Talking about a mother’s heart is a schizophrenic experience for me. There I’ll be, talking about how full mine is, or how broken – because I am a mother to these people – and then I’ll remember so pointedly that it’s not true “because” I am a mother, because my own mother and plenty like her do not have these feelings.
My son is estranged from our family. He disappeared from us entirely in 2005, into New York City. I was living there too, and not knowing where or how we was doing made me feel, every single day, like I would die from it. From the fear, from the heartache, from the worry. I emailed him every single day, without fail, never knowing if he got them. For a brief period I discovered where he worked and would stand on the opposite corner, where he wouldn’t see me, and just watch. “Ah, he looks OK. Today he looks OK.” He held all the cards and all the power, and my fear was that if he saw me he would quit that job and then I wouldn’t even know that much about him. And so I’d watch from a distance because knowing that he was alive mattered more than the rest.
Thanks to my oldest daughter’s efforts, he rejoined our family, tentatively, for about a year, and we said some of the things to each other that we needed and wanted to say, and then he disappeared again and simply will not respond to any of us. The last time I saw him was August of last year (he lives a few blocks from me in NYC) and he doesn’t answer our calls, never responds to our texts or emails, he just stays away. When will I see him again? Will I? Will I hear from him ever again?
It’s a very hard thing to talk about for so many reasons. Too many parents respond with judgment and cold assumptions, they make thoughtless remarks. I do not need anyone to remind me—ever—that I have made mistakes in every avenue of my life, including parenting. I imagine some parents respond in judgment because it lets them feel safe: she must have done something so bad to deserve this and I know I haven’t, so it won’t happen to me. I hope it doesn’t, it’s excruciating. But I don’t and never will regret the thing I did that precipitated his leaving nine years ago, even if I never see him again. I felt that way then and I feel that way now. He was in a bad place and I tried to save his life, knowing very well that he might never forgive me. But he would be alive in the world and I decided I would live with that.
What is wrong with me – all the other mothers talk about their kids, complain about this little thing or that little thing, oh those kids – and I have this one who chooses to be gone. My heart is broken every single day, missing a chamber, dead in spots from lack of blood there. I feel shame and sorrow and impossible loss, and exquisite pain that every single day he makes the decision not to be in our family. I have a friend who understands personally what this feels like, and just having that little spot of true understanding has been such an experience of grace. And I got a note from one of my daughters with an expression of compassion that was so profound I’m bleaching out the pixels in her email from reading it over and over and over. There is such a balm from compassion and empathy from your adult children, I’m telling you. You wait a long, long time, hoping that someday they understand things, and sometimes they do.
Once in a blue moon I remember that my own mother and I have no connection – I haven’t seen or spoken to her since spring of 1987, and I won’t see or speak to her ever, for any reason. I won’t go to her funeral, if I even get the news that she dies. Is my son’s absence about the universe coming around to smack me down? How can my estrangement from my mother and my son’s estrangement from me have anything at all to do with each other, the situations could not be more different, and yet I am the common point to both. Pain ripples out a very long time from old boulders thrown into deep lakes, and maybe Will’s estrangement is a long slow ripple.
I have absolutely no idea what the pain of a child’s death is like. I watched my grandmother deal with my father’s death, and I watched my daughter deal with her daughter’s death. That’s a place I hope I never learn personally, I cannot even imagine. I’ve heard widowed and divorced women talk about which is worse – “At least yours died and didn’t leave you!” “At least yours could always come back!” – and there’s just more than enough sad truth in both losses. I am so glad my son is alive, and there is a cutting horrible pain in his choosing this.
Life is a mess and so are we as we try to live it. We fuck up out of ignorance, out of shortsightedness, out of our own brokenness, out of being human, and things are not always neat — maybe they never are neat. I try to extend that same understanding to my son, that he is perhaps fucking up out of his ignorance, his shortsightedness, his own brokenness, his humanity, and his life is not neat. Unlike my mother with me, my love for my son endures and will be echoing inside me to my last breath, whatever happens with him in the interim. And I am every day filled to the brim with love and appreciation for my beautiful daughters, I cannot neglect to say that.