My sister and I arrived at my mother’s house on Wednesday. It was her turn to have us.
“Girls, meet me in the living room, we need to talk.”
It was warning enough. I anxiously braced for impact, my typical response since the day she snuck us out of Father’s house during her dramatic exit as his wife. As she began sobbing, I held her, trying to comfort her sorrow. I’m here for you, Mom.
“We are bankrupt, your stepfather and I, so we have to move. We both got a job in Oklahoma and are leaving Friday, so you will be living with Dad.”
In two days she was moving away, out of state, without us. Although for years her behaviors had become increasingly erratic, a slow detachment from her motherly role, I was still blindsided.
Mothers don’t leave.
I thought the cocktail of flesh, spirit, and hormones that hurled me into existence out of her very own body, would always keep her bonded to me. Instincts argued this should never happen. But it was happening. I shushed my pain and ignored the unmooring. Although I didn’t blame myself for her impending departure, my self-worth began disintegrating when I wondered why I wasn’t enough to make her stay.
I held on to the hope that despite her exodus to a city nine hours away, surely she would still be my mother. A long-distance parent, just a phone call away.
A two-day countdown seemed surreal. What does one do with 48 hours left of having a mother?
I tried to conjure up plans for our last night together. I approached her in the kitchen but before I opened my mouth she blurted, “I’m leaving to go visit Giselle. She’s really having a hard time, she needs me.”
My cheeks turned bright red as if she slapped me in the face. This midlife crisis woman needed my mother on the last night I even had one. They had partied at clubs almost every night together while I stayed home alone, but ignorantly I expected our finale to have been different.
What about us, your daughters? I nodded, restraining my emotions.
She suggested we use the evening to pack for our father’s house. Neither of us girls was of driving age to head anywhere other than to our rooms to fill suitcases, anyway.
I don’t remember her return that night. I slept until the alarm clock went off for school. Friday arrived and her flight out was only in a few hours.
My sister walked to her school two streets away, while I packed up in my mother’s car for the last drop off. The lump in my throat grew large with the ominous silence. Mother cranked up the music to erase the quiet until she started crying, while I rehearsed my mantra: don’t cry, be strong.
Minutes away she said, “Honestly, I’m not worried about you. I’m only worried about your sister. Promise to take care of her for me.”
Stoically, I grabbed my backpack, opened the door, and hugged my mother, saying I loved her. She loved me back, but never mentioned she would call once her plane landed in her new life. There was never a follow-up plan.
I staggered in a haze into my school, a place where I had no friends, and wandered the halls as though I was lost.
Alarming as always, the bell rang. She was gone.
Father sent his co-worker to pick me up that afternoon. I flushed with embarrassment, to be this motherless girl needing to hitch a ride. It wasn’t my father’s busy schedule that stung like salt in my open wound, it was his emotional oblivion.
The plan was to be dropped off at mother’s vacant house to collect our belongings and father would pick us up later. Mother would briefly return the next week, only to retrieve her furniture and vehicle. Not even for a visit.
My sister and I tried earnestly to perk each other up with a laugh, dancing to Michael Jackson songs as if attending a party instead of an emotional funeral of the life we once knew.
The sun was setting, and father was going to be late.
The fridge was empty and as we grew hungry, I felt a tinge of anger that we were left alone. Mother’s car sat in the driveway. I didn’t have a license but rummaged for the keys and told my sister to get in. I will get us something to eat.
I had always been the goody two-shoes child, never disobeying. But if we no longer had parents to care for us, I would have to break some rules.
Paranoid, I took every back road to the closest fast-food spot. I worried that I would be caught by everyone who passed, this young teen stealing her mother’s car. Once we had food, I rapidly turned off the main road like a getaway car in a frantic chase and my drink went flying, spilling all over us and the vehicle.
I hustled to clean it when we got home, trying to erase the mistakes I made. Though I would eventually confess to my mother how I took her car to get food the day she left. She would have almost no reaction, other than boasting she had done much worse things than me. “I ran away from home and slept in an airport when my mother signed away her parental rights of me to a pedophile when I was your age.”
Your experience doesn’t matter much, comparatively.
As though she was already just a vintage memory, the ghost of my mother swept in and out of town when she came back for her belongings. I hardly heard from her afterward.
Weeks later, I decided to call, sensing how much I missed her.
She picked up the phone, “What do you need?!” her voice brashly came across.
I stuttered, “Sorry, I just wanted to talk.” She didn’t have time, and I was unaware that her role as my mother definitively ended the day she left town. A rare phone call, reaching out for my long-distance mother to be involved in my life, was too burdensome.
What did I need after all? I didn’t need a ride to dance class, I didn’t need dinner, I didn’t even need advice.
I needed a mother.
So I stopped calling. Except when immense nostalgia swept over me, the concept of what it would feel like to have a mother. I craved the unwavering care in a mother’s voice enough to forget my experience of each prior attempt. When people spoke of their mothers, I ached for one too.
I waited as the phone would ring.
The woman who answered, by the same name, was a stranger. She didn’t match my perception of who I remembered her to be.
Something was off. Something had changed.
Was it who my mother was that changed, with a hard, cold snap? Or was my memory inaccurate, recalling someone she never was? I couldn’t figure it out and desired connection so badly I even attempted to naively discuss it with her. Mom, will you help me find my mother?
Through broken sentences I told her something was not right, she was different, and I didn’t know what to do.
With agitation, she insisted she had not changed. Which then led to guilt trips flying at my feet. She said I was the reason we had no relationship because I hadn’t forgiven her for leaving, breaking me down at the Achilles tendon.
It wasn’t her. It never was her. Whoever she was.
I did forgive the woman who left me physically and emotionally, but I could not connect with the whirlwind of a woman who possessed her body in the aftermath.
The stranger in my mother would pain me more than I could fathom.
After her next divorce, she sold all her belongings and began moving across the south with a young man with a cocaine addiction. She called herself a “Gypsy” who lived off of the land, who was going to save his soul. Eventually, I had no working phone number to call.
For a while, she was discreetly homeless.
Only then did I consider that mother, who had often disclosed horrible details of her traumatic life experiences with me, had some sort of mental illness. One that she was unaware of. One that I was unaware of. One we would never get labels to figure out together.
Instead she was still claiming to be a religious superstar for the “Lord.”
There were stretches of time I didn’t know where she was, or if she was alive.
Months later, I received updates that she was fine, somewhere out there. Each time she infrequently contacted me, I mourned losing her all over again. In therapy, I learned that families can mourn the loss of a family member to untreated, serious mental illness like it is a death. I too loved someone who was a casualty to festering mental sickness, an alive yet absent human.
I wanted to reach her so badly, at whatever distant planet her traumatized mind existed on. Somewhere over the rainbow. But she was not available to me, to be a mother.
I felt a deep void as she vanished. Yet in the abyss, I never stopped loving her or the idea of her.
Just like a child who loses their mother in a large crowd and frantically runs to find them, yelling, “Mom! Mom! Where are you?!” …my body still senses I am searching as that frightened child, desperately hoping to find her mother, maybe right around the next corner.
Mom… where are you?
Many years later, my sister and I visited mother on an island she was living on. She chased happiness in paradise, though her chaos followed her even there.
Mother went with us on a public submarine tour in a harbor. By then, I felt like I was just visiting a distant relative, as she looked and sounded slightly familiar, but my mother was not there. She smiled on the submarine, and for a moment, I felt okay. I peered out of the window, watching schools of fish glide by.
When I turned around, I found my mother in the fetal position at the bottom of a spiral staircase, clinging to the central bar, sobbing. As people awkwardly walked past her melted body, she wouldn’t look up.
I touched my sister’s arm, “Mom…” I motioned in that direction. “What do we do?” I asked. She paused and replied, “Let her be. She’s just processing. She will be alright.”
But I was not alright.
Eventually, we picked her melancholy body up off the floor. After we left, she shared how this triggered her last memory of her partner who had gone on the submarine with her, before he died.
And just like riding a bike, I seamlessly resumed my ancient routine of comforting my mother, while hope for ever having my own mother faded again.
It was the only way I knew to be with her, if at all. I had only previously existed in our relationship as her caretaker. I can’t hardly remember being a daughter.
Traumas without interventions seemed to be passing on from one generation to the next, with each hurt begetting more hurt. Like a learned behavior, my traumas sought out more traumas, the only thing familiar, which led me into relationships that reproduced further suffering.
Until I resolved this must stop with me.
I didn’t have a mother, one who participates in my life. Accepting this harsh reality was the only way to move forward.
When I witnessed other daughters with their mothers, I felt it unfair. But chewing over thoughts that I didn’t at least get a mother in life, only deepened my pain.
A mother: the person who births you, who genetically, instinctively, and hormonally is designed to love you without pause. Who would never leave you. Who soothes and supports you. Who would fight off the attack of every lion from her baby cub, or die trying like hell.
Where was she?
Traumas and untreated mental illness took mine from me.
In faded memories, I thought I knew her once. Yet what remains is the view of watching her drift, as I too drifted.
“She is dancing away from you now
She was just a wish She was just a wish And her memory is all that is left for you now You see your gypsy.”
-”Gypsy” by Fleetwood Mac
Maybe we will meet again someday, where our traumas, brainwashing, religious indoctrination, and mental sicknesses are rinsed away. Where all that remains are two people standing face to face with nothing to offer but love and a sound mind.
Until then, I will find a way to mother myself. To not leave myself, this lost child searching for her mother. I can mother this daughter, lovingly and attentively.
When I became a mother to my own children, I realized how confusing it was to lack a mother, with how I felt as one too. So I must learn to give the same unconditional love and care I have for my children, to myself. I must heal my traumas to ensure my throbbing mind never removes itself from my present life or my children’s lives.
I will stay present. I will stay aware. I will stay.
I will be the mother that we all need.
It’s interesting that life did not give me my own daughter to raise, only sons. Perhaps the daughter that I am needs so much mothering from myself that the universe couldn’t stretch me between two.
So I mother myself with the love for the daughter I will never have, with the love from a mother I will never have.
I love her fiercely, without pause, without condition. I will never leave her.