I had an unexpected, significant breakthrough with my mother on the 27th of June. I have thoughts about how it arrived, what it actually was, and what I have noticed about the energy on this side of it. The reason I am sharing this is because I believe there to be good seeds in this tale that are useful out there in the collective; there might be a detail in here that your unconscious might grab and keep for you if you need it, when you are ready. I’ve also discovered an initial core that I feel is relevant to the broader society right now, a seemingly benign attitude that, upon closer examination, would be good to deal with.
My mother is 86, almost blind from macular degeneration, hard of hearing, COPD lungs that control how far she can walk, and how fast. She is from the generation that came through the depression, the war, and the introduction of Kraft Slices; there are few people from that time that spent copious seconds talking about feelings. I’ve had friends mention this as justification for my mother’s silence along the way, and I bought it for a while; glad I turfed it.
I’m not going to regale you with my whole story, but I will provide you with what I feel will help you grok this event gravity. I am the youngest of three kids, by 7 and 8 years respectively. My parents were well-meaning humans both, but the family dynamic was bumpy, skewed by the repeated ingress of my paternal grandmother who would visit our farmhouse for six months at a time. In one aspect, she was remarkable, admirable; a suffragette, and rare female lawyer in the 20’s. In the other, she was a dragon; a brutal, beastly familial role model who broke my mother, disrespecting her in front of us kids. My father failed to protect his family as if under some kind of spell, so, everything that should have been bonkers fun, was dark and painful. My broken mother became an alcoholic, attracted to the relief, the dulling of the dragon’s fire by gin. It was around this crummy anchor that I gave up my birthright that was the development of good attachment and positive mirroring, and became my mother’s caretaker. For example, one evening, when my mother told me that she didn’t want to live anymore, I took my 9 year-old body into the living room and hollered at the dragon enough so that my nose bled. I have a burst blood vessel in my left eye as a gift of that summer evening. My brother and sister were away at boarding school and university for much of the turbulence.
Another detail that you should know so that you can get a sense of the vibe on the farm, was that my father tried to commit suicide while I was young, but then succeeded in 2004. He waited until my husband had come through the cancer he was fighting, and then went out like Hemingway, in our barn. My marriage failed, but we did make two boys; fine, young, contributing men now. My husband and I had gone to marriage counseling in an attempt to reignite whatever. Thanks to my history, which also included a complicated ancestral thread, the counselor supported my continuing the therapy that I had begun when the kids were small. My husband, in his glory, was freed of any responsibility to go deeper for our relationship, so there everything short of a parade that it was all my fault. I won’t comment further on that here.
We’re going to skip detailed descriptions of significant moments when my mother really dropped the ball, except for the biggest one in 1988. I went to the farm to tell her the story about how I narrowly missed being attacked as I returned home to our basement apartment one evening a few days before. I arrived at the farm in the afternoon, the winter sun blazing in through the window of the bedroom where mom was cozy and tucked in to a gin slumber. I was still shaken from the attack event, my husband was off on tour, and I needed some arms around me. I told mom what happened; recounted the story from the initial moment when I felt powerful, clear intuition to get out of my car, into the house, and lock the door behind me as fast as I could, to seeing the fucker staring in at me through the sliding glass doors in our bedroom, to being so frozen with fear that it seemed to take me forever to call 911. What I needed, there in that sunlit room, was mom to get up, sit with me on the end of the bed, and put her arms around me. Instead, what I got was this bizarre, "Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” move where she sat up in bed, looked at me and said,
“Well, I don’t understand why it took you so long to get to the phone.”
Over the intervening years, I had my own breakthrough with a stellar therapist; it was as if it took me 46 years to finally come alive, to begin to “individuate,” as Jung called it. I began a ten year walkabout, living in the city and studying psychology. I read Jung, and myriad of the great thinkers, and philosophers. I began growing, accepting my existence, and discovering my surprising ability to talk with strangers, addicts, the homeless, or just someone at a crosswalk on his way somewhere. These interactions were like sweet wind that fills the sails after a forever with no movement. There were numerous synchronicities, one of which found me holding a dying woman who had been hit by a van at a crosswalk. These things change you, encourage your leaves to turn from inward to outward; you are no longer the center of the universe, but you are deeply connected with it. It is extending, and connecting with the “other,” that becomes the thing. I believe that it is in this trick of vulnerability that our humanness can move toward rich and thriving. I digress...
Fast forward to the pandemic: I am living in an apartment, one floor-and-a-wing away from my mother’s apartment; I am in lockdown with the person I least adore. BUT, partly thanks to the Buddhism I studied the year before, and maybe because I just generally try to not be a jerk, I take care of her. I am mindful that she never goes without. The routine was, and still is, that she would come down and have dinner in my apartment every evening. To be clear, this is not a woman who would ever show up just to visit. When I moved in in 2015, she did not help me unpack; any mother-daughter scenarios I witnessed were only in the movies. Throughout the past two years, there were times when something in a podcast, or a movie what we were watching, would offer the thread of one of the stories from our family. I would try to open up dialogue with her on whatever it was, but she never made the connection. Time passes. I take her to her appointments, arrange zoom calls with my siblings, and even give her the Heimlich maneuver here on Christmas eve. Some people are hard to buy for.
I stopped drinking June 1st, and what came forth through the clarity was a rising anger, planted in my childhood, pinched and stepped on as I moved toward and into adulthood, mitigated and reframed thanks to good therapy, but now re-emerging as if it was an entity that sensed an opportunity nearing. I became aware of this anger along, with a commensurate beast of anxiety that rose, clawing as it drew closer to the time each day, when mom would arrive at my door. On June 25th, I went up to administer her puffer, and make sure she had whatever she wanted to eat. I was on my way out when, in a surprise move where I caught my own self off guard, I stopped. My body did not like that. It screamed, “Suzanne, keep going! Why are you stopping? Are you nuts?” But I held it back from the door, turned it to face my mother, and said,
“I just want to be clear on something, in consideration of our family that never talks about anything, I am very angry about your drinking during my childhood, and all of the rest of it. I want to forgive you. I am trying, but I am struggling, and I thought you should know that.”
Here is where, in the Disney movie, the mother says, “Oh, Suzanne, I am so sorry. SO sorry that I drank during all those years. I apologize and I love you so much.” Instead, my mother paused, and then said, “Well, how do I go about moving towards that?”
I offered to set mom up with a therapist so that she could talk to someone objective and could learn the language around this process. She did not mention anything about it that evening, or the next day, but there was movement on the 27th. I showed up for the day’s routine and found her still in her pajamas sitting at the table, but not eating. I asked if she was okay. She said that she “felt off.” I asked if it was her stomach. She answered that it was her “mental state.” I paused, then asked her if it had to do with what I had said in the kitchen the other day. She paused, and said,
“I don’t know how I can ever forgive myself.”
Yes, I noted that the sentence was very much self-focused, but this was still an opening. I took it. I sat down and drew a breath. I began talking slowly, reminding mom of the hellishness of that farmhouse when the dragon was there. I had just spent a week in an online seminar with Gabor Maté, so had helpful words about addiction handy, the most powerful being that addiction is “a sane response to an insane world,” in that nobody wants to be an addict, but everyone wants relief from pain. I was able to support my mother’s narrative around this, but also, as Sylvia Boorstein says, “forgiveness is not amnesia.” Was mom’s drinking understandable? Yes. Was it still a bad choice? Absolutely, because she had kids. What I described to mom was that there was great healing in acknowledging past mistakes, and taking responsibility for them by reaching out to the people affected. I gently explained how her drinking affected everyone around her.
It seemed that time had stopped. I felt more present than present. I felt like all of my experiences, all of the therapy, every book I had read, each podcast, all of the studying I had done, was work meant for this moment; I knew what I was doing. I was in the zone. In this effort, there at that table, I managed to guide my mother toward acknowledgement of my existence during the tough years. With help, she turned to me and apologized for letting me down. I couldn’t believe it, and was aware of what a monumental moment this was. I got up and hugged her and told her that I loved her. She hugged me back, and we promised that we were going to say this to each other every day.
All of this is still new to my mother, so I’m intentionally checking in and keeping the conversation going. I repeatedly remind her of how brave he is for leaning in to this healing, this liberation. We had a good zoom call with my siblings; getting the whole family to communicate. July 3rd, which would have been my father’s 94th birthday, mom said, again, “I don’t know if I can ever forgive myself.” This is going to be a knot that is going to take time to loosen. I offered words of support again, then gently offered the idea of reaching out to her children and considering moments in their lives when she might have wished she was more emotionally able to offer support.
Slowly. Slowly. Slowly.
In my involvement in this process with my mother, and in consideration of everything I have experienced and learned, it is clear to me that it is our selfishness, our imprisonment in our story that is there for us to overcome. The moment of egress, of liberation comes after you have risked deep self-examination, accepted your shadow, and then enabled your essential, remarkable strength by reaching out, extending lovingly toward others. This isn’t always easy; turning around in mom’s kitchen to state my case was excruciating, but my rising anger made it clear that complacency was not an option. There is love here, waiting for us. I heard it mentioned in two consecutive podcasts days after mom’s apology. One, with Joanna Macy discussing Rainer Maria Rilke, a turn of the century poet and novelist who, in "Letters to a Young Poet,” spoke of “meeting each other as souls,” free of gender roles. Jason Reynolds, an award-winning American novelist, and the Library of Congress’ National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, said, in the second podcast that, “I love you because you are you, should be the most human thing we know.” You might consider it a reach to compare the experience of my mother’s healing with the broader healing needed now in our fractured, compartmentalized world, but I don’t. It is by risking acknowledgment of our faults, by admitting human vulnerability and releasing those defensive projections that we can connect “on a soul level.” We have the ability to liberate ourselves from limiting beliefs, narratives that keep us separate. It is only our selfishness, our emotional timidity that is keeping us from this. I see this in so many relationships, political parties, groups. It is freeing to take off the armour, to drop the heavy sword. We have everything we need to recreate a loving, vibrant world. It’s inside each of us, waiting for us to be brave enough to access it.