My Mother Died (And then she Actually Died)

I always anticipated this day would come, but I never could have predicted how it actually played out. I always imagined I’d just get a call or an email from a stranger a few months after it happened and I’d say, “oh, it happened,” — but that’s not how it went at all.

I was estranged from my mother for 24 years, which is longer than we had ever been familial. My mother was complicated, narcissistic, manic at times, embarrassing, attention seeking, difficult — but she was also incredibly sad. I knew she had trauma, but didn’t know much about what it was. I knew she wasn’t “normal,” but I didn’t have the words to explain how. People liked her and she could be charming and very generous. But the biggest thing I remember about being her daughter — the thing that overshadowed everything else — was the excruciating feeling of knowing that she did not want to be my mother. That painful feeling tainted almost everything she said and did and I cannot remember a time that I wasn’t aware of it.

The estrangement began during my parents’ divorce. She was finally free, and she more or less disappeared. For her, living her best life meant not being a mother, and she told me that explicitly. I’ve always felt bad that she didn’t have the same choices women have now, but she had four kids, all of whom she had a strained relationship with or no relationship at all.

I spent my late teens and the majority of my 20s grieving the relationship I wished for and accepting my identity as “motherless.” I would have internal tantrums seeing girls fight with their mothers at the mall. They didn’t know how badly I wished for a mother who cared enough to fight with me over which shoes to buy. I had no rebuttal for people who heard my story and would say “But you’re beautiful! Your mother must love you! I’m sure you can work it out!” I had multiple therapists tell me they could not believe I was a functioning adult. I spent my 30s finding my footing as that motherless person, knowing her presence was always haunting me and informing my decisions. My mother had a unique super power in sabotaging anything I was good at — causing me to constantly question my worth and my ability to stick with anything long enough to develop skills or confidence. She always told me things would be too hard for me and not to try. When I was 28, a therapist diagnosed me with masochism, having carried my mother’s sadistic tendencies all the way with me into adulthood, even though she was no where to be found. I was now sabotaging myself.

So there we were, estranged for 24 years, and I felt absolutely no connection to her. I thought I was done grieving her. She was already dead to me and had been for longer than she was in my life. Exactly three minutes before my own therapy appointment on Halloween morning I got a text from my brother, who I rarely hear from (he is, afterall, busy being the world’s most famous Dressage trainer). He said he needed to talk to me and that it was important. It still didn’t register. I knew my dad was visiting him and thought he might need help communicating with him because he’s hard of hearing. I said I could call after my appointment, but after I hit “send,” I realized something could really be wrong and if so, I should know before my therapy appointment. So I called him.

At that point I was expecting to hear that she was dead, and that maybe she had been dead for a while. But what he told me was that she was in hospice with advanced lung cancer and expected to die any minute.

Well, shit.

“Where is she,” I asked, thinking that we’d at least have to go take care of her affairs, sell her house, and honor whatever her burial wishes were (maybe that was compartmentalization but I do have compassion and I’m good in a crisis). She wasn’t my mom, but I wondered “do I still have to be her daughter?”

That’s when he told me there was nothing for us to do because our mother was in a cult and had nothing to her name. She was living in their facility and had left them anything she had. They had power of attorney and wouldn’t disclose where she was. There was truly nothing for us to do but wait for her to die. I was shocked to learn about the cult, but once that information settled, I realized how appropriate it all seemed. This was a woman who isolated herself from everyone, who never sought real help, but yet was incredibly desperate to be understood, loved, and accepted. It made sense that she traded all her belongings for that promise. In some way, I came to accept that if these were truly her people, then she was dying in the right place.

In the days that followed, we waited and waited and wondered, “shouldn’t it have happened by now?” I kept thinking that every odd noise, breeze, or shadow must be her either saying goodbye or letting go. I woke up every morning wondering “did it happen?” It was exhausting and tormenting. It was hard to eat. I had a six day long headache. My back was killing me with shooting pain. For being so disconnected for so long, I certainly felt her presence everywhere and in everything. It was completely disorienting, but she held on for almost a whole week!

I thought I was done with bereavement, but suddenly the humanity of her came alive. I thought about the fact that she was once just a child, and most likely a very hurt child not unlike myself. I wondered if she was holding on with hope that one of us would come be with her or something more sinister — like waiting to die on my sister’s birthday, which, for reasons I won’t go into now, would have been absolutely epic and almost respectably sinister.

Whatever the reason, or lack of reason, and true to my mother’s sadistic tendencies, it felt like she was unconsciously torturing us all in this week of not knowing — but I’m not upset about that — it felt appropriately sad, a little petty, and almost comically evil— she got to die exactly how she lived.

When I unexpectedly got a call from “Sensible Cremations” the following week asking for my legal consent to cremate her, I realized, she wasn’t my mom but I still had to be her daughter.

Oprah once said that “life begins at 40,” and I believe that. If my 20s were for grieving, and my 30s were for coming to terms with what I was given, I suppose my 40s will be a decade of living it. I am me in spite of her, and I am also me because of her.