My mother died when I was 16 and I never dealt with it

My wife tells me I'm only half-present -- could there be some connection?

Published June 22, 2006 10:00AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

My mom died when I was 16, and a very immature 16-year-old I was, at that. Because I was so utterly immature, I didn't grieve her courageously whatsoever. Grief takes a fair amount of chutzpah, which I've never had in great abundance. Not to say I was encouraged to confront her impending death, far from it -- every adult I knew thought it best to leave me to my own devices. I should mention that I have inborn qualities that exacerbated the death-denying that went on. Namely, I'm a terrific self-bullshitter and liar. After a few months she died, and I go into a kind of "Fuck you, God" mode. Yes, I was as surprised as you were that I got angry at God for letting my mom die, especially since I didn't really give two shits about Him that much beforehand. However, I got royally pissed at Him and have maintained this level of anger ever since.

I wasn't really ready for my mom to die (and I think she wasn't either, judging from her morphine-induced, deathbed pleadings for Jesus to heal her), and her death has ever since simply been "there," loitering around everything I do. This isn't a case of missing someone -- it's nearly impossible for me to generate a heartfelt memory of her -- but more like she left town and took a good chunk of me with her, ironically, the chunk that misses her.

So, now, 20 years later, I've been told I'm "half present," which has been confirmed by my wife on many occasions. I'm pursuing -- halfheartedly, mind you -- a career as a television writer. I've got a well-hidden, but nonetheless present, rageful temper (God issues?), which, sadly, my wife can again attest to.

I guess my question boils down to: Was I an immature fuck-up whose mom died, or did I become fucked up because she died?

Waiting for Godot to Kick His Ass

Dear Waiting,

Your mom's death was painful. But you were smart. You protected yourself. You impersonated a man but you weren't a man, you were just a boy of 16.

It worked OK, though, so you kept doing it. Nobody called you on it. Nobody said you're acting like a man but you're only a boy and you have to grieve or you'll never become a man. There are few people in this culture who would do that, who would insist that a boy who has just lost his mother stop trying to behave like a man and just cry and cry like the boy that he is. You can get by without crying and nobody says you're just setting yourself up for a big crash in your 30s, but that's what you're doing.

Not being present worked pretty well for a while. But it's not working as well as it used to. These days, I'm guessing that you really do need to be present for some things -- for your wife, for your life, for your writing.

You cannot be present and absent at the same time.

It's time to be present.

Don't worry. You lost your mother and never cried and that's OK. That's what young men do in this culture. Now it's time to become a man, a mature, full-grown, adult man who is completely present and doesn't apologize and doesn't make little self-deprecating jokes and doesn't belittle himself or cover up but faces the truth squarely and in doing so becomes stronger.

The way to deal with this is to begin telling what happened in front of a supportive witness, someone who is there for you and can guide you through your re-experiencing of this.

So suck it up and get into therapy like the rest of us mopes and try to be honest so you get your money's worth. Eventually you'll start telling these things with greater "presentness." You will be maybe three-quarters present and then maybe in little incendiary flashes perhaps you will be wholly present.

Were you an immature fuck-up? No, you were just a 16-year-old kid. You wanted to save your mother but you were just a kid. You couldn't save her. There was nothing you could do. So you're angry at yourself and you're angry at a God because at 16 you thought somebody could save your mom.

So it's not like you didn't have some strong feelings back then. Of course you did. Your feelings were so strong that you couldn't deal with them.

This is pretty basic stuff. We're not that unusual, pal. We're just run-of-the-mill guys. Stuff happens to us and it's inconvenient to feel what we're feeling so we put it off. We can do that. We're guys, we can put anything off. So we put it off. But it's still there, waiting for us like unpaid bills.

I feel the presence of your mother and your loss in your halfhearted prose; I feel your habit of not being there.

But your mom really did die when you were 16 and it really did break your heart and you really did feel intensely sad about it and you really did hide your feelings and now they really are coming up right in front of you and you are trying to deal with it in the same old way but that will become increasingly difficult because you are at the point in your life where a man begins to seek genuine wisdom.

You were 16. You weren't a fuck-up. You were just a kid. You just weren't ready for your mom to die.

Now you're ready.

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