My mother is not dead. I see her, every now and then, and though she is convinced she will soon die, she is still very much among the living. I even love her.
I don't regret this, certainly. I don't have it in me to wish death on someone just for hurting me or to regret loving someone who cannot love me back in any sort of healthy way. But I also find myself waiting, because some stories cannot be told until the people in them have passed on.
My mother loves me, loved me well when I was a very small. I am positive of this, mostly due to hazy memories of old photos that have long since been destroyed and the things other family members tell me. My own recollections are blank -- almost all of my childhood is gone, self-protection smearing it until there is only the most vague impression, only screen captures of individual traumas.
I remember, with crystalline clarity, the way she hit me when I failed to learn how to tie my shoes. Was that the first time it happened? I can pretend it was. It's as good as any other moment.
Once upon a time, for a surreal stretch of years, we didn't speak at all. We were estranged and I was untethered, cut free from all familial ties -- they thought I should just accept that was her way, they thought I should just nod and smile and keep the peace.
But there was never, in my mind, peace between us. There was a confused sort of love, wrapped up and tangled around the spokes of the way she protected me from others in order to hurt me herself. And when she rejected me and it didn't kill me, I could not fathom biting it all back, burying it in the back yard or under the porch so we could all pretend it didn't happen.
I laid in my isolated bed, that first year we didn't speak, and I hid away from Mother's Day. No one understood why Hallmark commercials about it, restaurant commercials about it, florist commercials about it made me cry.
My friends all said, "But your mother isn't dead."
Like that made any difference. Not only was I dead to her, I didn't even have the experience of a loving mother to mourn.
Mother's Day is inescapable. As inescapable as the fact: We all came from someone. Is there any more complex or fraught relationship than the one we have with our mothers -- or with the idea of our mothers?
Intellectually, I understand the desire to celebrate the bond. But my knowledge is just that, an intellectual one, based on observation and the hearsay I have gathered from people who love their mothers without a component of fear -- without the choking pressure of rage that creeps up in the dark to sit on your chest and snatch your breath until you get up for work the next day, wearing a face of "Everything is perfectly normal here."
I wear that face a lot. I do a pretty good job with it; I'm fairly well-adjusted, after all, and I lead a productive and meaningful life. But it's all lived forward, with a distance between me and my origin points. Those are all filtered through my mother, and sipping from that cup is like swallowing shards of glass.
It's so melodramatic isn't it? I thought I'd be over it by the time I reached the age I am now. I thought I'd be over it by the time I reached the age I was five years ago. But now I know, as I suspected all along, even when I was a kid, tearful and terrified of the consequences of telling, that there is no getting over this.
There's mending the broken places, of course. There's patching the holes and hoping the repairs are stronger than the original surface that you can't even find to feel the outline of it anymore. But abuse -- and I will call it what it was as long as I am speaking out of turn about it -- leaves scars and you just have to live with those. You live with those scars and with the way they make you different from other people. And mostly, you realize -- I hope you realize, too -- that life is as good as it was in your fantasies when you detailed every last corner of longed-for escape.
But then it's Mother's Day again. It's always Mother's Day again.
Maybe you have a special face you wear just for this, the one that you can show to your mother, who believes she didn't do anything wrong, that you can show to your family who has finally started to get angry with her just as you have reached a place of resigned waiting -- you're waiting for her to die and you know it will be terrible and it might rip everything open all over again because you love her the way a child can only love its mother but then at least you won't still live with the lingering fear that she is going to ruin your xyz, your fill in the blank, your next experience that is meant to be meaningful with your mother that will, instead, be just another drama even now that she is mellowed by age and religion.
I'm not wearing that face at this moment. Right now, I feel like I'm stabbing myself in the face over and over again. I'm being honest because Mother's Day is an exercise in pretending everything is fine because one day she will die and we won't have any more Mother's Days. Because as long as she is alive, she doesn't get to win, she doesn't get to beat me -- literally or metaphorically -- anymore. I will put on that face of normality because I will not let her see me broken and scarred.
That's part of my power now, part of the difference between being a child and an adult. It's not that it gets better so much as it is everything changes when you are no longer a child.
And one day she will die. Or perhaps she is already dead. Maybe you put your face on for no one but yourself, moving day to day with that strange mother-shaped scar across all your tender places. Maybe you still live with her and you think that you will never feel anything but anger ever again, burning in your gut like a dull ember, though you're numb even to that because you are lined with ash, smoky and grey, soft and silky.
Whatever the case, whatever mask you or I choose to wear right now, Mother's Day is bearing down on us again, the way it does every year and the way it always will. Some years, I've spent the day crying on the couch, watching bad cable and eating takeout Chinese food. Some years, I've spent the day feeling awkward and out of place at the celebrations held by other, less wounded families. And this year I'll spend the day with my mother, wearing my face and reminding myself: I have survived this all before.
You've survived it, too. Every day of it thus far.
Mother's Day marks that like an anniversary now.
Happy anniversary to you and to me, to those who have survived and those who are still trying to breathe through it. None of us are alone and none of this is our fault. Happy Mother's Day.