I imagine facing you today, wishing you a happy Mother’s Day. How would you look, after three more years of physical and mental disintegration? If I gave you a card, would you understand what it said? Would you recognize me?
Realistically, I would probably just have ordered flowers and a card, not come home and just had Dad read it to you. Realistically, I’d love to ignore Mother’s Day and the sour sadness it leaves in my mouth. I’d prefer to leave Mother’s Day to the experts.
Our strained, unfinished relationship fuels my creative life and complicates my personal. Your photos are set purposely on a too-high shelf but you’re frustratingly present in everything I write, even when I’m not writing about you. If someone asks about you, I defer to those 70’s Kodak iterations: grinning, stylish, huge haired, huger forehead (I realized recently, in the reflective glass of a Citibank, how much I resemble you. I froze when I saw you). I praise your popularity and generosity, reconstruct you from others’ descriptions. Mother’s Day is for my inner Method actor, living inside a character who knew her mother well. Here’s the stats I have down pat, for sure:
You were born June 9th, 1944 in Queens, NY. Immigrant family with 3 uncle-rabbis, father was a baker. Your mother Bessie died in ’72 and it broke your heart, forever I think. You loved going dancing with your sister, partying in Puerto Rico, bowling and being a secretary in an era they used that word. You met Dad in a bar, he proposed in a phone booth in ‘71 and your wedding was the next year. My brother, the sensitive and handsome little light of your life, was born in ’77. Me (still unsure of your opinions on me, despite what he tells me), the day “Ebony and Ivory” was recorded.
MS was diagnosed in ’89 after episodes of optic neuritis and disturbing falls. ‘96, a last vacation with Dad in Aruba- you were well enough to walk. We fought frequently and bitterly in the interim before dialysis, ‘06; you were mad all the time, and I was a smartass who didn’t get why. Onset of dementia, catheters, my infrequent visits. ‘08, you stopped recognizing people. Dead May ’10. I spoke to you the week before, using that teeth-gritted voice, one for children. I don’t remember the last time I saw you.
This is not the usual material for celebrating and thanking our nurturers and life-givers.
I can respect and talk about the concept of Mother’s Day, but with purposeful distance. But I’ll admit: at barbecues, house parties and weddings, I’m found in the kitchen with someone else’s mom. Using her surrogate maternity as solar energy, I’ll absorb her every word and reminiscence. I look engaged and polite, but it’s actually clinginess. I’m an adult, and I do this ridiculous thing because as much as I’d like to pretend otherwise, I miss you and feel haunted by you.
I hate Mother’s Day, because it reminds me of being a child with a sick, angry and frightened mother, whom I consistently seemed to fail. I hate it not because I miss you or wish you were here, but because I had a mother and didn’t do a thing with it. I hate Mother’s Day so much it’s a cliché.
Saccharine Mother’s Day Kindle ads frustrate me, as does society’s diminishment and alienation of many kinds of mothers and experiences. It’s a tough day for people like us: those without moms, watching our remaining parents/former caretakers grieve. Moms whose chronic disease deflates aspirations, fills them with dread for the future and forces them to watch their kids sulk, without understanding, when they’re too tired to drive, attend, participate. It’s a terrible, proportionate spiral: the older those kids get, the more they’ll understand and by then, like in my case, it can be too late.
It’s an annual reminder I’m your daughter, and outside of good hair, it’s a feeling I often don’t like. Frequently isolated, I also snap at my supportive but confused partner: “I don’t need you”. Mood swings and guilt. Most of all, I fear becoming you. And, facing my own disease, sometimes it seems I will.
But, although shame and sadness cloaked much of your spirit, there’s beauty I remember. You’d talk to anybody in the grocery store; it embarrassed me as a kid but now I do it. People loved you- your friends, sure. Jim the butcher would make deliveries and you’d just sit for hours talking with him. Your fabulous parties, during which guests milled with their G&T’s tinkling and I’d hide under the dining room table past my bedtime, inaccurately assuming you didn’t know. Your butterflies, everywhere. Sometimes I’ll dig a butterfly charm out of an old jewelry box, or a dusty copper one from a closet and remember my mother.
Something else: you and I as, teammates, when I was six and you’d ask me to manage your and Dad’s evening ritual. I’d methodically measure mid-80’s staples (2 tablespoons of Sanka for you, a Lipton bag for Dad) into mugs and set out a tray. Turning on the radio eternally tuned to 101.1 (my knowledge of music from the Andrews Sisters to The Platters to T-Rex, all you), I’d wait for the kettle while looking out the patio doors into spooky suburban darkness. Upon the whistle, I’d pour with exquisite precision and pride at the trust you’d endowed me with. Two spoons, the sugar dish. Balance it all down to the den, ceramic and silver jostling like bells, signalling my arrival and accomplishment. I’d slosh hot water into the sugar, rendering it translucent and stickily useless but you’d thank me anyway, with superlatives. You knew I could handle it.
Those moments, those butterflies buried in boxes…they just refuse to leave us. I’m not six anymore and, well, you’re not even alive anymore but I still want to make you happy, fix things. I’d also like to live as example to bratty, confused and lonely little bitches like my teenage self that disease is not a failure or emblem of worth. I want mothers with MS to feel proud and safe, mothers who are caretakers to experience community. That’s my big plan, on good days. But today, I don’t aspire to such meaningfulness. On Mother’s Day, I’m not reflective, nor do I imagine myself in those cisgendered, nuclear and healthy Kindle families. I just want to pretend you never existed because it’s easier to imagine you and me never happened than accept something went wrong. Tomorrow, I’ll get back to work.
We are our mothers and they’re stuck in our bloodstream, in our memories, on our too-high, avoidable shelves. Serving some Palahniuk /Hallmark card realness in honor and memoriam:
“Mothers. With all their caring and attention. They will fuck you up, every time.”
I’m fucked up, but you’re why I do great things.
Thank you for fucking me up. Happy Mother’s Day.
Nadine Friedman-Lyme Disease-writer/photographer/creator/filmmaker-Creator of MS Portraits- a project exploring the lives of those with Multiple Sclerosis throughout the US.