An Unlikely Reconciling

Alfre Woodard and Lynn Whitfield in touring production of "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf” in 1978.

I spent last weekend with my parents at their home in California. Family visits are often complicated — even for the best of us, aren’t they? We all have our dysfunctions, histories, and quarrels.

I kept waiting for my mom to criticize me, or R. (my son), or about how I was parenting R. The criticism, however, never came. I kept wondering: was she going to say I needed a haircut? Or that R. — a boy with waist-long hair — needed a haircut? Was she going to say that I had gained weight? Comment that I was eating too much, or not doing enough yoga? But . . . nothing. Maybe she was going to criticize R.’s wildness, or rudeness, or general 4-year-old-ness? She didn’t. When someone’s treated you a certain way nearly your whole life, it is hard to not be braced for more of the same.

What my mother did do that day, was tell me she loves me.

She gave us hugs.

She watched R. like he was the most magical creature she had ever seen, and she did so with a light in her eyes that seems reserved only for gazing at children.

And while I so terribly wish that her brain wasn’t damaged, and though my heart will forever be scarred from what she — and I — have gone through, I feel so much gratitude for what we do have.

She doesn’t say much or remember much. She is not capable of helping me as most mothers help their children; especially their daughters when they become mothers. But there is no denying that she loves all of us.

In a fucked up way, her last suicide attempt freed her from the mental illnesses that had prevented my brother and me from feeling loved when we were growing up. It left her brain damaged, but it didn’t leave so much as a scratch on her heart. If anything, it cleared the path for her heart to lead.

And I wonder: perhaps she feels more at peace now? Even though she can no longer drive a car, meet up with her friends, make a phone call, or remember if she has eaten . . . even though there’s no semblance of her former personality, her interests, or her hobbies . . . is it possible that her heart is at ease?

It’s kind of like what they say about the death of a loved one: It’s hardest for everyone left behind, but not the person who has passed. If she doesn’t remember, say, how much she used to love golf, then what, really, is lost — and to whom?

Of course I don’t know for sure what is going on in my mom’s mind. She won’t, or can’t communicate this to us. It’s taken nearly a decade for me to accept that she chooses to spend the majority of her waking hours in front of the TV. I used to try to force her to come out with me — on walks, on errands, to the nail salon. It almost always ended in my mom throwing a tantrum and me feeling defeated. I used to think that if I stopped trying to make her do these things, I was giving in and giving up. It would mean I was saying I was okay with what had happened and how my mom was now.

I will never be okay with what happened but I do have to accept that it happened — because it did happen — and I have to accept how my mom is now, because that is what is real.

When my mom first came out of her coma following her last suicide attempt, and the neurologists told us that she had several areas of irreparable brain damage, I asked myself — and God — why she had even survived. Was she truly better off? What kind of life was she going to lead? She couldn’t do things for herself. She couldn’t be alone. She couldn’t remember what she had said moments before, or what she had heard after a few seconds had passed.

It all had felt like a cruel joke.

Over time, we saw that along with all this brain function loss, was also the loss of her manic and suicidal tendencies. The extreme highs and lows were gone. She was now, simply, existing. All day she would sit in front of the TV; which felt — to me — like an enormous waste of life. But when I compared this to the fact of her several suicide attempts in the course of a month, it won out as the lesser of two evils. I decided that maybe she was better off than before, after all.

Mostly, I felt angry and sad. My mother exhibited no sense of joy, no desires. What was the point of a life lived in front of the TV, I wondered? Why did she survive just to have life pass her by?

I often thought about Jill Bolte Taylor, a brain surgeon who had a massive stroke and lost her ability to walk and talk, but who re-learned everything over the course of eight years, healed her brain, wrote a book about it, and went on to share her story with Oprah.

My dad and I started reading about neuroplasticity, and sharing articles and names of doctors with each other. I learned that the brain is magical. If one area is damaged, other areas can learn the skills of the damaged area. So theoretically, my mom could potentially regain her short term memory. But, Jill Bolte Taylor also says that willpower plays a major role in the healing of brain injuries. My mom has no willpower to heal, or to learn, or to do much of anything. Her brain’s baseline had already been chemically imbalanced to begin with. Add on decades of medication, addiction, and numerous suicide attempts . . . I didn’t know if she ever had a willpower to survive in the first place. The initial hope I had felt when I had started my research into neuroplasticity soon faded.

And then, my brother had his first kid, and then I had my own child, and then my brother had his second. Three brand new humans expanded our family. Three grandchildren for my parents.

My mom was instantly in love when the babies first started arriving.

I would watch her with my first nephew. It was as if someone hit a light switch behind her eyes. They immediately went from vacant to brightly-lit. I swear they started to twinkle. When she was playing with her grandbaby, she was not self-conscious of what she couldn’t say or remember. Babies babble at best anyway. She was clearly at ease. She smiled. She tried to make the baby smile. She was joyful.

Less than two years later I would have my son, but I simultaneously plunged into the darkest time in my life. I didn’t even see my family until R. was 6 months old, and I was struggling too much to notice whether my mom seemed interested in him. I was mostly consumed with the fact that I’d had no mother to lean on as I became a mother, and I hadn’t yet made any peace with who my mom — or I — was now.

During this recent visit, I took little victories. Like when she, of her own accord, joined R. and me when we went across the street to say hi to our neighbor. And when R. and my dad were chatting in the backyard for nearly an hour, she had been so curious about what they were talking about that had gotten up off the couch, and went outside to sit with them. And later that day, I had to try not to jump for joy when she made a request — a rare expression of desire — that I could help her with. It was the small things — like asking for toast and eggs, or a decaf latte — that hinted at the person that was still there. I wanted to celebrate and say, “Yay Mommy! You have an appetite this morning! You would like to enjoy a cup of coffee! Yay! I would be so happy to do this for you!” Something warned me that expressing this might scare her into retreating back into herself, where all I’d be left with of her, would be those vacant eyes. So instead I played it cool and casual. Like it was no big deal that she had chosen to re-emerge, that something in her brain had clicked for that moment.

Now, more than four years from when R. was born, I see it. I see how much she loves my kid. And that this directly correlates to how much she must love me. Even though I grew up mostly feeling like she hated me, I see now that it was her mental illness that had gotten in the way of her love. Even though I could not understand why she had tried to kill herself when she had had a loving family, I see now that her actions didn’t mean that she didn’t love us. I see her, I accept her, and I love her as she is. I am so thankful that she survived. I am so happy to see her light up around her grandchildren. I know she loves my brother and me as well, but, I think it’s different for her as our mother. I think there is shame and guilt that keeps her mostly withdrawn from us. But she gets to start anew with her grandkids. And really — she is the most easily impressed, unconditionally loving grandmother there ever was.

The way I see it, there is an unmistakable connection that runs through my mom’s mental illness and my childhood, to my own excruciating entrance into a motherhood marked by years of postpartum depression. What’s most curious is that the people I had previously considered as having been the source of my trauma — my mom and my son (through his birth) — are now revealing themselves as keepers of my heart and healing.

Dots do connect in hindsight and life does come full circle. This is not a clean and pain-free path. It likely won’t go according to any plan or expectations. But as long as I keep going, I believe I will get somewhere.

(Initially published on Not Safe For Mom Group.)

I am a mama, writer, yoga teacher, and mental health advocate.
More posts by Leah Kim.

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