By Mark E. Smith
When my mother died – was it 10 years ago? – I was giving a tour of my company. My sister valiantly sat by her bedside for days. I did not.
My sister called me on my cell phone. I knew what the call was about. I’d expected it based on previous updates from her.
“I’m sorry,” I said, surrounded by people. “Are you okay?”
With that, I went on with the tour – and my life.
My relationship with my mother was long strained by the time of her death. She was a profound alcoholic while I grew up, placing my brother, sister, and me in situations that no children should be in. While in my 20s, I made every attempt to both care for her and get her treatment. By my 30s, I was burnt out, resentful, and bitter. I wanted nothing to do with her, and she, still drinking, seemingly, wanted nothing to do with me. My sister moved her to our town, and although my mother lived five minutes from me, I virtually never saw her unless she was at my sister’s by coincidence when I stopped by.
I now realize that it’s impossible to have empathy while caught up in your own pain. I had no empathy for my mother, and I literally had a lifetime of pain regarding her.
What I also understand now but didn’t comprehend then is that people like my mother typically don’t just go down such a bleak path. There’s a causation. I’ll never know the entire causation of her alcoholism, but the clues were there. She often had vocal night terrors, in which she was being violently raped. My sister and I listened to them, not knowing what to do. We asked our mother about it and she shared that they were blocked out memories, but it was likely her grandfather, a despicable man by all accounts, and possibly other men, which was quite plausible given that her mother was a heroine addict, with presumed “Johns” coming and going from the apartment. Even though I knew all of this, I never possessed the empathy to connect these horrific events to her alcoholic behavior. I was simply caught in my own hurt, then anger.
My wife and I recently went to a liquor store to buy a bottle of wine. I waited in our van. A woman came out carrying a semi-transparent bag. She appeared in her 50s, rutty complexion, with a quivering bottom lip, shakiness, and careful steps. In the bag were two, liter bottles of vodka. I recognized the bottles of vodka and the woman’s demeanor as emblematic of my mother. I shared this with my wife and she shared that the woman also had difficulty working the debit card machine. The image of the woman stuck with me.
The following day, my wife and I were at the medical center. We passed a row of those with cancer. As I rolled passed, “Margaret” was called. That was my mother’s name. Out of the corner of my eye, a woman stood up, having a dark complexion, wearing a bob wig. For a moment, in my mind, it was my mother.
I was initially just spooked by the two experiences. However, then my wife and I were at lunch and on the way out, she went to the restroom. As I waited with my own thoughts, my eyes welled up. We made it to our van before I completely fell apart, as they say.
My wife asked what was going on, and I explained that I was finally grieving the loss of my mother – with a lot of personal regret.
I’ve long said that my parents died from alcoholism. Out of hurt and anger, I believed that. However, while my father absolutely died from alcoholism, my mother ultimately did not. She, in fact, had cancer twice, and at age 59, she died of ovarian cancer. It was an eight-month struggle. And, I was not there.
The subject remains complex and different for everyone. Psychologists say that distancing yourself from an addict is vital, that codependency will destroy you. As an unknowing codependent with my mother growing up and in my 20s, I can tell you that it’s true, which is among the reasons I pulled away. Yet, psychologists don’t have it completely right. Love isn’t, nor should be all, or nothing. There’s a gray area that even applies to addicts like my mom, where, above all else, there are times when empathy trumps all. I followed the traditional psychology script and made my role in her life nothing, and in my mother’s final days, I wasn’t there. I wasn’t there.
They say that with age comes wisdom. In my case, it has also brought shame, regret, and alas, grieving.