrily defending herself; tearfully asserting she did the best she could and that I have no idea how hard it was for her. And again the conversation becomes about her, like nearly every other conversation we’ve ever had. I used to think she was a master manipulator, and she might be. But I’ve found a greater peace in accepting that it’s her illness that makes her so. I often think about cutting ties with her; how it would make my life easier and I’d be justified in doing so. But I know she wouldn’t understand why she’s being punished.
I believe we are genetically hardwired to love our children, and to a certain degree our parents. My mother’s wiring is crossed, but mine isn’t. So despite feeling betrayed by the one person who was and is supposed to love me without fail, I cannot bring myself to deliberately hurt her. So instead I swallow the anger and ignore the ache, pretending through monthly phone calls, sending birthday and Mother’s Day cards, and finding moments of joy where I can. Moments like while driving up the serene California coast when my husband and I politely decline my mother’s offer to play the soundtrack to “Cabaret” on the car stereo, explaining our dislike of show tunes and suggesting she enjoy it privately with her headphones instead. The peaceful silence broken when oblivious to how her actions impact those around her, we became a captive audience to her off-key a cappella accompaniment. Life is a cabaret indeed. With a knowing mutual glance, my husband and I frantically searched the dashboard for a make-believe, spring-loaded, backseat ejector button. When that proved unsuccessful, we smile and nod at each other, place forefinger guns to our heads, and simultaneously pull our thumb triggers. It was a shared moment of bonding with my patient and loving husband who knows how hard moments like that are for me. It is through his unconditional love that I’ve found the sense of home and safety my mother was unable to provide, along with the strength and acceptance to laugh through the tears. It is because of his love for me that I am able to love her.