My mother passed away last Wednesday. She left us peacefully, in her sleep.
Her death stands in stark contrast to the freewheeling life she led. Us kids, my oldest sister and me, were merely along for the ride.
Many that know me know that I cut off any relationship with my mom in high school. It wasn’t due to any lack of love, but I had my own self-preservation to think about. A decent life could not co-exist with my mom.
I’ve reacted to the news the way anyone would react to the death of a long-lost aunt or distant cousin. There’s that tickle in the brain when you lose someone you love but have no real relationship with: it hurts a little, but only a little.
I just finished reading The Grapes of Wrath, and in the book the character of Ma Joad becomes the head of the family after instability rocks the ground underneath the Joad men. Through her steady hand and strong will, Ma Joad becomes the solid foundation of the Joad “fambly” – despite the move cross-country to a state full of unknowns.
My own life has lacked one continuous “Ma Joad” figure. When I was young, my Grandma Bonnie (my mother’s mother) was there for me. As I grew up, my Grandma Maxine (my dad’s mother) and my Grandpa Bill (my mother’s grandfather) helped me along until I moved in with my dad right before high school. I needed the help because my own mother was the anti-Ma Joad: a constant source of chaos, instability, and high drama.
But all that is gone, now.
My sister gave me an old photo album Monday night, when her, my grandma, and me paid respects to my mom in our own, traditional way. Inside were pictures from when my parents were still together and I was a newborn. These pictures, combined with many others I have from my childhood, reveal the chimera that was my mother. Sweet, fun-loving, easy to laugh – this is what I remember and saw in those pictures. In fact, it’s obvious that she cared about me as a baby. Then there was the ugly side.
Which is why looking through the pictures points out my mom’s tragedy. A person so vibrant and so happy eventually ruined her own life with drugs and alcohol. Things could have been so much different.
As it was, I never had that sense of “fambly” or stability that I read about in Grapes. I attended 10 different elementary schools, three in the 5th grade, and four different junior highs. We lived in more houses and apartments that I can remember. We were homeless for a while. Life was a whirlwind, and that kind of living has a tremendous effect on kids.
So there are other things, besides pictures, that my mother left us. For myself, I’ve learned over the years that I have a neurotic attachment to stability. I have my schedule, and my routine, and I hate it when things don’t go “according to plan.” I show up early, and I fucking hate moving. The direct result of my mother’s chaotic life was an aversion to chaos; I swung toward order and ritual, and I swung hard.
My sister – my poor, poor sister – is another story entirely. She bore the full brunt of my mother’s behavior, and she deals with the consequences ever day. And because she never left my mother behind, my sister is having the most trouble dealing with my mom’s death.
But even she said, at dinner the other night, “I kind of feel relieved.”
This is the legacy of my mom. Being with her was like living in Florida, knowing there’s a high possibility that a strong hurricane would come and blow your shit out to sea.
I chose to up and move to my dad’s when I was 14, in search of a stable household and a parent who didn’t abuse themself or those around them, but I’m sure in some ways my mom never left me. She was always outside the boarded-up windows I built for myself, howling away and wrecking havok.
It’s sad that we all feel relieved now that she’s dead, because we should be feeling something else. Not sadness, not peace, but that we lost something important to our lives.
That’s not how it happened, and so I haven’t felt much at all in the week since she’s been gone. I did such a good job of keeping her out of my life for the past few years that I didn’t really lose anything when she passed. She was gone to begin with, in my eyes.
Now she’s finally at peace. And so am I.