I’m certainly not the first person to have had issues with her mother. By and large, moms are the recipients of blame for a litany of problems, from relationship woes to poor eating habits. Given the tight, visceral bond between mother and child—borne if nothing else than by virtue of having shared a body for nine months—a mother’s love is often blithely expected and taken for granted.
I should know: As lovely and solid as my relationship with my adult daughter might be now, her tween and teen years were defined by blaming me for nearly everything that was amiss in her young life. It took me years to understand that those slamming doors and dramatic tears weren’t directed at me. She needed a scapegoat and someone to take away her pain, much as she did as a child. And I, of course, was there, ready and willing to lend her an ear, a shoulder, a piece of my heart—and enough patience and equanimity to endure her hormonally-charged outbursts.
My own mother, unfortunately, was not. She was neither present nor patient, neither selfless nor compassionate. She was bold and brilliant enough to have had managed a booming company, but she could hardly fry an egg. My father took off when I was six-months-old and seemed to have forgotten that he’d fathered a child. In turn, my mother found solace and companionship in vast amounts of alcohol and drugs. And I, in turn, was raised by a mother who was often addled by intoxicants, and a string of relatives and strangers, frequently bouncing between three homes in the span of a single year.
To say that it was a difficult, frustrating childhood would be the granddaddy of understatements. I don’t say this to elicit sympathy. I say this because it’s true—and because it undoubtedly shaped my fear of abandonment and several of my self-destructive tendencies. Like many—those who’ve had tough childhoods and those who have not—I blamed my mother for a high percentage of my problems when I was younger.
When I immigrated to the United States, I began seeing a therapist who helped me confront, unravel, and release the misery that was my childhood. I went through all of the stages of grief, in lapsed time. And throughout every phase, my mother was always the target of my reproach. Phone calls and accusatory letters to her were the norm, entire months without speaking to her at all the law. As she grew older and frailer, and as she attempted to narrow the enormous distance between us, I continued to withhold my love from her. I refused to recognize—especially to her—her efforts to make things right between us. If she tried to explain herself, I shut her down immediately. If she dared complain about her circumstances, I rebuked her. Considering that she abandoned me, my pain always took precedence.
It wasn’t until she was in the final stages of emphysema that something in me shifted. Here was this woman who’d once been a force of nature—the first woman in Florence to own a car—now reduced to a bag of bones, her head seemingly no larger than a walnut. Seeing her so diminished—so desperate and alone and in undeniable physical anguish—forced me out of my selfishness. To not forgive her would have been unforgivable. As she slowly—and then rapidly—died, I had to confront what I’d previously chosen to not face: The challenges she’d had by having me.
Single, uneducated, and saddled with a child in a small, provincial, predominantly- Catholic town in Italy during the 50s, she was the target of malicious gossip and deemed an outcast for many reasons that were outside of her control. She was also what we know today as bipolar. Coupled with her addiction and her limited resources, hers was an existence of exceptional misfortune and pain. The more I attempted to see how unkind the world had been to her, the more I understood how valiantly she’d tried. She was raised during the war, left to care for her younger siblings while her mother worked and her father served as a soldier. Divorced with a child by nineteen, she was seen as unviable by most men. And completely lacking in emotional stability with no outlet or assistance, holding down a good job was close to impossible. Who would I have been had I been her shoes?
She died within months of her diagnosis—from that disease that doesn’t forgive or forget our mistakes—and when she passed, a part of me did too. What I have held onto is her indomitable spirit, and the letter I would have given her had I only been given more time.
I’m writing this letter to you as you slip in and out of consciousness. The doctors here in Pavia keep telling me that your time is nearing its end. It infuriates me, the way they say this, because we all know that you have nine lives. Surely, then, this can’t be the end.
But in case it is, before you go, I want to tell you some things.
When I was ten, you told me to go have a beautiful life. At the time, I thought there was no other life beyond you. You were the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. And, despite the ravages of time, the same is true today.
I’ve had a beautiful life for you and because of you. I’ve learned to think fast, talk faster, and fight with all my might. I’ve had the audacity to forge my own path, often at the disapproval of my peers. I’ve learned that it’s not what you have, but what you give. I’ve learned that, given your circumstances, your history, and your pain, there was only so much you could give me. I wish I’d known now what I do today.
Which is this: While my love for you was at times conditional, yours was imperfect but always, always unconditional. I’m sorry for that, Mom. And I’m grateful that your affection was never provisional. That it was, in many ways, divine.
I have no doubt that I will see you in your tenth life.
I love you, and will forever.