It only occurred to me late into the morning, long after I started working, that my mother died fifteen years ago today. Ironically, the only reason I remembered is that tomorrow is the anniversary of my grandfather’s death—her father, as it happens—whom I genuinely mourned. I didn’t go to see my mother even though I knew she was dying; in fact, I hadn’t seen or spoken to her in more than a decade.
The fact that I stayed away from her deathbed and skipped her funeral garnered me some of the harshest criticism I’ve ever received, both from people who actually know me and total strangers. I’ve been called unseemly, rude, heartless, unforgiving, ungrateful, narcissistic, and a bunch of other adjectives and nouns I might utter in the privacy of my home but won’t repeat. At the time, everyone I knew, including my therapist, urged me to see her one last time for closure.
Now, I like the idea of closure as much as the next person; what’s not to like? The idea that you can walk away from a terrifically painful experience and be able to feel inner peace and calm sounds just dandy to me, except for one small detail: I don’t really believe it happens. I love closure in movies and novels—when all the messy details of life get wrapped up into one cinematic epiphany and Noah and Allie die together in each other’s arms in The Notebook—but it seems in rather short supply off the page and the screen, you know? I know people, good and nice people, who lay claim to closure and I am happy for them. Really.
But here’s what I saw in my mind’s eye at just shy of 52, contemplating seeing my mother after a decade apart and after two earlier decades of adult life devoted to making the decision to go no contact. I would be standing there, or sitting maybe, asking the question that’s at the dead center of every unloved child’s being: Why didn’t you love me? Mind you, she deftly dodged this question my whole life—I was probably five or six the first time I asked it—with the same answer: “Every mother loves her child, Peggy.” Even to a child, it was clear that her answer wasn’t the same as saying “I love you.”
So, I saw myself there, alone, and maybe she wouldn’t answer at all or maybe she couldn’t; it didn’t really matter. She just wasn’t going to give me the satisfaction of understanding why she thought I was unlovable. Nope, I knew she would hold onto the power she had over me to the very end. And so, despite everyone’s well-intentioned hopefulness, the so-called ingrate named Peg rightly took a pass.
So here I am, fifteen years later, and I have no regrets other than the big one: That she was my mother to begin with. It still strikes me as hugely unfair, even after all this time and even though I never think about her unless I am writing about her. I didn’t deserve her and I know now with certainty that she most certainly did not deserve me.
A reader of mine recently emailed me with this poignant thought: “Who might I have been with a loving mother?” I wonder about that too and that brings me to the unintended gifts I mention in the title.
As you may know, I’m not a big fan of those sayings that gloss over pain in an effort to make sense of life like “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” What doesn’t kill you can leave you bloody, in pain, and sometimes crippled in ways that take you years to understand, and the lack of maternal love certainly fits that bill. So, while I’m not about to channel my inner Pollyanna, are there unintended gifts that somehow balance out the scale? (I know you are hoping really hard that I manage to answer that with something that approximates a “yes.”)
Here’s the truth as I see it: I don’t believe you ever really get over that enormous initial loss. The hole in your heart gets smaller and smaller in relationship to life lived and the people you love but it remains a hole. It’s true that once you’ve found and seen the wound, you go on a journey that can become a more examined life than the one people with loving parents go on. But you have to see and acknowledge the wound first and that’s not guaranteed. There are lots of unloved daughters who live their lives bleeding, being miserable, without knowing why. And if you’re lucky enough to find your true voice, there is a certain joy that can only come to those who lost it to begin with. And, if you choose to have a child or children, there is enormous pleasure in doing it differently because it feels that, finally, you have the power to make things right.
But would I trade all of that for a mother who loved me, who gave me the room and permission to be myself without a struggle? You bet. My daughter with whom I am close just turned twenty-eight, which is how old I was the first time I cut my mother out of my life. Next week, I’ll be just ten years younger than my mother was when she died. All I see is what my mother wasted, squandered, and missed. Really. You can keep those gifts; they were always mine to begin with.
Photograph of me and my mother, 1949.