Three years ago, my mom and I broke up. At that time, she was 84. And I was 57.
It was not an easy, selfish, snap decision to just pack our bags and leave her in her big, beautiful, for indeed it was beautiful, house. It was, like most break ups, a slow build up – which would make of yet another story, a good one I promise, that I will maybe someday write — and then a final gulp of air to muster all the courage to do what I had to do.
A testy mother daughter relationship is one of the most sensitive subjects to talk about. Perhaps next to religion and politics, the less than perfect relationship with one’s parent, one’s mother in particular, is a dirty little secret. Packed with confusion, resentment, anger, shame, self loathing and guilt – not necessarily in that order. And then candy coated with Hallmark card poetry, tear jerker clips on television ads, interviews with celebs who talk about their mother’s love and care for them. My sister’s ex-husband who was in the restaurant business told me once that Mother’s Day is the biggest money making day. My favorite florist in the market said the same too. Everyone wants to say thank you to mom on Mother’s Day. But not everyone feels the fuzzy, warm feeling that one’s supposed to feel at this time of year. There, I said it for the silent many.
And so I missed two years of Mother’s Day.
But we are friends now. And that is all that matters. I like to think that we both needed to be away from each other to learn some important life lessons which we could not see clearly, nor could understand. Sometimes, it is just the way it is.
Fixing our relationship did not come by being present and patient, not by being comforting nor confronting, nor by forgiving and forbearing. It could not be made right by listening, because we both were not listening. There was no way to get family counselling because we both “knew” the other was dead wrong; and besides at our ages, we both felt we were set in our own ways. I consulted 3 priests and 2 life coaches, leaned on the loving shoulders of my honey and children, sought and received emotional support, encouragement and wisdom from my sister and sympathetic ears from dear friends. I prayed. And let TIME heal the wound. Two years after playing the Shame, Blame and Guilt game with myself, I wiped off my tears, said goodbye to the victim who lived in my heart, rolled up my sleeves and joined an amazing 2 week seminar on Family Dynamics, where I was, what they called, processed. I also studied and earned, for myself, certifications for some courses; read on love, relationships, spirituality and philosophy. And just before turning 60, I grew up.
I decided I was ready and sent her gifts for her birthday and Christmas. A few months before the quarantine period was set my mom moved to a smaller place. After all the noise of her years, what she needed was and is the solitude. Her sense of self. Her freedom. She lives by herself now but is not alone. The affection, concern and care, even from a distance, is given and received.
Everyday, she takes calls from one or two, maybe three of us remaining siblings, plus some grandchildren. She talks about her day, how she looks forward to the twittering birds who come to her little balcony every morning to take breakfast of bread crumbs she sprinkles on the ledge, how excited she gets when we send her a sealed box of goodies with her favorite fresh fruits, pulpy orange juice by the liter, soft bread and good Japanese butter, an occasional can of light beer – sometimes ginger ale, sometimes chips, a small bottle of pitted and stuffed olives or asparagus marinated in sweetened vinegar, her kitchen paper towel, toiletries, vitamins, maintenance meds and select old movies and musicals on dvd. Her one room apartment has just enough walking space for exercise, now that she is almost 89. We look forward to seeing each other after the promised lifting of quarantine time, and even making plans to take a holiday together. We are ready.
And so I have listed the lessons I have learned during our version of social distancing. Let peace begin with me, so the lyrics of the song goes. I had to find my peace. And I have to not forget the lessons. Because we do, at times. I have listed these too, for my children, so that they may be guided for when my honey and I reach that certain age.
- ALWAYS PUT MY BEST FOOT FORWARD. And I mean this for ALL relationships. Just because we are related, have that unmistakable bond of birth or not even, I now make a conscious effort to put my best foot forward, to be kind, patient and understanding. To choose my words and do away with drama. To work towards a goal that will take us both to a happy, or at least pleasant place. To have a genuine interest in the other’s dreams, thoughts and concerns. To be the person I want to be with.
- KNOW MY STRENGTHS and LIMITS. My sincere commitment to comfort and take responsibility was tested many times. I had the strength to take full charge but also forgot that I had other people in my life too. There had to be a check point, albeit a loving one. I learned that older people make subtle demands and sometimes not-so-subtle ones. This is why I learned to
- SET BOUNDARIES. My mother always said that a mother’s love is unconditional. Is it really? This is where the guilt game begins. I have learned that the word “unconditional” has been romanticized and used in quiet controlling ways. Set boundaries. Believe me, all things come with conditions. (Even going to heaven has conditions.) All you have to do is agree on things you both will be happy with, like time with her, and time with your partner or children. And of course,
- ASK FOR HELP. I thought I could do it all, know it all and give it all. I learned this from my sister in law who calls on her siblings and lists down their mother’s needs and posts their activities on our viber group. Without making demands, she is able to bring out the best of her siblings, who all want to get involved in the care, whether financial, emotional or physical, of their mother. There is always a conversation going on. But what if you are an only child? You can still ask for help, perhaps encourage your mother to call her friends and have get togethers. Maybe a cousin can take coffee time with her. There are many hands waiting. Make that call.
- KNOW THE PAST TO UNDERSTAND THE PRESENT. We were never part of the growing up years of our mothers, and so while she will tell us only edited versions of the past she wants us to know to pass on someday, be sensitive and listen to what she is not saying. There will always be hidden hurts and secrets. And these untold stories will have to be told in order for us to understand her present.
- THE GIFT OF TIME. While most will think that you are both running short of time, relax and instead consider the time ahead or the time left as life’s best gift. Time to heal was what helped me.
- HAVE COMPASSION. FOR my mom AND more importantly, for myself. When I talked to a priest about my feelings, I brought up Compassion. Was I a bad person because I seemed to not feel for the other? No, he calmly said to me, you also have to have Compassion for yourself. He and the other priests I consulted (because I needed to hear it again and again) talked about compassion for self and honoring my feelings. I had to forgive, care and love myself then. I started to meditate for this and in the silence heard my soul speak to me.
- I AM NOT ALONE. And everything will be ok.
artwork by Rafael Dario