It has taken years to understand that who she was is not merely the sum of her last days on earth. The final analysis revealed she died of acute ethanol poisoning and asphyxiation due to aspiration from accidental ingestion of lethal proportions. Quite a tongue twister and in truth the cold clinical nature of these descriptions never stop hurting. In the moment of her death, and in the resulting coroner report from an autopsy, my mother became an unfortunate statistic; my mother became, to those whom will never get the chance to know her beyond this, an alcoholic who died from the disease. To the future, her life is symbolic of merely what not to do and who not to become. To us, those whom knew and loved her, however, there is so much more to this than what people imagine when we answer that our mother drank herself to death.
It makes people uncomfortable to talk about it, a fact I’ve had trouble with for years. People avoid the topic once it is out there – I’ve noted this often. As I’ve gotten older it honestly becomes more strange, the reactions. Because I am a mother she comes up most in conversations about my children. People unaware of my history will ask things like, “Doesn’t your mom love being a Grandma?” or, “Is your mom going to be there when the baby is born?” Countless mentions I cannot list beyond these. When I tell them my mother passed away when I was 21, most often people respond with, “Oh, I’m sorry, she was so young! Did she have cancer?”
Maybe I seem well-adjusted so it never occurs to them to think beyond what seems most probable, or maybe people just don’t like to contemplate an alternative theory for fear it might offend the listener – whatever it may be, I know for sure nobody ever expects me to utter alcohol anywhere in my learned response… For that reason, sometimes I contemplate not telling the truth. After all, cancer in comparison seems much easier because if anything at least it is common.
The reason I sometimes just smile and act like I didn’t hear them mention my mom is that it never fails to hurt my soul when their face contorts if I tell the truth. “Uh… (pause) Oh. I’m sorry to hear that”.
I feel like I am changed in their eyes – like, somehow, my mother’s disease alters the way they see ME – just like it definitely alters the way they choose to see her. Some kind of pity, maybe, or confusion perhaps? I have never felt understood after that conversation happens, but I guess that is true for us all when we have no comparison or experience to draw from. The subject is often changed after that. Normally not by me. Sometimes, I wish someone could relate. Every time, I wish I did not feel so ashamed on her behalf, dealing with feeling like I need to defend her so that we both find redemption.
Mostly I just wish for all these years I hadn’t defined her in these terms – I did not know it was me leaving no room for an alternative picture beyond how she died and what that must’ve meant regarding her as a person.
It is interesting that I’ve allowed her death to define ME so greatly, but I guess that isn’t the point.
She was more, but I could not see it. The pain made me forget probably just so I could survive it at all. More than the pain that eventually overtook most everything about her. More than the mistakes she made that we cast as stones against her. More than the humiliation and shame of losing everything she had and everyone she loved. More than the moment she finally let go and succumbed to this debilitating darkness… and more than the little she left for us to remember her in photographs whose colors are now far more vivid than our memories.
She was smart, I remember that. Quick-witted, charming, and infectiously comical if you caught her in the right mood. Our home was always appointed well with various themes of décor that changed almost spontaneously. When we were little, meals were hot and healthy on the table each and every night for dinner. Music would play as she danced and sung along, stirring heaping portions of mashed potatoes and checking on chicken baking perfectly in the stove.
My sister and I got our hair permed too many times by hairdresser Mom, and my brothers their buzzed style from clippers on the back porch before she’d let them run out the front door to ride bikes until dusk. She cared about how we were presented in public and washed mounds of laundry to always ensure we looked our best, even if our clothes were second-hand. At night, she tucked us in, and in the morning she was the first face we would see.
As I grew up into adolescence I began to notice her as someone to look up to, far beyond my childhood affections towards her fine cooking skills, but as a young woman destined to become a lady modeled with brown eyes just like her mother. She would let me watch her apply makeup and I studied her to learn how to curl my hair. I wanted to be just like her then because I thought she was the most beautiful mom in the world, and all the neighborhood boys certainly agreed.
She held everyone’s affection in the palm of her hand. Never tiring of a kind word or am admiring glance, she would not shy away from attention but instead welcomed it bravely. A sort-of delusional confidence only born in a woman whose seen all the colors of the world and still wishes to create her own palette.
She had dreams of being an interior designer. A painter. A singer. She sang well but drove us all crazy, probably the same way I drive my children nuts now… We sang together as she’d stare into my eyes, completely unafraid of the vulnerability in such a gesture.
I believe the only thing my mother feared was herself. The world could not see that until the end when she had nothing left to hide… no need for anything but the raw truth that even her best intentions were no match for the cruel torment of reality.
If I had to say anything else of her, it would be that she loved the Lord l, and every single day I am thankful for this. This, above all else, is what she left each and every one of us. She knew a God that loved her even in her weakest most vulnerable pain… Pain she hid well from others but knew she could never hide from God. That particular knowledge – that she knew the Lord – has comforted us all, but I admit at first I did not believe it was enough to help her find heavenly redemption. Pain is funny that way. When she died, all I could think about was that there was no way God could have loved her through all she had done to those she left behind – and all that she had allowed herself to become. I am grateful that even with all she did wrong, it was her humility before the Lord took her home – I will always believe that – though it left us forevermore without her.
What people understand of my mother, perhaps, is what I let them understand. But, I see now that I had to first accept it – all the ugly and bitter and sad truths – if I am to ever remember and share about who my mother really was.
For a long time, too long, what defined her for me was her death, and so I believed others defined her this same way. It took all this time to realize that it isn’t what people think initially that matters, or even what they choose to believe or think once that truth is shared. . . What do I want to remember of her? Can I see past the pain of her disease – all it stole from us? Her death and the emptiness it left is real, but it is my responsibility now to make more of it than the simplified version. For her, but also for myself and my family.
It was very simple once. My mom died of alcoholism – she drank herself to death. I left it at that. Mostly because few people ask more once they know this, but also because I was too broken from that one aspect of her to feel the need to share anything else. Symbolic of the pain you’d expect, and every bit as deep a hole as one might guess is within us since that day… It fit to say nothing more because I hurt so badly, and it just seemed safer to give the simple answer.
But now it does not suffice. Maybe because it never did, but I was just too far in it to see that. I yearn for now the chance to show who my mother really was. To see beyond the disease that claimed the last few years of her life and remember, wholly, the woman who raised me. The woman I called Mama. Before she faded into abstract memory. Before she simply became my alcoholic dead mother.
Nine years on the 19th of this month. Nine years since her death became a part of my history. Long enough time that I’m thankful my memories are changing. That I see past the cause of death and remember a bright, happy mother who raised 5 kids. The smiling one always ready for a deep conversation. The lover of nature, music, and her family.
We have this tendency to want to define everything. Simplify it. Make it easy to understand. This… This is everything but simple and I think I can be okay with that now. I think I can stop worrying about what others think when they hear how she died and instead, in my own heart, be thankful for how she lived. Be thankful for the beautiful person she once was. Be thankful that, for 21 years, I got to know and love a spirited, charismatic, strong woman…
She is more than what she became – she always was. Why has it taken me so long to accept that? I hope I am more than how I die – and what a strange concept to even say that but I’ve learned a lot from my mother in that way. I let that define her but I blamed everyone else for how that made me feel when I actually had to face it aloud. I didn’t bother to explain beyond it so how was that their fault?
Coming to terms with the pain took all these years but I am thankful I am here. I see her now, looking back, as so much more than how she failed and what that means for us now. I see her differently, and it helps me see my own life differently, and I am grateful for that. We are all so much more than the simplified version someone answers when they ask, “who is that?” In her case, it is up to me now to define it, and I am so happy I can finally look past the end and start from her beginning. I like that version way better anyway.