in its deepest being
is something helpless
that wants help
— Rainer Maria Rilke
I began listening to my mother when she was dying. She had never listened to me. In the end, I decided I was the one who needed to listen.
Our relationship after my father died had been stormy. It had taken many years for me to stand up to her. But as an adult, I was still too busy resenting not being listened to by her to realize what needed to happen.
In her last years, her digestive system seemed to give out. She had an operation, and metastatic tumor cells were found in her abdomen. The errant cells appeared to be gynecological in origin, but no obvious source was found.
Wherever the primary tumor was, it was microscopic, sneaky. My mother began a long, slow decline. I went with her from doctor to doctor, searching for answers.
Once, a physician said, “You didn’t remarry after your husband died? But you were still a relatively young woman.”
I had been eight when my father died, my mother 45.
She pointed at me.
“That’s the reason I never remarried,” she said.
I don’t remember where I got the idea of just listening, but surely from someone very wise.
I would visit her in the condo my sister and I had bought her. She still liked to cook for me, even though she had no appetite.
I’d finish the meal, say “That was good,” and wait.
She’d begin by finding something to criticize. That had usually provoked an argument, but now I just listened and nodded. Eventually she’d change the subject. She’d talk about her life. She’d tell me things.
“I did something when I was a girl that I’ve never told anyone,” she said once.
Her father had sold ice on the street in New York. He spoke with a thick, Eastern European accent that embarrassed her.
Once she was with a group of her friends and saw him up ahead walking toward her.
“Let’s cross the street,” my mother said to her friends.
She led the group to the other side of the street, the side away from her father, and continued walking without acknowledging him.
“I have such shame about that,” she said, beginning to cry.
I don’t write about my mother often, but a year ago in a guest post on Daily Plate of Crazy, I mentioned how in the end I’d begun to listen to her. Kat Wilder responded to that post with this comment:
The most important thing I’ve ever done was sit down with my mom and ask her what she dreamed of, how being a wife and a mother changed her, whether she was happy in her marriage, etc. To know her not just as my mom, but as a woman, wife and mother, how she saw herself. I encourage everyone to do that; you’ll be amazed at what you’ll discover.
When we realize our parents were once little kids who wanted the same thing from their parents that we wanted from our parents — to be loved, to be nurtured, to be accepted — and perhaps didn’t get it, we see them through different eyes. More compassionate eyes.
My mother got more and more sick, and didn’t seem to be able to take nourishment. Her G.I. tract shut down.
After she died, I sat down with one of the elder surgeons I knew, and described her case.
“I’ve seen this once before,” he said. “There’s no explanation for it. It’s as if the belly has turned to stone.”
TALKING TO NICK
Whenever Nick comes to me to talk, I stop whatever I’m doing. I become serious and deliberate and slow.
“Yes, Nick?” I say.
Sometimes Nick stammers, and I want him to know he can take as much time to talk as he wants.
I’m not always so good at listening to Nick. This morning he exploded at me because the breakfast I had made him wasn’t right.
“Fix it now!” he said.
“I can’t fix anything when I’m spoken to like that,” I said. “I need some time to myself.”
I left him and went into my study.
I wish, at such moments, I could remember that Nick is another child who needs to be loved, nurtured, accepted. Perhaps I’d still do the same thing, but it would be better if I held that version of Nick in my head while I was doing it, rather than the spoiled brat version I was holding on to this morning.
What we choose to fight is so small, wrote Rilke.
What fights us is so great.
YOU MIGHT ALSO ENJOY:
Two daughters reflect on their mothers:
How I Learned to Love My Mother (Perils of Divorced Pauline)
It Takes Two Hands to Hold the Mirror Steady (Big Little Wolf)
Image Credit: Sweet Heart © by Jude Wadler. You can view more of Jude’s lovely art at HeyJudeArt, where it’s available for purchase. (Used by permission.)
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