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By Jillian Crowther
The day after my 13th birthday my father sobbed and stumbled through the reasons why he had to leave. I worked on forgiving him while taking care of my terminally ill mother and younger brother in a house where the blinds were perpetually drawn, the names and intended uses of various painkillers more easily understood than math homework, and hospice nurses were the only visitors.
In the summer before eighth grade, my mother died. It was not a surprise. I’d been preparing to mourn the inevitable loss of her throughout my childhood.
I thought I would only grieve for what was: for the loving notes in lunchboxes, the impromptu living room dance parties, and the cool, gentle hand stroking my hair when my stomach hurt or my heart ached.
Instead, I grieved for what was never to be. I would never know my mother. What I mean is I would never really know her as I would if she had lived and grayed and grew to view me as an equal. I had been too young, and admittedly, too self-involved to understand her apart from her static role in my life as “Mom” with all of its accompanying stereotypical domestic tasks that she desperately tried to perform despite being unable to walk, to breathe without oxygen, to move without pain.
Of course, I saw her in her darkest moments, moments that she never truly intended me to witness.
Depressed and broken after my father’s departure, she’d prop up her pillow and put on her Estée Lauder while asking me repeatedly if I thought my dad would come back if she got off the steroids and lost some weight. Her moods were mercurial and she could be cruel if on a particularly potent dosage of medication.
She depended on me for nearly everything and easily lost patience if I didn’t bring the right color of paint from the crafts supply bin for her jewelry boxes or didn’t offer Nurse Leslie an iced tea upon her arrival. She had a bell she would ring whenever she needed something.
I cringed at the sound of that bell ringing throughout the house, dreading the caustic and slurred directives to come. Now, I look back and recognize that it couldn’t have been easy to have your daughter meet your needs when you wanted nothing more than to meet hers.
It must have been downright humiliating to ring that bell and admit that your body denied you the right to truly be a mother in the ways that you wished to be.
I am only able to look back and re-examine those darker days with clarity and something approaching acceptance because of my mother’s words.
My mom wrote journals from her teen years until shortly before her passing and I am fortunate to be in possession of nearly all of her tomes. Still, it took me nearly 15 years to engage with them. It took me even longer to listen to the tiny tapes she recorded to document the daily struggles with her illness and offer posthumous advice to my brother and me.
When I was 16, I pressed play and heard her weak voice speak wistfully of my “walking down the aisle” and one day “shopping for baby clothes.” I threw the cassette recorder across the room and blocked out the memory of her voice by blaring The Stooges on repeat.
I could not go to that alternate future with her; its impossibility was much too painful to acknowledge and I was pissed at her for taunting me with a someday she knew we could never share.
I eventually made it through that tape and all the others. I read the journals voraciously even when I came across sections that threw everything I had ever believed about my mom, myself and our relationship into total disarray: “It seems unbelievable I am going to have another child and sometimes it seems unbearable because Jillian has been so crappy lately. She probably senses it from me.” A bit harsh, Mom.
Or in 1988 when she made this observation about eight-year-old-me: “I don’t think she ever needed me… Her shell grows harder to get threw [sic], I’m to blame I guess…”
I was forced to re-evaluate everything about my childhood in this raw and completely unromantic light. If I’d never had access to my mother’s inner thoughts, I could still do what most of us do when we lose someone: idealize them and the bond they shared with us. It’d be all cookies and care and can-do-no-wrong.
This, though, is only one version of the truth.
I am grateful to have access to multiple versions of the truth and, subsequently, multiple versions of Linda Crowther.
The first few years after her death, there was a raging emptiness that I couldn’t fill because I didn’t have all the answers I wanted. Whenever I paid tribute to her memory, I was always confronted with the same old dichotomy: the beautiful and vibrant stay-at-home mother vs. the bed-ridden and bruised woman with oxygen tanks and comas in the ICU, who was nearly unrecognizable in those last few months.
There was so much more to her, so much in between that I missed because of the particulars of our family situation. There hadn’t been time to ask about my mother’s hopes and dreams because to do so would be to rub salt in a festering wound. The gaps in her story left her incomplete in my mind.
It is her words, both spoken and written, that fill in those gaps now, that resurrect her in all her sickness and vitality and vulnerability and strength and uncertainty and hope.
I know her as a moony adolescent confronting mysterious headaches and crushing on her youth pastor’s son. I know her as a young mother and wife with dreams of becoming a writer deferred. I know her as a compassionate person constantly giving back to her friends and neighbors, baking cakes for school events into the wee hours of morning.
I know her as a woman with glaring insecurities: “I can handle the clots, the kidneys, the R.A. [Rheumatoid Arthritis] and the M.S. [Multiple Sclerosis]. I cannot handle my appearance. I know I should be grateful that I’m alive and I know I made various deals with God while I was in the hospital; but I look at myself and I gag.”
I know her as someone still trying to grow up: “I still feel like a child, a jerk, like I’m not in control. I was reading my old diary. I was such a nerd.”
In her journals, she was a host of contradictions, a jumble of flaws and failures and fantasies that made her that much more authentic, that much more real. For the first time, I knew who my mom was and who she could be if she were still here today.
There was a journal that she wrote just for me. On most pages, the truth had been diluted or tweaked because of her intended audience. She wanted to protect me from those all-consuming thoughts brought on by depression, financial worry and bodily pain that comprised her other journals.
So, instead she talked about how proud she was of me winning the spelling bee and how beautiful and kind I was and other motherly votes of confidence that soothe the ego and warm the heart.
I discovered a letter I had written for my mom in 1991 on the last page of this journal:
I love you with all my heart and I enjoy talking with you, like today. I think that we’re getting closer every day. Today you and I ate marshmellow [sic] krispy [sic] treats and I wrote my story on the computer. I think today was a good day for us. You are getting better. I know it. Your self is coming back…”
Why was I so sure I knew who my mother really was? And why wasn’t I willing to be honest with her? I didn’t believe she was getting better and I knew she didn’t believe it either. And yet, I told her this constantly.
As I came to understand my mom more through the stories she told herself and others, I learned that sometimes the lies we tell each other out of love say more about us than the truths we confess.