Statue of Mother with Child

Photo by Victoria Peckham

This story was selected for the Best of In The Fray 2013.

I said good-bye to my mother only twice in thirty-four years. The first time was when I abandoned her in the Bronx to start a new life at boarding school when I was fourteen years old. I’d earned a scholarship to attend the Emma Willard School in upstate New York, and instead of being proud of my achievement, my mother wailed as though I were the parent leaving her child instead of the reverse.

“I can’t believe you’re leaving me,” my mother, Marguerite, whined with a pout. Along with a borrowed, green suitcase full of my clothing, I carried the confusion, guilt, and shame of leaving my mentally ill mother behind in order to make a life for myself. But I still left.

If there’s such a thing as a normal mother-daughter relationship, what I had with my mother was far from that. Our bond was unbreakable, yet destructive. I was the baby, the last of Marguerite’s five children, and had been born to replace my brother, José, who had been killed in a bus accident when he was twelve. My name is a combination of José and Shunda, and as far back as I can remember, my mother instilled the importance of my life being a tribute to my dead brother.

Marguerite possessed a euphoric mix of bipolar and borderline personality disorders that enthralled me like a whirling dervish. A big-boned, black, Cherokee woman, she spread panic and jubilee whenever she moved. The frayed bangs of her wig splayed around her chiseled cheekbones, and her always-damp skin excreted cheap perfume. A permanent wind seemed to encircle Marguerite, swirling the Holy Spirit around her omnipresent rosary in a way that was messy, endearing, and violent.

My childhood was tormented by my mother’s unpredictable fists, which came interspersed with love in the form of exclamation points. One moment my mother would brutally beat me and call me out of my name like a demon possessed. The next moment she would be a total goofball, dancing wildly to Tina Turner by shaking her shoulders and hips like a quarterback in the end zone after a touchdown.

As a young adolescent, I wanted my mother dead during the worst of her manic episodes. She frightened me by disregarding adult responsibilities, like paying the rent and shopping for groceries. We moved so many times that by the time I left to attend the Emma Willard School, I found stillness and quiet suspicious.

I had no instruction guide on how to deal with my mother’s moods, and I didn’t know her narcissistic fury was the result of untreated mental illness. To be black in America, popular culture suggests, is to be crazy. The only escape was flight.

So, I packed my things and my mother wept. Her tears continued right up until I boarded the bus to leave. “Good-bye,” I said flatly, my stoic demeanor a defense against the range of emotions that tugged at my soul.

“I can’t believe you’re leaving me,” she responded, giving me a trademark sloppy kiss that left her maroon lipstick smudged on my cheek. “I will miss you.”

My mom called me daily, then weekly. Since “good-bye” was her least favorite word, she would always end our calls by simply hanging up.

After I graduated from boarding school, I went to Vassar College. In the land of “normal” folks, most of them white and wealthy, I learned that the isolation and chaos of poverty was just one kind of childhood trauma. There were other traumas that came to pass in other kinds of families. Some of my classmates had been raised with too much money and not enough love. Others developed a deep self-loathing that led to self-imposed starvation. Seeing this was the start of my process of understanding my relationship with my mother.

I began to heal from my tumultuous past when I understood my mother’s emotional flaws emerged not from a faulty heart that was incapable of nurturing, but from a chemical neurological imbalance. Realizing the true culprit of my struggles with my mother, I wanted Marguerite to live forever so I could also free her from the tangled mess of our dysfunctional history.

At the beginning of my sophomore year at Vassar College, my mother was evicted from our Bronx apartment and moved across the street from me in Poughkeepsie. I’d stumble out of bed to the cafeteria and find her there, showing pictures of me to the kitchen staff. If she had any boundaries, she never let on.

In my twenties, I left the state and eventually settled in Texas. I carried the inexplicable hope that my mother would get well on her own, that she and I would eventually chuckle about how she ran up my phone bill by calling me at 5 a.m. regularly. But our final good-bye came in a flash, and it was a mixed blessing.

On the heels of my father’s suicide, my mother was diagnosed with terminal cervical cancer. That Christmas, I returned home to spend the holidays with her. The cancer had shrunk her body in a way that made her appear older than seventy-two. She was in a lot of pain, so a nurse administered morphine.

“I love you,” I told her quietly, as she stared at me blankly. “I will miss you.”

“Good-bye,” I thought, but didn’t say, when I walked out of the room.

My mother died six days before my thirty-fourth birthday. When my sister called to deliver the news, I felt bereft and relieved. I understood that my mother’s death was my clarion call, a way for me to be born again and rise from the ashes of our story.

Marguerite’s unexpected passing required me to take a longer, more compassionate view of the many wounds she left behind. My mother never acknowledged that she needed my forgiveness, but I needed to forgive her for never fighting for a better life or her own well-being. I understood my mother had been the best version of herself that she could be, but I never got to thank her or tell her I’d be fine after she was gone. Maybe she understood the words that were left unspoken, just like she understood good-bye.

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