Today would have been her 95th birthday.
When my brother called me early on that one morning in August 1999, to tell me that she had died in the night, I was relieved. Hugely relieved. It was over, I was free. Finally.
I have a memory of that day, of myself dancing, slowly swinging my body around by the open patio door, humming along to some imaginary music, raising my arms into the hot summer air. But maybe that was just in a dream. My boss at the time gave me a week off and warned me to take it easy, that no matter what, I would be shattered. It's the hardest experience, he warned me, the death of your mother. His words. Not mine. I wasn't shattered. Not then, not now, not once since her death.
There was no funeral, she had donated her body to science. She announced this decision the same way she always announced her threats, of starving herself to death, of jumping off the roof, in front of a train, down a bridge, swallowing ground glass, or sharpening the fruit knives. Nothing was ever without drama, nothing was ever normal. This one, she followed through. We did not stop her.
There was a short memorial service, siblings, a cousin, a neighbour from long ago, one of my brother's old school friends. As expected, my father didn't come.
For a child of an addict growing up is hard work. It marks you. It marked me, for life. Something sitting inside my chest that will never lift. Never allowing me to feel good enough. The smell of stale cigarette smoke coming from a woman makes me wish I could walk away. If I can, I run. But most of the time, I stay, try to be polite. Try to be good. Always trying to be good.
It has taken me years to understand that my mother had not simply been a careless addict but that she had been suffering beyond my comprehension. That all her angry rants, her harsh punishments of our never ending faults, her endless physical ailments, imagined or real, always headaches, back pains, colicky stomach, her inability to eat a proper meal while at the same time forcing us to finish what's on our plates, all her special diets and bottles of medicines on the kitchen window sill beside the full ashtrays, that all of that was part of something so much bigger.
I have no name for it, I cannot call it depression, sometimes I tend to call it PTSD. And under my breath, behind closed doors, I whisper, the war, the war. While just as easily, I could whisper, the nazi childhood, or, the glass ceilings all along her way, or, her 1960s unhappy housewife valium and martini days. Or. Or. Or.
But what I can say now, one month before my 63rd birthday, what I know with certainty is that it was not my fault. I played no part in it. I just happened to be one of her kids. And it has taken me, oh, so many years to understand and accept that.
Addiction is a disease. But
often we don’t see it that way. We see only the bad
behavior, the actions that wound and betray us. And yes, she did all that. And I admit that much. The wounds will never heal.