How do you mourn someone when you don’t grieve? I’ve been grappling with this question since my mother’s death a week ago.
It was a good death by any measure. At age 95, she was frail but still living in her own house, with a fulltime caregiver who found her unresponsive and got her to the hospital. She never regained consciousness and slipped away painlessly and peacefully.
The thing is: my mother was not a particularly nice person. We’d been estranged for some years, and despite my efforts at reconciliation my sister reported that she “cared about [me] but was too stubborn” to acknowledge it. We’ve agreed that our mother taught us a great deal about how to be a good parent… by doing the opposite of what had been modeled for us.
One of my cousins wrote, possibly struggling himself to find something to say, that he had admired her “biting wit.” Maybe it was amusing if you weren’t on the receiving end of it.
Another suggested we all remember happier times rather than more recent events. This one’s a puzzler, too, because although I had a generally happy childhood it was more to do with friends, locations, and activities than specific parental memories. I keep trying to dredge them up, but the more unpleasant ones surge to the foreground. Such as the time my mother, sister and I were chatting on the porch and within the space of about a minute she’d chastised my sister for being a stay-at-home mom and “wasting her education” and me for having a demanding career and presumably neglecting my kids. Lose-lose.
This was a person who wouldn’t come to any of her grandchildren’s birthday parties because she and my dad found them “boring.” Likewise, any sports the kids played. She simply wasn’t interested, and couldn’t fathom why these things might be important to them, or why she should pretend to care.
Another memory comes to mind: When her friend of many years was dying of cancer, I asked my mother if she’d visited or called the woman. The reply: “No, (because) I wouldn’t know what to say.”
It helps a little to understand that she was a victim of her own upbringing: a brilliant, intellectual, and aloof mother who found her silly and frivolous, a sweet but depressive father, and a brother who suffered from extreme bipolar disorder that alternated between mania (such as the time he got arrested on the subway for pushing a young woman into the seat he’d vacated for her, not understanding that her polite refusals were most likely terror at the crazy man who kept insisting she sit down) and catatonia.
The other night my husband and I had dinner with some dear friends who told us that three generations of a family they know had contracted COVID and were not expected to survive.
That’s a tragedy.