Jennifer Watts: I am not my mother

By Jennifer Watts

Picture / Rod Emmerson
Picture / Rod Emmerson

One year on from her mother's death Jennifer Watts asks why she feels no sense of loss

My mother died and I feel nothing.

Inside I'm a white canvas, a hollow devoid of feeling. There is a blankness which should be filled with a riot of screaming colour and mad strokes. I worry I'm heartless.

Something feels wrong with feeling nothing. It seems ridiculous and is surely untrue. I want to call this hollow a calmness built on the back of wisdom - I've spent 40 years learning to live with and love a mother wrecked by alcohol and drug addiction.

People who know me and know her, murmur their condolences. "I'm not sad," I say - and I am sure I mean it.

"No matter what, she's still your mother," they reply. It's a line I get stuck on. Because she is, she was, my mother - without the mothering.

I visited her three weeks before she died. The throat cancer was a lump the size of a golf ball, sticking out incongruously from the side of her neck.

After a biopsy it was covered by a bandage, which did nothing to make it less visible. I had a hard time not staring at it.

Her frame, always small, had shrunk to half its size. She was bird-like and frail and the size of a child under the hospital blanket. Her face was drawn thin and the haggardness was there in deep lines, telling me what I already knew about her life.

There has always been a hardness to her face that I had often taken, maybe mistakenly, for something bordering on meanness. When I was a little girl I saw that meanness in her eyes and was afraid of it. It took me years to realise that what I was looking at was likely only her own fears and insecurities.

She had every right to those fears and insecurities. Her own childhood was one that hurt to hear. I garnered only snippets here and there over the years. She was the eldest of six children, living dirt-poor in a small North Island country town. Her own father was a drunk and though he worked hard as a labourer, he was also a hard man. My mother was sexually abused at a young age, did poorly at school and ended up married young, to the wrong man, with two children by the age of 19.

She went on to have five children to three different men. My twin brother and I were the two she kept by her side as she journeyed through a life of addiction and dysfunction.

She told us we were the lucky ones not to be given away. In her darker moments she threatened to put us into the foster care system. We sometimes silently wished yes - thinking, there has got to be better than this. Then, in some twisted logic, we were terribly grateful when she chose to keep us and stay on as mother. Better the devil you know.

She was never physically abusive, yet her neglect stands out as violent as any visible scar.

She wasn't one to share. I had the briefest glimpses into her past, enough to give me understanding about why she became the person she was and the mother she wasn't.

Her cancer spread quickly and she died within weeks. At her funeral the celebrant said she had a peaceful end. Really?

I felt for the celebrant. She had little to work with. How to honour a life that was not lived honourably. What to say about a woman who gave little of herself and what little she gave mostly venom and vitriol. I couldn't help the celebrant write a better eulogy, because I was stuck myself.

How can death be peaceful when peace was never made? Am I missing the miracle of a deathbed confession and cleansing of body, mind and soul? Something to free her spirit to move on to a better place. I don't think I missed it. I don't think it happened. I don't know where she has gone on to. The thought scares me.

At her funeral, my twin said it best when he chose to speak not about our mother at all. He spoke to the grandchildren instead. He told them to make good choices in the big things and especially in the small things. Strangers may remember you for the glorious act or the huge achievement. However, what really counts to those you love and surround yourself with every day is the small kind things you do - every day.

My mother reaped the consequences of a life lived hard. It was never my job to make her into something different from what she was. Perhaps she was capable of change but the insidious nature of addiction - to alcohol, to drugs, to men - stole her willingness.

Death isn't pretty, although there is beauty in its rawness. Like birth, it's a time when everything is just as it is, no dressing in pretence. It should be a privilege to be at either, precious moments framed with love and cherished memories and hope for what's to come and for what lies beyond.

Ours was a relationship with fragile layers, complicated and at times overwhelming in its emotional dysfunction.

Those intense troughs of my early years, when my mother wasn't there or didn't care, drove me to the edge of sanity. While we never stepped over that cliff, I know how violence happens. I grew up frustrated and sometimes desperate. My saving grace was an inexplicable core of hope and belief that things would get better.

The time I spent at her hospital bedside was strained and shallow. I've spent our life together pretending nothing was wrong. I've spent our time apart dwelling on everything that was wrong. Why did I think it was going to be different at the end?

In those last minutes together, I made my own peace with her by acting kind. I made ordinary conversation about the things I knew she was interested in: her plants, her dog. I avoided the topics we should have, if we could have, resolved many years earlier.

As I walked out of her hospital room, I told her I loved her. I'm not sure I meant it. Despite the chasm of things left unsaid churning inside, my shallow words would have brought her some kind of peace and I know, despite the acting, I did good.

The void I feel is disturbing but also welcome. After all, if I'm not burying things from the past, then perhaps this hollow is not heartlessness but a canvas made blank by some anaesthetic salve I'm going to choose to call forgiveness and healing.

I look to my children and husband and feel a rush that reassures me. My heart still beats and my spirit lives with colour. I am not my mother.

Jennifer Watts writes part-time and lives in Hawkes Bay. She has an interest in helping at-risk teens and disadvantaged children.

- NZ Herald

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