My mother left me a total of 4 times.
The first time she left I was 2 years old. She had tried to leave a few times beforehand but had been met with the end of a butter knife by my 9 year old sister. I’m sure she was impressed by my sister’s hutzpah and as an avid feminist decided to give her a win. But hutzpah can only delay the inevitable for so long and eventually she left all the same. It wasn’t in her nature to be nurturing. She was tough and way too smart for her own good. She loved us in the only way she knew how. Which didn’t much seem like love at all. Certainly not compared to the way my father and sister and grandmother loved me. Too young to know anything different I only discovered that I longed for a mother’s touch and comfort when I spent time at my friends houses and watched their mothers mothering. But how I longed for it when I witnessed it, the magic of a mother. That gentle way about them, how they always seemed to know how to help and how kind they always were to me. As if they knew. And they probably did.
My father raised us without her and he raised us to be tough. Not tough like our mother, but tougher than our mother. Or that was the hope. My mother was paranoid schizophrenic and our father feared that her “crazy” might one day become our crazy. And so I think in his fear he tried to stifle any part of us that resembled her. To protect us and to protect himself. He always told us not to cry. If we cried we had to be bleeding and if we were bleeding – what good would crying do anyway? And so we learned to stop crying. Tears became less and less of an issue as we figured out how to roll up our sorrows and fears into hard tight fists and trade them in for anger, anxiety and drive instead. As a sensitive child, this was a hard lesson to master, but I practiced.
You can do anything with practice.
It was no secret that my mother had a mental illness. My grandmother and father spoke about it together, and even with me, often. My father openly referred to my mother as “sick” in an effort to take any blame off of who she was as a person and lay the blame instead on her illness. In my mind I switched the word “sick” to “crazy” because crazy didn’t feel as permanent or infectious as the term “sick”. Hearing my mum described as sick, or crazy, struck the loudest during the summer of my fifth year when she introduced me to the dead birds she thought were being left around the city as a warning that the FBI was watching her. At first, when I was still very young, I would openly describe my mother as crazy to others, using the term as more a term of endearment than anything else. As the years grew on I would begin to describe myself as crazy. Romanticizing the idea that “crazy” meant I was like my mother, who no matter what, was my mother. A woman I looked up to and adored.
During the summer and winter breaks my sister and I visited our mother. This was a treasured time. My mother would take me on long adventures through the streets of Montreal. We would explore museums and old churches all the while obviously keeping a watchful eye out for dead pigeons. She taught me to appreciate old architecture and the art of speed walking everywhere. We went to new parks and strange new book stores. She took me to festivals and toy shops. She loved art and photography and writing. She made me love it all too, and I wanted to be just like her. She was fun, so fucking fun. Her short black hair and lipsticked red lips, the way she always wore a beret like she really was French. She wasn’t.
But with her I also learned that not all women, not all mothers, were cuddly and kind, and sweet. Not all mothers are magic. Or at least, they are not always the magic you expect them to be, or think you need them to be. I’m not sure she ever held my hand, except to cross the street. Although I desperately tried to slip mine into her’s at every chance I got. My father hugged me all the time, but the closest I ever felt to my mother was when she would begrudgingly lay beside me at night to help ward off the nasty pirates that hid beneath my bed. She had large soft breast and a squishy belly that I would press against with my head in an effort to be as close to her as possible. I hoped I could be swallowed up inside the folds of her skin and rest with her forever. She often left the bed before I had a chance to fall asleep. My clingy obsession with her and my insistence that she love me better only worked to keep her moving further away. Later, while snooping in my father’s desk, I would come to find a note he’d written to my mother practically begging her to consider having a child with him. That child was me. In that moment I knew my mother had had me for him, and not for them, not for herself. I wondered if deciding to have me might have been the catalyst for what had led to her ultimate departure.
The second time she left me I was 9 years old. She didn’t exactly “leave”, she sent me a letter. Or maybe she called my dad. I only remember that she didn’t tell me in person. She had decided that I was safer without her. She lived in a bad neighborhood in Montreal and used “keeping me safe” as her excuse for no longer being a part of my life physically. It was Christmas time when she told me we couldn’t see each other again. I was visiting with my aunt and uncle in Montreal at the time and remember vividly weeping at the big window of her town house, looking out onto the snowy streets while warm tears soaked my face. Here I was in the same city that my mother was in, so desperate to see her and convince her to keep me, but unable to get to her. Helpless. This was the first time I had ever felt heartbreak. True rejection like no other. Like a broken hearted lover in need of a replacement I found myself clinging to the mothers of my friends in hopes they would adopt me.
The third time I was 12. I had gathered all my courage and asked my aunt to take me to my mother’s house to surprise her. I figured if she was surprised by my visit she couldn’t deny me the opportunity to see her. I was right, she was shocked enough to let me in to her apartment. I probably should have known this was too good to be true. I went in alone as my aunt waited in the car. She didn’t have to wait long. I knocked on my mother’s door and she opened it with a look that should have warned me this was a bad idea. She didn’t hug me even though we hadn’t seen each other in years. Even though I was her daughter. I nervously invited my mother to my 13th birthday party – a bat mitzvah of sorts. After all, it was her DNA that made me a Jew at all, it was her who had told me I was Jewish, I assumed she might want to be part of this special coming of age celebration. I was wrong. She reacted differently than I had fantasized she would. Than I had hoped. She kicked me out. And again my heart broke. In retrospect it is easy to see how someone with mental illness might not do well in a surprise situation where they are being asked to answer a request they were not prepared to get. But children don’t think these things through. And even though I know better now, I might make the same mistake again. The heart wants what the heart wants.
When I was 16 years old she flipped the tables on me and decided to reconnect. She wanted to come back into my life. Or at least that’s what she said. I was suspicious of her motives and convinced this was a trap. Sure that I would be swooned into the fantasy of finally having a mother that wanted me and then having her promptly leave me again. I wasn’t wrong.
She stuck around for a year. It was one of the most emotionally turbulent years of my life. I was euphoric and suspicious. I was hopeful and angry. And like the broken hearted lover who remains obsessed with a life and love once lived, I realized I had never stopped loving her and I was more desperate than ever to reconcile our relationship. But reconciliation didn’t come without my need for honesty. So I confronted her about the abuse and neglect I had suffered at her hands. It had been difficult to gain the courage to do so since I knew doing so would be to chance her leaving me again. In fact I was convinced she would leave again after being confronted with this. At least, I told myself, this time if she left it would be on my terms. At least, I thought, I’ll be ready this time. I gathered my own hutzpah and I described to her all the things she had done and how they had made me feel. I wanted her to feel remorse and to apologize to me. I wanted to forgive her.
She denied it all, but in a surprise move she did not run away. I was angrier than ever at her, but I could not give her up. Not when I had waited to be reunited with her for so long. Still, I couldn’t conceive of why she would deny me this truth. After all these years, after all I had lost. But I was not a mother at the time. I was still a child. I hadn’t yet felt the reality of what it is to be the keeper of another person. Of how much responsibility and sacrifice is demanded of you. Of what the world expects of you as a mother and what it will not accept, what it will not forgive. Of how it might have broken her to admit that she had been hurting me so much for so long. Nobody tells us that motherhood is a test that you will fail over and over again. They only tell us not to fail. They only tell us that to fail is to fail your children. But the deck is never stacked in our favour. How can it be? Life is about lessons. About mistakes. And all the in-between.
Nobody tell us how much motherhood strips you of your own identity or at least the only identity you ever knew. Of how you can lose yourself if you aren’t careful to care for your own needs too. Of how terrifying it is to love someone as much as you love your child. Nobody tells you about the fears that accompany motherhood. Will my child live? Can I keep them safe? And how much anxiety this creates that festers inside you, especially if you can’t calm these thoughts. Especially if you are also grappling with mental illness. What if you don’t trust yourself to be a good mother? What if you believe your children are better off without you? A mother only ever wants the best for her children.
And now that I am a mother I know how hard it is to admit you might have hurt your child, someone so precious to you, someone you love so deeply. You might ask yourself how I can believe that she loved me at all. I didn’t for a long time. But the more I grew and lived and loved and faltered in my own life, in my own motherhood, the more sure I am that she loved me. It couldn’t have been easy to hear how I saw her, to hear what I said she’d done to me. Whether she believed it or knew it or not, she knew I believed it. She knew it was my truth and that must have been enough to break her heart.
The fourth time she left I was 4 months away from my 17th birthday and only weeks away from giving birth to my first child when, with all the leases of every apartment she had ever lived in stuffed in her backpack, she threw herself in front of a subway train. Being 9 months pregnant and having decided to forgive her with or without her acknowledging the abuse I had been through, I threw myself into the excitement that my mother would be at the birth of my first child and forever in my life here thereafter. And even though I had suspected something like this would happen, hearing of her passing shocked me and threw me into a tailspin. I had given into to hope, even with mistrust beckoning me back to reality, and so although I had had years and years of preparation for her untimely death, it hit me hard and I reeled from it. They weren’t kidding when they said that hope springs eternal.
My father was the one to tell me. I can only remember seeing my hands reach for the car door handle as we drove down the highway. The baby was kicking like crazy inside me as my father pulled over as quickly as he could in an effort to stop the car before I hurled myself out of it. Of course I didn’t want my unborn child hurt, but I wasn’t thinking about hurting anyone, I was thinking of escaping. Escaping this intense and uncontrollable pain that was vibrating inside me. In my father’s face, in his desperate eyes, was all the agony a parent has when their child is hurting a deep desperate torment like no other. One that he could not solve or help. I have felt this pain, the pain of the parent that must clean up the pieces. The parent that has to be more because the other won’t be, or can’t be. The helpless parent that can only watch while their child writhes in anguish. It cannot have been easy for my father, but then again – it wasn’t easy for my mother either. She didn’t live a life of leisure, happiest without us. I know this because she told me right before her death that her biggest sadness was leaving my father, leaving us. And I guess that’s all I needed after all, not for her to admit her wrong doings but for her to tell me she missed me. Because I missed her so much.
Society, so accustomed and accepting to men leaving their families are shocked to learn that my mother did. Many people in my life couldn’t come to terms with how a mother could leave her own child, refuse to see her, reject her. But the answers were always simple. She just left. She just couldn’t. She just did. As a mother, I know now how much this must have torn her apart. Every single time. Sometimes courage and resolve look a lot like cowardice and desertion.
When I look back now, passed the pain and the demons and the sorrow, I can see the love and care and kindness in her actions. I can see that my mother never left us alone.
She’d left us together.