Dying with mom

I remember driving on a highway a few years ago (I don’t remember where), and unexpectedly accepting that I wished my mother would just die. All the predictable, noisome thoughts thrashed about. But they settled down and it was true.

She had an overwhelming personality, but over the decades I’d been able to watch her closely. I learned so much from watching her: that confidence isn’t about truth; that ‘love’ speaks about others but cares for itself; that convictions are always brittle self-persuasion. When I was a child, of course, she could debate me into my helpless corner, and scoff about my observations – ‘so you really believe that!?’

She herself was invisible, a schizophrenic with nothing solid for me to look at. There was no part of her that projected out to others. We were simply figures in her imagination. She claimed to know us; to understand us. She could be maddeningly seductive, suggesting she might suddenly care; she might suddenly caress. But she didn’t. She was simply looking for the stroke herself. I would try – oh I would try! – to touch her, to shore her up, to make her laugh. But she wasn’t really there.

For a long time I thought of our experience as something that created me, as if growing up in her space had shaped who I am. As if my efforts to turn her into a real person translated into my general willingness to defeat myself, or explained my compulsion to see people as so much more than they genuinely are.

This noise about being created by our histories, about somehow being the sum of our experiences – it’s a vanity. We have no accurate memories. We merely take deep thought and create whatever warms our bellies (small wonder we have to practice every day just to think we’re who we are). What I am occurs as its uniqueness with whoever I encounter. I grew up with my mother, and so – disappointed, afraid, and angry. No more who I am than a photograph.

I visit her in the nursing facility. I am the child who visits her. I visit and I watch. If I think, ‘we are all like her,’ then I can tell myself stories about what people ‘truly’ are. The wild complexity of her active mind has been reduced to a few simple steps, and yet those steps accord precisely with the prior elaborate structure: she thinks she’s important; she thinks she’s being lied to.

Her conversation is now about a single thing: the 8:30 appointment for her nightly medication. She points to the clock, but can’t figure out what time it displays. She asks, ‘Is it 8:00 o’clock?’ I say, ‘No, it’s ten after five.’ She asks me what she has to do to get her meds, and I say, ‘Nothing, you just wait until 8:30.’ Briefly, the ancient sarcastic disdain shows up in her eyes and her forehead, and she exclaims, ‘so you really believe that?’

Then she looks long at the clock, repeats her question about the time, and we do it again.


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