Self-awareness and forgiveness.
The world was cloaked in white. The house was so silent, I could hear the crackling of our wood burner next to my desk. I wrapped my hands around my mug, its warmth comforting. I stared out at this silent world and thought, as I often do, about my mother. She hated winter; I love the transition of each season.
My mother died in 1990. She had a massive coronary while driving. Her car left the highway like an arrow to find its mark on a nearby embankment. She has stood as sentry next to me ever since.
It was my older brother who delivered the news, and I distinctly remember the feeling of relief that washed over me. It was years before I could move past the guilt of that initial feeling. My relationship with my mother has been a journey of acceptance and forgiveness. For many years, the reminder that I was like her in any way was painful. I raged against our similarities, determined to ignore the mounting evidence; my denial was rejecting the obvious.
My mother was a strong and determined woman with a temper that was acutely passive-aggressive. I remember that, in times when I had made some transgression, she was capable of long periods of silence. This silence fell like a heavy blanket smothering all emotion in the household. If the transgressions were deemed serious, it could last for days or even weeks. I learned early when entering her orbit: she was the sun, and we were mere planets caught in her gravitational pull.
My mother was not loving in a tender sense and could be overly critical. I imagine she was also hard on herself, never measuring up to some script about life that could not evolve past the original plot. I found myself desperate for her approval, and terrified of her disappointment. As a young adult, it was impossible to see, much less understand, just how much I had internalized her emotional temperament. I have spent much of my life unhappy. I went into therapy to understand just where I had gone wrong. I have learned much.
The following letter was written for my mother and read at her gravesite on Mother’s Day, 1997:
Another Mother’s Day arrives, and I stare out my living room window. Pink, yellow, and white hyacinth bloom with brilliance along our sidewalk. I smile and receive spring’s promise of rebirth.
Seven years have passed since your death, and I sense a deep change occurring within. Although physically gone, you continue to be a presence in my life. I see you in unexpected glimpses through my relationships with others. Sometimes, these reminders come unwelcomed. Other times, they tug at my heart. Always, they provide meaningful lessons. Our parting sent me on a journey of forgiveness and responsibility. I have prayed for clarity to understand and transcend my pain. I have harnessed the stubborn tenacity I learned from your example to chart a different course for myself.
Now, rather than wall myself from our similarities, I welcome them. I applaud my directness and feel free to speak my mind. I am learning to temper my bluntness by being respectful of others and their feelings. Rather than let my fears control me and intimidate those around me, I use fear as a signpost to dig deeper in the understanding of myself.
My pain has taught me empathy and compassion for others in their life struggles. My isolation and depression have allowed me to embrace solitude as a teacher. I find myself thirsty for life, the moisture of which swells my heart as each drop finds me, until I am drenched and laughing. Joseph Campbell said, “Find a place where there is joy and the joy will burn out the pain.”
How important it is to let love in. It shatters all our old boundaries and rigidities. It allows mystery to be what it is. The mystery of love changes lives forever. When our paths cross again, I am sure my soul will recognize the light within you.
How do I explain to you what you and our relationship have meant to me? I have written many letters to others with my heart spread all over them, and not once have I tried to convey to you how deeply you reside there. Love cannot be held back and still be called love. Love is not about being careful, rationing it out like a miser counts coins. In order for it to survive, it must be given, and given freely.
I acknowledge our deep love for each other, which was continually challenged by our similarities and passions. Rage, left unchecked, can be so unsympathetic. Though I am not a parent, I am a woman who nurtures both myself and others with great tenderness. I continue to be a work in progress. I am learning a love that tempers my judgement and opens my heart. I am keenly aware that before my soul can rest, I must accept your flaws as my own and hold them tenderly. They have been your greatest gifts.
When I look in the mirror and see your face, my eyes soften, and I see your secret poetry. I cannot forget you. Alice Walker said, “In search of my mother’s garden, I found my own.” You are always with me.