Monday, May 15, 2006
Mothers and Daughters
Insomnia grips me tonight, thoughts ranging from final exams to mothering to children to love to self-identity and self-awareness to body image to exercise to food to acid reflux to the hot night to perceptions to sleep to wakefulness. Six in the morning will come quick and still her voice bangs about in my head, her tears sticking to me like guilt.
“I was so hurt by how she spoke to me,” the sixty-five year-old mother said, dabbing the folded and refolded tissue to her reddened eyes, her long hair disappearing way beneath the edge of the table. “Why does she do that? We gave her everything and when I walked into the house, she didn’t hug me or come up to me like you did, wishing me a Happy Mother’s Day, she just stood there. Distant, cold, you know? What did I do wrong?”
“Maybe it’s fear. She lost her father and you’re all that’s left. She can’t take when you cry or are needy because that means you’ll die next. That means you’ll be leaving her, too.”
“You really think so?”
I have no idea, I thought.
“Yeah, sure,” I said.
What happens with mothers and daughters, what happens to tear apart their connection that so early on is so deep and fulfilling? I remember being unable to sit with my mother in her last days of coherence, unable to let her hang on to me to walk from room to room. I could barely look at her as she handed me her checkbook to write out bills, as she fumbled with the papers at the messy desk in the back room because she could not control her muscles very well. I was furious with her for being ill. I cringed when she touched me, physically recoiling from her increasing dependence. I stormed out of the house, ignoring her call to me. Days later she cried on the phone, trying to tell me she couldn’t see.
“What do you mean you can’t see?!”
“I can’t see, I can’t tell you what I need.”
“You can’t just look in the refrigerator and tell me whether there’s milk or not?! How can I help you if you can’t tell me what you need?!”
“No, mija, I can’t see! I can’t see!”
The conversation deteriorated from there, ending with her sobbing into the telephone and me hanging up the phone so I didn’t have to hear anymore. I hated her. I hated her illness because I didn’t believe it. I already lost my father and refused to accept that this was happening again.
Please, dear God, not again, not so soon.
In my mind, dying wasn’t happening. Dying wasn’t a possibility. She was immortal as always. She was making the whole thing up for attention, I told myself, and acted in response to that presumption. She was a liar.
Nothing makes up now for how I behaved. To this day, I still cringe, only not from her touch but from thinking of those months I cannot take back, thinking of what should have been. If it had been any other sort of disease…something I could see…
Why could I not wake up to her final illness? Yes, she burnt us out as her children on her many emotional disorders. Yes, yes, yes, there was reason for my tuning her out, for my shutting down and becoming a distant, cold daughter. Any therapist would rationalize and explain and urge me to forgive myself. A relative once said in an open moment, “Perhaps it was for the best. Who would have taken care of your mother? She only would have gotten worse emotionally. Sometimes I’m relieved to think of her being safe and sound in the cemetery.”
And yet…I want her.
“Have you tried talking to her, without accusation,” I asked, hesitating a bit because I was stepping into personal ground.
“She gets so angry, I can’t say anything.”
There are always reasons for daughters shutting down on their mothers. My aunts have a harder time accepting the various moods of my grandmother than me and my sister. They are often much less patient with her, visibly. I can listen to my grandmother go on and on about her aches and pains and yet I know my aunts have to cut the conversation short. I often hear their anxiousness.
They have their reasons.
Blog-touring shows me this breakdown over and over again. Books, I know, have been written about the strain. Competition, jealousy, a desire to toughen up the girls for the hard life that surely awaits them, self-absorption, illness, depression, insecurity, a myriad of reasons collapses the “sweetness.” Something goes terribly wrong somewhere down the road and I wonder about it now, tonight.
I think about the collapse when M cuddles up to me as I’m leaving to teach and says, “I want you!” When I prefer to disappear into the blackness that lurks always, I hear that cry and choose to step away from the isolation to embrace her and to be there for her. She demands in a way the boys don’t. She stomps her foot and screams, “I WANT YOU!”
“I love you,” she says when I show up.
What happens to shred that connection? What happens to deafen both mother and daughter to each other’s furious demand?
“Before her father got sick,” the mother recounted, “my daughter said in no uncertain terms, ‘I’m not going to take care of you when you get old.’ I told her we knew that, that we never expected it or asked her for it. But still it hurt what she said. We never understood it.”
Ancient hurt, I wanted to say. You must have hurt her first. You cannot be innocent in this problem. I shrug though, offering her only my empathy. I remembered a time when I bent to kiss my four year-old son and he bumped his head against mine, not wanting me to touch him. I cried all the way to my mother’s house, broken hearted at being rejected by my child. I know the hurt, on both sides, but I don’t know the pain of an adult child bumping heads, pushing away a kiss.
"I'm so sorry," I said.
“We gave her everything she ever wanted. I’ll never forget her telling me she couldn’t get me when I called her from the freeway after the car accident. She never called me back. I could have been killed and still she didn’t call me back. What did I do to her?”
“I don’t know – I wish I had an answer.”
There were hugs all around when it was time to leave, lies maybe. Hurt shoved down. The mother headed down the walk towards her car. I carried her things for her. She is alone now, widowed. The rejection intensifies the grief for her lost husband. We stood together under the branches of a large tree, the leaves shuddering in the summer night’s breeze. She spoke of a missing headstone and a memory of his fishing trips and the doors he never finished. We hugged and I said I loved her.
"You don't know how much that means to me," she sniffled. She got into the car at last and drove away, a crock pot half-full of uneaten baked beans in the trunk. Hours she'd spent making it and the daughter didn't keep the leftovers. She disappeared around the corner into the darkness.
M looked up at me as we walked to our car, her fingers in her mouth, her other hand grasping mine. The boys climbed into the truck and I shivered in an imagined chill, the Los Angeles sky devoid of stars.
“I love you, daughter,” I said.
M said nothing, curling up in her booster seat while I seatbelted her in.
Insomnia grips me tonight.