Monday, March 18, 2013

A Face for Daughters

What happens when a person who has forged the way you think, the way you see yourself dies?

My mother died this past Saturday, you know, the one I blame for how fucked-up I am.  I hadn't spoken to her in nearly ten years, and even though most people don't understand it, not speaking to her didn't mean that I didn't love her. I loved her too much. And I wanted her to love me, but at a point in my life I was forced to choose to survive our relationship. Therapist now days would say that my mother was a narcissist, an extreme case. She was the center of the universe. And how can you not love someone like that?

Her death doesn't feel real. How can the center of the universe cease to exist?  I feel disoriented, numb. Sad. But not guilty. I tried so hard to be what she wanted me to be, but in the end, I couldn't do it. So, yes, I let her down. Instead I chose to have a life I could live, not one I constantly wished was over, not one where I would never be good enough.

And I mourned the loss of our relationship, a long time ago.

When I was a young girl, I would have given her my last breath. I almost did a couple of times because I couldn't live up to what she needed/wanted/expected. When I was a teenager, I contemplated suicide, and there were several times I came very close to doing it, but then my mother beat me to it. She survived her attempt, and I hate to say it, but I don't think she really meant to kill herself. She wasn't that type of person. I could see her killing someone else, but not herself. I think it was something she knew she could use as leverage.  If you were better, prettier, smarter, more helpful...worthier of my love, then I wouldn't have tried to kill myself.  No, she never said that in so many words, but it hung in the air like a foul smoke, clouding everything that happened in our home.

I grew up confused. I thought everyone's mother was like mine, that week-long silent treatments were normal, that everyone's mother read in bed all day while their family forged for themselves on week old leftovers, that every mother had a whole pharmacy in her handbag. And that her crushing need was as commonplace as going to the grocery store, that it was something I just had to learn to live with. I thought I was deficient because I didn't deal with it as well as my friends dealt with their own mothers. Like my mother, I thought their mothers had different faces. A face for the public and a face for family. A face for daughters who disappoint.

You see, everyone loved my mother. They breathed in the self-worth saturated fog that surrounded her and believed it. She was charismatic. She was funny. A joy to be around, even for us many times. A more saintly human never drew breath. She could be your best friend, could be generous and kind. And loving.

Until you did something to cross her.

Once you angered her, for whatever reason -- often reasons that only made sense in her head -- once you angered her, all bets were off. And not only did she make an effort to make you miserable, she enlisted support. My brother, my kindhearted, easy-going brother, my handsome brother who believes himself to be the ugliest person on the planet because of our mother's words, was accosted in the local grocery store by some woman he didn't even know, a friend of my mother. Right in the middle of the grocery store, this woman walked up to him and gave him the what-for about how badly he treated our mother.

People believed her because she believed what she was saying.

I even believed her, for years and years and years. I easily fell victim to the guilt she spread like rancid peanut butter, so thick and sticky that you couldn't shake it off. The sickly smell of it stayed in your nostrils, smothering and strangling. Not only were her children a disappointment to her, my father, according to her, was Satan incarnate. [Poor man was a saint, if you ask me, for staying with her long enough for me and my brother to get out of high school.] His family, dairy farmers, were beneath her which was a constant source of stress for her, and hence for anyone around her. She had every ailment known to man and God. She had been dying since I could remember from one thing or another. She would complain of problems that I had been dealing with for years, like sciatica, but for her, it was debilitating. In her late forties, she quit working just because she didn't want to work anymore, fully expecting me and my brother to picked up the slack, money wise. Which we did. I paid her rent and mine, and at that time, it meant me doing without a lot of things what I should have had. I would wear shoes until they fell apart so she could have cable TV, which I didn't have.

I was in my forties before I started pushing back. I just couldn't give any more. I realized that she would have taken my last breath if I had let her. I had turned into her personal ATM, her whipping-post, her sweet darling when she wanted something and a terrible daughter when I refused to submit. She would call me at work and rant about how awful I was because... I don't even remember.  Too many becauses piled up over the years for me to even try to think of a specific one. It got so bad that I had my phone number at work set such that I couldn't receive outside calls. Imagine the humiliation of explaining that to a manger. When I changed my home phone number, she started writing letters. When I moved, swear to God, she wrote me c/o Boeing Company, Seattle, Washington.  And it got to me. She was relentless when she wanted something or needed to let me know just how badly I had let her down.

And yet, there are so many things that she gave me, good things. She and my dad gave me my intelligence, my good looks [not], my history. She taught me survival techniques, tons of them. The ability to bend to the breaking point, but to not break. The ability to look at things from many different angles. Generosity [well, she demanded that from me].

And she gave me a wealth of things to write about.  If you read Counting Crows, or whatever I end up calling it, you'll see me in there. I don't want to write memoir, as it seems very self indulgent [like this blog], but there are themes in a person's life which carry into their interpersonal lives, into the way they deal with others or with their own problems. Into what they write. I have chosen to play out some of those themes in my fiction.

My protagonists aren't easily likable people, much like myself. They have complicated lives because they try to hide the things they find lacking in themselves, to hide the thing they hate about themselves. They try to be someone, something they're not. They try to be happy all the while swallowing sadness until their lungs are bursting. They wear many masks.

I don't know how my mother's death will play out in my life, but the story line that develops will be fodder for my writing. I have a good life. I've made a good life with what I was given. I've used the gifts I was given to build a world filled with loved ones, with pleasure, with experiences, and should I say it, with happiness.

I loved my mother. I still love her. And somewhere inside, she loved me too. I don't believe she understood what she was doing. I don't believe she meant to make our lives a mess. She was just trying to survive her own fucked-up life. And in doing so, she gave me a leg up on dealing with my own fucked-up life.

Wherever you are, Momma, I love you.

An old friend gave me this piece of advice regarding my mother's death: A friend told me that sometimes our bodies can't deal with the idea right away and that's why it doesn't feel real.  As your mind/body can handle the idea, it will seem more and more real.  The main thing is to respect how you feel. Nurture yourself. 

That's what I'm doing, nurturing myself until my world turns right-side up again.


If you're interested in Narcissistic Personality Disorder, there are tons of books out there.  I found this one insightful and readable:  Trapped in the Mirror, by Elan Golomb

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