My mom died with a startling secret

She lied for 20 years. Now the truth is out. What am I supposed to do? Who am I?

Published June 23, 2011 12:20AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

My mother died of cancer when I was still in high school. I was incredibly grief-stricken; my life turned from normal, with a loving family and a super-mom who could go to work for eight or nine hours and still come home to help me with my English paper and boy troubles, to cancer-ridden.

I went to school regularly, but couldn't focus on anything. I was receiving poor marks in most of my classes, barely into my after-school activities, and usually put on a fake smile and grit my teeth through my friends' "issues." My mother went from looking like she was in her mid-30s (she was in her early 50s) to looking like a small, frail, 80-year-old, bald woman. I can still see her sometimes when I close my eyes, screwed up on pain meds, staring off into space with a slight smile on her face.

It was around this time I got into drugs and alcohol; fell in with the "wrong crowd," if you will. It wasn't long before I was sneaking out and partying with the college kids. I was in a band, and drugs came naturally. It was a fun and easy escape. If there was any sort of mention, it usually went something like, "How's your mum?" "Still dying." "That sucks. Want another drink?" And I always said yes.

Memorial Day weekend my siblings and I took my mother for a vacation. It was mostly as a goodbye and to write down funeral arrangements.

My mother never came home from the vacation. The cancer had spread dramatically, and she went straight into the hospital, where she stayed for a few more days before she died.

I wanted nothing to do with her death. I wanted it all to be over. I barely cried at her funeral, didn't stand near the rest of my family to get hugs and "I'm sorry for your loss." I made a speech about how great she was and how she loved everyone, etc., but I don't remember if I meant any of it.

About a year passed, in which I quit high school, moved out, and continued binge drinking and drugs. I was at a bar with a friend of mine who worked there, and a fairly intoxicated girl in her mid-20s came up and began talking to me. At first I assumed she was a lesbian, then a crackhead. I wasn't used to women talking to me. I introduced myself, and she asked if I was so-and-so's sister. I said yes, horrified, and attempted to duck my way out of the conversation as quickly as possible. She was acting strangely, which is why I figured her for a crackhead, but then she said that she knew me, but it wasn't because of my sisters. She then told me that she was my sister.

Assuming she was drunk, I replied, "I already have three of those, I don't need any more." She insisted that she was indeed my sister, and that we shared a father. I asked her what she knew, and she told me that my mother had had an affair with her father and I was the product of that affair. I met him shortly after that, the man that claimed he was my father. He was nice, yet creepy. He was very eager to tell me all about myself, which is what came off as creepy. He told me he'd been sending me flowers on my birthday and on Valentine's since I could walk. I remember the flowers; they were always signed "from me" or "Just me." Mum always had a big smile and I assumed they were from my uncle or cousin whom we were close to. I was wrong.

I had a father. Two fathers, if I so chose.

I inquired about Mom's affair with my other sisters, claiming that I'd run into the new sister in McDonald's. They said that yes, Mum did indeed cheat on Dad. Dad allegedly knew about it. It had been going on for more than 20 years. I was warned not to dig any further and not to talk to Dad about it. So I didn't.

I had the best of both worlds, for a while; I went to family functions with the old family, and then went to family functions with the other family and hid it from my dad and sisters. I had gained a younger brother, which was exciting as I was the youngest, and another sister, not so exciting.

Things went fairly well. I had two fathers to lean on. I mostly chose Dad No. 2. He bought me a dress to go to a play with a boy I was seeing, encouraged me to finish high school, and took me to the hospital when I was beat on by an abusive boyfriend of mine. Said boyfriend had found out I'd cheated on him. What he didn't know was that I'd been cheating on him for most of the relationship. I was actively looking for someone to save me from him. It was easier, at this time, to turn to Dad No. 2, because I was the one doing the cheating, just like my mother. I yearned to be like her, because that's what she'd molded me to be while she was alive.

While my mom was alive, Dad No. 1 and I fought incessantly, and whenever I told my mom something that we knew he'd be angry about, she always told me not to tell him. So after her death, I virtually shut Dad No. 1 completely out of my life. I had it in my head that he'd abused her in some way and that's why she was afraid to tell him things.

I've recently spoken to Dad No. 1 about the infidelity, and he told me that he'd known about it, and that he had had a slight affair with my aunt as well. He apologized for it. I told him how I felt about Mom and how I thought she was a horrible person for cheating on him and how I don't know if I'll ever forgive her, and about my past (with the sex, drugs, my abusive ex, and rock 'n' roll).

My former reality that Dad No. 1 was an abusive man was utterly wrong. He was going to go to school to be an architect, but my mother didn't want to move away from her family. He chose to stay in the same city where she grew up, and worked at a few jobs supporting his growing family. He was almost always gone at work. He was almost always supporting myself, and my cheating mother. He chose the family, the wife, the small town. He could've been living in New York designing skyscrapers, but he was there. Working jobs he hated. Coming home to find out that his wife had been with another man. He didn't have anger issues, he was fed up with her bullshit. Now, my father (Dad No. 1) and I have never been closer in my life. I'd never dreamed I would be calling my daddy out of the blue just to tell him I was thinking of him, or just to "say hi." He's still very hands-off, it's your decision, etc., but he gives the best advice. I still haven't mentioned to him that I've heard that Dad No. 2, the man my mother cheated on him with, could be my biological father.

I've virtually renounced my mother and repudiated everything I've learned from her. I question myself daily, unwilling to become anything like her. I view her as a horrible person, and if I were religious in any way (she was a devout Catholic -- HA!) I would pray to be the complete opposite of her. I don't like going to family functions, because my mother always taught me to be fake and nice to family, even if I dislike them. Now I can usually be found sitting quietly in a corner, sipping an alcoholic beverage and trying not to be seen.

I don't know how to live. I don't want to be like her, but I don't want to be stuck like this, in this questioning phase, in this hell. I dream of her at least twice a week. We always fight in my dreams. I want to wake up and have almost no memory of my mother. I just want to be free of her, to be free to make my own choices and mistakes. I think of her and her lies, and wonder what else she's lied about, and I want to bury her, but I don't know how. If I could go back in time to the people who said, "She'll always be with you" after she died, I'd reply, "F*ck, I hope not." I want the pain and the questions and everything to just die. I'm angry that I can't call her up and tell her everything I'm angry with her about. I'm sad that I'll never hear her apologize for screwing up my life so royally. I don't know what to do. Do I get the paternity test and take on a new family? Do I deny my mother's sin, if you will, and everything that goes with it? If I am Dad No. 2's child, how do I tell the other family? Do I tell them? Why should I be forced to keep her secret for the rest of my life?

Please help me, Cary.

With love and anger,

Possible Love Child

Dear Possible Love Child,

You are still cracked open and bleeding, still wandering in a daze, unable to fit all this together and unable to contain it. It is too much for you. It was too much for you when it happened and it has been held at bay; it is there in your dreams and on the edge of consciousness in your waking hours. It has a grip on you.

You can get through this. But you need some help.

At a crucial point, when you needed her most, your mother let you down. It took everything out of you. And at that moment you stopped. You could not complete the project of high school, of girlhood going into womanhood, of being a good daughter and sister, because it took everything you had just to survive your mother's death. You were betrayed, cracked open and hurt at a tender time when you had no defenses, no choices, no place to put the grief and anger you felt. So naturally you did what you could. And you survived. And here you are, hurting, holding it together, on the edge.

You don't have to do anything about any of this right now except survive it. But you need some help. None of the people in your life right now can help you through this. You need not a friend or family member or father or lover but a seasoned advocate for you whom you can trust and who can stand outside of all this and say to you, Here, this is what I see. Direct your attention to this. Do not be afraid. Here, look at this. Feel this. Go this way. Trust me. Feel this. Trust me.

(Maybe all therapy could be boiled down to two commands: "Feel this" and "Trust me.")

If it is possible for you to see a talented, compassionate, wise, strong, likable, patient psychotherapist, someone you click with, perhaps someone who knows something about music, someone who can spend the time with you that must be spent, that would be ideal. My wish for you is that you will find a therapist or guide who can help you in ways that you cannot yet even imagine.

My challenge to a therapist is this: "Tell me something I don't know. Surprise me." When I am led to see things that startle me, of which I had no inkling, that is priceless self-knowledge. And that can happen. 

One thing you probably don't know about yourself is just how deeply you have been wounded. You cannot know this yet; in fact you have wisely prevented yourself from knowing this yet. It is as though, in a dream, we look down and see that we have been disemboweled; it is a moment of absolute terror; but we see that we have been disemboweled and yet we are fine! How can this be? How can we be so grievously wounded and yet smile peacefully and continue with our knitting or our guitar playing or whatever we are doing in our strange dream? We can do that because armed with the exquisite knowledge of the dream world we know that nothing can truly harm us, that we are spirit matter, that our consciousness is not affected by the disemboweling, and that it is only our severe waking attachment that causes us so much paralyzing fear.

Believing the wound is too deep to be seen, you have clouded your own sight from it. But you don't need to. There is someone who can guide you to the cliff edge from which that wound can be viewed at a safe distance, and you can see that it is just a wound to your spirit self, not your actual belly, and you can relax.

Another thing you probably don't know is just what archetype of yourself has come to the fore and is now running the show; this business of archetypes, or sub-personalities, is strange and tricky, and a person can sound like a crank for talking about them, but I'm just a writer using his imagination. A good therapist whose language and understanding are rich with myth and intuition can help you find the vantage point and language with which to view and express what you have gone through. When you can see, feel and express what has happened, then you can get better and feel better. It's pretty straightforward. Maybe you will speak of these things in the language of archetypes or maybe in some other way.

To me, it would make sense for a kind of warrior archetype to come to the fore in such a terrible time. The warrior in you would see your mother as an enemy to be vanquished, but since she is dead she cannot be vanquished, so she stands as an eternal adversary, and you are eternally stuck. So there must be some other archetype who can come to the fore to help. The other archetype might be your female, mothering self, who could let go of your mother, or it may be the dark, grieving, avenging self, who could split her sides in wailing but lead to peace, finally. If it is the warrior who is guiding the show, no wonder you are stuck. The warrior can do nothing about the past.

That is my hope for you. I think we often need to work emotionally through symbols and archetypes. These archetypes may be real or they may just be metaphors for stages of development. But it is useful to talk about these things as warriors, princesses, mothers and so forth.

So how will you get through this? With help. It is the kind of help that can guide you on a journey. It isn't so much about making individual choices about Dad No. 1, Dad No. 2 and so forth. It is more about learning what actually happened to you when you were broken as a teenager by your mother's death, and how you still have to heal from that, and how when you learned about your mother's love for this other man it further complicated and deepened this old wound. That's what it's about. And, as I say, that is my hope for you: that you can find the right person to guide you through this charged and explosive terrain.

You may need to back off on the drinking and drugs to get through this. If you are habitually blunting your feelings, you will not develop the fine feel for your inner life that you are going to need. So if you cannot afford therapy, you might consider joining a group of grief survivors. You also might consider joining a 12-step group. All this powerful emotion may make you feel like you're going mad. But you're not going mad. You're just a human feeling things.

Consider joining one of the Young Women Grieving the Loss of their Mother Meetup groups. Read this story by Meghan O'Rourke in the New Yorker. Take a look at this letter from someone else who lost her mother under difficult circumstances. And finally, because I have such immense respect and admiration for the doctors and staff at the Mayo Clinic, here is a brief piece by Dr. Edward T. Creagan, M.D., about grieving.

You suffered a terrible blow as a child. In many ways, you are still a child. You were prevented from moving on. You are stuck. But you are not lost. You are right here with us. All you have to do is grow, and get help growing.

Citizens of the Dream

What? You want more advice?


By Cary Tennis

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