Saturday, August 27, 2016

The Gift

My mother died two weeks ago today. I hadn't spoken to her in nine years. When I heard that she was ill, I was surprised to learn that she had recently moved back to Michigan after years in Utah and Arizona. She has asked some of my relatives not to say anything to me about the move. I visited her on Friday the 12th, and she died as I pulled into the parking garage at the hospital on Saturday the 13th. That may sound quick, but I assure you that it wasn't. My experience with cancer to this point involves the victim writhing in pain for days until they die. My father died that way, and my mother's last days were no exception. I'm beginning to think that the cancer deaths I have read about from other survivors about their relatives dying peacefully in their sleep are complete fiction.

My mother and I were estranged for several reasons. First, she was an alcoholic and inflicted emotional pain without a second thought. If she felt wronged in any way, she would hit you where she knew she could do the most harm. She wielded the precision of a surgeon. I swore, in writing, when my wife and I adopted our daughter that my mother would have no contact with her. Second, she was a gambling addict. She once borrowed $500 from me and then filed bankruptcy, listing me as a creditor. How did I find this out? Via a letter from her lawyer. Third, for five years she allowed me, from ages 7 to 12, to be beaten by a man that she married without lifting a finger to protect me. He beat me, punched me, kicked me, and once pulled my fingernail off with a pair of pliers. And that's just the physical abuse. She at least did me the small favor of allowing me to go live with my father after my 12th birthday, because, in her words, "I thought he was going to kill you." I'm going to spare you the most gruesome details. Just understand that I (and my brother, too) went through things that no child should ever have to experience, and no child on my watch ever will again.

Although after I went to live with my father my life was relatively normal, the effects of abuse are long-lasting and if they're not dealt with, they will come back and bite you. I grew up cynical, sarcastic, unwilling and sometimes unable to trust people, especially when religion was involved. The oft-quoted, "Spare the rod, spoil the child" was one of my stepfather's favorite lines. Every day, I fight a war inside myself. So far, I've won most of the battles. The ones I have lost have been costly, especially in terms of friends and family I have alienated. I can't overemphasize how important my friends are to me. Those of you who've stuck with me have my most heartfelt thanks. You have no idea of the depth of my fondness for you.

Now, my mother's house is my responsibility. No one else wants to deal with it, and it falls to me to see that her heirs receive fair shares of whatever is left of her estate after her creditors have been paid. There won't be much, but I'll be darned if I'll just let the bank take everything. So far, I have gone through all of her papers, finding no will. I've sorted through photographs and every shred of paper that my late sister ever touched. My mother kept everything to do with her and her youngest son. There was nothing among my mother's things to do with my brother or me, her sons. We found a few scraps among my sister's things. That sounds about right. Yet here I am, doing my familial duty. Would that my mother had had that same sense of duty.

In the past few years, I have been at peace with my childhood. I have worked to become a positive force in my classroom. I wish I had been for more of my career, but honestly, I did the best I could. Being a father forced me to take a good, long look at my behavior and make a big adjustment. I wish I'd done it sooner. Am I a great teacher/person? God, no. But I do okay with the tools I have. Every day I reflect on the stupid and careless things I have said. I never let anything go. I hold onto every mistake so I don't make them again. I know I'm supposed to forgive myself. Trust me, I know how that's supposed to work, but that's not how I'm wired. I was conditioned from age seven to not make mistakes for fear of being beaten. It's a survival instinct developed over a long period of time. It's not going away. I just make do as best I can and for a while, I was doing okay.

All my thoughts of progress and well-being went out the window the day my mother died. Going through her house with the stench of cigarette smoke and cases of beer still on the dining room floor and finding gambling receipts and photos of the man who beat me just sent that feeling of accomplishment right out the window. For the past two weeks, I have dreamed every night of that time. I wake up in cold sweats, and actually have to remove my soaked t-shirt so I can go back to sleep for a little longer. I've been averaging six hours or less for a while now. And tomorrow, it's back to that house again after a week away. I have to take care of it until it's sold. We're going to have an estate sale next weekend to clear out the garage sale crap that she filled it with. Whatever doesn't sell goes to Goodwill or the dump. We have the important papers and family photos. I hope to hell the place sells fast so I can put this behind me again and get back to what's important. That's an equally frustrating part of this. I haven't been able to focus on my comics work while this has been going on. I'm hoping I can learn to compartmentalize it so I can keep making progress at least.

My brother and I have had a running joke for a while that the abuse we suffered is "the gift that keeps on giving." I could have done without this final gift.


Jenny Wagatha said...

You have no idea how proud I am of the husband, father and friend you are! Love you!

Ritch Hall said...

I know how hard this has been. I have always considered you a remarkable person. I guess now that I'very learned more about your history I am more impressed by all that you have overcome and how you channel that history into being an extraordinary person. My thoughts are with you Jim as you put this last chapter behind you. May you find some peace in this process when it is over.