A raw, true, autobiographical tale of heartache and pain, poisonous people, and why I didn’t go to my own mother’s funeral
I sometimes wonder how my heart can possibly take any more pain.
It’s been 32 years since my brother took his own life. I remember that day as if it were yesterday. Even though my brother aimed the gun at his own head and pulled the trigger, he wasn’t the only one who died that day. Suicide never kills just one.
When I heard the news, I felt like I had just been kicked in the chest by a Clydsedale horse. All the air was knocked out of my body, every cell felt like it collapsed. I couldn’t exhale because the air was all gone, but I couldn’t inhale either. Maybe this news was a sick joke. Maybe this was a nightmare. Maybe I’d get home to find it all was a mistake. None of that was true. Time stood still for what seemed like hours, days, months. Time became nothing on that saddest day of my life.
I don’t know how many years it took to feel any sense of normal. To be able to go out and not see my brother on the street, or in the the car next to mine at a stop light, or in a crowd at the mall. The years it took to get used to the feeling of that hole my life, to stop blaming myself, to be able to get through a day without feeling overwhelming guilt. My mind continued to lie to me: “I should have known.” “I should have been able to help him.” “I should have been able to stop him.” That sick, crippling feeling in my heart when I pondered the depth of his despair and loneliness that night that drove him to believe that the only solution was to end his life. Over time that sickness became scar tissue that only occasionally re-opened.
Shortly after his death, we stopped talking about my brother. The family seemed to have made an unspoken rule that we weren’t going to talk about this. My parents sold the house and property and tried to escape from those horrible memories. I tried to move on by getting married too soon after my brother’s death. Suck it up and stuff it down. Life continued on for some time, as normal as I could make it.
Eleven years ago, came another fateful time in my life. I made a decision that was unpopular in my family. After years of an unhappy, loveless marriage to a man who is best at meeting his own needs first before anyone else, I decided to end my marriage. By that time, I was completely flat. I had no self-esteem, no self confidence, no self-worth. I believed the lies that I was ugly, stupid, evil. There was only one lie that was told that I didn’t believe, the one about me being a bad mom. I never believed that lie. My children were everything to me, and I know that I was a good mom.
Never, in a million years, could I have imagined that things would turn out the way they did. In an instant, I went from being a daughter, a sister, and a mom, to being the devil incarnate, the spawn of satan. In that tight-knit, evangelical, fundamentalist born-again, literal interpretation, Bible-banging Christian community, divorce was not just frowned upon, it was considered a sin. I ended up being asked to step down as leader of my small group Bible study. I was informed that there wasn’t really a good place for me at church while I was going through all this messy stuff, but maybe in the future, when I get things figured out, there would be. “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out,” my church said.
My family shunned me. Not once did anyone in my family check in with me to offer an ear to listen, a shoulder to cry on, ask me how I was doing, try to put themselves in my shoes, or empathize with me, or support my decision. They didn’t think to do those things, because they did not like my choices nor did they respect my ability and right to live my life as I saw fit. They tried to coerce me into not divorcing. They tried to change my mind. They threatened me, they shamed me, they believed all the lies being told about me without asking me directly. They thought I must have picked up an evil spirit when I was in South America. My dad told me I would be welcomed back into the family if I “called off” the divorce. One of the things I remember a family member telling me, life isn’t just about being happy.
My mother chose sides, and she didn’t choose mine. She lent her full support to my ex-husband who brilliantly manipulated her and my dad. That is the part that is still hard for me to understand. When I got engaged, she hoped that it wouldn’t work out. When the time came that we chose a date to get married, she and my dad were “not in favor” of this marriage. We chose a church and a pastor who planned to wear a robe, and recite some traditional Catholic script in order to be more welcoming to the Catholic guests, but my mom and dad did not like that, and took over the wedding plans. They put multiple conditions on their support, and stated that they would go along with this wedding and marriage, if I did it their way. They chose the pastor, they chose the church. I wanted their blessing and support, but I also wanted to get out of their house. I felt trapped. So I did what they wanted for the wedding. Throughout my marriage, and throughout the years, I knew that my parents never liked my husband, nor did they have a whole lot of respect for him. Yet, after all those years, my own mother found herself able to sit before a judge, under oath, and lie about me in an ugly custody battle by choosing to testify on the side of my soon-to-be-ex-husband. While barely tolerating him over the years of my marriage, during my divorce she put her dogma, her christian doctrine, her fundamental beliefs over and above her own daughter. She turned her back on me, I lost my mom that day and didn’t talk to her for eleven years. Over the years I tried to understand how a mother could forsake her own daughter that way. I wasn’t a criminal, wasn’t a murderer, I wasn’t gay (sorry, my gay friends, but that’s how they think, nothing new to you, I’m sure), I didn’t forsake my religious upbringing, I wasn’t a heretic, I wasn’t prostitute, I wasn’t a thief or a cheat. My crime was being in an extremely unhappy, loveless marriage and making a decision to get out of it.
Years later I learned why my mom did what she did. Apparently my sister’s marriage was on the rocks at the exact same time as I was going through my divorce. The family could not possibly have two failed marriages. So, my mother did the only thing she could think to do. She threw me under a bulldozer in sacrifice to help save her other daughter’s marriage. Her tactic worked, because they are still together.
I lost my sister that day, too. She too, chose sides, and not my side. She was another of my ex-husband’s witnesses at the custody trial. She went under oath in a court of law, and testified against me. In my sister’s eyes, I went from being Super-Mom, Martha Stewart Clone to being a person unfit to watch her children. When asked at the custody trial why she didn’t allow her children to play at my house anymore, she said “how can I possibly allow her to watch my kids anymore? She’s getting divorced.”
And so, for the past eleven years, there has been no place for me in the family. Every single event, birthday, holiday, graduation. Sitting at home, lonely and alone on the holidays where my ex-husband took my children and together went to my parents’ to celebrate Thanksgiving, or Christmas, or Easter, or any other holiday. I wonder what the atmosphere was like at those gatherings: My parents, my sister and her family, my children, and my ex-husband. I did not get invited to one of these gatherings in eleven years. I was invited to my nieces’ graduation parties, but I was invited by my nieces. The tension was so high one year that I didn’t even go to my own son’s grad party that my ex-husband was hosting. The family had chosen to invite an ex-boyfriend of mine. That’s a story for another time, but I had dated my deceased brother’s best friend a couple years ago. I think it was a way for me to connect to my brother. This man was my brother’s very best friend some 35 years ago and I had reconnected with him. My parents always had a problem with him while my brother was alive. They even nullified my brother’s hand-written will to exclude this best friend. But after he and I were no longer dating, it was deja vu all over again. The family started inviting him to family functions, and were sure to invite him to my son’s grad party. It was all so surreal, I couldn’t participate and keep my sanity. And so, the eleven years continued, without a place for me, the evil-doer, in the family. What always struck me as odd was all the other divorced cousins, uncles, aunts, in the extended family who were all still welcome. Even my dad’s brother is a divorced man, and both of his kids. They never got kicked out of the family.
This past Christmas time, 2016, my ex-husband informed me that my mother was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer with a 4-6 month life expectancy. He told me that I needed to go see her. He told me that I needed to make things right with her. It was interesting, this news coming from the one who manipulated my family away from me. Two weeks ago he told me that she wasn’t doing very well. He told me that I should go see her. He even told me that she wanted to see me.
I wasn’t very sure about all of this. I hadn’t talked to her in 11 years and I was supposed to go to her house. “Hey mom, how are you doing? Long time no see. How’s your cancer?”
I did end up going to see her. One day after work, the strangest thing happened. My car basically auto-piloted itself to her house. When I first saw her, it was shocking. I saw a broken woman. I saw a sad, lonely, empty shell. I saw someone who had given up and was waiting to die. During the last two weeks of her life, I saw my mother several times. Our conversations were like that of acquaintances, she asked me what I was doing for a living the way you’d talk to a clerk at a store. She commented about the birds on the National Geographic tv show with more passion than she did about me being there. Of course, I understand that she had no idea how to relate to me. Nor did I know how to relate to her. It was superficial and without meaning, but I continued to visit. At one point my dad told me I needed to relate to her on a “more meaningful level”. I told him that I had no idea what that meant. He said, “you know, the whole thing from the past, with you and Bob.” I asked my dad if he meant the part about where my mother disowned me eleven years ago in court. I told my dad that I had forgiven my mother a long time ago and had moved on from that. He then stated that maybe he should let “sleeping dogs, lie, and that it’s all between me and her.”
The very last time I saw my mom, I knew she had only hours left to live. My sister was there, as always. My sister never left her side in the end. She was laying in the bed next to her. My mother had no life left in her, any spark was long gone. She could barely speak, and I couldn’t understand the words she weakly uttered. Around 6pm that day, my son called me while I was there visiting my mother. My son and I had been planning on having dinner together but when I told him I was at his Gramma’s, he said he’d come right away. Before he came, my mother said she didn’t want to see anyone. I told her it would be brief, my son, my brother’s namesake, wanted to see her. My son came in and saw his Gramma for the very last time. While standing next to her bedside, my mother frequently asked for my dad, and for my sister’s husband. She said that she wanted to hold their hands. My sister was still lying in the bed next to her, and one of my nieces was on Skype on the computer on the bed. A flower delivery came. The card read: “We love you Gramma, Love, Your girls.” The “girls” were my sister’s four daughters. When I heard those words, suddenly, out of nowhere, I had total understanding and clarity. It was as if a light bulb went on inside my head and I could see clearly for the first time years. I finally understood how it all worked, how my mom, who had lost an infant to sudden infant death syndrome, a grown son to suicide, was able to disown her own grown daughter. During my divorce, she had already taken my ex-husband as her son to replace my brother. And then, she took my sister’s four daughters and made them her own daughters in replacement of me. It all made sense. So there, as I stood at her death bed, standing with my son, as my mother was taking the last few hours of breath, I had total understanding. She spoke very softly to my sister, words that I couldn’t hear. My sister announced to me what my mother had said. “Mom doesn’t want to see anyone here anymore. She doesn’t want anyone to see her. Visiting hours are over, people.” Us ‘people’, my son and myself, left the house. I knew that would be the last time I saw my mother. I also knew she only had hours left. My dad told me that he would let me know of any “news”. Over the years, my dad did the best he could. He was mostly caught in something in which he didn’t have a voice. He tried to mediate and make things right between everyone, but he just wasn’t able to.
My mother died a few days ago. Nobody called me. Nobody let me know. My my oldest brother didn’t call me. My sister didn’t call me. My dad didn’t call me. I heard about my own mother’s death from my daughter, who was informed by my ex-husband. My daughter called me the instant she heard because she needed to know how I was doing. I ended up receiving a text from the ex-husband eight hours after she passed. I didn’t reply. What was I supposed to say, thanks for letting me know? I knew his text to me was designed to rub salt in the wounds.
Today was her funeral service. I didn’t go to my mom’d funeral. Instead, I went to my brother’s grave. I spread out a blanket, I cracked open a bottle of Lonely Blond pale ale, and toasted his life and memory.
My favorite quote is attributed to Gandhi, although there is some question if he actually said this. Regardless of who said it, the words resonate with me: “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. They are so unlike your Christ.” I fully concur.
The next chapter of my life is yet to begin. My heart is broken. It’s deeply filled with scar tissue and re-opened wounds. But I know a few things. I know the sun will rise again tomorrow and I’ll get out of bed. I know those wounds will one day stop bleeding. My journey is not over. There is no period in the sentence of my life. Only a semi-colon, I am the author, and I know there are many more good things to come. I’ll be okay, because I always am. And yes, my God, my Christ, is watching over me and will never turn His back on me.