I made it clear to noontime before I remembered today marks the twenty-eight anniversary of my mother’s death.
There are been more immediate concerns as of late, fresh wounds in need of suturing that have taken priority over the luxury of worrying an ugly but ancient scar. The ever-growing temporal gulf between Then and Now has also played a factor. My mother has been gone from my life for nearly twice as long as she was a part of it.
Yet I did remember it, and having remembered it, that old familiar ache has returned.
In past years, I’ve commemorated the date by writing about it. Each subsequent year reflected some fresh bit of insight or point of genuflection about my feelings toward my mother and the consequences of her passing. Her death radically reshaped my reality and led to every life-changing event which followed.
Because my mother died, I won a scholarship for hard luck cases. Because I won the scholarship, I was able to attend UMass Boston. Because I attended UMass Boston, I was able to meet Maura. Because I met Maura, I was able to center my angry adolescent self and realize my worth as a person.
It’s a weird thing to contemplate how the death of a parent could be interpreted as the best thing that ever happened to me, but it is — on a coldly clinical level — true.
I’ve portrayed my mother in a less than flattering light in some of my autobiographical writing, perhaps excessively so relative to the font of emotional cruelty that is my old man. My father was a monster, but I’ve had decades to get the measure of our complicated relationship and make some form of peace with him. I did not get, nor will ever have, the chance to reach the same level of clarity with my mother. Her death froze my frame of reference at a place where her mental illness was hitting a terminal stage while my perspective was that of a confused and resentful sixteen year old.
My father’s antics were boisterous and over the top, an amped-up and especially brutal version of the stock Angry Alcoholic Dad template. My mother’s issues were more difficult to parse. She was a very brittle person, a bundle of stress triggers and unpredictable outbursts. She was able to keep things — and my father — in check for a number of years, but her own irrational obsessions eventually made that impossible. She was terrified of getting older, of her beauty fading, of succumbing to cancer after having a benign growth removed at age thirty.
She was the rock of our family, but one made out of plaster. When she started crumbling, the entire shaky dynamic entered a death spiral. Sometimes my father wonders if he could’ve pulled things back together if he’d made an effort. I’m convinced it was beyond saving. If my mother didn’t die from that fall down the attic stairs, she’d have died of liver failure. Or in a mental hospital.
My mother couldn’t imagine herself getting older and neither can I. There’s simply no roadmap to follow about how she would have reacted to the life I’ve carved out for myself. “She’d be proud of you,” is the default palliative platitude folks offer but there’s no way of ever knowing that.
See, I’m doing it again, despite the fact that my mother was also a very loving and positive influence on me. She was the artist of the family, the creative soul that encouraged flights of fancy against my father’s two-fisted pragmatism. She was a wellspring of stories from Arthurian legend and Classical myth, the value of allegory and metaphors which didn’t involve Nazi Germany. She kept me supplied with texts and materials aimed at encouraging my creativity.
She was a voracious and omnivorous reader. Even when her disorders left her terrified to leave the house, she’d send me down to the library to borrow books — “anything that looks interesting is fine” — for her to devour in the space of an afternoon of two and then recount to my father and me for weeks afterward.
The trips to the library were so ingrained into my schedule that I kept them up after she died. Using her card, I’d borrow books that I thought she might’ve enjoyed. I’d take them back to my bedroom at my grandmothers place and read them while listening to the oldies station on my stereo.
Up until that time, I was never much of a reader outside horror anthologies or non-fiction tomes about favorite subjects (true crime, military history, odd facts). What began as a need to maintain a sense of continuity became an enduring habit in its own right.
That’s the legacy of my mother that I should be remembering today, instead of the weirdness and insanity of her final years.
But then I remember how much she loved Taylor Caldwell‘s writing and the ambivalence comes flooding back again.