We were almost home from our walk last night, enjoying the cool breeze and the last remaining bits of sunlight. The dogs stopped to leave one final “calling card” on their favorite bush.
“Did I ever tell you how I got this scar on my elbow?” Jim said, looking off into the backyard of the house in front of us.
“I don’t think so,” I answered, although he has, and several times in fact, but I thought he might need to tell it again.
“Well, it was right here,” he said, “before this house was built of course, this was all a huge field of grass and tall weeds, but there was a dirt path worn through from bikers. I was riding across, fell off my bike, and landed on some jagged piece of glass which cut my arm.”
“So, what did you do?” I asked.
“Got back on my bike and rode home – really fast!, because it was bleeding a lot,” he answered. “I remember my buddy Fred calling out to me, but I didn’t even answer.”
“Did you get stitches?”
He laughed dryly. “No. I didn’t even tell anybody. I just got some band aids and went into my room and fixed it up myself.”
“Gee,” I replied. “I was always falling off my bike when I was a kid, and I’d be screaming and crying for my mom all the way home. My mother said she could hear me coming for blocks.”
“Well, that was you,” he answered. “I just had to comfort myself.”
My husband’s been telling me a lot of those stories lately, and I suppose it’s part of coming to terms with his mother’s imminent death. If you read here at all regularly, you’ll know that their relationship was not particularly close or loving, was in fact characterized by a lot of unrealized expectations (on her part) and guilt (on his). When her dementia progressed to the point that she no longer recognized him or remembered his existence, I think he felt freer than he ever felt in his life.
But as I look at her now, hovering near the end of a life that never seemed quite what she wanted it to be, I can only feel empathy for her. After all, no one sets out to be a bad mother, no one aims to drive their children crazy, or purposefully withholds the love and nurturing they need. (Well, I suppose some people do, but they’re simply psychopathic). I honestly believed she loved Jim with all her heart…she simply didn’t know how to express it in a way that was meaningful to him.
Sometimes people can only love as much as they’ve been loved. The stories I’ve heard about her father revolved around his rules – for behavior at the dinner table, for keeping strict curfews. She’s often told the tale of being locked outside for the entire night because she was five minutes late getting home. And then she married a man twenty years her senior, a man whom she addressed in their early correspondence as “Pop,” a man who was neither affectionate, nor humorous, nor given to indulgence or enjoyment. Their marriage was always fractious and contentious – I never once heard them exchange a kind word.
A chilly childhood and a loveless, bitter marriage are probably not the best ingredients for good mothering.
Nevertheless, sitting by her bedside I’m always moved to tears, mostly for her and for the happiness she couldn’t seem to find. She has lingered with this wretched illness for so long… six years now of drifting farther out to sea every day…and I wonder what divine plan this could possibly be part of.
So I come home and hug my own mother, whose love has comforted me so well all my life, and hug my husband, who has lots of overdue comfort coming to him.
And I wish I could hug my son. But I hope that I’ve comforted him well when he needed it.