Emotions of any sort can be so bloody unpredictable and even the most stoic of people can get caught out unaware. Tears can well up in your eyes when you hear a line in a song, when you catch a whiff of an old perfume or stumble across an old momento hidden in the back of the draw. You can feel sudden joy or humour at the most inappropriate of times and wonder how can that be? Grief is one of those emotions and usually, you never know how you are going to respond to a loss of any sort until you are looking down the barrel of it.
In a physical sense, I lost my mum 45 years ago. Back in 1977 as a 12-year old, I raced home off the school bus to find a note on the table from mum had left explaining that she couldn’t take it anymore. She had finally left the home and family she had shared with my father for 13 years, and she would make contact when she got settled. The two school-age brothers that had taken that bus ride home with me were aged 10 and 8 at the time, and so as I stood in the kitchen making vegemite sandwiches for them to eat, I tried to process what the words on that blue piece of paper really meant.
In the ’70s, broken marriages and families weren’t the norm as they are today. I knew of one family in the town where a mother was raising her children alone and I remember when they started at the school struggling to get my head around that concept and wondering what that must have been like for the kids. Back in those pre cell phone days, communication was much simpler. Urgent news took longer to deliver, people wrote notes instead of sending texts and the regular 6-day delivery by the rural mail contractor delivering letters and parcels was always a highlight.
So, after those vegemite sandwiches were consumed I went about my business feeding the animals and doing the farm chores waiting on my workaholic father to come home so I could break the news to him that mum had gone, emptied the house of most things material that could be packed in boxes , and gone . It was the beginning of October and daylight saving hadn’t kicked in and as it darkness fell, we all took turns watching from the lounge window for the tell-tale headlight sign on the road below our house that would indicate his arrival was imminent. I don’t remember crying in those four hours, but I do remember the small wave of relief that I felt as I processed the scene before me with mixed emotions. Walls that had previously been adorned with family photos and keepsakes were now bare, with the exception of a small framed photograph of the three of us and the home that had been overflowing previously with a large number of potplants (33 to be exact from memory) had been stripped. One miserable pot plant remained on the top of the piano and I remember frantically opening cupboards and drawers to try and make sense of the barren space that remained. The space that only that morning when I had left for school had resembled my home. The sense of loss I felt for all those material things back then far outweighed the immediate sense of loss I should have felt for my mother which I now understand as an adult.
You see, we hadn’t ever really been close Mum and I, or not that I can remember. In the years leading up to her departure as she coped with the pressures of raising 4 young children on a limited budget, running a farm in my father’s absence as he worked off-farm and no doubt feeling trapped in the marriage to a man that far resembled how it was meant to be, she had disengaged in the act of mothering. Looking back as an adult, I don’t believe that was a conscious act, it was one of survival for her, and as a result I bore the brunt of a lot of that resentment, mood swings, and frustration and was miserable around her, scared of the violent outbursts and generally unhappy. I sought comfort in the love of my animals and school became a sanctuary for me. Her mental health suffered and she became a version of herself that she always had the capacity to be but without the support services and understanding of mental illness we have today, there was always going to be long-term consequence in the form of a train wreck for all involved.
Fast forward 45 years, a couple of failed attempts at repairing that extensively damaged mother / daughter relationship and the call came that I have wondered about many times over the last four decades. My mother lay dying in a hospital bed with only hours to live. Grateful for the call from a half-sister I barely know, I processed that information and tried to make sense of any emotion I was feeling in that instance. Overwhelmed with tears but knowing there is no place in my life for regret of any shape or form, I found myself clearing my work desk in an instant and making the decision to drive to that hospital room. I cried a lot of that 2 hour drive, not for the fact that I knew my mother was dying but for the little 12 year old girl who never cried when she left or since. For the little girl who never got to experience the joy of knowing that a mother had her back, would keep her safe and always be there for her. For the little girl that was never allowed to be a little girl , because from a very young age she was forced into an adult world of coping with a life that was never fair.
My mum was unconscious when I entered the room alone and I was numb. How the hell are you meant to feel I asked myself? The only certainty in life other than taxes is death so I always knew the day would come. Forgiveness has never been easy for me, infact I have only really forgiven people on a couple of occasions over my life because to do that I would have to have been able to forgive myself and for much of my life on reflection, my self-worth and self-belief has been wrapped up in the fact that I felt abandoned as a child. At 57 I know that now and have carried the guilt and trauma of that childhood like a medal of honour in my most quiet and private of times whilst showing the world a person so far removed from that little girl its staggering – unless you really know me of course.
I forgave my mother out loud in that room, I don’t know if she heard me or not, but it wasn’t for her I did it. It was for me. It was so I could finally forgive myself for some monumental fuck ups I have made as I refused to acknowledge that it did matter to me that I never known the bounds of the unconditional love and support from the person that brought me into the world. I looked for a sign that she had heard me. I even willed her to take her last breath while I was there because in that moment I was that little girl again that just wanted to be heard. As I did that though, I also thanked her for the resilience she taught me, for the good things I can recognise because of my childhood and being a motherless daughter. I have raised two independent kids that are making their way in the world because of the cycle I was determined to break, and I thank my mother for that.
So yes, I had always wondered how I would feel when she died. Now I know. Waves of sadness wash over me as I grieve for not the mom that died last Tuesday, but for the one I never knew. For the joy and opportunity we never managed to experience as a mother and daughter . Grief is so very personal to those who are going through it so the purpose of sharing my feelings on this is not only to help myself move on and heal, its maybe to continually raise an awareness in the world that things aren’t always as they seem and the opportunity to grow and heal is never lost until we choose.