When I got to the door, I couldn't push it open. I tried to pull it, and that didn't work either. I saw a woman walk through the other door, so I figured this one had to be locked. I pushed. I pulled. When I realized I didn't even have the strength to open the door, I asked myself how I thought I could get up and go to work every day. I turned around and went home.
Thus goes the tale of my mother's first time giving up and her last attempt at a job interview. In my heart, I believe that is the day she began dying.
Truth be told, my mother was the original Maverick. She had been on her own from the age of 18, and there was precious little she could not do for herself - in 3" heels. Her talents were infinite: she was a teacher, a writer, an artist, a fashionista and a counselor. And of course, since she chose to be a mother, she was underappreciated.
She always felt a pang of guilt for putting me through painful procedures that, at two years old, I could not understand. She said that the first time my pain medication wore off, and I felt the effects of what was going on with me, I gave her a look that said, "You did this to me." But I think part of that was just the feelings of a good mother, a healer, who could not ease a pain for which she felt responsible. Rather than handicapping me, she chose to make me strong.
On the one hand, my mother celebrated my spunk. When I wanted to try something new, or difficult, or even just weird and off-kilter, she let me do my thing. Often, it was a benefit to my family. I cooked at an early age (even tackling difficult dishes from scratch), could help with combing hair (which is a big deal when you have four daughters), changed diapers, prepared bottles, you name it. She would often refer to me as "her right arm."
There was a part of her, I know, that viewed my independence with fear. I believe she partially viewed it as a personal rejection. Advice was dispensed in a manner that indicated she didn't expect me to follow it. "I'm saying this, but of course you know everything, so you can do whatever you want." If I was feeling particularly ornery, I would do precisely what I wanted. Unfortunately, what I wanted was usually to irritate her for presuming what I would do. I wasn't engaging in any life-altering behavior, so it was really no big deal. Hell, nobody's perfect; not my mother, and definitely not me.
She had the same love/hate relationship with my fighting spirit. She liked the fact that I wasn't a pushover, but she was concerned about me having a chip on my shoulder. Once, after picking a senseless argument with a much larger girl, she yanked me inside and exclaimed, "SHIT, you'd fight a circle saw knowing you'll get cut!"
Once I became a teenager, as is custom, our realtionship had it's series of ups and downs and downs and downs. From ages 12 to 16, we lived around each other. We sat at opposite ends of the table. Many times I pretended to be engrossed in some such project or another so I wouldn't have to eat with my family, or more specifically her. We were, to a certain degree, strangers. My mother actually went to her deathbed never knowing that I was a writer. At 16, I tried to run away from home. She tracked me down, at that point from her sick bed, and brought me back. When I got home that night, she tearfully looked at me and said, "I know things aren't easy, but I am not your enemy." At the time, I thought she was being dramatic, but that's exactly how I was treating her. But then, I felt that's how she was treating me as well.
My mother, in her way, was shaping me. See, as much as I felt she didn't understand me (and no one ever completely understands anyone else), she knew me. She knew I would be a maverick. She knew I would be THE Maverick. So she made sure I would be able to pay the cost to be the boss.
The second, and last, time I ran away, it was the day after my graduation. We didn't know it, but we would only have six more months together. When she had my father bring me back home, again, we had what I think was the first real, honest conversation in our lives. We don't spend the beginning of our lives listening to our mothers. We hear them, we may follow their advice, but we don't really listen. She told me that when she saw that I was gone, she felt relief. Maybe the house would finally be peaceful. In truth, I can't think of any household ruckus that I wasn't in some way a part of. Her second thought was, I am her child and this was my home. I left because I was hurting, and if I was hurting, I needed to be in my home where I could heal.
And on that day, we both started to heal. We would wake up and drink tea and watch Law & Order and talk. By this time, she was confined to a hospital bed in our den, and I typically put the sofa cushions on the floor and slept there.
My parents sent me on a trip to the East Coast in October of 1994, and shortly upon my return, my mother was admitted to the hospital. I thought it was just one of her "regular" trips, until the day I called her and she began crying on the phone. Her inability to care for herself was tearing her apart. It was then that I understood my mother, for then, I felt rejected. Didn't she know we would have cared for her forever? That was the last time I heard her voice.
I prefer not to remember the last time I saw her. It was the night before she died. She was gasping for breath and was trying to tell me something. Her eyes said it. "Get out." She didn't want to be remembered that way. On our way to see her the next day, there was a terrible traffic jam. She died shortly before our arrival. Five days before my 18th birthday.
Despite that, despite the hurt of losing someone so precious, so soon, I'm okay with my relationship with my mother. I recently reached some sort of explanation:
"The Mundo have a saying that any real love completes itself. The way that you tell a love is not real is that it is always unfinished. It is just sort of hanging there, maybe throughout your whole life, this ache, this longing.
And why is that? I ask him.
It is because when you truly love someone you wish them no suffering, although they must suffer, just in the course of life. You are always reaching out to them, to heal them. They instinctively do the same for you."*
My mother, through her words, stories, examples, and yes, love, even still heals me.
A family friend told me that very shortly before her death, my mother told her, "M is my child that scared me the most. I was so worried. But now, I'm confident that no matter what happens, she's going to be okay. If she's okay, I know the rest of the girls will be too."
I guess that means I healed her too.
*By the Light of My Father's Smile Alice Walker