by Sherry Machen

These times need mothering. Even Mother Earth seems orphaned. My own mother died last summer, at 87, of complications from dementia, a nice way of saying she might have lived another 10 years if she’d taken care of herself. She drank, she smoked, she ate what she wanted to, or didn’t eat at all, she refused to exercise, and she pissed a lot of people off, including her children.

I recently received an invitation from Hospice to a communal memorial service, and there’s a space on the reply card for “words of remembrance” to be read aloud. I am in a bind: What to say that is true and is also kind? I used to have the same problem finding the “right” Mother’s Day card – one that acknowledged her but didn’t lie. No “To the Best Mother Ever” or “I Couldn’t Have Done It without You.” For the most part, we did do it without her, or even in spite of her.

Friends, hearing this and aware of “much worse cases” (“she didn’t beat you, starve you, lock you in the closet”), point out generosities, witticisms that I have attributed to my mother, and I sigh. It’s said that for every negative emotional experience, five positive ones are needed to compensate.

This is the way the human brain works: We remember what hurts with more fidelity than what feels good, to protect ourselves. That might account for the lack of forgiveness in this world, the surliness that continues long after the protagonist is gone or disabled or contrite.

I try to think of some fine, kind thing to say, but every good memory
is surrounded by so many bad ones. “Her wit and beauty will live on in
her children.” Who like her better dead. “She’s more giving in death
than in her lifetime.” I like to think she wanted this, but I can’t say
so out loud either. It sounds so bitter, and I am not bitter.

Someone will argue, “She gave you LIFE.” Hardly a conscious decision on her part, although she may have consciously decided, more than a few times, not to take it away. I think my life came through her, like Kahil Gibran said, me an arrow from her bow. That’s how I view my sons; I am grateful to have been part of their arrival here.

My mother did love nature, it clearly gave her more joy than her children – the gardens that received her undivided attention instead of us, and later, the dogs she doted on, when our love for her became far more conditional.

I found a Mother’s Day card for my sister, accidentally, while looking for a birthday card. I had forgotten about Mother’s Day, the first without mine alive. My sister and I used to commiserate about the difficulty of selecting “the right card,” the card that didn’t lie. I have stood by a card rack, quietly crying, wishing that some of the cards I read were true. My sons have sent me cards like that, miraculous to me, for I remember my own unkind, impatient, thoughtless acts – more than they do, it seems.

My mother lived through motherless times, her own mother absent or even exploitative, using my mother to cover up her trysting – just one of the stories I heard about a childhood more loveless than mine. It never occurred to me that the gifts and attention I received from my grandmother may have been calculated to hurt my mother more than delight me.

They both lived through two world wars, the Great Depression, their own economic dependencies on the kindness of men, their second-class status as women. Under those circumstances, could I have done any better?

When my mother was dying, Hospice nurses mothering her at the end, I visited her before going on a trip overseas. Many times before I had left her thinking, even hoping, I wouldn’t see her again. Even before she entered assisted living, I remember visiting her, watching her sleep, appearing quite dead in her chair, my checking her breathing. I felt nothing. I had mourned the loss of her, the very not-being-here of her, some time before.

This time, I told myself, the least I could do was stay with her for awhile. My visits had decreased in frequency and length as her dementia worsened. She didn’t know me, was unaware of time and sometimes just slept. But, more aware now that consciousness and presence are more about being than doing, I decided to sit, be still and just be there. I joined her at dinner, fed to her by an aide. I could have been anyone; she barely noticed me.

She ate little, was adamant about what she would or would not allow into her mouth. I wheeled her into her room and sat across from her, half-awake and buzzed by a fly I’d shoo away. She looked at me and said, “I like your skirt.” Did she know who I was? She reached her hand out from the shawl I’d wrapped around her and I held it, gently – for five minutes or so, until she pulled away. She’d never been a hand holder, and only later in life had she wanted hugs, kisses – I’d make an effort, fighting revulsion. This time, it was good, whether she knew who I was or not. A good, good-bye.

News of her death reached me in Zurich, accidentally. My siblings and I had agreed not to notify me while so far away. I read an email from my uncle to them, my father’s little brother, now in his 70s. As if overhearing a conversation, I realized she was gone. I felt a shock; I didn’t think she’d ever go. I had imagined myself, frail and aging, still feeling guilty about not visiting my ancient mother.

My therapist (who I returned to when my mother moved here five years ago) had warned me, “People like her usually don’t leave anything behind, they use up all their assets and then some.” My mother left the three of us each a goodly sum, enough to give me some financial freedom as I reach retirement.

After that initial shiver, I felt tremendous relief. I was glad to learn she wasn’t alone, she’d even spoken of the presence of her father and her brother to her aide, and that she’d gone peacefully and painlessly. Who could ask for more? Except I’d prefer to be with people who loved me. And maybe she was – the aides were full of stories, good and bad, about her. They liked her feistiness, her glamour. They tolerated her bigotry.

I do not miss her. I feel more and more gratitude – not for who she was in life, but in death. I can’t say that aloud either. I have had two friendships fade, since her dying, both with women who reacted to my lack of emotion with disapproval. Friends mother – they listen without judgment and they give comfort. They let me know that basically I am good.

I wish that Mother’s Day could become what it was originally intended to be, a day set aside for peace, and peace-making – mothering the world. I wish it could be a day to cherish all that is mother: the earth and all that nurtures us, and all our nurturing. I like to think that we are entering new times, where mothering is honored – and not the worst economic decision a woman can make. I think in a world like that, my mother and my grandmother would have been very different women.

Sherry Machen, Ph.D., L.P., is a psychologist in private practice in Wayzata, Minn.

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