Note to Reader: As a licensed psychologist, I strictly adhere to the ethics of confidentiality; therefore, I do not use/make reference to any patient/client information in the pieces I write. The only data I use to explore these psychological issues is my own. The Roadblocks to Intimacy & Trust Series will include several pieces related to the effects of early relationships on the development of trust and intimacy.
As I’ve explored in the Roadblocks series, the root of my family’s dysfunction was my mother’s insatiable need to possess us, exacerbated by my father’s passivity. Though conversation between me and my father over the years clarified much about him, this was not the case with my mother. Closure for me would only be possible with a clear understanding of my mother’s pathology and its origins. That might make forgiveness possible for me. I needed to know about her early life. Remarkably, she offered it.
Close to her death, Mom spoke to me for the first time of the death of her mother. Prior to that we only knew that she had died when Mom was quite young, and we surmised details from what we overheard as children from Aunt Eileen. But never from Mom. She finally spoke of her mother dying in childbirth while she watched from the doorway and of the deafening silence that descended on the house afterward and how her Mom was washed, dressed and waked in the bed that she died in. (The wake is the Catholic period of three days prior to the funeral when the person is “laid out’ for all of the family and friends to come to ‘pay their respects’). While this was a way of life in Ireland, it must have been a brutally painful thing for these children to grasp that their Mom was dead in her bed and would never return to them.
Sometime after Mom told me about her mother she asked me why I thought she needed so much from her own children. I pointed out that having lost her own mother at such a young and vulnerable age, she was forever hungry to replace that love. For the first time in many months, she became very angry with me—not because I said that she was so hungry but because I mentioned her mother. She insisted that she had never told me about her and though she seemed to later relent that perhaps she did, I had violated some very vital trust in mentioning her. That was the last time that she’d discuss her childhood with me, she said. My interpretation was that my mention of her mother in some way took her away from Mom. Up until I spoke her name and referred to her, she had remained locked in my mother’s heart and was Mom’s alone. Somehow I was now claiming her by talking about her.
Ironically, considering Mom’s reaction to that conversation, but not surprisingly, most painful of all for Mom was the utter silence that followed the burial of her mother. No one spoke of her again. It was as if she never lived. The Irish are known for keeping feelings locked inside their hearts and this was a stark example of that; if you don’t mention the person, no one will hurt. (This is such a common belief, and so unfortunate; the person is totally isolated with their loss and pain). “The less said the better” was a phrase that I heard all my life from Mom. The family must go on living without this person so what is the good of talking about them. They are gone. But what does a child do with the hole that’s left in her chest? How does she bear the heartbreak? She adopts the baby Dan, who is left motherless at birth and is quietly blamed for her death. She becomes the mother and is adored as the love of Dan’s life. (The two ways of being adored are as child to the mother and as mother to the child). But ultimately, she is not enough to erase his profound guilt, and at 13, he disappears as well and is never heard from. Until he reappears in England 75 years later just months before his own death. My chest heaves with the weight of that loss. Add to that, the ultimate disappearance of her own son, S, the one most like her in the family. Like her, he insisted on total loyalty —his particular brand of loyalty—and devotion. Ultimately, she lost him as well—but this time it was not chance and circumstance, but rather her own narcissistic image rejecting her. Three major losses—her mother, her brother, her son. I cannot imagine the heart that bears that grief. I suspect that even Dad, the devoted staunchly loyal son of his father was not quite enough for Mom; yet more than anyone he came closest. Mom knew that Dad loved her and would stand beside or behind her at any cost. He would not leave her.
Clearly, though, our love was not enough. Until the end. Prior to that she wanted to possess us—needed us to be there with her forever as her mother and Dan were not. Each time we moved away, the harsh pain of abandonment attacked. She’d try harder to pull us back and lash out as we resisted. Though she wanted us to be educated so that we’d be able to rely on ourselves economically, she was unprepared for our emotional independence. To the extent that we remained dependent, she was satisfied; as we grew less dependent on her, she grew more critical and angry. Ironically, the very essence of mothering means a letting go—preparing one’s children to live without us in the world. Readying them to no longer need us for survival—physical and emotional—and encouraging them to place themselves at the center of their own lives. As they grow, friends and lovers become increasingly more important until such time that they choose a life partner with whom they set up a home. This process of gradual loss and replacement of her with ourselves, the world and a spouse must have been unbearable for Mom. And it wasn’t until she got sick that she knew she had us back. There was no doubt where our allegiances lay. She was the center and we turned all of our energies to making her days better. Despite all that had transpired in her role as mother, what is surprising and admirable is how well she adjusted to her barren early life and how hard she fought to have the life that she longed for. She certainly chose the right man in Dad. Only God came before her and for a religious Irish person like herself, God may have been the only acceptable competitor. Thankfully, Mom lived most of her life feeling loved by her husband and during her last days, feeling loved by her children.
The loss of a mother is the most devastating event in any child’s life. And has lifelong psychological effects. Parents aren’t supposed to die; they are perceived as invulnerable by the child and the loss is incomprehensible. The wound is violent: the child’s center, his/her spiritual and emotional home has been torn from them. Voracious for love, the child forever seeks out a replacement. Once found, however, the child expects him/her to disappear at any moment. Hence, the anger that erupts with spouses and children. They can never be enough. They cannot be trusted. Loved ones leave. Mothers die. In my mother’s case, cherished brothers (adopted children) disappear. Even sons disappear. The tragedy is that her frantic possessiveness and distrust are what often precludes her being fully loved because the impulse of the person possessed is to be resentful and to run. To be free of the enormous need of the loved one—who can’t be satisfied. I believe that consciously my mother wanted to be a good mother, wanted us to be happy, wanted to tend to and love us. But she was so driven by hunger and unconscious resentments that the anger leaked out: we didn’t always prefer her to Dad; we were going to abandon her again just like her own mother did and her brother; we loved someone in addition to her, so we abandoned her; we had a mom and she didn’t. This last was probably the root of most of the anger. And the envy. So she rejected C because she believed that C favored Dad; she tied me to her and made sure that my siblings hated me, so that I was hers alone. Interestingly enough, she told me once that when C was born she became the favorite of Dad’s sisters (and they ‘took over’ the baby when they visited); then when S was born, the first boy, they did the same thing, so when I was born she swore to herself, “This one is mine. So I never let anyone near you. Everyone says you look a lot like Aunt May, but you’re more like my mother than anyone.”
One Sunday afternoon while I was in East Hampton and she was at Calvary Hospital (she had inoperable pancreatic cancer), I stood in the kitchen washing lettuce and talking to her on the phone. The kitchen was filled with family and friends as it often is in our house (this is very important to me, given the smallness of our Edgewater home and my mother’s reclusiveness)—my friend and her husband, my husband Alan, and David, our son—all preparing different parts of dinner while she and I chatted. I was feeling sad and somewhat guilty for having so much fun and so far away while she was sick in the hospital, I never got over my guilt at not putting her first. She insisted that I needed to have time for myself and my family—meaning Alan and David—and she was happy to know that I got time to do that since I spent so much time during the week at the hospital. I knew she meant that. We were loving each other openly in that phone call when out of nowhere, she said, I’m sorry, Joanie, for all those years ago taking back the money I loaned you to give it to S. It was the first time she ever spoke of that incident—prior to that, anytime I mentioned it, she claimed it never happened or she was defensive and angry. This time, she was simply sorry. I was very moved and grateful and thanked her for admitting that. It was the first apology from her that I can recall.
That openness continued uninterrupted during the six months before her death that she was hospitalized. At one point she told me not to look for S (we had not told her that we already had) because she was sure that, if he came, he would hurt everyone in the process. We were all suffering enough; she didn’t want us to hurt anymore. I believe she meant that too. Another instance stands out in my memory that shows her sense of humor. I was supposed to go on a cruise with Alan and our friends, and she knew I was planning to cancel (which I did). She kept trying to convince me to go, insisting she’d hold out till I got back; if she didn’t, she said, she’d tell the doctors “to put me in the deep freeze” until I returned. She kept us laughing as much as possible. Though she was very sad at leaving us, particularly Dad, she seemed genuinely at peace, almost happy. Thankfully, she suffered very little pain.
The most painful aspect of the illness, however, occurred when it started to attack her brain and great psychic pain poured out of her. She kept trying to get out of bed and Dad and the nurses were hard-pressed to keep her from doing so. She wanted to go home. She kept calling out for her mother and Dan, her beloved brother. From one delirium, she spoke with great anguish of a miscarriage she’d had many years before that she claimed to never have told Dad about. I’m not sure if that was the same one he referenced to me in one of our talks, but she responded as if she blamed herself for the loss of this child. Another time, particularly sad for both of us, was when she shot up in bed crying to me, Joanie, Why don’t you love me?! “But I do,” I answered. Yes, but not enough! she cried out. It was heartbreaking. For both of us. How sad that she had to know that. How sad that it was (or rather had been) true. It was her greatest fear all of her life that I (or any of the family) would not love her enough and indeed her voracious hunger resulted in just that. The more she tried to pull me closer, the more I pulled away. That was a great sadness.
I ended up doing battle with the doctors who refused to give her antidepressants to quiet her anxiety and her chaotic brain, but I insisted and used my professional influence (and my big mouth!) to finally get them to concur. Once she was on a daily regimen of medication, her psychotic outbursts ended. In all other ways, she was beautifully cared for at Calvary Hospital and the illness that had progressed so far as to predict only six to eight weeks at the beginning did not get her for a full six months. None of the medical team could believe how strong and resilient she was; several times her condition deteriorated, but each time she revived—seemingly stronger, more vibrant than before. She was formidable. She refused to go until she was ready. Without saying all she had to. She died on October 30, 1998. She was 88. Ironically, the night she died, at precisely the same hour, a self-portrait of S’s that hung above the fireplace in J’s home, came crashing to the floor. No one had touched it. It had been hanging there securely for 18 years. This night it fell.
Depending on how one looks at it, it is either profoundly sad or a profound blessing that Mom opened up to us on her deathbed. I prefer the cup half full; had my mother never softened and let us in, she would have died feeling unloved and without any of us really knowing her and without her really knowing us—particularly me. Though Catherine never stopped trying to connect with her, I had shut her out almost completely. Having had the chance to know her and in many ways, more importantly, to love her unconditionally was a great gift to me. The death of a parent or loved one does not mark the end of a relationship; it arrests or freezes that relationship within the frame that it last lived. We are left with who the person was in life but also in their dying. Fortunately for me and my family, Mom left us with the sense that we were loved by a very loving mother. True, it doesn’t wipe out all that came before, but it certainly provides another framework through which to know and remember her, and most importantly, to forgive her. For that I am deeply grateful. And I love her.
As may well have been predicted by psychology, the wounds that descended on my family from my mother’s tragic loss of her mother and her father’s refusal to speak about it, to my father’s failure to stand up for us, to my brothers’ refusal to open up and possibly even move beyond history, to my sister’s and my tempered success at building a friendship later in our lives, silence was the cancer that attacked my family and silence that damaged us. Had my mother come from a home that encouraged speaking about grief and sharing pain, her mother may have lived a longer time in my mother’s life through family conversation and storytelling; the closeness to her father and her siblings would have deepened had they known how to open up and talk to each other. As I think about a household that never gave words to such tragedy, I cannot imagine the loneliness that arrested each of them from my grandfather to my mother and her six siblings; it’s remarkable that they all (except Dan) married, had families, and lived lives they appeared to regard as worthwhile, perhaps even good—a tribute to their character, resilience, and their father’s love.
Talk with Joan