Sunday, July 22

I'm an emotional fraud, sort of

Mother-daughter relationships are complex. That's an understatement, of course. And I can speak only from the perspective of the daughter.

My mother and I have had a tempestuous relationship over the years. I could go into grand detail, but I'm not really interested in whatever emotion that might prompt. I'll just say this: she hit; I learned to take it or duck, and to lie really well; I got out as soon as I could. In spite of all of that, I was still awed by her for many years.

Here's an example of why she awed me. She decided to learn how to scuba dive when she was 65. That was after she'd beaten breast cancer which required a double mastectomy. Over the years I was surprised she didn't play the "cancer survivor" card more often, but she didn't really see herself as a victim. Anyway, when she decided she wanted to try scuba diving, she went all in. Took the lessons, bought the gear, found a group of people she could diving with pretty regularly. When the dive group broke up after a few years and for reasons I could never fathom (I know you got that), she hung up her dive gear. Whenever she took up something new, she took it on full tilt until it was over and when it was over, that was that. Most of the time, it was over because a particular group of people couldn't or didn't stay together. She was oddly but fiercely loyal to that group.

She was, though, a terrible mom. At least that's my perception. My sister is six years younger than I and no doubt has a different view. My stepsiblings met her much later so they have a view I often didn't recognize. My dad was an alcoholic, though pretty benign in his behavior if he wasn't wrecking a car. Fortunately he hurt only himself and the cars. She was the one who went into towering rages or who simmered with anger until a word or a look or something just made her explode. She did change after they finally divorced, but it took a great while for some of the edges to begin to smooth though we were still often at odds. I do know one reason why and it galls me: we're very much alike in temperament though very different in many ways. I know why that's true, too: I've worked hard not to be like her in many ways so I'm very aware that much of who I am and what I am is because of her, directly and indirectly.

But I don't like her.

When I was in elementary school, probably about 6th grade, she told me that she had to love me but she didn't have to like me. That stung then and for many years after. I've come to understand that. It is, I have found, a sentiment shared by others. In a recent article in the Chicago Tribune, Rocky Wirtz, owner of the Blackhawks stated that he loved his father, but he didn't like him. Given what was shared in the article--in some ways a teaser for a book coming out in October--it seems that Rocky and his father had a relationship much like I had with my mother. Tempestuous. Conflicted.

I don't love her because I have to, but because she's my mom. I know the love I feel for her is different and partially because she's my mom, and that I have all these horrible, painful memories I have to set aside because she's not that person any more.

When I first started realizing and acknowledging her dementia, it was weird, uncomfortable, annoying, frustrating, confusing, perplexing. I was an emotional wreck sometimes. There were times she was the ugly, mean, condescending, spiteful person I knew so well. Other times I could tell she was scared and uncertain. And sometimes that wickedly funny sense of humor and sharp intelligence would shine through. Even as an adult woman, I was still terrified of making her angry so navigating some of the difficult decisions of getting them to move to assisted living felt like walking through an emotional minefield: her emotions and mine. She was in denial, of course. And when there were moments of recognition that things had to change, she was a bit more agreeable but certainly fought to say it would be only temporary. No one goes into that mental darkness willingly.

Even now that funny Mom shows up or that smart, clever Mom makes a comment that startles and amuses me. She is less mean and ugly about people, though I've still seen that eyebrow raised when someone says or does something and recognize that brief look of judgement. 

As with all of us, we have to take the good and the bad with the ugly. All of us are all of that.

Just recently I posted a picture of my mother with the observation that during a recent visit she didn't recognize me and that was the first time that had happened. She wasn't sure of who I was in subsequent visits, but she seemed to recognize a friendly face and I could still make her laugh. I got a number of lovely comments after that and that's when I realized what a fraud I am.

I take care of her because it's the right thing to do. I take care of her because that's my responsibility.

What annoys and frustrates me is that I want her to be comfortable and I know how mad she'd be if she were aware of what's become of her and sometimes I miss that really irritating, ungrateful, self-centered, smart, funny person, but not all of the qualities of her former self. But we can't choose the parts we like and ignore the rest. All of those qualities made her who she was, who she is.

I don't know any more if I don't like her. I can't tell. But I know I'll keep trying to take care of her because it's the right thing to do. And because she's my mom.

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