Sunday, December 15, 2013

First Christmas after death

This will be the first Christmas I spend without my mother alive. I wonder if others have experienced anything like this with their parents: while I remember good times with my mother that make me feel sad, the mother I knew at the end of her life was a very different person.  My mother was loving, funny, generous and creative, and I was very close to her when I was growing up. I loved her and I miss her, but she died last June in a tangle of emotions and relationships. At the end of her life, I could find nothing of the warm, loving person I remembered from decades prior. Last summer my mother physically died, but the person I loved disappeared well before that. 

She wasn't an easy person to get along with. In fact, she wasn't even in the 50th percentile of easy-to-get-along-with (I'd put her in the bottom ten). She was a victim of her emotions. In a good mood she was wonderful to be around, but in a bad mood she was simply unable to control her fear and rage. There are many people who have trouble regulating their moods and responses (it's a main symptom of borderline personality disorder), but they can get better with the proper treatment. Unfortunately, my mother never accepted that she needed such help. As a result her moods were unpredictable and particularly frightening to me as a child and teenager, and when I got older I struggled to establish a healthier relationship with her. Unfortunately, with age her fears deepened, her temper grew shorter and she consistently directed her anger at me. The good times I spent with her became fewer and farther between until in my 40s, I made the decision to step out of her life. During her final seven years, my mother and I had almost no contact. 

I mourn the mother I loved, the one I wish she'd always been, the one who disappeared years ago. It's a sad story that became even sadder after my mother's death when I found out how others saw her. As her oldest daughter, I figured I was the main target of her high demands and critical anger, but it turns out that even the people who greatly loved and respected her knew not to cross her. Her parish, friends, and community valued hugely my mother’s generosity, compassion and humor, but carefully stayed on her good side. They knew how she could be. 

Last June when I told friends and acquaintances that my mother had died, I made clear that I didn't need the usual sympathy and sad looks. I said I'd let my mother go out of my life years earlier, said good-bye and had no more grieving to do. Her death was a relief for me and brought me freedom from this woman whose disorder got so bad at the end that she spent her final weeks purposefully inflicting yet more emotional pain on her family.

As I talked to people about my mother, I found out that a surprising number of people don't mourn their mothers' deaths. I discovered that the world is full of broken mother-child relationships and that many adult children have such abusive relationships with their parents that they don't feel sad at all when they die. I wasn't alone in feeling glad that my mother, with all her rage and pain, was gone. I wasn't alone in believing that the death of one's mother isn’t always a sad occasion.

Back in the 1960s my parents settled us in California, while everyone else in their families stayed in Houston, where my parents were born. Under my mother's influence, I grew up believing relatives should be kept at a distance, physically and emotionally. I didn't get to know my grandparents, cousins, aunts or uncles. My mother made clear to me that any alliance I might form with anyone besides her -- and this included my father -- would be seen by her as a betrayal and I would be punished accordingly. My mother, who I adored, was the most important person in my world and I was terrified of doing anything that might make her angry with me. So I had no close relationships with any other family when I was growing up, not even my dad.

It took years of therapy for me to realize that a mother shouldn’t require her child’s loyalty at the expense of all other family ties, but even after I broke contact with her, I continued to have little do with my extended family. It was a hard habit to break. I didn't even realize I was still doing it until my mother's final weeks when I began communicating more with my cousins and aunts. This communication represented a huge change for me: I began leaning emotionally on my aunts, making friends with my cousins and getting to know those cousins' children (with my prosopagnosia I have a lot of trouble keeping them straight). Another big step for me is that this year I'm spending Christmas Day in Houston, with all those wonderful people I'm related to. I didn't do that before because I didn't want my mother to feel envious and angry that I was spending Christmas with our extended family, but not with her.

Now that I'm free from my mother, at the age of 47, I'm finally getting to know my family better, including my father. I had stopped visiting my parents, but now it's safe to return. My dad and I email more than ever and I'm going to visit him next month. I like him! It turns out my dad's a cool guy. I have yet to face the pain of fully realizing that I could have had this great dad in my life all along if my mother hadn't blocked our relationship. I needed a good father desperately during those decades, but it's not too late. I plan to make the most of the time we have left.

It's the first Christmas after the death of my mother and it feels good. I'm now free to love the people in my life the way they deserve, the way I should have always been free to love them. I'm also free to love myself and the good parts of my mother: her humor, passion and creativity that I’m proud to have inherited. I miss the good times with her, but am grateful to be able to enjoy the holidays without worrying about what price she’ll later try to exact from me. The memory of my mother evokes many emotions for me, so this isn't a sad December. I feel great freedom and gratitude during this first holiday season after her death and I look forward to building relationships with the family I missed out on for so long. This is going to be a great Christmas and a great rest of my life.


Jessica Young said...

Reg, you know our situations are almost identical. I am glad for you that you've been able to reconnect with your father. My own dad is still so connected to and with my mom's way of life (she's still alive) that a relationship with him is impossible. They feed each other's false selves, and because of that, I don't know if I will ever have what you have. I'm glad that this is a part of how you're doing Christmas in a way that's healthy for you.

Regina Rodríguez-Martin said...

Thank you, Jess. I hope you're able to have the relationship you want with your dad one day.