Loving My Mother and Facing Myself, Anew

I have come to dread the second weekend in May, for the sadness it brings, the shame I feel for the envy I harbor, and the stark truths it reveals about me and my place in this world beginning from my first exuberant breath to this moment as I write of yet another Mother’s Day – survived.

Ours was a difficult relationship, but then, the things that matter most in life are not always easy. Nonetheless, I know my mother loved me as deeply as any mother could love a headstrong daughter. While I often wished we could have a relationship like those my friends enjoyed with their moms, one filled with lunch dates, laughter, and dreams for tomorrow – I came to accept that those things were not important to my Mom. Of course, there were wonderful memories – or I wouldn’t feel so conflicted about our relationship still today. She was a wonderful Brownie leader, tender of tummy aches, and mom to the wayward kids on the block. We became best buds when it was just the two of us for a cold Virginia winter when my dad was away on an extended trip and schooling and my brother was away at college. But my best and fondest memories of my mother and me together all occurred before I was 13. And then things began to change. I was growing up and those changes meant the world would also have an influence on me. I can count on one hand the times my mother and I had a joyful, in-depth conversation about life. Those we did have quickly deteriorated into expressions of her fears for what would happen to me “if” or judgment-tinged commentaries beginning and ending with “you are so much better than that.” I knew much more about how difficult her life was than whether or not she ever believed in me.

Ironically, it was in the throes of my 7-year dance with death a.k.a. Anorexia, that she began to encourage me, to tell me that those who were “judging” me simply didn’t understand, that she was thin too and was the envy of her friends and sisters. Even as I laid in ICU with less than a 30% chance of survival if a miracle didn’t happen, she “fought” against the “system” that was “failing at every step” to save me. Defending me when psychiatrists suggested a problem, denying that there was something wrong with her daughter. When I finally hit rock bottom, faced down death, and accepted the journey to wellness outside of my mother’s realm she refused to accompany me. As I boarded the plane to travel to my saving place – Remuda Ranch – all 78 pounds of me and still in critical condition, my mother was at home refusing to see me off. I remember looking back down the ramp – and seeing my father and godfather standing together with their utmost love veiled by a dread that they might not see me again shadowing their faces. The same two men whose frustration with me often led to bursts of anger because they couldn’t understand – now stood behind me in love.

After 4 rides in an ambulance and 7 years in and out of the hospital with my final stay lasting from New Year’s Eve until Memorial Day, my mother still insisted there was nothing wrong with me. I so wanted to believe that. For once we had something we could share! But that very thing joining us would prove fatal to me if it was allowed to continue. I was gone for 4 months. During that time Mom sent me care packages of piano music for me to play on the ranch’s grand piano, new dresses as I “outgrew” the ridiculously small ones she had sewn for me because nothing in any store any where would fit my skeletal body, and she wrote me notes that reminded me of the lunch box notes she would write me when I was a child – before her depressive anxiety began to take over her life.

When I returned home from treatment, I didn’t have a cent to my name. Having worked and paid my way through college what money I did have was depleted by astronomical medical bills. Insurance companies didn’t cover treatment for mental illness back then. So, I returned to the family home to begin life anew. I had changed. I had grown. I had a new story and a new perspective of myself. My mother had not. This would be a point of contention between us for the rest of our life together.

I have been in recovery now for 26 years. I am 64 pounds heavier today than I was at my lowest point. Though it was a pivotal point in our relationship, I do not blame my mother for what I went through. Psychiatrists coaxed me to believe that it was my mother at the root of my problems but I never once placed that onus on her. My eating disorder was a manifestation of my desperate need to have some sort of control in my life and be good at something. I mastered both. According to the plethora of doctors and specialists who worked on “my case” and the numerous studies asserting Anorexia (especially as extreme as my situation was) has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, I am a walking miracle but not one without scars. My eating disorder ravaged my body. 7 years of starvation will do that. I would learn that I could never have children, that my bones would forever be susceptible to breaks, that I must always, always treat food as a medium for life and not something that could bring me pleasure or cause me distress, and that well-meaning inquisitive people would always find my weight to be an acceptable conversation topic. Exercise had always been and remains my means of escape, my coping mechanism, and my Achilles heel. Told by doctors that the fact I was a runner with a strong heart was the only reason I survived the starvation-induced cardiac arrests (plural) – I remained certain that I could never do too much of a good thing. This too has been a hard-learned lesson as I continue down the never-ending road of recovery – and one I am still learning – 26 years in!

Counselors told me I needed to set boundaries on my relationship with my mother but how do you set boundaries between yourself and the person that gave life to you? While fences make good neighbors, boundaries do not address the conflicts that created the need for them. No matter the strife between us, I always loved my Mom as much as I felt beholden to her.

Mom, newly home after a stroke.

Finally putting a physical boundary of 400+ miles between my mother and me with my move to the Flathead changed the dynamic between us. On visits home, we still engaged in rapid-fire from time to time but during our long-distance phone conversations, rather than constantly butting heads with me, my Mom seemed to relish the fact that though I was living my own life and she could live vicariously through me in her old stomping grounds. How comically ironic that I would end up where she once lived “some of her happiest days” as a young woman right here where I am now. Sadly, by that point in her health and our relationship, our conversations never ventured much past the surface.

Perhaps we both gazed at this view – 50 years apart.

As I reflect on 50 years as my mother’s daughter my heart aches for the young woman I was and for the woman she was too. To think we are solely responsible for who we are is naivete at its worst. As I struggle with my own place in life right now, I have wondered just what brought her to be who she became to be.

Since my mother’s illness and death, I have learned much about what is important in life and the lesson has been painful. Past conflicts between us remained a barrier to my heart and have raked my heart ever since. The fact that my mother and I could not realize a reconciliation of any meaningful depth fills me with deep regret. Why had I not pursued this with my Mom sooner? My hopes are such that the pain and anger we inflicted on one another disappeared into her lost memories as I am not sure she could comprehend the feelings I wanted to express. Part of me feels at peace in the simple sweet conversations that we did share. Perhaps that is God’s grace reigning over my ineptitude. I have learned that life is finite. Its seasons far too short for anger, guilt, pride, and selfishness to linger in our relationships. Storms will come and we do not know when or how they will end.

King Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes:

“As you do not know the path of the wind, or how the body is formed in a mother’s womb, so you cannot understand the work of God, the Maker of all things.”

Solomon was wise. Life is meaningless if we do not tend to what truly matters. All the fun, work, accolades, and treasures of life we collect along the way are meaningless. What matters are the relationships we have; that our hearts are right with God; that we resolve conflicts with those we love; that they know they matter to us; and how very much we do indeed love them.

Reconciliation with my mother was a selfish goal of mine. But how much more powerful and life-giving it would have been had I been able to make peace with my mother while she was alive. Perhaps it is best and all I can hope for that my Mom and I pursued the springtime memories of our lives as we walked through her final winter together.

I last spoke to my mother on my 45th birthday, 18 days before she passed away. It was a conversation I will never forget. Aside from the fact she was upset that I would be celebrating alone and didn’t have a special dinner date she just kept saying all she wanted was for me to be happy and would I consider coming home. I kept telling her I was happy but I had too many mountains left to climb to think about coming home – but that didn’t mean I didn’t miss her. I told her I loved her so very much. Her last words to me were: I love you and I just want you to be happy.

For all these reasons, Mother’s Day haunts me. This day of celebrating the gift of life that mothers give reminds me of all that I lost and all I will never be. There are times I see my mother’s nature of sadness in me – and it strikes a paralyzing fear in me that I might be following in her steps towards darkness. But I take comfort too, in that I am my mother’s daughter just as much as I am my father’s and my father loved her to the very end. As my Daddy’s girl, I know I will be okay. God has blessed me with tools of His light and my own life experiences to fight the darkness that robbed me of my mother’s best days.

One of Mom’s favorite songs was “His Eye is on the Sparrow”.

His eye is on the sparrow and I know He watches me. His eye is on the sparrow and I know He watches me. I sing because I’m happy; I sing because I’m free; His eye is on the sparrow And I know He watches me.

It has become one of my favorites, too.

Mom, I know we had our struggles as a mother and daughter but I will forever carry with me your sweet love of the joys of life, the tender ways you loved me through childhood, and your simple understanding of what is good. I will continue to strive to live the kind of life you so wanted for me – one that is happy and lived for the Lord. I never stopped loving you and I will always hear your voice and feel your love whenever a songbird sings.

And when I do, I will sing because I know you are happy, and I’ll sing because I know you are free. I’ll smile at the sight of every sparrow because I’ll know you are right here, with me.