We're re-running this story as part of a countdown of the year's best personal essays. To read all the entries in the series, click here.
This essay is adapted from "The Bitch is Back: Older, Wiser, and (Getting) Happier," edited by Cathi Hanauer, Sept. 27 by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins.
I was in Hawaii, enjoying the first days of an annual post-Christmas ritual, a trip of three weeks from the cold East coast. In the mornings, I swam in the balmy Pacific while my partner, Adam, slept, followed by breakfast together: pineapple-orange-guava juice, macadamia nut pancakes. One January morning, as I emerged from my swim, my smile faded when I spotted Adam parked just off the beach, his face tense. “Your mother called six times.”
It won’t be that my grandmother has died, I thought. My mother had other people to get attention from in that case: siblings, family friends. This was something to do with her — something she wanted an audience for other than her husband of twenty-eight years, Bill, who’d probably already rolled his eyes and continued with his day. I, her only child, was It — vacationing or not. I played the first voicemail. “I’m at the E.R. I think I’ve had a stroke!”
I turned to Adam. “I don’t have to go home, do I? I don’t. Please, tell me that.” I knew my words were selfish. But I also knew this: I’ve earned the right.
Forty-six years before, at nineteen, my mother became pregnant during a fling with her older, married boss. Her boyfriend, Martin, was serving overseas. She wanted to abort me — she’s told me this — but abortion was illegal, dangerous, and especially difficult for a Catholic teen living with her parents. She told Martin he’d gotten her pregnant. Even though the timing of my birth made the lie obvious, he married her. They divorced when I was six but he abused me until I was nine. I found out in my twenties that I wasn’t his daughter, when I called him for information for a medical form. He said, “You won’t need that from me. I’m not your father.” She had never told me.
I played the second and third voicemails. With each one, my mother was more exuberant as, I assumed, test results came in: “I had a stroke! I did!” I handed the phone to Adam. He’d tell me if I was being a jerk. He listened, shaking his head, said, “I swear, she’s got a personality disorder. Who’s happy they had a stroke?”
I felt relieved when Adam confirmed that my skepticism and annoyance were not just me being the “ungrateful brat” my mother had called me when I was ten or the “mean little bitch” at fifteen, but instead a valid reaction. I played the remaining messages and sat down on the sea wall, first to face the phone calls to find out what actually happened, and then to perform the harder part: deciding if I needed to return to frozen Delaware and my mother or stay in Hawaii.
My mother didn’t want me, but she still was my mother, dropping out of college to give birth. She worked two jobs to feed and clothe me, paid my Catholic school tuition until eleventh grade, bought me sports lessons and camp, took me to doctors, gave me birthday parties. She didn’t abandon me. She raised me to be a feminist and an activist and I was grateful for that. Even after I moved out as a teen, she’d sometimes helped me financially.
I’m not positive she knew of Martin’s abuse, when I told her about it fifteen years later, she said, “I didn’t know.” Maybe not. I’m convinced she wouldn’t have confronted him anyway. He could have exposed my paternity (something she still doesn’t readily admit).
After their divorce, my mother left most of my care to her parents, Auggie and Martha, who lived nearby in D.C., while she worked and often socialized afterward. I went to them after school and stayed through dinner, then my mother picked me up and returned me at dawn. My grandparents drove my car pool. I spent Sundays with them — church, cooking, family dinner. In many ways, my grandparents’ generous love and stern guidance saved me. Just before I started ninth grade, they retired to a beach town in Delaware.
Alone together, my mother alternately screamed at or ignored me. She erupted over nothing. If I fought back, she called her family or Martin and told them I was “out of control.” After one fight, she sent me to live with my twenty-five-year-old uncle and his girlfriend in their apartment. My commute to school was 90 minutes by bus to a train to the car pool of a friend, who took me out of pity.
I felt miserable so far from school and friends. Meanwhile, my mother left for a month in Greece, a Christmas present from a boyfriend. When she returned, I went home for junior year, determined to stay out of her way. I worked thirty-two hours a week at a grocery store, paying my own school tuition. My grades dropped, and when I got pneumonia they dropped more. Now I was the “problem student” she’d called me for years. Around that time, she began pushing me to contact Martin and “work on getting your college tuition out of him,” adding, “He’s your problem now, not mine.”
I stuck around until October of my senior year and then escaped to my boyfriend, David, who’d been transferred by Foot Locker from D.C. to a mall in Virginia Beach. With no first and last months’ rent to get an apartment, he lived in a dilapidated motel. I lived with him, chain-smoking and watching TV while he worked, too depressed to look for a job. We lived on his salary, $280 a week, and some weeks, after lodging and gas and our payday splurge at McDonald’s, we had $50, or $3.50 a day, for food. I ate peanut butter crackers and Coke, 7-Eleven hot dogs or soup. A dozen biscuits from KFC (for 1.85) fed us for two days. When we couldn’t pay the motel, they’d keep our stuff and lock us out. We slept in our car, and once, in the back of Foot Locker, using packs of socks for pillows.
I loved David. He, too, saved me, although by then I’d internalized my mother’s verdict — I was hopeless, messed up, a lost cause. For two decades this was a self-fulfilling prophecy. I graduated from high school on time (after returning to D.C. in January, I passed the GED in the spring) and completed two years of college, going when I could afford to. But by my mid-thirties I had two failed marriages and two failed businesses (a nonprofit arts organization and nonprofit consulting business both folded). Lies, bad health, heartbreak . . . unhappy times.
Sitting on the wall in Hawaii, I remembered these experiences and situations I’d replayed in my mind or in therapy. And then this: When I was thirty-seven, I left D.C. to live with my grandmother, by then eighty-two, at her Delaware beach house. Auggie had died. I felt deep love for Martha and also that I owed her.
For two and a half years I cooked for her, kept house, scheduled her doctors, drove her to church and hair appointments. We tried out lipsticks and listened to the Andrews Sisters; I learned to poach her eggs just right. It was both wonderful — the daily kindness and love, the chance to step back from my life and just think — and one of the hardest things I’d ever done; I hadn’t been prepared to bathe her and wipe the intimate folds of her skin, to help her when she soiled herself. But I did these things with love and even pride. Martha had raised six children before half raising me; she’d nursed her father for his final six years. I was happy to be able to give her what she’d given others.
Eventually, I moved to my own place at the beach. Living cheaply and purposefully, I gradually rebuilt my life. I began writing seriously, running, adopted an emaciated old dog and nursed him back to health.
I’d seen my mother once a week when living with my grandmother. After that, we shared only an occasional meal. I still felt some responsibility toward her until a year before the Hawaii trip when I’d traveled to Europe with her, Bill, and my grandmother. I knew it might be my gran’s last chance to get away, and I thought — optimistically — that we might all have fun together. Instead, my mother made a huge scene, screaming at Bill and me — wildly, appallingly — in the line to board a ship. For the rest of the trip, I didn’t eat with or talk to her.
On returning, a therapist helped me understand I would probably never make my mother proud or happy — never even really matter to her — because she wasn’t capable of that, or of treating me with kindness and respect. I grieved. After grieving, I set firm boundaries, which I conveyed by e-mail: I would no longer talk to her on the phone; for pressing business she could e-mail; I’d see her for two hours twice a year — once in May around her birthday (though not that May; it was too soon), and once around year’s end.
She e-mailed back: Could we meet in person to discuss?
No, I said.
Ten months later — near Christmas, just before the trip to Hawaii — I visited her at my aunt’s condo in D.C. The house was full of relatives so, happily, there wasn’t time alone with her. There was talk of the meal, the weather. I brought her a gift; she thanked me. As always, she did most of the talking, never asking how I was or what I’d done the past months; but neither did she scream at or insult me. Improvement already! I’d left for Oahu feeling victorious.
But only two weeks, staring at the vast blue sea, the toasted white sand, I wondered: Has my mother really had a stroke? And if so, what happens now — to her and to me?
Here in middle age, many friends are grappling with what to do with and for aging parents, ill parents. What do we owe them if they were good to us? How about if they weren’t, but are now? What do we owe a parent who’s obnoxious but not entirely without merit, who gets a D but not quite an F? Who’s obnoxious without merit — solid F — but because of a mental health issue? Even the mighty Tony Soprano had panic attacks when he put his narcissistic mother in a pricy nursing home. How do we find the line between what our parents need and what we need in order to proceed with our lives? Refusing to deal with an aging parent, refusing to be available instead of reserved, makes you selfish or childish or worse, doesn’t it?
Or does it?
When I veer toward guilt about my mother, it always turns out to cover sadness. I would like to be able to do for her what I did for my grandmother: to take care of her in old age, even have her and Bill come live with me. But that’s in a world where my mother is a different person, I remind myself.
I can’t reach back, and I can’t know if she’s going to change, as some mothers do. (“We were all bad mothers to some extent,” a therapist once told me. “What’s important is how we deal with that in our child’s adulthood. Do we apologize for it? Can we relate to our adult children with love and respect?”) No and no seemed to be the answer in my mother’s case. At sixty-six, unwilling to examine her part in problems with me or anyone else, hadn’t she made her bed? It took me decades to pull my life out of the horror show it had become — I won’t say because of my mother, but certainly my childhood, from birth to adulthood, figured in.
After talking to my mother, then a nurse, then Bill (who, familiar with her hypochondria, admitted he hadn’t rushed to the hospital when she called; he’d waited for confirmation that she was actually sick); after relaying it all to Adam; after remembering what my various therapists taught me and what I vowed in Europe — a smart vow, made for the right reasons — I told Bill I’d decided not to return early.
When I returned I did go visit her, and she told me she’d like to retire but worried she and Bill couldn’t afford it. Years ago, I’d told her I was trying to earn enough so that, when she was ready to retire, I could send her $1,000 a month, but in the meantime I hoped she and Bill would map out how they’d otherwise support themselves. I suggested selling her house and buying a condo; finding part-time work; making a plan to cut back on expenses.
So when she mentioned retirement on the phone, I didn’t respond. Although she hadn’t done any planning, I did want to help. Giving her money was something I could now do — not instead of spending time with her, because I wouldn’t do that regardless, but because I wanted to.
The stroke turned out to be minor. “That’s great!” I said when I saw her. “Sounds like you’ll be fine.”
“My speech is slurred.”
“Really? You sound perfect to me.”
Bill nodded. “To me, too.”
“Well, I’m not,” she said. “I’m slurring my words. Horribly.”
In keeping with my vow not to engage, I wrote her a check for $12,000. “I promised you this. I hope it will help you retire. I’ll do this every year, as long as I can afford to. But I hope you’ll do what we discussed to set yourself up for the future, because I won’t be able to see you more often or help you daily if something happens.”
She didn’t respond.
“I would love to know you have a plan, Mom. I could hire a social worker to help you make one.”
“I have a plan. I’m going to die before Bill.”
I stifled my sigh. “Uh-huh. And if that doesn’t happen? Or if he outlives you but can’t care for you?”
She shook her head, turned away.
“Okay, then,” I said in my calmest voice. “I’ll see you in May. Good luck with your recovery.”
Still, I struggled: no matter how little I saw my mother, I felt like I was turning my back — and while the rational part of me, the therapized part, knew this was okay, the emotional part still wondered: Is this right?
When I thought about my mother and felt myself inch toward that sad, fearful place, I pulled back to reflect on painful truths: She does not engage in appropriate ways. We don’t have a meaningful relationship. I’ve been emotionally kind without much emotional reciprocation. I owed my mother nothing. Maybe some day she would change, but I couldn’t see it happening any time soon.
In December, a week before Adam and were scheduled to head back to Hawaii, almost a year after her stroke, another emergency: A possible heart attack. Bill refused to come home from a charity food drive, so she’d called 911. The EMTs called me, probably directed by her.
I stopped packing, called the dog walker, and headed to the hospital.
No heart attack had occurred. Hobbling around on a cane, my mother complained of vision loss and pain. Perhaps this was honest. I couldn’t know. After hours of forms, examinations, and drama, a nurse asked if my mother was under psychiatric care because it all seemed “an elaborate acting out . . . not even an anxiety attack.”
On the way home, she chattered away and I kept silent. Apropos of nothing, she announced, “I was an attentive mother.” I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or howl with rage, but I kept my voice measured. “No. You weren’t.”
She was quiet.
“Good-bye, Mom,” I said, getting out of the car. “I won’t see you again until spring.”
She looked at me, at last silent, and then we stiffly hugged a terse good-bye. A week later, I headed off into the sunny, beckoning second half of my life.