My mom loved frogs.
Yesterday was Mother’s Day. That is a hard day for me, both because I lost my children and am no longer their mom and because of losing my mom. My mom and I had a strained relationship most of my life, but things changed the last few years of her life. She was diagnosed with bipolar II and got started on meds. She became a whole new person.
My mom was emotionally and physically abusive to me when I was growing up. For the most part I never knew what would set her off. There were things I knew that if I did them I’d get yelled at, sometimes even smacked around. Those were easier to avoid. But when she was on what I now realize was a manic episode, she’d get angry and lash out without control.
I was a child of the 80s and 90s. This was a time when child abuse wasn’t as well documented as it is now. (Though I think it’s too strict as to what’s considered “child abuse” now, but that’s another thing altogether.) I could show up to school with bruises and no one batted an eye. I got very adept at lying and telling people I fell down, I ran into a wall, things like that. I was labeled a klutz. I was already naturally clumsy so no one really paid attention to me.
I was also a very isolated child. This one wasn’t really because of my mom. It had more to do with my issues with social anxiety. I didn’t connect well to children my own age and preferred books to dealing with people. My mom encouraged my reading, and that was one thing she left me alone while I was doing, so long as my chores were done.
My mom hid her mental illness very well from outsiders. None of her friends saw it. I don’t even think my dad knew what it was. But we kids knew. My older siblings often said I was spoiled, that I didn’t have to deal with what they did while they were growing up. The closest older sister to me is nine years older. She never talks about how bad mom was. Neither my brother nor my other older sister did either. They just kept claiming that I had it better. If what I had was “better” than what they dealt with, I’m frightened to learn just how my mom behaved before I was born.
I alternated between living on my own and living with my parents as an adult. Usually living with my parents was because I was having difficulties dealing with life on my own. I was still struggling with my bipolar and didn’t always behave responsibly when it came to my meds. I was working temp jobs through multiple agencies and not getting far with my life. I’d dropped out of college because I couldn’t handle it. My parents were after me to get on with my life. One of my older sisters suggested Job Corps. I thought I was too old (I was 22), but the cut off age was 24 so I left for Washington.
I managed to survive a few days before my anxiety got so bad that I called my parents and told them I wanted to come home. My mom made it clear that if I came home without completing my trade training, I wouldn’t have a place to live unless I could get one of my siblings or my friends to let me couch surf with them. I felt abandoned and angry. I got off the phone and went into my dorm room. I couldn’t even vent my pain there because there were other girls in the room with me and I didn’t want to let them see me cry.
I graduated from Job Corps and went to live with my fiancé’s family. (He’s now my husband.) We had a rough time and when he came home, the two of us moved out on our own as soon as we could. We rented a trailer for a while, and then we moved in with some friends. One night, my fiancé and I got into a horrible fight. We broke up at that point. Thanks to my friends and my parents, I got a bus ticket from Seattle back to Boise. I was a total mess on that bus ride. I tried to read and keep my head down. I didn’t want to talk to anyone.
I got into Boise at 2 AM. My dad picked me up from the bus station. I got home and saw my mom was up. I expected a lecture and how I’d made a bad decision. Instead I got a hug and told I was worth so much. It blew me away. We talked until almost 7, when I finally managed to relax enough to get to sleep.
A few days later, I saw my mom taking pills I didn’t recognize. I asked her about them. She told me they were for her bipolar. I was stunned. My mom was just like me. She said that I inherited it from her, and that she was fairly certain that several members of her family had some sort of mental illness too. She told me that the meds helped her make the changes I saw. I was thrilled to finally have a mom I could trust.
My fiancé and I started talking again and ultimately we decided that he’d come down to Boise. So in January he arrived and moved in with my family. He and my mom got along very well. She treated him as if he was already part of the family. He stood up to her and the two of them became friends. My parents had made the “no sex” rule in the house, but my fiancé and I ignored that rule often. I think my dad was oblivious, but my mom knew. She’d knock on the family room door before walking in, giving us time to hide what we were doing. She never called us out on it.
Then my husband and I got married. She was ecstatic. None of us had a lot of money to spare, so we just got married at the courthouse with a few friends and my family with us. My mom threw a huge brunch at her house to celebrate the wedding, and then she and my dad helped my husband and me move into our apartment. This was in October.
The following April, we found out I was pregnant with my daughter Kathleen. My mom was ecstatic. We talked a lot about giving birth, taking care of infants, other mother-related things. It was an amazing experience. But through it all something was wrong. My mom was finding it harder to eat and sleeping became difficult because of the pain in her stomach.
For several months she tried talking to her doctor about it. He kept brushing her off, telling her to “get a hobby” and giving her even more of her anti-depressant. Finally my mom got pissed and went to another doctor. This one ordered a whole slew of tests. When they came back, the results were devastating. My mom had stage four stomach cancer and it had metastasized into every major organ in her abdomen and into her lymph nodes. Chemo would give her maybe 10% longer to live. She opted not to do it.
Instead of staying in the hospital or going to a nursing home, my mom came home. We thought she had a few months left. She hoped to be able to hold on long enough to see Katie born. Katie was due in two months after mom was diagnosed. She didn’t make it. My mom went from diagnosis to death in three weeks. I spent as much time as I could with her in those three weeks, including reading a short story to her that I’d written to deal with my pain at her impending death. The day after I read her the story, she slipped into a coma. She was dead by that night.
My mom has made a lasting impression on my life – both in a good way and a bad way. The good way showed me that perhaps I too could control my mental illness. The bad way in I’m still to this day dealing with the aftereffects of her abuse. I forgave her before she died, but the mental scars are still there. I still miss her, and probably will the rest of my life. The mental scars can heal, and I will be able to focus more on the good memories those last few years of her life.