It’s a big day and if I’m brutally honest I’m struggling.
Today is the third anniversary of my mother’s death and for many reasons (probably not the ones you might expect) this is always a difficult time.
In my head there’s been a quiet countdown leading to this moment for a couple of weeks and as a consequence I’ve noticed my mood dip as well as my appetite quietly increase.
As much as I’d like to proclaim ‘I’m cured – it no longer affects me!’ This would be a total lie.
Even though I don’t miss my mom at all this is a time when I’m reminded of what I could or should have had in my childhood (and my relationship with her) but did not.
So – in an effort to exorcise some demons I decided that today was an appropriate time to get rid of the 30-40 odd framed paintings and photos that had I piled into boxes three years ago before hiding them away in a cupboard.
I’ve been holding onto them partly because I didn’t want to throw things away that she had created and partly because I thought my brother or father may want them even if I couldn’t bear to look at them.
Neither seems to be the case – and honestly I’ve never liked 99% of them so the only course of action that seemed to be left to me was to throw them away.
One or two (including all of the photos) I removed from their frames and kept – but everything else is now in a landfill or furnace somewhere.
I was hoping that this would make me feel good – but for the first time in years I’ve been confronted with my mom’s own unique brand of mental illness.
When I cleared her bungalow with my brother after she died it was exhausting (this is all documented in my blogs back when I first started writing).
This was not just because of the bereavement but because contained within each item there was another item, and within that another one.
Each was sellotaped into progressively smaller bags like little Russian dolls.
It took forever to unpack it all – and nothing could be arbitrarily consigned to the bin. There were tiny little caches of money hidden everywhere and I was acutely aware that there was a funeral to pay for.
Occasionally we also found small (or surprisingly large) bags of hair from different periods of her life that were labelled ‘for DNA testing‘.
Her picture frames it seems were no different – and underneath each taped up and nailed shut frame were more photos, scribblings and random (probably false) facts about family members.
Then I found the gut punch.
Hidden within a school photo of me was a draft letter, yellowed with age and dated October 1977.
This photo was taken a few years earlier – but in my mind this is the woman holding the pen.
The page detailed her feelings about her relationship with my father and contained intimate thoughts about their physical moments together.
Then it unexpectedly pivots into a passage regarding the sacrifice of Jesus and the relationship of this to her infant son.
Referring to me she says to my father:
‘He is our oneness. We dwell in him. He is our future on earth. The survival of our line. God will take him back to himself in time when all is fulfilled.’
I’m reminded immediately of her cadence in letters, her muddled allusion to both biblical scripture and other pseudo scientific thought processes.
I’m suddenly confronted with how her fractured and troubled mind worked and it momentarily takes the breath away from my lungs.
I sit on the edge of the bed in the quiet of my spare room.
At the end of the letter there’s a crossed out passage – which she’s noted did not get included in whatever version of the final letter was sent to my father.
Maybe it was too truthful and gave away far more information regarding her mental state than she was willing to share.
‘I am using too much adrenaline and the body I dwell in is suffering. The head aches and the singing in my ears gets worse. A quiet night is no longer a quiet night for me, my ears have their own noises of singing, ringing and bumps. Tonight the singing is a high pitched continuous note with occasional throbbing ever present. I have suffered this on and off since the age of 12.’
She continues – saying that she’s not good at looking after herself and is not eating. She’s losing weight, her bosom is disappearing and she says that she functions better when she has someone to look after.
The whole letter is like a selection of nails being hammered into me.
I’ve told myself many times (maybe to try and make sense of everything) that my mom wasn’t always the same person, and that time had slowly made things worse.
I like to think that when I was small she was a normal and loving mother – but the truth is she was exactly the same woman I had to deal with before she died.
I just never saw it as a child.
Her peculiar thought processes were my normal back then and because I learned early on to just accept her fragmented default state it took me many years to see her for who she really was.
It consequently took a long time to realise that the problems between us weren’t caused by me.
They were generated by her.
There was something profoundly odd about my mother. Although the words she used were English and seemed to link together, when you stood back (metaphorically speaking) the content of her sentences and paragraphs always left you confused or wondering why she had gone down one particular rabbit hole or another.
Usually the pleading side of her (evident in much of the draft letter I was reading) that begged for love (or more typically demanded it be given) came after she had done everything in her power to destroy any chance of it happening naturally.
More often than not letters like this came after significant rows – where her vitriol was at its worst and you were left scared to say anything in case it made things worse.
I’d be called evil, wicked, sick, ‘just like your father’ or ‘my biggest disappointment’.
The only route I had out as a child was to withdraw, go quiet and take it, hoping that it would stop eventually.
It never did though.
It would go on for hours and hours.
Occasionally she would let me go to sleep – thinking that the verbal beating was over.
Then she would wake me in the small hours of the morning stinking of tobacco, shaking with rage, shouting at me ‘…and ANOTHER thing…’ before she launched into the next part of her character assassination.
The following day when I returned home totally shattered from school after having had no sleep and dreading what was to come it was like nothing had happened.
She never referenced or apologised for anything she’d said – and instead expected full contrition from me.
If I mentioned anything about the night before I’d immediately start the whole sorry saga of ‘what I’d done wrong’ all over again.
Sleep was too precious at that point so I just stayed quiet and smiled or pretended.
Then without a word of apology or acknowledgement of the damage she’d caused, would arrive a demand for love.
When I was older and could get away from her afterwards this typically came in the post by letter until I moved and stopped providing her with my address.
When I did she continued to send letter after letter to my father – asking a man she wanted nothing to do with (but then professed undying love for) to pass her profoundly unbalanced thoughts on.
In the case of the letter I was holding the (very familiar) entreaty came written partly as a poem and partly as prose.
For my mother this was quite normal. I remember this kind of stream of consciousness all too well.
It was often stated in passages dripping with pain and symbolism that it was her ‘right‘ to receive love from her sons – that it should be given by her children ‘unconditionally‘ – just like she had given it to her parents before.
Back then I had always assumed that this was true and that as a child and adult she had been slavishly devoted to them. After all – it was what she continually told me was the case.
However after she died I learned from my uncle that the relationship she had with at least one of her parents was instead very different.
Her mother was scared of her and told her other children that she was frightened by her resentful and mercurial moods.
She didn’t know what would happen if she was left alone with her and in later years my grandmother saw my mother as a burden that was to be feared rather than relied upon for support.
As these thoughts flow through my mind I continued to take apart the yellowed picture frames and remove their contents.
In one photo (showing my uncle’s wedding reception) the picture has been trimmed. The background has been cut away, leaving only a collection of torsos and heads from the foreground.
Sealed and hidden away in another picture frame is the rest of the missing photo, depicting a pub wall without any people in front of it.
There’s nothing but wallpaper with cut out silhouettes.
Why keep it?
More to the point why chop it up in the first place?
Maybe it’s a part of the hoarder in her but I’ll never know because both her life and death remain frustratingly unresolved.
I’ll never understand who she was, why she thought the way she did, and why she manipulated and controlled rather than loved and nurtured.
I’m left with no good memories of her that she didn’t pollute over the years and I’ll never get an apology or an acknowledgement of the damage and heartache that she left in her wake.
Nevertheless I am glad of the final unwitting gifts that she left behind.
Firstly she made me want to be so unlike her that I finally found the power within me to break free of the self destructive behavioural loops that she left me with.
I gave up the drinking that I had consciously started to drown out her insults and I lost the weight I had gained through many years of eating away emotional and physical pain.
Secondly there’s practically the last thing she said to me before she died.
Unsurprisingly it wasn’t ‘I’m sorry’ because my mom never said that – and she never regretted anything.
Until that is she lay in A&E on the last day I saw her alive.
She was struggling to draw breath, in great discomfort and drowning slowly from the fluid collecting in her lungs.
Years of smoking had finally taken its toll – for which she was unrepentant. She smoked until the end and refused to acknowledge its impact.
‘I don’t regret ANYTHING.’ She said, and went quiet.
My brother and I looked at the wall.
Neither of us wanted to hear her voice any more. It was like nails being dragged down a chalk board.
‘Actually I DO regret something.’ She said, looking at me.
I turned my head.
This was new.
She’d never said anything like this before.
‘David.’ She said. ‘I regret…’
I listened to her stilted voice as she struggled to talk through her laboured and painful breathing.
‘…I regret that when you left home…’
The room was silent apart from the sounds of nurses passing outside the curtain.
‘… that you didn’t write to me and visit me more.’
I looked at her and then to my brother.
Honestly in that moment she released me.
Not only did she have no concept of what regret meant – but right up until the end she was incapable of recognising why I’d left home in the first place – and she still didn’t feel that she was in the wrong in any way.
I never had a chance.
I could never have understood her or fixed anything.
Right up until her last moments she was the same woman that it seems she was in October 1977 – and it’s most likely that she was well before I was born.
At least now all her paintings are gone.
Their cigarette smoke infused frames and canvases are no longer quietly lingering in my cupboard and I have the space back again – both in my home and (to an extent) my mind.
It’s taken me many many years but I’m slowly moving on. As well as I can I’ve tried to forgive her and hold no anger about our relationship – because there’s no point.
The only thing anger or hatred does is damage and pollute what’s left behind.
I refuse to let that happen because despite the destruction she caused her legacy is ultimately positive.
I’m now a different man to the one I was while she was alive and I hopefully have many many good years ahead of to make things ‘right’.
I feel like I wasted so much time dealing with the fallout of our relationship – but no more.
Despite her I want to life a good life, free from her legacy and (unlike her) being a positive voice in the world.
More than anything I’m glad that I’m capable of saying sorry or admitting that I’m wrong and that I still make mistakes.
To me internet that’s worth it’s weight in gold.