Over two decades ago, I spoke what I thought was a final goodbye to my mother. I am easily transported back to the stark hospital room, the four of us adult children gathered together with our families. This ending followed her battle with a dreadful disease that ravaged her body for over six years. She was tiny, frail and helpless. Our family spent days in those important conversations people have when they know the end is near. But, true to the form of my family, the discussion lacked credible depth and the possibility of repair. At that time, I was unaware of how much these were needed. A truer image of my family of origin was beginning to form.
My mother provided the only care I had ever known. She kept me fed and clothed during childhood. In my teen years, she was my roommate in the long season after my father passed of the same disease. I placed my mother on a pedestal and bound myself to her as caregiver. I believed that without her, I would perish.
The day she died, I tenderly rubbed her legs while the raspy oxygen machine maintained her breath. She dozed peacefully while the palliative meds kept her comfortable. We witnessed her last breath and watched as the heart monitor flat-lined.
To my surprise, my eldest brother sobbed loudly, as if in agony. I was quiet. I had already cried my tears.
In my present work, I sit across from clients, encouraging them to consider a new image of their family of origin.
As children we create images of our family that are part truth and part distortion.
At different junctures in our lives, these images must be revised to tell a truer story. It was after my mother’s death that my family image began to shift. Until her passing, I saw her as loving, kind, and supportive of me as a child. But there was much evidence telling a different story. Shedding the old narrative felt dangerous, and and the cost of embracing a truer portrait great. This cost required integrity to speak and the processing of mountains of grief.
My family snapshot is very different now and more accurately reflects my experience. I have slowly shed the broken, godlike image of my mother.
In the past year or so a new stage of goodbye has emerged. My eyes see her actions with new clarity. I see the ways she supported others who humiliated me within our home. I see where my innocence was sacrificed on her behalf, and my deep emotions and longing for truth were dismissed and mocked. Her subtle harm and its associated darkness are plain for me to see now.
Unprovoked stories and memories flood my mind, filling in old gaps and crystallizing a picture of the truth. A journal entry from one year ago states my longing: “I want to be free of the illusion that Mom was good to me.” Freedom is closing in and I am ready for another goodbye.
At times, I am tempted to return to the false image of her as an attuned caregiver and a sacrificial protector, but conscience will no longer allow it. Sometimes I shake my head in disbelief. But I am resolute. I grew up in a highly dangerous and neglectful home. And now my heart and body know.
I continue to draw a more genuine picture of my mother. It reveals how she placed me in the peacemaker role. It reveals the requirement of having always to be cheery and pleasant even when I was in excruciating pain. And it reveals the five-year-old me, whose life she willingly offered as a payment to those whom she wished to be close to.
In my new picture, I stay clear of the middle. I feel what I need to feel. I say No, even to the powerful. And I bring to light that which has been hidden.
I will allow time to let the picture continue to form and to enter a safe place where I can lament. And then once again, I will say goodbye to my mother, and I suspect it won’t be the last.
Maryhelen Martens has been gathering and connecting with others since she was a young girl growing up in rural Wisconsin. She is a lover of whimsy and play, beauty and depth, all of which she experiences in her relationships. While her emotions and voice were shut down for decades, she is finding them again and using them in healing groups, story coaching, and writing. She’s always been drawn to water and sunsets and more recently to the desert and sunrises. She’s curious about that. Mother to three authentic adults, Maryhelen lives with her steadfast husband Keith on the shore of Lake Michigan.