Today would have been my mom’s 70th birthday. She killed herself 12 years ago, when she was 57. This day isn’t tinged with terrible sadness for me, it’s not heavy. Some years it comes and goes and I don’t even realize until a few days later that it’s passed.
This year I felt it coming. It’s complicated. I’m sad, I’m relieved, I feel a bit adrift. There’s a space inside me that’s empty, but the truth is that that emptiness was there even before she died. I was holding that space for her and filling it up with all my dreams and fantasies of what our relationship could be. But they were just dreams and when she died they vanished into nothingness.
I grieved the loss of my dreams, the loss of what could be, the wasted potential, but I made quick work of it and built a wall around that empty space so I could pretend it wasn’t there. I felt that because her life had been so painful for her, and because my life was easier with her gone, that her death was a net win for our team. I made it simple in my mind, breathed a sigh of relief, and “moved on.” But it doesn’t work that way. The pieces of our story (of ourselves, really) that we deny will resurface again and again until we hear them, until we bring them back into our hearts.
I’ve spent the past 18 months taking down the wall around my “mother space” and investigating what’s really in that emptiness. It’s like picking through the ashes after a devastating fire: everything’s gone, but the ghosts are still there.
I’ve realized recently that that space doesn’t hurt quite as much as it used to, it’s just…space. I hold that space for myself now, to work through my experience of being mothered and my experience of being a mother. I think a lot about how she couldn’t show up for me, what that meant for me, all the sadness and pain I suffered because of it. All the stories and beliefs I created about life, relationships, and myself as a result of those experiences. I think about how sad her life was, how a perfect storm of childhood trauma and physical dysfunction sunk her ship before she could even leave the port. I think about how I mother my own kids, the impossible standards I’ve set for myself in response to my own childhood. How do you give what you never received? How do you mother yourself? How do you show up fully in the present when the past is dogging you incessantly?
I ask more questions than I answer, and the answers that do come are in the language of the heart. I can’t speak or explain them so much as feel them. I’m peeling back the layers, coming to an understanding, finding forgiveness—more for myself than for anyone else, because that’s what’s truly difficult. It’s so easy to forgive others their faults and so hard to do that for ourselves.
In simplifying her life, and her death, I shut the door on myself. I left no room for confusion, grief, or exploration. I didn’t want those things back then anyway, but I understand the need for them now. I never wanted to look back, to think about my past, to feel anything but strong and in control and unaffected. But the past does matter, it’s our foundation, and if we ignore it then the only explanation for our faults, patterns, and “issues,” is that we’re broken and flawed.
The path to loving and forgiving myself has involved examining my past and feeling all the painful feelings I avoided at the time. I’ve needed help to do this, to allow a fresh perspective on all this old stuff to emerge. I could write volumes on that alone—seeking help, being vulnerable enough to actually receive the help I needed, being brave enough to explore the darkness. But through this work I’m developing the foundation I never had. I’m becoming multi-dimensional and grounded in life, in myself.
I don’t know that I’d have the space in my heart or mind to do this if my mother were still alive. I needed a distance from it all that would’ve never been created if I were still trying to manage that relationship day in and day out. So, it’s complicated. She was born, she was in pain, she caused pain, she died, and then there was so much left behind that just couldn’t be ignored.
This year what I’ve decided is that her birthday is an opportunity to stop and take a moment to think of her. To think of the good times, her admirable qualities, all the things I like about myself that are a direct result of her genetics or her influence. To send love to her, to love myself. The only way forward is through, and I want to move through life with love. Happy Birthday, Mom.