I never wanted to write about grief. Grief is dark, lonely and destructive – it never gets easier, you just get stronger. But I’m writing this because I know I’m not alone. Others grief; we all do it in our own way.
In November 2017, my mother died of leukemia. Her death was unexpected and sudden. My mom and I had a strained relationship for many, many years. From birth till age seven, my sister and I lived with our grandparents. We only saw our parents once a year. Growing up, my mom could be very cruel to me. Yes, we had good days. Days when she was just a “normal” mom. Loving, caring, and sweet. Then there were moments, like my 16th birthday, when she casually announced that my father (her ex husband) wasn’t my “real” dad. “He may or may not be your dad,” she said. She simply wasn’t sure. Although my world stopped, she didn’t think this was a big deal. A few weeks later, she introduced me to my new “real” dad. I soon found out that I was nothing more but an inconvenience to him and his family. Eventually, he stopped coming or calling and I never saw him again. My mother, who was hoping to rekindle their relationship, was upset because it didn’t work out for her. Not once did she tell me she was sorry for what I had to go through. To this day, I still don’t know who my real father is.
This was just one incident. There were many others that left me shaken and unhappy.
The last time I saw my mom was August 2001. My daughters (then ages 6 and 4) and I flew to Germany to visit my mom and her new husband. She picked us up at the Frankfurt airport and drove us to their apartment, located just minutes outside of Heidelberg. She was thrilled to have us there… but only on the first day. On the second day, my mom started to criticize everything I did or didn’t do. In her mind I was a disappointment: a bad mom, wife, and daughter. Although my girls were the most loving, gentle and sweet kids, my mom was certain they needed to see a psychiatrist. I was devastated to hear such mean words from my own mother. At night, I laid next to my girls and cried myself to sleep. We traveled 14 hours on planes and cars, spent thousands of dollars, and this was all she could offer in return? I’m forever grateful that my girls didn’t speak German at that time. At least they couldn’t understand the hurtful words she threw at us. The next day, however, my mom acted as if nothing had happened.
My only highlight of this trip was seeing my sister and grandma. On my last day, my sister and I cried for hours. She and her husband were desperately trying for a baby. After many unsuccessful treatments, they considered adoption. They were very excited for the process to start. I was so happy for them because I knew they would make wonderful parents. All I remember was my mom saying that it’s” a bad idea because she could never love an adopted child”. My sister and I bawled like babies.
Countless times I wondered if my mom couldn’t stand to see us happy.
On our flight home to Los Angeles I swore I would never return to my mom’s house. I told myself that sometimes it is best to live your own life and go your own way. When 9/11 happened, three weeks after we returned, I truly lost the desire to travel abroad. The world seemed like an uncertain place… I didn’t want to leave home. Occasionally, we still talked on the phone and wrote letters to each other. She never once brought up our visit. In her mind, everything was fine. She didn’t do anything wrong. She never apologized for anything. Two years later, my son was born. My mom never expressed a desire to meet him.
In 2009, my mom and her husband visited my sister (she lived in Salzburg, Austria). One evening my sister called. She was in tears because mom “had lost it”. My mom yelled and accused my sister and her husband of being horrible hosts. She packed her bags and left. For my sister, this was the last straw. That night my sister told me should could not be around our mom anymore. The anger, the yelling, the toxic words… my sister didn’t want this in her life.
Around the same time, my mom stopped calling me. I continued to send her letters and photos of her grandchildren. Everything from birthdays, First Communion, graduations, soccer games, etc. – I never received a reply. Occasionally, she would send a Christmas card.
In October 2017, my sister called to let me know that our mom was in the hospital battling leukemia. My mom’s husband told my sister that “it wasn’t looking good”. I was shocked and numb. Half of me felt cold and vengeful, memories still vivid of things you shouldn’t say or do to your daughter. The other half wanted to be there for her, forgive everything and everyone. I wrote her a letter wishing her well. I contacted the hospital in Heidelberg, but they weren’t allowed to share any medical details with me. My mom and her husband didn’t own a cell phone. All the info I received came from my sister, who was still able to communicate with my mom’s husband.
About a week later, my sister called my mom’s husband’s home hoping to get more info on her condition. Surprisingly, my mom picked up the phone. After her first round of chemo, she was released from the hospital. For the first time in eight years, my sister and my mom talked. It turned out to be the most devastating conversation she had ever had with her. My mom wasn’t happy to hear from my sister. She was angry, rude and cruel. She accused me and my sister of being “horrible daughters” and said she never wants to see us again. She told my sister to never call again. My sister was sobbing but wished her the best.
A few days later, my mom was once again rushed to the hospital. In addition to having Leukemia, she suffered a heart attack. My sister, her husband and their adopted daughter decided to make the nine-hour drive to see her one last time. My sister described to me the way she gently took mom’s hand, assuring her that we love her. My mom looked at her and turned away. She didn’t say a single word the entire time my sister was there. She didn’t even care to acknowledge her grand-daughter. My sister said her final goodbyes.
The next day my mom’s sisters and brother came to visit her at the hospital. We were later told that mom was having “a good time with her siblings”. She was chatting away and laughing. Hearing this broke my sister’s and my heart in a million pieces. Our mom had dealt the final blow.
A then it was over. A few days later, my mom died in her sleep.
I didn’t visit my mom at the hospital nor was I at her funeral. So I have been living with the feeling of being a “bad daughter”. I believe these feelings complicated my grieving process. I thought because I didn’t have a relationship with my mom, I wouldn’t have a need to grieve. Boy, was I wrong.
I never know when grief is going to hit me these days. It could be a song. It could be a photo. It could be a conversation I have with my sister. Sometimes I’m driving and grief hits me so hard that I have to pull over. I sob uncontrollably. I cry for what could have been. Grief comes in waves but the rhythm is unpredictable. Grief resides in my head.
Her death has left me with a lot of unfinished business, including unresolved arguments , unspoken words, unanswered questions, and undeclared love. I’m left hanging in mid-air, unable to complete my relationship with her. My only solace is knowing that my mom is no longer in pain. I try to focus on the happy times I shared with her. I visualize her pink lipstick. I can almost smell her favorite perfume, Chanel No 5. I choose to let go of my guilt and not dwell in regrets. I ask God for healing and forgiveness.
Even though my sister lives on a different continent, after our mom’s death, we have become closer than ever. She even visited and I met my niece for the first time. I instantly fell in love with her.
Although losing a parent is a natural process, my mom’s death has forever changed me and how I look at the world. In an odd way it has made me a better parent. I want to make sure my children know how much they’re loved and when I’m gone, those memories, will be my legacy.
Mom, I love you. You are finally pain-free and at peace. When we meet again we will have that long overdue talk and we will find peace together.