‘Was I a good mother?’

MamasnowThese were my mother’s final words before she died from cancer the day after Thanksgiving twenty-one years ago. She was helpless in a hospital bed and I just sat there wishing I never had to leave. I knew I would never see her again after that moment. I had to say goodbye to her on Thanksgiving day because I knew she would be gone soon and I just couldn’t keep coming back to the hospital day after day. I needed this to be over. I couldn’t keep watching her wither away.

She asked that question because, no, she wasn’t a “good mother” in her early years. She had not protected me from abuse and exploitation at the hands of an immediate family member. And yet, I have come to understand she truly did the best she could. Her mother had died when she was 16 and she was trapped with her abusive father who then married a woman who, literally, hated my mother. Even when my mother tried to leave after high school, she was not allowed to go.

And so, from an early age, my mother was determined that I would be the one to leave. I would graduate from college five months after she died and then move to Boston with friends. She waited to tell me her last bone marrow transplant did not work until after I had registered for classes. Otherwise, she knew I would stay with her. While her father was determined to keep her, she determined I had to go.

The season’s first snow was falling in the hospital parking lot as I left for the last time. I remembered the smell and that first biting chill of winter. Now I always think of my mother during the first snow, even if the month is October…December…doesn’t matter. That seasonal “first” belongs to remembering how much my life changed that day.

Not only did I say goodbye to my mother, I also ate my final holiday meal with her abusive family. After I left the hospital, I drove to her father’s house where people could only ask me to “pass the peas” as I sat at the dinner table sobbing. Everyone knew I had just come from the hospital, but not a word was said. Such silence was definitely fitting amongst a family trapped in intergenerational cycles of abuse and neglect. When I walked out the door after dinner, I knew I would never have to endure another holiday celebration with those relatives, and I never have. For that I am eternally grateful.

For the longest time I loathed the season, and understandably so. Not only did I “relive” losing my mother, I was inevitably invited into other families’ homes as the orphan with no place to go. While I certainly didn’t like feeling like a charity case, the isolation of being alone on that day was physically painful. I not only missed my mother, I missed the familiarity of her holiday desserts and watching movies together all day.

Now Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. Over many decades of healing and “moving on,” I have built a tremendous life for myself with phenomenal family and friends. Each year we spend Thanksgiving with my husband’s parents by the sea. I always take a walk by the ocean the day after Thanksgiving to honor my mother. I could not have made it this far in life if I hadn’t had such a “good” mother.


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