What’s my earliest memory? It’s a toss up. The two earliest ones are from when I was three-years-old. My mom got sick when I was a toddler. Good news: she survived. The auto-immune illness that she has, a thyroid disorder called Grave’s Disease, can be devastating, but I guess it’s not really deadly. I don’t have a lot of clear memories of this time, but now that I have an adult mind that can fully comprehend the consequences of illness and the suffering that it causes, my heart goes out to my mom all those years ago. In a matter of years, her health got so bad that she could no longer work, had to go on disability and endure radiation treatments and surgeries. All of this while trying to raise a young child and navigate a marriage with my emotionally-abusive father.
I’m lucky; my mom is alive and well, and I can just call her and speak the contents of my heart to her. I’ve never thought much about it, but it’s odd how little I know about my mom’s illness. She doesn’t talk about it much. Now that I reflect, maybe that’s because I never showed a great willingness to listen or asked many questions. When I was a kid, my mom was the center of my universe. She radiated love and care. My entire sustenance and well-being came from her. The bonds of love between us were thick and unbreakable. Well, unbreakable until they broke. Let’s say they were severed by the knife of my father’s betrayal. That’s another story, though. When I was a teenager, there were times when I genuinely thought that my mom and I hated each other and would never love each other ever again. The thought made me crumple and sob. I didn’t know how to fix it. All the trust and understanding between us had drained away, and we didn’t know how to get it back. Even though my feelings toward my mother shifted from one pole to the other, one thing remained the same from my childhood to my adolescence. I didn’t know how to deal with seeing her in pain, in struggle, in vulnerability. I’m still not great at it, but I’m trying to get better.
I remember hearing a classmate mention in conversation that her mom had been crying. She said it offhandedly, as if seeing her mom cry was a regular occurrence. I was shocked. In all of my 26 years I have seen each of my parents cry once. I didn’t really even see my dad cry. Apparently he was extremely moved by the worship singing portion of a church service, and one tear slipped dramatically down his cheek. My dad fucking loves a Protestant Christian church service.
I saw my mom cry after my dad left us. I guess he fucking loved Christianity more than he loved us. My mom just broke down and sobbed one day. It was just me and her at home. I forget where my younger sibling was. My mom began to dry up and curl in on herself after my dad left. She was brittle and everything in the world was crashing into her. She sat down on the couch one afternoon and just let the tears and groans pour forth. I remember how she seemed to be psychically reaching for me, wanting to commiserate and mourn together. I remember sitting stock still and stiff on the couch, unwilling to bridge the physical distance between us. My mom has always accused me of stoicism, just like my dad. I don’t feel like a very good stoic, though. I bottle my emotions until they burst forth in eruptions that are awkward, inappropriate and violent. When my dad left I shed not a single tear. In fact, I didn’t really show anything beyond indifference. My dad didn’t invest much in my life, didn’t bring much to the proverbial table. He was rarely actually physically present, and he was almost always emotionally disengaged. Really, my dad did me a favor by being as absent as possible throughout my childhood so that when he actually disappeared it phased me no more than a light pinch on the arm.
Maybe this is why I was so unable to engage with my sobbing mother. I wasn’t quite clear on what she was mourning. My dad’s departure seemed less like a loss and more like the natural progression of the series of events of our lives. I was too confused to offer comfort. It was like watching a child cry because you gave them the cup of juice that they asked for.
That was one aspect of my inability to sympathize, but I think the even larger issue is that I couldn’t handle seeing my mom not in complete control of the situation, or at least acting like she was. When, as a child, I would get too bossy or controlling my mom would snap at me in exasperation, “Let me run something!” The message was clear. In our relationship infallibility and agency lay with my mother, the parent. The power dynamic scales between us weren’t just tipped in her favor, they were fully and forever weighted to her side. This had the desired effect of making me a very obedient child. The flip side, though, is that whenever it began to show that my mom wasn’t completely invulnerable I didn’t know how to deal, neither of us did. So it happened that my mother sat on our couch sobbing, wishing that her daughter would show some emotion and/or provide her with some comfort, and I perched on the edge of the opposite end of the couch, completely dry-eyed, experiencing towering heights of discomfort.
I remember hearing an acquaintance among my peers talk about comforting their mother as she cried. When I heard this I was horrified. Comforting your mother meant acknowledging that she was experiencing weakness and pain. In my world, mothers were not supposed to experience or express those things. The best way to deal with a breach of the status quo was to stiffly ignore it until it passed. Beyond my emotional ineptitude, though, I also felt a guilt I didn’t know I was supposed to feel. My acquaintance was a child who returned to their parent the comfort and reassurance that they received. Was that one of my duties as a daughter? As I grew older was this a role that I was supposed to grow into? Was there something missing from my relationship with my mom?
I am three-years-old and my mom is handing me a toy phone. She says that we have to practice. Her thyroid is going haywire, and she’s chronically ill. My dad works overnights at a Motorola factory, and he sleeps all day. We don’t see much of him. If something happens it’s just me and my mom. I have to know what to do. She hands me the toy phone, and lies down on the floor, pretending to have collapsed. I practice dialing 911, practice what I’ll say to the imaginary operator. I’m scared of this game, and I don’t want to play it, don’t want to even pretend that something bad can happen to my mom, that it’s possible for her to be struck down, but my mom insists. Luckily, nothing ever happened. We were lucky. My mom’s health improved and stabilized. She is alive and well. We still get to reach out and touch each other.
That was the first time, when I was three-years-old and holding a play phone. That was the first time I was confronted with the fact that, despite her facade, my mother is not invulnerable. That fact felt intolerable to me, as it does to all children, and instead of processing the feeling, I buried the evidence. Some children have to process and tolerate the intolerable when their mothers leave or are taken from them. I have been spared this misfortune. Though I haven’t lost my mother, I still struggle with tolerance of her humanity. I examine it through a haze of fear, stoicism and denial. After all these years I’ve almost grown up enough to take on that role, the one that develops when children get old enough to reciprocate care. For some people that happens pretty early. I’m sure there are some three-year-olds out there wiping their mothers’ tears away. For me, though, it took a long while. I’m grateful that I still have time with my mom to keep growing.