(This is a copy of a magazine article Rebecca had published in Feminist Broadcast Quarterly of Oregon, summer 1993.)
When an abusive mother dies, how does it affect her children?
Often, during my restless moods, I wonder about the people from my past. Sometimes, I dial telephone numbers, just to hear familiar voices. Sunday afternoon was no different, except that I dialed my mother’s telephone number. A phone call which I hadn’t made in over four years.
There had been exceptions. Occasionally, I have called only to hang up when I heard her voice on the other end of the line. My mother lived only thirty minutes away, yet she hadn’t called me since my nineteenth birthday. There hadn’t been Christmas or Thanksgiving invitation for nearly as long. A few years ago I received a package made from a paper grocery bag and taped with masking tape. The postman delivered it a week after Christmas. No return address. Upon opening it, I discovered a new shirt that my brother had left for me at my mother’s house. (He had hoped that someday I would humble myself enough to return to the family festivities.)
On that particular Sunday, I let the telephone ring for a long time. It was strange for her not to be home on a Sunday – perhaps my aunt had come by to take her out for the day. I had kept track of my mother’s whereabouts through my older sister. I also knew that Mom Had cancer. My siblings had been grieving over her health for years; my sister’s lamenting over Mom’s health no longer alarmed me.
Today was different. I dialed her number until late into the evening. Hours before my sister called to tell me that Mom was in the hospital, I already knew. The strain in my sister’s voice told me the seriousness of her call. I stayed on the telephone out of sibling duty and moderate concern for my mother. After the telephone call, I could not stop crying. Once again, I was reminded that I had no place in my family. As a courtesy to my mother, I was dropped from the family years ago. Her death would devastate each of one of us.
We were all children of abuse. Although I am still haunted by the years of my mother’s sexual abuse and physical torture, I am so different from my siblings. At sixteen years old, I stood up before my first audience and told them what it felt like to be an abused child. (Meanwhile, my siblings manage their memories through alcohol, abuse, loneliness, and hanging on to a dream image that they pretend to see in my mother’s face.)
My father died when I was twenty-two. His death freed me to publish my writing. At twenty-three, I co-authored a textbook on child abuse prevention. In college I wrote and taught a course on child abuse, both to graduate and undergraduate students. I thought that I had all of the answers. I became a “Wonder Child,” a lone survivor of mother-daughter sexual and physical abuse. Only one sister knew of my work in child abuse prevention.
During my mid-twenties, I juggled between my child abuse work and being a dutiful daughter. Every time I would see my mother, or hear her voice on the telephone, I trembled. I hadn’t been beaten since I left home at the age of sixteen, but I still feared her anger. Four years ago, I had attempted suicide.
I severed my ties with my mother and joined a Twelve Step Recovery program for Al-anon. My older sister continued to play “Daughter” to a woman who didn’t care about her. Over the years, I have felt sorry for my siblings. All of whom waited on my mother’s every need. I have watched them emotionally crumble; yet continue to gather year after year for family holidays. Now here I was, at thirty-two years old, crying over a dying woman who never cried for me.
When it came to family and feelings, I acted tough and uncaring. But after my sister’s telephone call, I was dazed and shattered over losing my mother. She was going to die without ever saying that she was sorry. My hope was that she would someday realize what she had done to her children and apologize. I wanted to be there for her day of reconciliation.
Now that her death was near, many decisions had to be made in a very short period of time. Along with a large tumor discovered in her stomach, she had also had a stroke. This left her in much confusion. As I was not included in her Living Will, I had no say as to her death, or her estate afterwards. My decisions were personal ones.
Should I go and see her? What about my siblings? What could I possibly say to them? Both of my brothers were abusive to my sisters and me. I never wanted to see them again.
My girlfriend Emily drove me to the hospital. Since Sunday afternoon, I had been a sleepless wreck. I rushed past my brother who was sitting outside of my mother’s hospital room. I went in the room alone. She was half conscious. Her eyes were open, but she did not know who I was.
Compassion overcame my anger and my fear melted as I held her hand. I stroked her cheek and whispered words of reassurance. She moved and whimpered from pain. I felt tears on my face and wondered why the doctors couldn’t keep her from suffering.
I sat by her bed and studied her shrunken body. Her hand gripped mine. I looked down on a hand much smaller than I remembered. Were these the fingers that used to grip my throat and squeeze so tight that I could not breathe? Were the scars across my lips made from these tiny fists? I felt strong sitting next to her tiny body.
For the first time, she was reaching out to me. It no longer mattered to me whether she knew me or not, her need was enough to release my anger.
My brother came into the room and kept a watchful eye on me. It was as if I were a stranger who had entered the wrong room. Ignoring him, I bent over and kissed her cheek. As a Pavlovian response, she puckered her lips. I kissed them as well. Stroking her aged face and graying hair, I said good-bye.
A week later, my mother died. I had left instructions with my mother’s nurse that I was to be notified of any changes. No one from my family called with the news.
More decisions had to be made. Should I go to the graveside funeral? How was I supposed to react to the death of this woman who was virtually a stranger? How could I face a gathering of family and friends in which I was not welcome? To my aunts and other relatives, I was a selfish daughter.
The graveside service was announced in the newspaper. No relatives called me to tell me where the funeral would be, but I decided to go anyway. With my friends Emily and Chris, I walked up to my mother’s coffin. The look on my siblings’ faces was of surprise and embarrassment. This was a funeral of pretense.
The minister said that he did not know my mother. After spending time with her children, he said that she must have been a wonderful mother. A woman who never said no to her children. A kind and giving woman, who now was with her Lord. I watched as my older brother knelt and prayed by the coffin.
None of my relatives would look at e. I felt as if in a dream, somehow invisible to the world. Clutching my friend’s hand, I managed to stay through the service. I looked at my family for one last time. Shame and anger choked in my throat.
For me, her death was the closing of a chapter long overdue. My anger died with her, and emotional freedom took its place. For my siblings, it is only the beginning. They have much to sort through. It still hurts to think that my family will have nothing to do with me. Perhaps, over time, they will learn to bury the horror of abuse alongside her grave.
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