My mother taught me how to read before my 4th birthday. She taught me how to write before my 5th, and when I struggled with spelling — sometime between third and fourth grades — she quizzed me in our ’70s-style kitchen. I would sit on the cool avocado-colored linoleum while she read from a list of words which sat beside our sink or next to our electric stove.
We colored together, played dress-up together, and sometimes we would sing and put on plays. I often walked in my mother’s shoes.
And make no mistake: I treasure these memories. I keep them close and hold them tight because sometimes these memories comfort me at night. Sometimes these memories make me hopeful for tomorrow and the future and the things I wish could be.
But other times, these memories torment me and torture me. Other times, these memories make me quiver with anger or make me cry from despair — because the mother I knew during those early years is a completely different woman from the one my mother became.
The mother I knew growing up is not the mother I know today. In fact, the mother I knew growing up is dead because her spirit is dead. Her passion is dead. Her desire to live is long gone, and our relationship — as it was — is nothing more than a distant memory.
I know what you must be thinking: If my childhood is full of happy memories, when did things change? When the hell did things go wrong?
And the truth is there wasn’t one defining moment when our relationship fell apart. We weren’t coloring together one day and screaming and crying the next. Instead, the shift was gradual. The shift was fueled by a series of terrible and unfortunate events — a few moves and lost jobs and major financial struggles.
But everything changed shortly after my 12th birthday.
Everything changed after my father’s very sudden death.
Looking back, I don’t blame my mother for changing. She lost the love of her life and the father of her children. She lost her past, our present, and all dreams for their future, and she simply didn’t know how to cope. She couldn’t come to terms with the fact that she was a widow before her 40th birthday. But instead of reaching out and getting help, she shut down. She stopped speaking, she stopped eating, and she stopped getting out of bed.
Before long, our house was in disarray. Thick layers of dust and cigarette ash covered every surface, bugs rummaged through our kitchen cabinets, and worms wiggled in the space between our carpets and our subfloor. Before long, she was struggling to get work, and to keep work. And before long, my brother and I were left to fend for ourselves.
I was doing the wash, cooking dinner, cleaning our cat’s litter box, and trying to make ends meet while going to school. I was taking on adult responsibilities long before homecoming or my senior prom, long before my first high school dance. And I was trying to take care of my baby brother and my mother because grief and depression consumed her.
She would get up, go to work, come home, and go to bed.
Make no mistake: Many children do chores. It is part of growing up, and an important part at that. But my chores weren’t normal — even if they may sound that way.
I became an adult trapped in a 12-year-old’s body.
By the time I turned 13, I was shutting down. At school, I was being ridiculed because I wasn’t allowed to go out. I was being mocked for the way I looked. We didn’t have money for clothes, and I often wore pants that were too small and shirts that were far too big. But I wasn’t allowed to go out because I had to cook and clean. I had to care for my entire family. So I walked through the halls alone, I walked home alone — with my eyes turned down and my headphones on — and I lived alone.
After taking care of the house and doing my homework, I hid in my room where I cried myself to sleep.
Every single night, I cried myself to sleep.
Shortly after my 14th birthday, I decided enough was enough. I needed a mother, I needed a family and a parental figure, and so I stood up to her bullshit. I yelled and screamed and cried, but nothing changed. I just became lonelier and angrier.
We just screamed at each other every night for the next four years.
By 15, I turned all of my anger and rage inward. I began cutting my arms and carving my legs because I was desperate to feel — because I desperately needed to see the scars I felt within and because I needed an outlet.
If I had to keep it together every day, I needed to do something to get all of the sadness and resentment and, well, the shit out. But that only worked for a time, and just after my 17th birthday, I tried to kill myself.
I tried — but failed — to take my own life. And then I enrolled in college. Just before Labor Day, I moved away and never returned home.
I never once looked back.
Today, I am the mother of a beautiful, intelligent, and strong-willed little girl, and while my mother is involved in my daughter’s life, their interactions are limited. My mother has never come to visit my daughter. She has never babysat my daughter, nor has she offered — even when I was struggling with PPD, even in the early days of motherhood when I was exhausted and an emotional mess. And they have never baked cookies together, or snuggled in her bed, or told ghost stories to each other late into the night. And they never will. I know that. My mother knows that but knowing that truth still hurts.
As sick as she may be, it fucking hurts.
It hurts when my mother fails to respond to invitations for Thanksgiving dinner or Christmas dinner or my daughter’s birthday parties. She doesn’t want to say yes in case she doesn’t “feel up to it,” or in case she is “too tired,” or “has other things to do.”
It hurts when my mother talks to my daughter on the phone and says, “Aw, sweetie, Grandma’s sad. You don’t want to make Grandma sad, do you?” It shouldn’t, I know. My mother is doing what most mothers do. She is playing pretend; she is attempting to engage my daughter. What hurts isn’t the game she is playing, but the memory it brings up — the memory that I was once made to feel that way, that I was once made to feel responsible for her happiness.
It hurts that I still feel responsible for her happiness.
It hurts to know my mother sleeps every day and drinks every night so she doesn’t have to think, and so she doesn’t have to feel.
And it hurts when my mother tells me she has nothing to live for — when she tells me she has nothing “keeping her here” — because when she does, I am often looking at my daughter and I cannot help but wonder: Is she not enough? Are we not enough?
It hurts that the mother I knew died many, many years ago.
Make no mistake: I know my mother is sick. I am certain she has undiagnosed depression and perhaps other underlying mental health issues. I know I cannot fix her or save her or make her get help. But that doesn’t make her actions more tolerable. That doesn’t make me feel any better or make my load any lighter. It doesn’t make her words less hurtful, and it doesn’t take the sting out of it.
But even wounded and stung and beaten down, I keep hanging onto hope — hope that one day she will get help and things will change. Hope that one day, she will wash her hair, put on makeup, and voluntarily leave her house. Hope that she will smile and laugh and see there are things in her life worth living for, that there is a future worth living for. And hope that one day, my daughter may see a bit of the woman my mother once was, of the mother I miss and mourn each and every day.