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Forgiveness -- A Mother's Day Gift

05/06/2013 08:00 am ET | Updated Jul 06, 2013
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For years, as Mother's Day approached, my stomach would have its usual knot of anxiety, my brain running overtime, telling me to send a card even though I had never lived with my mother, even though she pretended she didn't have a daughter or grandchildren. I'd try to ignore that she'd forgotten our birthdays and hadn't sent Christmas gifts for my kids in years, but the voice of guilt would chime in, "Send her a card -- after all, she IS your mother."

Most years, I'd drag myself to the dreaded rack of cards. The ones with pink ribbons, "You have always been there for me," I tossed aside with a snort. A pretty card with roses: "I want to be the mother you were." Nope. I would slink through the racks, often leaving with no card at all.

We had a tough history to deal with, my mother and me, both of us daughters of mothers who left us behind. Her mother, the grandmother I would eventually live with, left my mother behind as a little girl of six or seven, to make her way as a single woman in Chicago in 1921. Mother left me with her mother when I was four and went to Chicago to live the life of a single woman, so single that during my first visit to see her in Chicago when I was twenty years old, she told me, "No one knows I've been married, so of course I can't have a daughter. This is the way it is, and you just need to accept it."

I was too afraid of her to speak up -- her temper was legendary. Confused, I would try hard to please her, wondering what I'd done that made her cancel me as her daughter. I wore the shame of her rejection like a scarlet letter, but tried to hide it, tried to be "normal." In one of my journal entries I wrote, "Am I alive if my mother doesn't claim me?"

When I was growing up with my grandmother, my mother would visit once a year, dressed in stylish suits, her hair perfect, a face that always broke my heart with its beauty, but too soon the visit would find its usual pattern -- Gram and mother fighting, crying, throwing dishes. There would be brief tender moments when she would scratch my back, or play Liebestraum for me on the piano, but every year, Mother would rush off angry, afterward sending sweet scented letters in perfect penmanship, signing them "Love, Mother." I'd savor them, and repeat to myself, "Mommy does love me..."

After writing Don't Call Me Mother, a memoir about mother Gram and me, and my journey to try to break the pattern and forgive, I'd get letters from people who had mothers who were abandoning or abusive. Most of them had no diagnosis for what was wrong, just a sense of self-doubt and shame. Some were trying give their parent a second chance out of the desire to be whole instead of fractured, wanting to offer good to replace the ills they'd suffered. But after years of trying to create a new relationship only to be rejected or attacked again, even the most kindhearted had to accept what their therapists were saying to them, as mine had said to me: "Respect your limits. You have to confront the fantasy that she'll change someday."

Sometimes we have to "divorce" our mothers in order to have some measure of sanity and to protect ourselves and our children from more abuse.

For thirty years after Mother told me the "rules" of our relationship, I tried to get her to accept me and my children, or at least acknowledge that we were her family. I could just see it, her arms held out to me, murmuring an apology. I could taste the sweetness of it, it was so real to me that it seemed it had really happened, but for the empty place, the carved out sense of not being good enough, not being acceptable or worthy. I thought that if I just did things right, if I proved I was worthy, if I acted like a dutiful daughter, she would change.

Until a fateful day in Chicago when I tried to get her to recognize the intelligence of my youngest son, and how my daughter was growing into a young lady whose face had begun to mirror ours. During the visit, as Mother herded us down the basement elevator, my son said, "This is because she doesn't want anyone to know that we're hers." Like a slap. he was naming the truth. But it was his next comment that changed everything. "Why do you bring us here when she doesn't want us?"

The fantasy was broken -- I had to divorce my mother. Each time I'd seen her nearly every year for two decades, I would get injured anew. Each rejection stabbed me all year long, each refusal to accept me or know me deepened the wound. No wonder I was stuck in my goals with therapy, no wonder depression still haunted me on the bad days. No wonder I still felt like a motherless child. I was, though my mother was still alive.

As a therapist, I'd thought of all the usual labels -- narcissistic, borderline, depressed, but it wasn't until she was dying with cancer that I'd get some final answers. I made it a point to be with her at the end of her life -- our family had a history of deathbed reunions, and I was curious, perhaps still trying to convince myself that something might happen, something might change.

I flew to Chicago to help her with a biopsy for lung cancer, which had metastasized to her brain. In front of doctors and nurses, she screamed that I wasn't her daughter, again, but this time there were shocked witnesses whose compassionate gaze soothed the old wound, and her harsh treatment, screaming verbal attacks at the staff, led to an examination by a psychiatrist. Mother had always laughed off suggestions that she see a psychiatrist. I watched while she flirted with him, flounced around pretending to be a young girl, and brushed me off as usual. Later, his dark eyes looked into mine and pronounced some words that put our lives into perspective: bi-polar, hypomanic, depressed. I knew it was likely that my grandmother had some version of these diagnoses too.

Naming is a powerful tool for healing, as is being witnessed. No longer was my injury invisible, no longer was I alone with it. Before she died, I saw my mother as the wounded child she was, vulnerable, someone who was driven by the demons in her mind. Someone broken. I was blessed to find forgiveness for her as she died, all the past falling away, leaving only the soul of a woman who finally became my mother as I held her, our tears mingling on our hands, my heart filled with love, as I let her go.

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