Over the Rainbow: Lessons Learned From My Mom
Recently, I had a therapy session that challenged me to do some soul searching. Except, that it was a business lunch during which I expected to talk corporate strategy, and I ended up talking about my dead mother to a complete stranger instead. Sometimes, life is just like that. Hilarious, if you think about it.
My mom has been gone for two and a half years. She died peacefully in the fall of 2010, after being diagnosed with cancer just a few weeks earlier- though her real battle was with that cruelest of diseases, alcoholism. Somehow, I mentioned this fact during an introductory meeting with a venture capitalist (I swear, this is NOT my MO- it was like an episode from the Twilight Zone) and he must have detected something unresolved in my voice or manner and emphatically stated, “You need to write to her.” Although caught off guard by this seemingly bizarre suggestion, it immediately resonated with me.
It is true that in the time my mom has been gone, my relationship with her has changed. When my mom passed, my siblings were far more grief-stricken than I was. For me, a crucial bond had been severed a couple years earlier, when during my high-risk pregnancy (twins), I made the difficult decision to not communicate with her over the course of my pregnancy because the stress of our relationship at that point was so high that I (and an actual therapist) feared that it could put my pregnancy at risk. For me, something died that day and I grieved for a lost relationship as I lay on bedrest in the hospital, waiting for my longed-for babies to arrive.
My mother was a wonderful, beautiful person and mother- and far better at “mothering” than I am- with the one terrible exception being her alcoholism. Except for that, she was everything you could dream of in a mother, and I dreamed all the time that I’d wake up one day and we’d all be set free from her terrible disease.
It never happened for her. When she finally passed away, she had been devastated mentally and physically and was barely a shadow of the vivacious, vibrant, funny person that she had been when she was young. My siblings saw far more of the “real” Valerie than I did. I am significantly younger than my siblings, so they had many more years with the whole person, whereas I spent years sharing her with her disease. After my parents divorced, it was just the two of us and suffice to say, it was terrible for me as a girl and young woman.
That time is long behind me, and although my mom did get to meet my daughters twice before she passed away, our relationship never recovered to the point where we could talk about parenting- at that stage her mental faculties were deteriorating rapidly and the “real” Valerie was becoming more difficult to glimpse for all of us.
For years, I thought endlessly about how much I had “missed out on” by living with an alcoholic parent. All the sleepovers that never happened, all the embarrassing things that DID happen, all the friends that eventually drifted out of our lives because they couldn’t cope with seeing the destruction of this magnificent person by this horrific disease.
But these days, I think about something much different- how great the gifts are that she gave me. Gifts that I didn’t even realize she gave me, that I am only unwrapping now. As a parent, I can’t recall her ever raising her voice at me. She was always kind (even drunk) to everyone, always encouraging to her children, and demonstrated in a million tiny ways, how important we were to her. As cliche as it sounds, we were her pride, joy, and crowning achievement. Time can heal even the deepest wounds and I finally see my mother through a lens that is free from what alcohol did to her. This has given me insight into who she was as a mother and I have been mining my memories to make the most of the precious jewels I find there.
Just a couple days ago, I met a stay-at-home dad to a 5 year old boy, who in the course of our conversation mentioned that he was five years sober and I thought to myself, “He doesn’t even realize the magnitude of his gift.” As proud and cognizant of this achievement as he may be- he will probably never know the true value of what he is doing, not only for himself, but for his son and family. I hope he remains strong.
I would easily exchange five years of my life to get five years of sobriety with my mom, and even though it is too late for that, it is both liberating and comforting to know that the stain of her alcoholism has been largely washed from her memory. That is not to say, I don’t “remember” it, it just no longer has any power over me. I guess we have both been set free.
I am getting a lot from my relationship with my mother’s memory these days. I think about how she would handle a temper tantrum by one of my girls (with grace and patience), or what advice she would give me as the girls grow (love and laugh and enjoy them). I can feel her gentle hand guiding mine and I am so grateful for that, even if it’s over from over the rainbow.
So here’s my letter:
I think of you everyday and know how much you would adore your granddaughters. You are part of them in spirit, as surely as in the DNA they carry from you. I am a better parent because of you and feel proud of all the values and lessons that I can pass along to them from you. Whether it’s your kindness, your impeccable etiquette, or your love of reading and history- these girls have received your gifts and wisdom, to the best of my ability to instill them. Thank you for all of your strength, humor, and intelligence. Every time I put them to bed singing, “You are my sunshine,” I can imagine you in the doorway watching us and know how happy it would make you.
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If you read this and it hit too close to home, as someone struggling with alcohol or if you have a loved one dealing with the Monster, please seek support. Visit AA or Al-Anon and lean on your friends and family, they will help you.