Exploiting our Archives, Family Leave Edition: Motherless Day 2: Mom's Dead
As I chronicled on this blog not too long ago in my “Motherless Day” post, Mother’s Day is inherently bittersweet for people who’ve been abandoned by their mothers. Sure enough, I felt that ache, this year, just as I feel it every year, but I also felt something relatively new: profound gratitude for the absence of my mother’s toxic presence in my life.
I’ve known for a while that my biological mother, who I have not seen since I tried unsuccessfully to reconnect with her as an adult in the late 1990s, was sick and dying, but that was all I knew. Attempts to gently prod my half brother, who was the source of that information, on the subject, went nowhere. So I let it go until my brother messaged me today that mom had died.
I wasn’t shocked, nor even surprised, really. She was dying. She was poor. She’d lived a hard, difficult life and left a lot of damage behind. What did surprise me was my response: I felt nothing. I just felt numb. Part of me felt I should feel intensely one way or another. I devolved into whole-body sobs upon learning of David Bowie’s death, but practically shrugged upon learning of my mom’s death.
Upon learning the news, I walked out into the bright Georgia sunshine, far away from the gloom and shadows that characterized my mother’s gothic, Grey Gardens existence and listened to Beyond Yacht Rock, a podcast where the hosts make up miniature musical genres. listened to an episode devoted to songs winkingly about anal sex. When the hosts mischaracterized the critical response to Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy, I got briefly, inexplicably annoyed. The critical reception wasn’t that bad. If anything, it was mixed-to-positive. So I checked Rotten Tomatoes on my iPhone. 64 percent. I guess that isn’t that good, actually.
Then I caught myself: why was I more emotionally affected by podcasters slightly exaggerating the negativity of the critical reception of a film I don’t even like than I was by the death of the woman who gave birth to me? Why did I just feel numb? Why did I not seem to care at all? Why did I have to prod myself to feel something, anything, instead of responding with a hopelessly callous, “Huh. I guess that brings an end to all of that?”
Why did I respond to my mother’s death with the same indifference that greeted the news that her house had burned down? I had to see actual pictures of the blaze in order to feel anything at all, and even that was, “Huh, I guess that’s my biological mother’s house on fire. Looks pretty bad.”
On one level, it’s easy to understand. I don’t care because she was never there. She was a ghost in my life years, even decades, before her physical death. When I spent close to a week with my half-brother in Ohio for the Gathering of the Juggalos and Republican National Convention (two separate events, held close together on overlapping days to facilitate the many people like myself who wanted to experience both), my mother’s ghostly presence haunted the entire trip and she was still clinging to life when her two slightly dissimilar sons spent time together for the first time since 1999.
My brother understandably talked about our mother a lot and the more he talked, the more distance I felt from the woman he was describing. You can’t mourn an absence. You can’t look back with wistful nostalgia at something that was never there. I’m not sure if I’m even qualified to write a Facebook post about my mother’s death, as I wasn’t anybody to her, really. I was just her son.
Even though she’s dead, I am still her son, and it feels just as empty and hollow in the shadow of her death as it did during her sad life. I can’t write one of those achingly sad, bittersweet posts with a fading, sepia-toned old photograph of their mother or father looking beautiful and badass and mysterious some time in the 1950s or 60s or 70s, accompanied by a teary recollection of what made them so remarkable, both as human beings and as parents.
I can’t do that because I didn’t know who my mother was. Oh sure, there were the things she said about herself, in the smattering of conversations we had when I sought her out as a 23 year old and tried to re-establish a relationship with her, this time as adults, but what she said about herself seemed floridly exaggerated at best and outright fictitious at worst.
If I were to give my mother’s eulogy, it would be, “I didn’t know her, and what I heard was not good. Thank you for coming.”
I thought I’d come to a place of acceptance with my mother’s abandonment as much as anyone really can but then I became a father myself and my half-brother, who I never really knew before, re-entered my life in a big way with lots of stories about my mother, none of them positive. I began to experience the sting of abandonment all over again. I’d look into my angelic, golden-tressed two and a half year old son and think about what would it would take for me to say goodbye one day (possibly for a pack of cigs) and never see him again.
I looked at the news headlines and my inner Beavis once again tee-her-heed that the dude who kept getting in trouble for his wiener is named Anthony Weiner. I tried to figure out what stage of grief “complete disinterest” was. I don’t hate my mother. I pity her. I know that there was something broken and absent inside her that made it impossible for her to be any kind of a real mother to me, and for us to have any kind of real relationship. I don’t love my mother. Instead, I feel the opposite of love, which is apathy, and I feel that just numbly on the day I learned of her death as I did throughout her life. I just hope that her passing brings some peace of mind to her children, and that she achieves some peace in the afterlife. Because God knows that was in short supply during her lifetime.
The die was cast long ago but now it is final: I will never see my mother again. That door was never really open. Now it’s permanently closed. I am at peace with that. I let her go, and in the process I’m also letting go of the anger and pain and hurt and rejection that characterized our relationship. So in that respect this is an ending but it’s also a beginning, the close of a long, bleak chapter and the dawn of a more hopeful one.
Support Nathan Rabin's Happy Place at https://www.patreon.com/nathanrabinshappyplace