When the Walls Come Down
By Pat Schwiebert, R.N.
My mother has been dead one year. I’ve been waiting for the anniversary day to come wondering how I would feel. That day, Wednesday, August 28, 2013 is seared into my heart. I can remember the tears and the laughter, the sounds and the smells, and the hilarious sidebars that only my mother could have conjured up so I wouldn’t forget this day.
I’ve had anniversary reactions before. Twenty seven years ago when our house was totaled by fire, we thought our son might have perished, only to find out two hours later that he was not in the house when the fire broke out. One year later, I experienced a strong anniversary reaction as I relived those feelings. I remember feeling heat when I touched the walls of our newly restored house that first anniversary, and when I was returning home from a run at daybreak I was sure I saw fire coming from the roof but it turned out it was just a street lamp that had not yet gone out.
Twelve months after my sister died, I remembered the date, but didn’t feel overly emotional. But the anniversary of my mom’s death was different. From the time I awoke I could feel tears close to the surface. A number of times throughout the year I had reviewed the four minute video I had made for her memorial service, without shedding a tear. But when I watched it again on the anniversary day the tears came. Just the mention of her name could open the floodgates. The strong emotions would quickly pass and I could then concentrate on other things. But I admit being resentful that I couldn’t spend as much time with my thoughts as I wanted to. I didn’t need to be acknowledged by others. 70 year old orphans don’t get much sympathy. I really just wanted to be alone with my thoughts.
Her coffee cup and picture still sit on the plate shelf in the dining room just above the coffee pot. I had thought I would leave it there for just a year, but I’m not in a hurry to stop the ritual of saying good morning to her as I pour my own cup of coffee.
It hasn’t been a terrible year. I’ve always been able to function and do what needed to be done. But self doubt was always lurking in the recesses of my self-questioning. Once she died and my defensive walls came down because I no longer needing to protect myself from her I was quick to remember the good things in our life together. I had built the walls to keep the not so good things about her from affecting me in negative ways but those walls also kept out the good things. Of course I’ve had to ask myself the hard question: did I really need those walls, and why wasn’t I strong enough to be willing to be vulnerable to her? After all, she was my mother. Didn’t she deserve more than I gave to this one who gave me life?
What helps bring me back to reality is that others who knew her also knew her dark side. They too had seen the destruction that alcohol had wrought in her life. They are the ones who can remind me that she wasn’t a saint.
Many of us work hard to show our good self to the public. My mother didn’t. She had few filters. She always said exactly what she thought. And she took great pleasure in shocking people by saying things that were not appropriate to say in public. I can laugh at this now.
I was amazed to realize that I had nothing to forgive her for. All of my hurt through the years had been resolved. I brought no anger or resentment or embarrassment into our new relationship. I have created the mother I have always wanted her to be because I know she wanted to be that person for me. The part of death that is such a gift is how the goodness of a person comes to the top and the not so good parts are burned away. When I think of her now she makes me smile.
She is perfect now. Her work is done. I am the one that still has work to do—on myself! It was I who had to work on forgiving myself. I think that’s what our life is about. That’s not a bad thing. It has been good for me to look back, but not to get stuck in the past. It has been good that I was willing to see if I could have been better. I know I was a good daughter.
Maybe that’s what love is—always being willing to try harder.
The holiest of all holidays
are those kept by ourselves
in silence and apart;
the secret anniversaries of the heart.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow