As I worked my way through Lent I experienced a profound change within myself, brought on by the grace of a God who loves me despite myself. If you have read this blog for any length of time you know I had a somewhat troubled childhood and witnessed the death of my father while still a young boy. These experiences molded me into the man I am today, but they also left many parts of my life empty and other parts undeveloped or ill-developed. Unfortunately, one of those parts is my relationship to my mother. She is now 67 years old and has survived a very hard life. While most people her age enjoy the reward of their retirement, she is reduced to a very meager existence.
My recent visit to see her (with my young daughter in tow) brought the disparity of our lives into very sharp focus. We pulled up to her ramshackle doublewide in my 2007 Silverado crew cab pickup. The contrast shamed me as few things have. But it was not just the financial disparity, it was the conviction (this is the profound change I first alluded to) that I have failed to honor my mother. I have withheld my support and my love. I have been willfully blind to her blight.
While pondering my shame on the long ride home I realized that for all these years I had been looking in the wrong place. I had looked to the memory of my father, held him up as the saint he never was, while diminishing the role and value of my mother. Here was the hero I was looking for. Here was the one who had kept me fed and alive (even though sometimes just barely). Here was the one I had not forgiven. My heart is heavy with the weight of my shortcomings, but light with the hope of healing.
I have spoken with Mom several times since returning home and I realized just how much of a story she has to tell. Below is a first attempt at the crafting of an introduction to that story. The previous blog entry is also one of my attempts to work my way through these changes.
As with many men, age and life experience have allowed me a more even handed assessment of my mother. For far too many years I mourned the death of my father who drank himself to death before his 37th birthday. I longed for him, treasured the few fragmented memories I have and most likely imagined him as too much saint and not enough sinner. During much of that time I held a strange brew of feelings for my mother. She was certainly a sinner and indulged herself in her appetites and addictions to a less than healthy degree while my siblings and I went along for the ride, but she did raise five of us in the process and while we endured many abuses and depravations, I have blamed too many of them on her.
The first insight came when I was in therapy and discussing my feelings, or more correctly my lack of feelings, for her. My therapist brought it to my attention that yes, she was in many ways less than perfect, but she had also managed to raise all of us despite an eternally drunk husband, never any money, in the mountains of Virginia in the days before disposable diapers, in a house with no indoor plumbing. I agreed that he was correct and it was proper that I should love my mother if for no other reason than she is a survivor (you will see to what degree as the story unfolds). My heart was still unmoved, held still by years of misunderstanding, physical separation and emotional immaturity.
Let me give you an example. As I reached chronological adulthood I began calling her by her given name instead of Mom. I tried to play it off as light-hearted, a sign that I had grown up, a sign of our equality. It was in reality my resentment, my way of passively stabbing back at her. I would acknowledge her as a woman, but not as my mother and I denied all the good she had done. It was also part of my trying to achieve manhood, trying to define myself as myself, and not as part of her.
I have long believed that names, titles are of the utmost importance and this use of her proper name was a profound psychological shift. I realize now how I would react if my 19-year-old daughter were to address me as William.
The final revelation came recently when I traveled to visit her with my seven-year-old daughter. I was shocked by my mother’s situation and my apathy to it. As some of you already know, she lives on $700 a month in a nearly decrepit, double-wide trailer hanging off the miserable side of a mountain in Virginia. She has survived abuse of nearly every sort imaginable, years of pulverizing poverty, decades of alcoholism, cancer and only she knows what else.
As I pondered just exactly what she had been through, at least to the degree that I could know it, I realized hers is a story that needs to be told. It is a tale of strong fisted resistance to the forces that would break her and it is a story of the human experience writ small, a tale full of death, destruction, and addiction.
The telling is also an act of love and respect for the woman who birthed me, beat me and loved me. This is what I can do. This she deserves. It is true that many times she was not much of a mother, but it’s just as true that many times I have not been much of a son. She is proud of me, it’s time I was proud of her. I do not agree with many things she did or let be done, but (pardon the cliché) it did not kill me and it certainly made me stronger.