I’ve had this post sitting in my draft box for a couple of months now, but I finally felt brave enough to hit the “publish” button after reading Rudri’s heartfelt and emotional post On Lessons from Experiencing Loss. Thank you, Rudri, for sharing with us what you’ve learned from grieving.
I’d written quite a bit about my difficult summer last year – about my broken ankle, the sudden death of our young colleague. But there was another event that I hadn’t shared, which was that for two very long and life changing days, I had believed I was going to lose my mother.
My mother was diagnosed with a condition carrying such words as “rare” and “aggressive.” When she called to update me on her post-surgery follow-up, she had, due to language barriers, misunderstood her doctor’s prognosis, and passed along to me her interpretation that, due to the sensitive location of the tissue in question, the doctor was unable to treat her completely. To be unable to remove everything, according to my research, meant basically a gradual but inevitable death. At my request, she arranged to have the doctor speak to me in two days.
I have written about how my leg injury led me to pledge to live life differently and certainly that is true, but in truth, it was those two days in between losing and regaining my mother that had changed me. By the time I got off the phone, my ankle had ceased to be something worth whining about. What a waste of emotional energy it had been to feel sorry for myself, to wonder if I could ever walk again. Of course I would walk again. How trivial every other “tragedy” becomes when a loved one’s life may be at stake.
My connection with my mother at this stage in our lives, with so many miles between us, is symbolized by our weekly phone call. Usually Sunday, usually around 9 a.m. But sometimes she would catch our answering machine and sometimes she would call outside of our unspoken time slot and I would get annoyed. More often than I am proud to admit, I had been unable – or unwilling – to talk to her, cutting her off because I was in the middle of something or on my way to something. “Yes, I know, you’re busy. You are always busy. There never seems to be a good time to call you,” my mother had said to me tearfully and more than once.
I had rationalized to myself, for many years, that I had gotten that way because of our complicated and sometimes painful relationship, that if she had criticized me less, or been less controlling of me, maybe I would have had different feelings of our relationship. I would tell her that it was her fault I didn’t want to talk to her, that I would get on the phone and feel paranoid she’d find more fault in me. I would tell myself that I was trying to achieve peace and self-acceptance, and I needed to push away all sources of potential toxicity. I’d forgiven so many people in my life, but not my mother. I had had nowhere to go with the raw and painful emotions I felt growing up, and somehow I had turned my mother into my scape goat.
I had been angry for over thirty years, and for the first time I softened. When I realized I might have only a few more years left with my mom, I softened.
I began picking up the phone patiently whenever she called me at work. I let slide any minor annoyances. I simply nodded “okay” when she nagged me. I listened to her vent about annoying colleagues. And, really, that was all. There were no criticisms. No attempts to control me. We talked and we laughed. She began looking back on her years as a mother, half laughing and half sighing, “Ay…I was so clueless…it’s a wonder you and your brother turned out okay.” And I began learning things about her I had never known – that her single mother in rural China had encouraged her – a girl in the 1940s – to be anything that she wanted to be and that she (my mother) used to love what few books she could find, and would stay up until 3 reading Russian novels by lantern light. In very quick time, I began to look forward to our weekly conversations.
Like that I let go of all the anger I had harbored against her over the last three decades. I let it go only to realize, with intense surprise and then regret, that the overly critical mother I had immortalized in my head all this time did not even exist. Or maybe she did, 10 or 20 years ago, but she had changed. Or, perhaps, I had changed…maybe I had stopped fighting her love and her attempts to get close to me, and I finally gave her the space and permission to be the mother she had always been trying so hard to be. I’ve had a lifelong fear of getting too close to people, of being loved too much, of being possessed and smothered. And I fought my mother the hardest…of course, because she had been the one person with the most love to give.
Our past is complicated and I am a flawed person from a family wounded by immigration, poverty, mental illness and cultural and generational differences…why I would want to push my mother away is a whole other, much longer story. But had I been willing to let go of my anger sooner, we could have had more quality years together. We could have been laughing longer. I could have seen my mother more clearly, instead of holding on to the image I may have created in my head as a way to avoid responsibility for my own healing. While the cancer did not reduce my mother’s years with me, my anger did.
I spoke to my mother’s doctor two days later. She’s fine. Everything was treated. They need to keep an eye on her condition but no, it is in no way a death sentence. So like my leg injury, the misunderstanding of the doctor’s prognosis turned out to be a gift. It was a 5-alarm fire call to let go of the past and a chance to reunite. I saw and chose love at the brink of loss, and, so luckily, I was given the gift of more time. I am late, but I made it.