When I was just 11, my mother had major surgery for a life-threatening illness. As my father ushered my siblings and I into the nursing home room, we saw our mother attached to a myriad of tubes. Our young minds tried to take in what was happening. My youngest brother began to cry. I wished she would die.
In April of this year, my mother suffered a stroke. As I walked into her hospital room, I noticed the one IV tube inserted into her arm. She looked fine. The shock was her inability to focus, to speak coherently, to demonstrate that she was understanding my words. My heart ached. It ached more than I could bear.
During the intervening years between that surgery and her stroke, I have tried to come to terms with the pain my mother caused me in my childhood. Emotional abuse, unseen and difficult to quantify, leaves a wound — a wound so deep that one wonders whether it can ever be healed. The scab of that wound is ever ripe for the picking and the nonchalant words of anger, intimidation and humiliation thrown at it are like birds pecking at a dying insect fighting for its life.
Hallmark will have us believe that a mother’s love is the most perfect, most unconditional love that can be experienced — by both mother and child. If like me, you’ve spent hours searching for the right birthday or Mother’s Day card, one that doesn’t gush with fake sentimentality, reflecting a love you find hard to feel yourself — you know that a mother’s love doesn’t always pass the Hallmark entrance exam.
Ugly, a book by Constance Briscoe, is the retelling of the childhood abuse the author suffered at the hands of her mother. That book marked the beginning of my understanding that I was not alone, that there were others who never experienced the nurturing love, adoration and encouragement that a mother should give their child. Ugly resonated with me, because that awful word had been spat at me many times, producing a lifetime of wondering whether I was ever good enough — for anything. When I heard a radio announcer explain his choice of career as due to “having a face only a mother could love”, the realization that my face was one that not even a mother could love sat in the pit of my stomach, growing and gnawing at anything resembling self-worth.
Although Ugly showed me I wasn’t alone, even the benefit of that knowledge left me wondering whether I deserved the abuse.
A determination to heal the deep hurt fueled a desire to be strong, strong enough to not feel the pain. Nonchalance can be easily misinterpreted as personal strength. It’s not, and it doesn’t help. Worse, it can bring you to a point of not feeling, or at least doing your best to suppress any feeling. And isn’t the lack of feeling a large ingredient in the peculiar mix of traits that allows a person to abuse others? A desire to be strong and impervious to pain doesn’t heal. Rather, it can bring us close to reflecting the behavior of our abuser.
I eventually came to realize that I needed to confront the F word. It is said that in forgiving others, we do ourselves the biggest favor. Trite, but true. I learnt that in order to forgive we need to understand. We need to understand what drives a person’s behavior. A sad truth is that it is hurt people, who hurt people. In learning to understand my mother’s behavior, I came to hold compassion for the things she experienced before I entered her life. I came to understand that she was a victim of circumstances beyond her control, thrown into a life not of her choosing at a time when cultural norms dictated that her wishes did not matter.
She was married at the age of 15, to someone she didn’t know. I appreciate now that she knew nothing of sex at the time. Child abuse? Rape? The words that aptly describe what she experienced are difficult for me to contemplate. She bore children whom she felt incapable of nurturing. I have come to hold compassion for her wish to abort me, the unknown daughter that would come to her after three boys. I have come to understand that motherhood is not something that could be thrust on a woman. A woman must be ready and willing to accept that role. I have come to appreciate that when my mother calls me “selfish” for not having children myself, she may in fact be masking an envy of my independence and freedom of choice — things that she never enjoyed.
I came to understand these things before my mother suffered her stroke. I see now that it was ample preparation for a further understanding — that I do in fact love this woman who could never give me love. I hold immense compassion for the things she endured, including the things that I may never know. I hold great admiration for her resilience, recuperating from her stroke much faster than her doctors anticipated. I wonder now at the many things that resilience may have helped her survive.
The journey to this understanding has been life-long and never easy. But it has been liberating. As our parents age we are forced to accept their, and indeed our own, mortality. I am grateful that I have come to this understanding and acceptance during my mother’s lifetime. I am grateful that I can accept that a mother’s love is something that I may never know. And I am grateful that through my mother’s stroke, I came to know that I am capable of the love for which I have always yearned.