[NB: probably part of a series]
After several years away, in two weeks I am going to the US. My main purpose in going is to settle my mother’s things, collect her ashes, and take her back to Texas from Virginia. I’m so grateful for all the support I will have over the two weeks I am there: Max, Brett, Anthony, Anna, Lois, Jamie and Patricia. I’m not sure any of this would be doable without you.
My mother died in May 2021. She was 79, and had been in a nursing home for a few months, following a few months in hospital. She had huge mental health challenges, and I now recognise that she had Narcissistic Personality Disorder. In her younger years, she could present a kind exterior when she wanted to. She believed she was kind, indeed. And more clever than anyone else, more sympathetic, wiser etc. She once told me, almost pleading with me to believe her, that she was ‘good with children.’ My understanding is that narcissists have no idea that they are ill. Because the problem always lies with someone else, not them.
I am her only child, and her only relative (bar Jamie in Texas) who ever spoke to her. She had also alienated all of her friends, one by one, as her selfishness became her single prominent characteristic.
I know she was lonely. And yet I called my mother only twice in the last year of her life. The penultimate time, I could hear that she was slipping. And, exactly like the old days when this happened, she called me names, accused me of conspiring against her, and said that I should stop trying to help.
It’s so hard to tell the difference between mental illness and actual personality traits. I came downstairs after that phone call, and as usual, completely fell apart. I was 56 year old, and my mother’s sharp, disparaging tongue could hurt me every bit as much as it used to.
I went into therapy again. I knew I needed to free myself from her, but I had no idea how to do it, having tried and failed numerous times.
It took a long while to unravel some things, in particular to unpick the deeply imbedded guilt: she’s had such a hard life, and everything about our relationship is just making it worse; why can’t I love her? Etc.
One day, as I was struggling to express this rock of guilt, my therapist said: ‘you do realise that in this day and age you would have been taken out of your mother’s care?’
My mouth literally fell open. ‘What?’
‘Yes,’ she went on. ‘She was abusive. She took drugs in front of you, she did sexual things in front of you, she allowed you to get into dangerous situations. She was neglectful. Nowadays social services would have been called in.’
After the shock, relief washed over me: there is a social consensus about caring for children, and she did not satisfy it.
No she did not. She did not know how to take care of me, and therefore didn’t.
The last time I spoke to my mother was shortly after this realisation. She was still in hospital, and her meds had clearly been balanced. She was pretty lucid, softly spoken, and nicer than she’d been in years. I had called to talk about plans for her apartment, and her belongings. And she said two things, bittersweet: Patty, you don’t owe me anything, you really don’t. And Patty, I trust you completely. You’ll make the right decisions. This was the closest she ever came to acknowledging her part in our disastrous relationship, and the only time she ever entrusted me with anything.
As her only child then I am going to Virginia in two weeks to go through what remains of her things. I am collecting her ashes, and then getting on a plane to San Antonio, where Jamie and I will scatter them. She was always but always trying to get back to Texas. I am as certain of this as I am of anything in my life: she wanted her ashes in Texas.
Finally: it’s important to register that my mother’s negligence and inabilities set me up for the sexual abuse I would later undergo. We never spoke directly about this, but I know it’s true. By six years old, when I went to Virginia, the pattern around love and attention being conditional was already well established. My grandparents planted unconditional love in those first six years and afterward, enough to see me through the very worst times of my life, but no one — not even them — could fix my mother’s conditionality. Or my father’s, for that matter.
In a change from Learning to Survive, here are three poems from my last poetry collection, Baby (Liquorice Fish Books, 2016), with apologies for having to work with wonky images. Formatting is not fun on WordPress!
The ‘you’ in these poems is my mother.