A Yay! Boo! Story
NotL Rants column, The Niagara Advance
At this time of year, when the idea of ‘mother’ is all dolled up in ribbons and decked with flowers and sugar, I am at a loss. How do I celebrate the woman who was more cat to my dog than mother to me? And why bother, really, because she won’t remember or appreciate anything I do; will likely credit one of her imaginary friends for any gift I send; doesn’t even know what time of the year it is, what year it is, who I am.
My mother was many-faceted: feminist, career woman, award-winning copywriter at the top ad firms, artist, parent. She talked to animals (a trait I’m proud to have inherited), believed in everyone but herself, and was a dedicated alcoholic. She didn’t struggle with her drinking, she embraced it. Particularly later in life, when, rather than killing her as she’d hoped, alcohol simply took away her beautiful, agile, delightful and addled mind.
Mum currently lives on the east coast, where she was shipped after a well-intended but very dangerous amateur
detoxification at the hands of her sister and a friend. She is now physically challenged, and mentally absent: the official diagnosis is Korsakov’s Disease. Her short-term memory is non-existent, and her history is remembered through clouds. Her brother, who has assumed her care, has applied to have her installed in a nursing home in Halifax, thousands of miles from my brother and I and our wishes.
It isn’t surprising that such a conflicted life should lead to more of the same. Mum was happy/sad, good/bad. She herself invented the ‘yay/boo’ story, which eventually applied to her: Once upon a time there was a delightful, intelligent and beautiful woman. Yay! But she drank herself into and out of a marriage, out of a career, and out of her mind. Boo!
She was sweet, with a face made for smiling, easy laughter I hear in my own, maker of paper pirate hats and host of taffy pulls and gourmet meals. Yay! She was face down on the living room floor, often. We wondered if she was dead or just unconscious; call an ambulance, or just move her? We learned moving her was usually the best thing. My brother and I (mostly my brother) somehow getting her safely to bed. We’d count the cigarette holes burned into her duvet cover in the morning, and joke that it was a good thing she slept on a waterbed. Boo.
Throughout my childhood, Mum let go of us, and reality, after 7 pm. And then after 5, 3, noon…permanently.
She was gone gone gone. She still is, but now I have to make sure she’s cared for, safe, as happy as she can be.
The conflict of her life and our relationship continues, as I try to reconcile what she was with what she is, and what she will be next. That she needs institutionalisation is beyond question. Do I challenge her brother’s Power of
Attourney (given while she was mentally unstable) and fight to have her put in a home nearby? (Yay!) Or do I give
up, say goodbye as best I can now, and let her go? (Boo.)
Psychologists live in mansions lined with our mothers’ faults. My mother would tell a chilling story of her own
childhood: She and her sisters and brother would play with their neighbours in the streets of their upscale North
Toronto neighbourhood. As dusk fell, one by one the kids would be called in for dinner by their parents. Mum and
her siblings were left to play alone, as night fell and their parents dreamt their own dark and drunken dreams.
That was her then, and it never left her. She was haunted, still is. This is her now, and it haunts me. The questions
haunt me: What to do? First, I know I need to forgive her for what she did (and didn’t do) to me, and to herself. I want to celebrate who she was, the spirit of who she still is. I want, more than anything, to make her safe and comfortable and as happy as she can be. Yes, I want to parent her, to be the warm, coddling mother-model of the Hallmark world. I want to call her in from the dark outside. But.
Some of the best parents I’ve encountered insist they succeed with benign neglect: Trust the kid has their own best interests at heart, teach them the basics, and let them fly on their own wings—with some nurturing meals and a good education, of course. So what does that look like for me, now? How do I give my barmy, ill mum what’s best for her?
I wonder, but I can’t wonder. I can only do.
I had to walk away a number of times, but I can’t walk away now. This Mother’s Day, I begin a real celebration of
my mother’s conflicted spirit: I will fight my uncle for ‘custody’ of the woman who gave me so much. And took
away so much too. She taught me to garden, to talk to birds, and to love nature. She also taught me to play solitaire from dawn to dusk, on a computer or with cards, didn’t matter. She taught me to write, engage and appreciate, and to drink myself to sleep. She taught me to be determinedly independent—one of her most adamant issues, and one of my most painful. I have her easy laugh, and her deep depressions. I am as easily overjoyed by life as devastated by it, as she always was. She is, most absolutely, my mother. So I can only do the best with what I have, as she did with me. I can celebrate her, conflicts and all, and fight for what I believe will make her happy. Yay?