I wrote the following post two Mother’s Days ago. My wife, Kim, and I have been uber-cautious during the Covid-19 pandemic, doing our best to keep ourselves to ourselves and the vectors within our control to an absolute minimum (which is everything except Kim’s return to her office last June as part of the Phase 1 reopening here in NY). This made 2020 something of a lost year in terms of the usual rituals of family life; to stay as safe as possible, there were no gatherings for Passover or Easter or Rosh Hashanah or Thanksgiving or Christmas or birthdays or—to bring it full circle—the sacred-to-many Mother’s Day.
This year, my mother-in-law was recovering from hip replacement surgery on Mother’s Day, so it was a quiet one spent with just me and Kim and a gargantuan strawberry shortcake from a local bakery. My mother-in-law is a woman and mother I’m indescribably grateful to have in my life. I really lucked out in that department. Next year, I’m hopeful we’ll be back to the Mother’s Day gathering she deserves, complete with grandkids and craft cocktails.
I’ve started this narrative at least 1,000 times. OK, 100. OK, 5. But you get the gist. Mother’s Day is a hard one for me. It is, as a friend put it in a wonderful text on Sunday, “not [my] most favorite.” It is fraught, which, to quote Merriam-Webster, means, “full or accompanied by something specific” (and never good) and “causing or characterized by emotional distress or tension.” And the archaic meaning, which ironically feels particularly relevant to me, “laden.”
Sunday was my fourth Mother’s Day without my mother. It’s not what you think. I didn’t lose her four years ago. Rather, I made a choice. It was not an easy choice—in my experience, estrangement is never an easy choice, though it’s one I’ve had to make more than once. Honestly, in a lot of ways, at least in all the ways I know, choosing to keep someone in your life and pretending everything is ok sounds much, much easier. It’s certainly much easier in social situations, with those people and even without them, especially at work, in which “How’s your <<insert estranged family member>> doing?” becomes its very own fight-or-flight moment. But I had reached a point, just about a month after my wedding, when I just couldn’t do that anymore and maintain my own mental health.
The immediate incident was my wedding itself. My mother had made me feel guilty about not “involving” her in my wedding (as if you could keep a Jewish mother from being involved), a very deliberate choice because my wife, Kim, and I wanted the day to be about us and only us (crazy, right?). And I thought, you should want your mother to be part of your wedding day. And your mother should be able to be there—fully there—for that day, for that one fucking sacred, exquisite day. So, I invited her in. I invited my mother to join us in our bridal suite and to do my makeup (i.e., mascara and lipstick, which was as far as I was willing to go and only willing because we were paying a shit ton for our unbelievably beautiful photos and I didn’t want to disappear in them) even though my stepsister—no, fuck the “step,” my sister—who’d come from Hawaii had offered to do my makeup, a much-needed bonding moment after a few years apart. The compromise I made was that my sister would do Kim’s makeup and my mom would do mine. It seemed simple enough. It wasn’t.
You see, my mother is, among other things, a drug addict. And on this particular day, she’d taken a combination of Ativan, Dilaudid, morphine, and I don’t even know what the fuck else, and she was stoned out of her fucking mind. Shaking, slurring, slumping out of her fucking mind. After she shuddered her way through my minimal makeup, she decided to change her clothes and stripped in front of everyone—including our wedding photographer, who had to turn her camera away—and my friend Eva, whom I’ll never be able to repay, had to help my naked-except-for-her-underwear mother out of and back into her dress. And Kim had to shout, not once, but twice, “Can everyone please put their clothes back on?” And everyone was my mom. And I. Couldn’t. Breathe.
I live with healthy doses of anxiety and depression. They run up and down both sides of my biological family, but it’s a mental health chicken-and-egg in my case to be sure. Was I anxious and depressed because my absent and abusive parents carried those genes or because my parents were absent and abusive?
I had to leave the room. Our niece—Kim’s older brother’s daughter—was braiding my hair in an impromptu styling decision that turned out to be genius, and I couldn’t breathe. I had to stop her halfway through. I had to flee the room. I had to empty my bowels in someone else’s private bathroom. I had to hide on the balcony and turn gray and green and tell Kim to get everyone the fuck out. And everyone was my mom.
That should have been enough. That and my entire childhood during which I was the best parent I ever had. That and the rest of the day that included her almost nose-diving into her dinner plate, nearly passing out in our bridal bed when my sister didn’t know where else to hide her, wandering in and out and in and out and in and out of photos. And not once apologizing for her behavior after the fact, just denying, denying, denying, and excusing, excusing, excusing. But—dayenu—it wasn’t.
What it took was learning—exactly five weeks after our wedding—that my stepfather had sexually abused his son, my stepbrother—no, fuck the “step,” my brother. It was a breaking point. I adored my stepfather. He was, for years, the father I never had. And then he wasn’t. I draw the line, and it’s not an arbitrary one, at sexually abusing children. It is the line I drew with my own father and the line I drew with my stepfather and the line I drew with my mother, who managed, out of four marriages, to marry at least two child molesters. That’s at least 50 percent of her husbands. And I say “at least” because I didn’t know her first husband, and her third husband was a pathological liar whom she moved in with us after one ice cream cone’s warning when I was eleven.
So, yeah, Mother’s Day is fraught for me. It’s heavy. It’s laden. But it’s also beautiful. It’s now a day spent with people I love and who love me and don’t expect me to pretend anything. This year, I was mourning Vinny, my cat love for more than 17 years, but I was also comforted knowing I was the best cat mom to him I could have been. And I was mourning my own mom, but I was also comforted being with Kim’s mom, who loves her kids fiercely and genuinely did the best she could for them. And I was comforted being with our sister-in-law, Kim’s younger brother’s wife, who was mourning her own mother who died last summer, while celebrating her first Mother’s Day as mom to our beautiful nephew, Baby Hugh. And it was raining and cold and gray and could easily have been miserable. But I ran out to the local Dollar Tree and bought rainbow-colored plastic leis and ran out to the local liquor store and bought a bottle of Armagnac to counteract the dreariness outside with orgeat-sweet Japanese Cocktails.
And it was—a surprise to me—a really good day. Fraught but good. That’s more than enough. Sometimes, that’s everything.
Carrying What’s Mine to Carry,
Jessica the Westchesbian
Jessica lives with her shiksa wife and geriatric cat in picturesque Tarrytown on the Hudson. Although a proud Westchesbian these days, Jessica grew up in Asheville, North Carolina, back when the opening of the Olive Garden and the 24-hour Walmart were big news. During business hours, Jessica’s a communications professional who translates highly technical concepts into clear, concise, colloquial language that media buyers and sellers can understand. Outside of business hours, she’s a poet, cat mom, wife, avid reader, and lover of questionable crime, sci-fi, and supernatural TV shows (preferably all in one), not necessarily in that order. Her poetry has appeared in Tin House, The Paris Review, LIT, and The Huffington Post, among others.