My mother passed away five months ago at the age of 80. Despite her advancing age and the knowledge that this day must eventually come, I always knew it would be one of the most difficult moments of my life, and it was. In fact, the pain of losing her has far exceeded my expectations.
I was lucky to have had a very close relationship with my mother for a good part of my life. I grew up in a rural farming region in central Virginia. Along with normal activities such as hunting and listening to country music, the values of God and country were strongly instilled. Due to my mother's influence I became very involved in my church as a teenager, and the shared activities created a strong bond between us. Mom indoctrinated me against communism, the dangers of alcohol and premarital sex. She taught me that America was "God's country."
With this background in God, country and family values, I found myself at a very conservative Bible College after high school. But despite the insularity of that experience, I eventually began to question some of the teachings that, quite frankly, had never made sense to me, such as the subservient role of women, hell, the literal interpretation of the Bible and the exclusive "truth" of evangelical Christianity. These slowly made me rethink my upbringing and the door to the possibility that there might be other "truths" out there cracked open.
After graduation, I took my first job in a small college where I met people who thought dramatically different from me, Muslims, Catholics, Mormons even atheists. I quickly found that they believed their "truths" as strongly as I believed mine. Some even tried to convert me to their way of thinking, and to large degree they were successful. Within a few years my beliefs had changed radically. I came to see that one's beliefs were mostly a product of one's upbringing, culture and place in history. In a word, I began to lose my religion.
My new beliefs and lack of Christian belief had ripened by the early 1990s, and I began to test the waters with my mother. Throughout my teens even with her faith and piety she had always been extremely open-minded, so I felt I could chance challenging her thoughts with some of my new thoughts. In retrospect, however, that decision signaled the beginning of the end to the close bond we had always shared.
Initially mom listened to me with interest, offering patient explanations why I was wrong. We would have civilized discussions, agreeing to disagree the majority of the time. In all honesty, I did not share with her the entirety of my changing religious beliefs as it would have hurt her severely, but when it came to social and political issues, I was less reticent. We had heated discussions about abortion, the death penalty, illegal immigration and health care, all the while maintaining civil discourse.
Until the late 1990s my relationship with my mother remained largely intact. But then she discovered Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, and I could not have anticipated the devastating way this would change our relationship.
In a short amount of time my open-minded and compassionate mother became someone I no longer knew or understood. She became strongly anti-immigrant, anti-choice, pro-gun, pro-corporation, and perhaps worst of all, she lost her concern for the less fortunate. The influence of Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, and the other conservative talking heads had overwhelmed and transformed her. Our discussions became more heated, often ending in a battle of words.
It often felt strained to spend time together. During visits we would battle over the television. She pushed her agenda with Fox News, and to be honest, I pushed mine with Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Still I wondered, where had this loving woman who raised me gone? What had made her lose sight of the teachings of Christ about the poor and disadvantaged? I firmly believe that after years of imbibing this type of programming her mind had been poisoned.
But they didn't just poison her mind, they also took her money. As I now focus on settling my mother's affairs, I handle a half dozen pieces of mail per day from various right wing organizations. I've learned that this woman of meager means regularly contributed to political organizations, think tanks, PACs and other groups endorsed by her beloved Fox News.
Although it pains me now, I remember once remarking to my husband that the country would be a better place when her generation was gone. Of course, I didn't mean that I wanted my mother or any particular person of her generation to die. I simply meant that this "greatest generation" who had nobly led the world through two World Wars had become the targets of unscrupulous and ill-intentioned media shysters.
When my mother had a stroke last winter, I was thoroughly devastated. Facing the loss of this woman who had meant so much to me for so long left me feeling hollow and ashamed. Why did our last years together have to be so conflict ridden?
As much as I miss her I feel the sweetness of our relationship was tainted by unnecessary conflict over religion and politics for the last 10 years or so. I don't know what's been worse -- the pain of losing her, or the pain over our lost connection. Perhaps this is why her passing has been so very difficult for me. I don't think I had ever grieved the loss of our close relationship until now.
In the four months after my mother's stroke, her body slowly recovered but her mind did not. But in those final months she no longer cared about politics or religion. Neither did I. The only thing that really mattered was taking care of her, making sure that she had everything she needed -- which was my love and devotion. I did my best to give her both.