This is far from my first complicated Mother’s Day. Throughout my life as my relationship with Mom went through some pretty drastic ups and downs, there have been times when I wasn’t sure how to handle the holiday or how to approach her about it. Since 2015, though, it’s been consistently fraught.
I’ve mentioned that it’s sometimes difficult for me to talk about Mom to people who were more recent friends of hers, because they saw the odd and snarky but nonjudgmental and accepting version of her; the person she became years after she ran me out of her life and treated me like a pariah because I was dating a girl. Another of the difficulties is that many people didn’t get close enough to her to start experiencing the signs of her mental illness, and so if I talk about it I’m never certain if they’re simply nodding and looking understanding, quietly convinced that I’m exaggerating or flat-out making things up.
There are people who did see it – soon after her death one of her close friends asked me, unprompted by any stories on my part, if I thought she had had multiple personality disorder. I said that yes, I was absolutely certain that she did, in some form.
Mother’s Day of 2015 I was absolutely determined to make our Mother’s Day dinner (which we had on the Saturday before, since Matthew works on Sundays) something special for Mom. Things between us had been tense – I’d been seeing a therapist to help me learn how to trust myself when it came to my mom (because having a mentally ill parent can make it VERY hard for you to trust your own knowledge of what’s real, even if what they tell you is completely far flung from reality) and how to have boundaries (one of the first potent things my therapist said to me when I started seeing her – “You’re really not okay with setting boundaries when it comes to your mom, are you?”) and though this work was extremely good for me, the results (mainly me finally asserting that I just couldn’t spend as much time with Mom as she’d like me to) didn’t go over well with her. I wanted to show that although I needed my space, I still loved her, still wanted her in my life, still wanted to do things that she’d enjoy.
I cooked a dinner that I knew she’d love. Matthew and I went to pick her up at her apartment and drove her home after – she only lived 2 miles away, but I knew that driving stressed her out and that she’d feel more free to drink as much wine as she wanted if she had a ride home. And I made sure that there was plenty wine that she liked. We had dinner on the porch. We had pleasant, relaxed conversation about nothing in particular. It was nice – later, when I questioned my memory, I went back and looked at the email exchanges we had over the next few days.
After we dropped her off at home that night she emailed me to thank me – for the evening, the excellent meal, sending her home with leftovers. I replied that I was glad she’d enjoyed it, and that it had been a lovely evening.
The next day she emailed me to say I’d seemed pensive, and she asked if there was anything wrong and if there was anything she could do to help. I replied back that I’d just been tired, but that I appreciated the offer. She responded telling me how much she was enjoying the leftovers we’d sent home with her.
The day after that we had an email exchange about some cat pictures on the internet.
There was a gap then (not unusual) – about two weeks later she emailed me that she’d reconnected with an old mutual friend on Facebook. We talked about him, and I gave her some tips for pan searing asparagus.
Then there was another gap until it was approaching her late June birthday. I emailed her to ask if she’d like to come over the next Saturday for a birthday dinner. That’s when things got wild. Her response was this: “I’m not sure how to talk to you anymore, Jessica. I get the impression you do these things because you feel you must. You don’t really have to do it. Not now. Not anymore. It took me a long time to hear the things you had been saying to me since I came here but I finally have let them sink in.”
I won’t get into just copy/pasting the whole exchange, but it basically consisted of me trying to ask her what she was talking about (it’s likely she was remembering a conversation that didn’t happen; that wouldn’t have been the first or last time) and her telling me that the seeming nice time we’d had at our last dinner was a result of her putting on a plastic face and hiding every aspect of her personality in order to keep Matthew and I from attacking her. She told me she was too afraid of us to really talk about it.
And that’s about how our relationship went until she killed herself. From then on, we only saw her about once a year – before that we’d been seeing her about every month. We’d tentatively invite her over for a Mother’s Day dinner, I’d try to make it nice for her, we’d be pleasant and have good conversation and it would seem to go well – and then we’d wait to see if, a few days or weeks later, she’d decide that the seemingly relaxed, enjoyable evening had actually been an emotional onslaught of us making it painfully clear to her how much we despised her. It didn’t happen every time, but 2015 wasn’t the last time.
There were a few times I was able to talk to her openly about this pattern. When she was lucid she was very much aware of the fact that she was mentally ill, but she usually didn’t remember the specifics of things that happened. There were times when she would email me either making a specific reference to a conversation that hadn’t happened or make it clear that she’d completely forgotten about a crucial conversation that HAD happened and I could point it out to her, could say “This isn’t how you’re remembering it, I need you to try to be aware that this happens frequently between us.” She would acknowledge it, would acknowledge how much damage her illness had done to me through the years, and a few times I even got her to agree to try to get help for it – specifically the time that she admitted to me that she’d been unofficially diagnosed with Dissociative Identity Disorder years earlier in Pennsylvania – but she never actually did.
The next to last time I saw her – the night she gave me the “I’m Dead Now What” book and told me she wasn’t sure how much longer she’d be around – was for Mother’s Day last year. We had a pretty extended open conversation as a result of her news. I told her how for the past several years, any time we saw her we’d end the evening saying to each other “Well, that seemed to go well, I guess we’ll wait and see if we get an email about how cruel we were.” She told me that she had memories of me being absolutely livid at her. I told her that yes, there were times when I disagreed, or disapproved, or was annoyed, tired, cranky, sometimes a little judgy, human – but that I’d never been anything like livid. I’d never shouted at her, never attacked her, not a single time.
She apologized. She understood. She didn’t debate it, didn’t doubt it even a little. She was lucid – and when she was lucid she was self aware. I told her I loved her, told her that my distancing myself from her was never about not loving her, but that when I tried so hard to give her a good evening and ended up being told I was heartless and cruel that I just couldn’t take it. I couldn’t open myself up to that very often.
She asked me if I’d be open to starting to see her a little more often again, on a trial basis, to see how it went. I said that I would.
She came to my 40th birthday party in July.
She treated us to dinner at the Italian restaurant by her apartment in August. And that was the last time we saw her.
I’ll never be the girl with the dead mom writing mushy Mother’s Day posts about how my mom is my angel. For me it’ll always be “this holiday was fucking stressful for me because no matter what I did I didn’t know whether my mom’s brain would let her remember it properly.”
Here’s the part where I’m supposed to say “But even as hard as it was, I’d gladly do it again in a second if she were still here.” And you know what? If it meant she could still be here? Of course I’d do it again. Of course I would. Because she made the world better by being here. Maybe she couldn’t make it better for me, but she made it better for many people she loved. Of course I’d make her dinner, feed her wine, even if she came after me for it later.
But I can’t say I miss it.