I turned thirty-nine years old a few weeks ago. I’ve hit a stage in my life that I knew was coming, but for some reason I expected it to come later. Maybe in my late forties. Reading that back to myself, it looks like I’m about to launch into the woes of a full on mid-life crisis. Fortunately, no. I’d like to think I’m aging gracefully enough to sail passed that, or perhaps I’m just not old enough yet for it to hit me.
It’s become very clear that I’ve come to that point in my life where all of the older figures in my life, the people I grew up looking up to as role models, parents, and authority figures, those people are dying. My grandfather on my dad’s side died about twelve years ago. He was the first. A few years later, my grandmother on my mom’s side, then after that, my Uncle Mike. Uncle Mike and I had been estranged for most of my life and during the last few years of his life, we had just started to get to know each other again. After that, an assortment of great aunts and uncles, then two years ago, my cousin and I each held one of my grandfather’s hands as he died peacefully, in his sleep, in his living room.
My cousin, Uncle Mike’s daughter and someone who has become an amazing woman, was taking care of Grampa while he underwent in-home hospice care. She stayed with him during the week and on the weekends, Laure and I would drive up and help her take care of him. It was a rough couple of weeks but it was what Grampa wanted and I feel fortunate that I could be there with him.
Now another one of those people in my life is dying, my mother. I’m talking about my biological mother. I do have foster parents who are both alive and well and who moved away to San Diego years ago. Before I go into any detail, you need to understand that my biological mother and I barely know each other. We’ve had only a handful of conversations over the last twenty years, and most of those didn’t go well. When I say that my mother is insane, I’m not exaggerating or being the least bit facetious.
My mother is not a well woman. Not physically and certainly not mentally or emotionally. My brother and I grew up seeing that some times she was OK, and sometimes she wasn’t, but that was all we’d ever known so we didn’t think much of it. That was just mom. When we were teenagers, my sophomore year in high school, we came home from Christmas at our father’s house in Wyoming, to an empty house. Presents were still under the tree, wrapped, and the house appeared to have been unoccupied for a few days. After a few phone calls, we learned that our mother had made her third attempt at suicide. This is something else that shouldn’t be misconstrued though. If my mother had actually died from one of these attempts, it would have been an honest to goodness mistake. She never actually intended to kill herself, only put on the appearance, having arranged things so that she would be found before she actually died. Fortunately, she succeeded every time.
It was not long after this, that one doctor diagnosed her with paranoid schizophrenia. Later on, this diagnosis was changed to border line personality disorder. Over the years, I’ve done a LOT of reading on both conditions, and personally, I think the first doctor was right. But what do I know, I’m just a tech geek who had a really shitty childhood. Regardless, my mother had a knack for creating drama, which is putting it very mildly. It’s more accurate to say that she is a whirlwind of chaos, destruction and upheaval in the lives of everyone she comes in contact with. You might think that comment is cruel, given that I’m talking about a person with a severe mental illness. I get that, and yes, it is cruel. That fact makes my comment no less true.
I left home at sixteen to live with my best friend and his family, whom I refer to as my foster family. This was all entirely unofficial and probably illegal, but the county sheriff knew my situation all too well, having dealt with my mother on several occasions. The sheriff and a judge colluded to bury my case so deep in bureaucracy that by the time anything could be done about it, I would be eighteen and it wouldn’t matter anymore. I failed to recognize what they did for me at the time. I wish I knew where they were now. I would really like to thank them. I think what they did saved me.
At seventeen, I dropped out of high school and got a GED. From there, I went straight to a recruiter’s office and signed up to join the army. Yes, it is legal to join the army at seventeen. It was then at least. There is some paperwork involved, which the previously mentioned judge was more than happy to sign. Several weeks later, I was on a plane to Fort Knox, Kentucky. I spent five months there for basic training. “Boot camp”, they used to call it.
All this time, I had been trying to keep up some communication with my mother, some kind of relationship. One thing boot camp does very well, is line up your priorities. You learn what is really important, what you really need, and you learn the hard, cold differences between needing something and wanting something. Two things which are often in stark contrast with each other.
To use the words of one of my favorite fictional characters, Cpt Jack Sparrow:
“The only rules that really matter are these: what a man can do and what a man can’t do.”
I realized that I could carry on a relationship with my mother. Having her in my life meant allowing her to influence my life as she always had, constantly introducing drama and chaos, making my every waking moment about her. This was how I spent my childhood, walking on egg shells, trying not to upset her, always trying to fix things and make things right, making awkward explanations for her behavior, always stressing and overreacting to conflict because that’s what I’d been taught. Yes, I could have gone on doing that for the rest of my life.
Or, I could start worrying about myself for a change. I could focus on my own future. I could take care of myself. This would require nothing less than removing my mother from my life entirely. There was no in-between, no middle ground, no sweet spot. It was all, or nothing. I decided that I could do that.
Selfish? Perhaps. One could argue that my mother’s selfishness was the cause of many of the problems I have these days, revolving around conflict, anxiety and the constant, nearly crippling need to please everyone around me. However, if I had kept my mother in my life, it would be far worse. I hate to say it, but my brother is evidence of that. He’s finally pulled it together but it took a long, long time and the story of his life over the last twenty years is not a pretty one. I attribute nearly all of that to my mother, for how she raised us and how she continued to affect his adult life. Yes, my brother made his own decisions, but his decision making skills were learned and honed under the tutelage of our mother.
This is also where I could go into the insane, fundamentalist christian beliefs she tried so desperately to impress upon me. The burning of all of my E.T. toys when I was a kid, the banishment of the Smurfs from our household because they used magic… I have many, many stories like this. My mother was and is, bat shit crazy. You can imagine my childhood. I’ll leave it at that.
Steering back towards the point, when I left Fort Knox, I realized the influence she had on my life, and that that influence had to be removed. There was only one way to do that. I made a conscious decision not to include my mother in my life anymore. It was never about anger. It was never about hating her or punishing her. It was about me and what I needed.
I maintain to this day, that it was the right decision. I’ve been in therapy off and on for most of my adult life, and I’ve been told over and over again that history and the statistics are not on my side. By all rights, I should be an alcoholic. I should be a very troubled man with a train wreck of a life laying in smoldering ruins behind me. Yet, I’m not, and it isn’t. All things considered, I’ve done very well for myself.
I don’t drink. I don’t smoke. I’ve never used any kind of illegal drugs. Not ever. I went on to graduate from college, earning a degree in electronics. I then pursued a career in IT, which I’m still in today. I own a home. I have a family. I have two well adjusted kids. Our lives are fairly drama free, aside from the occasional car accident or staff infection. We’re happy. I’m happy.
I insist, with one hundred percent certainty, that this is because I did not allow my mother to be a part of my life. Call it selfish if you want to. What I did not only benefited me, but my children and their children. It halted a pattern that would have other wise continued through me to my kids, and to theirs, and so on.
About a month ago, my brother informed me that our mother had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. They had no prognosis yet, but she would begin chemotherapy immediately. Then about two weeks ago, they learned that the cancer was far, far more advanced, having spread all throughout her body. It’s so far advanced, that no treatment is going to stop it. So she stopped chemo, electing instead to begin hospice care and try to stay as comfortable as possible until she dies. According to her doctors, she probably only has a few weeks left.
Everyone around me seems to be expecting me to break down into tears of remorse over this, and go rushing to my mother’s side. My brother checks in daily to make sure that I’m doing OK. I assure you, I’m fine. He seems rather perplexed by this. Oh well. It’s not that I don’t care, I do. It’s just that I actively worked at emotionally disconnecting from my mother for two decades. At this point, we’re basically strangers. I have the same level of concern for my mother’s health that I would for any one else that I barely know. It’s sad, I’m sorry for her. That’s all I have. That’s it.
It was out of compassion for her, that I made the three hour drive with my brother this last weekend, to visit her. It’s fairly likely that I will never see her again. I can’t make it back up again this weekend, possibly the next but she may not still be alive then. The situation is what it is. It was important to her to see me again before she died. It was within my power to make that happen, so I did.
It went well enough. I couldn’t spend much time in her house because I am deathly allergic to cats, and she has two cats. Having been hospitalized three times over cats, I only stayed inside for about twenty minutes. She felt well enough to move out to her front porch with me. So we sat out there and talked for about an hour. We never did discuss my absence from her life, although I know she wanted to. We’ve conversed about it via email and snail mail a few times over the last twenty years. I’ve explained to her, clearly and plainly, exactly why I stopped talking to her. Regardless, she insists that she has no idea why I did it. This is part of her disorder. I could sit with her, bring up the email and point to my explanations, paragraph and line, and she would still claim not to know. That is her reality.
Still, we sat and had a pleasant conversation. We talked about the weather, about my job, about Laure and the kids. She filled me in on the details of her condition. It was a good visit. We hugged. It was not the tearful reunion that I’m sure she’d hoped for. However, I’m quite sure that that’s how she remembers it, and that’s undoubtedly how she’s telling the story. When her mother, my grandmother, died, mom was a total and complete bitch to her and my grandfather right up until the end, and then through the funeral. Yet I’ve heard from numerous friends and family, that my mother insists that she and grandma had this great mother/daughter reuniting and that they were the best of friends when grandma died. I know differently, because I was there with grandpa, through the whole thing.
Again, it’s part of her disorder. She’s not lying. She remembers it that way. She believes it happened that way. For her, it’s the absolute truth. So I am fairly certain that she’s telling the story of my visit quite differently from how it actually happened.
So that brings me to now, four pages into a blog post about it. I still feel no sense of guilt or remorse for my lack of a relationship with my mother. What I do feel, is just a little weirded out that I don’t feel that way. As with other things I’ve learned about myself over the last decade, it’s pointless trying to understand it. Much better to just accept that this is how I feel, and keep moving.
If she calls, I’ll talk to her. If she emails, I’ll respond. I’ll also make an effort to get back up to visit her again. What I won’t do, is engage her in any serious conversation about my absence. I have nothing new to say on that subject, nothing I haven’t already said to her numerous times. I’m quite certain though, that she won’t go there.
It’s late. I don’t have anything else to say here, I don’t think. I just really needed to get these thoughts out, so here they are.
Laure and our good friend Heather are cuddled up on the couch, watching something on Netflix right now. I’ve been rather rude for the last hour, typing away in my nerd cave.