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My mother died tonight. Forever.

I’m numb. I haven’t cried.

How do I mourn a woman who brought me up and never understood the basic role of mother? She didn’t mean to fail her children. Her brain wasn’t wired to do better.

She had just turned 90. She had advanced dementia on top of her Autism Spectrum Disorder. The last time I saw her, 14 months ago thanks to COVID19, she didn’t know who I was. At the time I struggled to grasp the severity of her memory loss. Memory had always been her super power. Dementia was her kryptonite.

Tonight I can’t understand that she is gone. Forever.

Even at her best, she was so remote, so unreachable, no matter what I did to embrace her. No matter how I tried to coax her to love me. No matter how much I distanced myself and rebelled against her to protect myself from her indifference.

When she was here, there was still hope that she’d demonstrate at last that she loved me. When she was here, there was still hope that I was mistaken to feel she didn’t.

I know she wanted to be more than she was. She wanted people to accept her. She wanted her vision of the perfect family. She just didn’t know how to set aside her fears and anxieties and obsessions so she could give as well as take.

But her needs were her obsession. She was too focused on herself to notice anyone else’s needs. Now the last wisps of hope that she would find joy in nurturing her relationships with her children is gone. Forever. Any hope that she would love me is lost. Forever.

I know she wanted to love me. She never loved me. Before I was born she loved the idea of me. A few years ago, I found something she wrote when she was pregnant with me (she saved everything she ever wrote). She was so young and still enraptured by her marriage to my father, who hated her by the time I was old enough to know them. They had stopped for take-out chicken and biscuits and honey in California near my father’s navy base. She wrote that she had everything she wanted: a husband, a delicious dinner, a baby and another on the way.

I don’t know if she was ever that happy again.

By the time I was aware enough to observe her, she was too absorbed by her fears and needs to notice anyone else’s. To notice mine.

The four children she had been so eager to bring into her life were a burden whose needs were an assault on hers. We were supposed to fulfill her expectations. She couldn’t understand that we had any.

I remember pleading for goodnight hugs. I remember how she couldn’t wait to get away.

She did what she could. Sometimes she read to us as a group. She got mad if any of us grew restless with her book selections, which were always the books she’d loved growing up. She never considered what we might love. We were supposed to be like her. The only one of us she much liked was the brother she thought was like her. She soured on him when he began to pull away from her as a pre-teen. Decades later she asked me how she “went wrong” with him. I didn’t know where to start. There was never any point in trying to get her to see what life was like for her children and how her behavior affected us.

We were a disappointment to her dreams of idyllic family life. We had expectations and personalities that she received as an attack on her need to be the only one who needed service in her narrow universe. Our non-compliance confused her. So she doubled down on her strategy of sweet helplessness as the path to get what she wanted.

I sound bitter. I’m bitter. She’s never going to embrace me. She’s never going to change. She’s never going to reveal that she really loved me after all.

I’m surprised that I’m so unaffected by her death. Maybe it will hit me tomorrow. Right now, I am facing she is never going to change. Forever.


The Last Time I Saw My Mother

It’s Mother’s Day. The first Mother’s Day since my mother died. The first Mother’s Day since the end of any possibility that my mother would finally throw off her self-absorption and reveal that she did love me after all.

Sometimes I see tributes on Facebook to mothers lost to death. These posters write that they think about their mother every day. They miss her wisdom and humor and guidance and strength. She was their role model. They hope they can live up to her standards.

These posts nick my scarred heart. I can’t feel the sorrow and longing these people feel. I wish my eyes filled with tears when I think of my mother because I know just how they feel. Instead I am lost in a fog of self-pity and envy.

I would give so much to miss my mother’s influence on my life. After all the pain and disappointment my mother has dealt me, after a lifetime of her obliviousness to the hearts and needs of her children, I still ache for what I never could have. I still long for what we both missed because she couldn’t see past herself. It’s not just what she could have given me, it’s also what I wanted to give her but she didn’t know how to accept. She didn’t care if I loved her. She just cared if I delivered on her needs and calmed her fears. Otherwise, I was nothing to her.

There’s no defining event that provoked the loosening of my fierce grip on the primal impulse to immortalize my mother. In spite of my underserved needs, I resisted the defeat of my expectations and hopes as long as I could. Resignation was too much of a threat to who I needed her to be – and to what I feared her indifference revealed about me.

I believed it was my fault that my mother couldn’t love me. I was jealous that sometimes she was interested in what my sister did, though now I see she was just sampling motherhood through her eldest. She adored one of my brothers and treated the other like a pet. I felt like the player always left standing in a game of musical chairs. Desperate for love, I watched for anything that could give me even a few minutes of attention from the only audience that mattered.

I served as a frantic focus group of one to research tactics to entertain her or sooth her so she would turn her miniature supply of attention for others to me. I understand now – well, intellectually but not emotionally – that I settled for attention because she was never going to be able to give me love.

Day after day, my mother refused to be the goddess I needed her to be. I suppose my expectations were too high. But still I hoped. I applied patches as best I could to preserve the illusion of her maternal abilities, but she persisted in blowing up my dreams. She persevered in showing me that I was almost nothing to her.

It took years of evidence before I unconsciously let my hopes slip from a grip I had needed to believe was unbreakable. I had no choice. I had for too long been trapped between longing and shame. I devoted my teenaged years to self-destruction because I didn’t have the horizon to imagine that it wasn’t my fault that my mother couldn’t love me.

She ignored my growing sarcasm and hostility to authority. She pretended not see to my death wish and depression while I struggled and drugged myself in high school. She was oblivious to the danger I faced when I hitchhiked to Texas to start a new life far away from her.

That reckless journey saved me. Not long after settling in Austin, my depression evaporated. I stopped doing drugs. I got into college and loved it. I no longer felt bound by my parents’ disregard. I graduated Summa Cum Laude from the honors college in spite of my parents’ belief that I would amount to nothing.

I got good jobs, but I struggled with emotional regulation. I attached myself to men who cared as little about my needs as my parents had. I married one of them. He couldn’t see me as anyone other than someone he could control. I’d started in a deep hole on my journey to expect anything from other people.

And still I looked for approval from my mother. When my first child – my mother’s third grandchild – was born, she showed no interest in visiting us. I was embarrassed when friends asked when my mother was coming up. I covered for her. But I knew their expectations were reasonable. I wondered why I didn’t expect more. I resisted facing that she didn’t care enough to come.

Still, when my son was six months old, I flew down with him to see her. She refused to pick us up at the airport, though I scheduled our arrival for midday when traffic would be light. She deflected with, “Can’t you just take MARTA?”

She would no more take public transportation than she would crawl across a field of broken glass. But I was supposed to understand that picking us up was impossible. I was supposed to manage an unfamiliar public transit system with a baby, a car seat, and a large suitcase. Any stress or risk was too much for her, and no herculean ordeal should be unmanageable for me.

But I flew down with my infant son anyway. We took the train anyway. I was so sure she wanted to embrace him the same way I want to treasure my own future grandchildren. I was so eager to believe that now I had finally shown myself to be worthy.

It turned out that she wanted to see my son for a few minutes, but she quickly lost interest after she posed for a picture with him tentatively held him in her arms. She acted like I’d expected her to pose for a photo with an exotic animal that could turn on her on a dime.

Her behavior was the same two years later when I had my second son. My behavior was the same too. I wasn’t ready to learn. I was still too locked into hope. After the years of depression and rehabilitation, I still adapted to reality by denying it.

It took decades and the revelation that she was on the autism spectrum for me to make progress. Understanding her limitations opened me to better relationships and self-acceptance. I finally bonded with my sister, I divorced, and I married a man who cares about me. I raised two sons who still want to spend time with me and sometimes ask for my advice now that they are adults. I am recovering. But that hurt is still there. There’s nothing that can fill the void of an indifferent mother.

During my mother’s last year, what little of her was ever available to anyone else was eroded by dementia. It wasn’t that long a trip from neglected daughter to stranger, but it was still a painful journey.

When she was diagnosed with dementia a little more than a year before she died, I resisted at first. I made excuses for her confusion. I wasn’t ready to let go of hope that she’d love me or even know me. I wasn’t prepared to watch her phenomenal memory float away. I didn’t know how to accept the slow evaporation of who she was – even though she had always been so unreachable.

Before the diagnosis, it was clear that she was losing the ability to understand that her dreams weren’t real. She would call to tell me that her father had visited her or that she had heard me talking to staff in the hallway of her assisted living center. She didn’t seem surprised or hurt that in her dream I didn’t come in to see her.

After her diagnosis, I flew to Atlanta to help my sister move our mother to the dementia floor in the assisted living center where she’d resided for years. When we first appeared at her door, my mother asked my sister – who lived nearby and saw her often – who she’d brought with her. Anne had to tell her several times who I was. Finally – without once looking directly at me – she told the staff member with us that I was daughter #2. Later she announced to me her revelation that I used to have blond hair. I never had blond hair, not even as a toddler.

I was a stranger to the mother whose love was the foundation of who I am and what I’m worth. All my life I had projected. I had pretended that she was something she wasn’t, and now I was forced to watch her not even remember my name. I know that oblivion was her dementia. But long before her memory eroded to dust and blew away, she had been showing me that the person most responsible for my understanding of my worth was not able to give me the one thing I needed from her. And now dementia ensured that she never would.

Not long after that visit, COVID-19 swept the world, and I never saw my mother again. She died fourteen months later – not from COVID, but from sepsis. Infection had drowned her.

I mourn who my mother never was and never could be. If you have a loving mother, you’re likely horrified by what I have to say about mine. Please don’t recoil from me. Please know that I will always envy you. Please try to understand something that you assume is unthinkable. Please remember that children are not supposed to sacrifice themselves for the needs of their parents. It’s supposed to be the other way around.

My Mother is Dead

My mother is dead. The mother whose love I longed for and contorted myself for is dead. I feel flat. Is that because I don’t care anymore or because her death is the end of any hope that she’ll throw off her indifference and self-absorption to reveal she did love me after all?

On top of her ASD, she had an aggressive type of dementia. The last time I saw her – a little over a year ago – she didn’t know who I was. My sister explained a few times before she seemed to get it. Several minutes later, she turned to me and said, “Oh! You used to have blond hair!” I never had blond hair, even as a toddler. I don’t know who she thought I was, but I felt erased. Again. The irony is that a year ago I found a diary entry she’d written in which she called my siblings by name but referred to me as “the dark-haired one.”

She died quickly, and I’m glad for that. I didn’t want her to suffer. I didn’t want her vast catalog of fears and anxieties to traumatize her.

She’s dead. That’s it. The mother who was supposed to love me and whose love I needed is gone forever. I can never fill that abyss. I can only hope to love better than she could.

Reminiscence Fee

My 88-year-old mother, who has ASD, was recently diagnosed with dementia. When a nurse called to insist – calmly and steadfastly – that she be tested for dementia, I resisted. My mother has a lot of deficits, but her memory has always been her superpower. Surely it could not be subject to decay. But it was.

Last month, my sister and I moved her from her room in an assisted-living center (ironically named Sunrise rather than Sunset) up to the locked dementia floor (where she is now subject to a “reminiscence fee”). She has lived in Sunrise for 6 years and always referred to the “the fourth floor” with contempt (“Oh! She should be on the fourth floor!” she’d say about any confused woman she met in the dining room). And now she was joining the people she’d dismissed as unfit for dining room association.

Until last month, I hadn’t seen my mother in a couple of years. A year ago she stopped calling me, and then I stopped calling her. That decision to let communication go was complicated. I felt guilty, I still thought about talking to her, but I appreciated the break from her non-stop self-absorption. And I wondered – well, brooded – about how much her cessation in calls was a reminder that she’d never cared much about me. So, yes, I let resentment and hurt play a role in my passive resistance. I didn’t act. I wanted to forget about the unrelenting decades of her disinterest until she remembered me when she needed me to supply something.

I told myself I was ready to walk away from her after a lifetime of demands for service. The relationship with my mother has always been limited to meeting her needs. As my sister once said, “Nothing is too much trouble for you. Everything is too much trouble for her.” Our relationship is exhausting and numbing, yet I had always generally complied. I believe I am wired to do so by a complex mix of nature plus grooming and hope. Maybe hope isn’t the right word. Maybe it’s a bottomless longing for love from the first person who is supposed to love me, just as I am supposed to love her.

Demanding service without any return of interest or love is a kind of abuse. But like so many people who are groomed to accept abuse from someone close to them, I responded to my conditioning by serving her – subconsciously believing that my usefulness would some day magically deliver the love I never got. I served her despite a lifetime of evidence that she will never love me.

Because of the inescapable proof of the fragility of her attachment, when I made my first appearance in her room when I went to Atlanta to help move her, I was prepared for her either not to recognize me or to show little interest that I was there (the latter is what happened the last time I visited, back before dementia had eaten its way into her already compromised brain).

When my sister and I and the director of the dementia floor arrived at her door, my mother looked at my sister and asked, “Oh, who have you brought with you?” Anne had to tell her twice who I was, and then she turned to the staff member with us – without looking at me – and announced, “This is daughter 1 and daughter 2.”

Later, as my mother slumped on her bed while Anne and I started packing up her things for the irreversible move, she brightened with recognition, “Oh!” she said to me, “You used to have blond hair!” I have never had blond hair, not even as a toddler. But she was trying, I think, to understand why she hadn’t recognized me. I’d rather not think that she still wasn’t sure who I was.

The transfer between floors took so many trips I still remember the access code: 2587#. For three days, Anne and I packed and moved and sorted through the amazing volume of old letters and photos and duplicates of items she had misplaced or forgotten. We found eleven grabber-reachers under her bed and recliner. There were more than half a dozen partially used packets of over-the-counter probiotic pills stuffed in various drawers. And there were stacks of memorabilia, some older than I am.

My mother’s drawers were stuffed with Christmas cards and photos of people we didn’t know, retained across our mother’s moves from St Louis to Atlanta and from her Atlanta condo to assisted living. She kept a 1950s Christmas card from Herb and Kay Hamilton –people I have never heard her mention – which featured black-and-white portraits of their young daughters Eileen and Leslie, gazing through cat-eye glasses under the shortest bangs possible into a future out of sight of the lens.

I can’t answer why this card and all the other papers are so important to my mother when her own children are not. I admit this hurts me, even after all these years of reminders of what matters to her, which does not include me or my siblings or our children. Her treasures are her memories, and those memories are always focused on herself as she faltered through a life in which she didn’t know how to connect with people, even when she wanted to.

Every night of that week back in Atlanta, my sister and I sat in Anne’s living room and went through the envelopes of aged letters and photos. We’d thought we’d culled these artifacts in previous moves, but there was still so much that survived previous purges. The trove included mundane letters from her brother-in-law to his parents when he was away at college nearly 70 years ago. Who knows how she got these and why she kept them. She was never close to this brother-in-law or to her in-laws.

Other letters included a report to her mother that I wasn’t a pretty baby and that my sister was a “husky” child. My brother Jim – the child she considered most like herself – was lauded as so clever and so cute. Stories about him dominated all letters throughout our childhoods. I tell myself her dismissal of the rest of us and her outsized regard for my brother came from him thinking about the world the way she did.

My sister and I never understood her disappointment in us that we thought she was joking when she presented her theories about the world. We laughed when she explained her philosophy of the good letters to have in one’s name (L, M ,R, E and A according to my mother) and when she asked if we had a favorite card (hers was the 4 of spades). Our brother, however, got it. He had a favorite card too.

That week I also read about my unstable teen-aged years and my parents’ belief that all my mistakes and thrashing for direction were my fault. They were sure there was nothing they could do about this daughter who floated away erratically like a carelessly released balloon on a windy day.

Back home, I am still processing my convoluted feelings about what may be the last time I see my mother. It is certainly past the last time I will see her when there is even a tiny hope that she will reveal love and concern for me. I need to accept that it is up to me to move past grief and longing and resentment. She can’t help me.

I grieve not so much that the mother I actually had is gone, but that the hope for a mother I desperately wanted is gone. I know it’s selfish that I am not lamenting what she has lost. I know I should mourn for her too. But one of the things I am sorry she has lost is the chance to love me – or anyone else – the way I love my children. Essential chances for both of us are lost forever.

For now, the crumbling of my mother’s memory still surprises me. As Anne and I came back and forth into her new room with boxes and furniture and clothes, she kept telling us she’s 95. We’d remind her that she’s 88. “Oh, and I’ll be 99 next month!” she’d reply, pleased to understand this. And then a few minutes later we’d go back over this information. My mother used to remember what she was wearing when she was in kindergarten on a specific day in October.

She asked us for the name of “the youngest,” meaning my brother Dan. Still, when we got her talking about the past, she remembered a lot (though not the identity of Herb, Kay, Eileen and Leslie Hamilton of the dreamy Christmas card).

Midway through the first day of the move, I found her on her bed, looking at the guest book from her father’s funeral. She stopped wearing reading glasses a while ago, so I don’t think she could decipher the scribbled signatures, but I made sure to leave that book with her as we pared down her belongings. I guess it’s a comfort to her or it acts as a transport to a time when she could remember everything.

The second morning of the move her first words to me were, “I almost died last night.” She has been predicting her imminent death for three years now, though she has no serious medical conditions. She has always wrestled with so much anxiety and so many fears, and her family has never appreciated their dominion over her. Maybe from the cocoon of her current life, death is all that’s left to terrorize her.

My mother has always needed a cocoon. Her childhood was buffeted by doting, upper-class parents. She married young. Though my father came to furiously resent her and the children that tied him down, she never had to take care of herself and provided as little care-taking of others – even her young children – as she could get away with.

Sure, I wish I could sweep away the deep treads of my mother’s emotional neglect. I wish it no longer hurt me that she never loved me. And now I have to accept that there is no longer any chance that a loving mother will finally emerge from behind the impervious shield of her fears and neediness. I know she can’t help being so self-absorbed, but I can’t help being scoured by that.

I can’t say, though, that I cry about her emotional abandonment. My pain is too deep for a purge. I rarely cry, though I understand that I have always had trouble with emotional regulation. The lack of crying does not mean I am unemotional. Instead, I am too easily excited, defensive and offended. Admitting my deep wounds is even harder than defending myself against them.

As I look back at images of my diminished mother lying on her bed, only half aware and half of who she was, I wonder who this woman really is. Did I ever know her? I’ve never understood her attachment to her fears and anxieties, no matter what her entrenchment cost anyone else. I’ve never understood many of her instincts and decisions. I’ve never understood how a woman who wanted to have and to love children simply couldn’t do that once we metamorphosed from an idea into actual people with our own needs and interests.

And now she’s gone into her oblivion. Even if there were a reminiscence fee I could pay to bring her back, she would still forget to how to love.



No Need to Apologize

My mother stopped calling me nine months ago. I stopped calling her too.

And I don’t miss her.

The last time she called, September 11th, she was agitated about having forgotten my sister’s husband’s birthday, which was the next day. My sister and I had taken on her responsibility for birthday gifts for her descendants more than a year before. My mother loves handing off all her responsibilities. There really isn’t anything besides chewing her own meals that she would not prefer be done by others. In other words, when my sister and I offered to deal with gifts for her, she was delighted.

So when she called about my forgotten brother-in-law, I assured my mother that we’d already arranged a birthday gift. This kind of assurance must be repeated several times before she can accept it (she wants others to do everything for her, but she never really trusts her agents). She calmed down, we chatted about other things, and then she never called again.

My birthday, just six days later, passed without her usual call. When she didn’t call for days afterwards, and then weeks, I thought she had realized that she forgot to call me on my birthday and was unwilling to apologize. She is always unwilling to apologize.

Weeks accumulated into months. No calls. And I didn’t call her. I admit it was nice not to be sucked into her fears and worries and her resistance to advice or my efforts to dial back her distress. I know she thinks of me – when she thinks of me – as someone to call as needed. Her needs, of course. Mine are not to be acknowledged.

I have spoken to her twice since the forgotten-birthday call. On Christmas, my sister and her family visited my mother. My sister called me and put my mother on the phone. My mother breezily remarked that we hadn’t talked in a while but brushed on past that comment to discuss what she got for Christmas and what she planned to eat for Christmas dinner.

A few days after Christmas, I called her. We had an unremarkable conversation. She hasn’t called me since, and I haven’t called her. My sister has suggested that our mother has lost my phone number. That may be true, but she could ask my sister for the number. She has not. She did call her financial advisor in mid-March to complain that I hadn’t done her taxes yet (I have never done her taxes and have never discussed doing them, but she has fixed in her head that I told her I would travel 1500 miles to do her taxes in person). Instead, I arranged to have my nephew take care of her taxes. And I noted that my mother still has her financial advisor’s number. Just not mine.

I no longer think this silence has anything to do with my birthday. I think she has discovered that it is easier to call my brother-in-law with her worries. Now semi-retired and working at home, he is the only person in her life who answers all her calls. He is calm and pleasant to her even when she calls several times before lunch. My sister and I have long limited her to one call a day by leveraging the power of voicemail. Well, I guess I can’t say I have to enforce that limit anymore.

Sometimes I wonder if I am behaving badly by not calling her. But this isn’t some contest of wills. It is another acknowledgement that she doesn’t care about me. She found someone easier to call. So why bother with me?

To My Mother, Life is an Iceberg

Three years before my paternal grandmother died, my 60-year-old widowed mother relied on her children to move her from a St. Louis suburb to Decatur, Georgia. My sister, who lived in Decatur, found a nearby condo for her, and the other three of us did every single thing required to pack and move our mother to a new home.

In Georgia, my paternal grandmother lived five miles away from my sister Anne and my mother. Grandma Meyer had been a wonderful grandmother, doting on us when we visited when we were kids. She was the only adult who ever really showed my siblings and me any love.

During these visits to my grandmother’s house, which were days long several times a year, we rarely saw my parents. That was fine with us. Grandma was devoted to our happiness. She was delighted to make things for us; she loved to see how thrilled we were. She baked coconut cakes, she dragged out big boxes of toys, she played cards with us, she nurtured inside jokes, she filled the cookie jar, she stood cheerfully at the stove in the morning, spatula in hand, to ask each of us what we wanted for breakfast. Unlike our mother, Grandma never made us feel like we were trouble or that we weren’t important to her.

My mother had known her in-laws since she was a teenager. As far as I could see, her in-laws were nice to her. But my mother never seemed to want a relationship. Once Mother settled into her Atlanta condo after my father died, she could have spent some time with her widowed and lonely mother-in-law, who didn’t drive. My 60-year-old mother made no attempt to work again, she was healthy, and the route to my grandmother’s house did not violate any of her too-dangerous-to-drive rules. But she never visited Grandma unless my sister Anne took her. And Mother agreed to accompany Anne and her boys, who visited weekly, only a small handful of times in the three years from the time she moved to Atlanta until the day Grandma died.

So at a time when my mother and her mother-in-law could have built that long-deferred relationship, and when my mother could have paid back some of the care-giving Grandma had provided for her children just by showing up and keeping her sick mother-in-law company, my mother ignored her.

When I came to town from Boston with my six-month-old firstborn about six months before Grandma died, I brought him over to her house so she could meet him. Anne came along, but Mother didn’t.

It was a joy to see how thrilled my grandmother was to see my son. She loved babies, and he was a happy baby. He sat on the living room floor and picked up some of the toys that we had played with so many times, toys that she had gone to the trouble to pull out and display for him even though he was too young to do more than pick them up and drop them on the soft living room carpet. It was the last time I saw her.

Shortly after that visit and two years after Mother’s relocation to Atlanta, Grandma’s health had clearly become an issue. She resisted seeking treatment and hid her symptoms as long as she could. By the time my uncle, her only surviving child, finally got her to a doctor, her colon cancer was too far advanced for treatment to make any difference. But the prospect she’d feared the most, surgery, was necessary anyway. Without surgery, she would have died of an excruciating obstruction. She spent her last months back in her house, in pain from the effects of the surgery, afraid, sometimes delirious and sometimes alone. My mother never visited.

When Grandma died, it was summer. My son had just turned one, and I brought him when the family assembled at Grandma’s house after her death. My siblings and I lingered in each room, pausing to absorb the feelings and share memories, trying to grasp that she was really gone and that this was the last time we’d be in this house where we’d always been happy and felt more loved and safer than anywhere else in the world.

I wanted my grandmother’s red-handled spatula, the one she used to flip so many pancakes for us, a tube of her dark pink lipstick, a bar of her trademark pink Camay soap and the round box of bath powder she used to dust our backs after we got out of the tub, before we climbed into the brass beds in her house that was a kind of sanctuary to us.

My uncle took charge of doling out Grandma’s furniture and disclosing the will. There was an issue with the will, one that catapulted my normally docile mother into high panic. The will specified that the estate was to be divided equally among my grandmother’s three sons or directly to their children in the event that any of the sons predeceased her. Two of her sons, including my father, had already died, which meant that my siblings and I would get our father’s third.

Among her important papers and the copy of the will, my uncle had found a hand-written note from my grandmother. The note, written shortly after my father’s early death, declared that my father’s share should go to my mother rather than pass to the grandchildren. This note wasn’t legally binding, and my uncle announced that if my siblings and I all agreed, he would have the lawyer draw up papers for each of us to sign, yielding our claims to the estate to our mother. All four of my mother’s children immediately agreed to this. It should have been no problem. My mother should have been pleased. Maybe even a little appreciative.

But Mother, usually so passive, never interested in taking the lead on anything, was on fire. She could not rest until each of us had signed the papers and the big check was hers. Once we got back home, she called every day to see if we’d gotten the papers, to ask if we’d signed them, to find out when we’d mail them back and to demand to know why it wasn’t done yet. It didn’t matter if we assured her that we’d take care of it. No one even hinted resistance.

But, as my brother Dan said, it got insulting after a few calls. If our responses seemed too casual, if there was a small sign that we might not be making this process the single top priority in our lives, she burst into angry remonstrance. She needed that money! Why hadn’t we done this yet! Didn’t we understand how much she needed that money! What was the hold-up?

Dan’s papers were the last ones in, so he caught the most heat. He told me that he would have done it sooner if she hadn’t treated him like he was going to keep her from getting the money. And if she hadn’t acted like the only thing that mattered about our beloved grandmother’s death was how it affected her bank account. Just like she did with our father.

But it’s not money per se that she animates her so intensely. She doesn’t care at all what other people think about her relative wealth or her possessions or how she dresses. In fact, she prefers to play the poor widow so people take pity on her. But not having the security of an insurmountable fortress of effortless money is stressful and frightening. Money is the safety and the freedom not just from the nightmare of job demands and critical bosses, but from having to face the mystery of the world, the puzzle of other people and the work required to please them so they give her what she is so certain she must be given.

Life is an iceberg to my mother, and money is protection from having to worry about more than the surface 10% that she can see.

Why Dr. Ford Forgot Details

We remember only what we can’t forget.

Victims of sexual assault need to forget. We use anything we can think of to forget. What we can’t forget, we push down as deep as we can so we can stop feeling the pain.

We forget so we can survive. We forget everything we can so what’s left is only the pieces that burn into our memories no matter how hard we try to scrub them off who we have become.

We remember only what we can’t forget.

Ranking the Grandchildren

My mother is quite clear about her order of preference for her seven grandsons. We all know that Anne’s younger son John is number one, a position I believe he claimed by saying a lot of clever things in her presence when he was a boy, statements that are permanently and liberally recorded in her diaries.

Ironically, Anne’s older son Jay originally held down the least-favorite position, a position I believed he secured by not saying enough clever things in her presence when he was a boy, as evidenced by the paucity of his quotations in her diaries. He has been supplanted at the bottom, however, by one of the younger grandsons. This new holder of the lowest rank is likely to remain entrenched there because my mother doesn’t like his behavior at all and has developed detailed fears about his future. She copes with his issues and unbearable future choices by ignoring his existence. “I try not to think about his future any more than I need to,” she has stated more than once.

I admit it is easier for me that my two sons, who live too far away to be useful to her, fall into the middle of the rankings. She has told me that they are both “good-natured,” which is nearly as good as her highest designation for other people: “so understanding.”

I’m not sure exactly which of my two is higher ranked. Parker, my elder son, has accepted the thankless task of helping her get through security at the airport, so that’s gotten him praise. And he’s quiet and polite and does well in school, so he’s right up there. But though she has also praised his ease in conversation with adults, there are some challenges to a claim to the number two spot: he doesn’t look at all like her side of the family, he never asks to hear her stories, he does not attempt to entertain her, and he is enrolled at a college she didn’t attend, where he is majoring in engineering, which she doesn’t understand and does not want to hear anything about.

Wyatt, my younger son, is athletic and amusing, providing a good source of entertaining stories that I convey to her. She was excited when a picture of him in his high-school football uniform was published in our local weekly paper. But on the other hand, he isn’t interested in directly telling her much himself or in listening to her reminisce, which marks down his value. And although he played Daddy Warbucks in the school production of Annie in fifth grade (wonderful!), he steadfastly refused her appeals to re-enact his role for her (so disappointing!). Naturally she couldn’t possibly have flown up to see him in the actual play.

My brother’s son who has Aspergers does well in school, and Mother loves any trait that she can believe shows her genetic superiority. He’s pretty quiet and sweet-natured, and even his quirky behaviors don’t happen to irritate her and risk his score. But he has not wanted to hear her stories, and while they both have fixed interests, the interests themselves do not overlap.

The youngest grandson committed a shocking misstep that permanently hurt his rank when he’d just turned two. That summer at the beach, he enjoyed pushing her walker when she wasn’t using it. While some grandmothers might think this was cute, the two-year-old’s enjoyment earned a harsh, “That’s not a toy!” from his horrified grandmother and a black mark on his permanent record. If he spent time adoringly listening to my mother, that longed-for devotion could overwrite the shocking walker-pushing incident and catapult him into the firmament next to John, the untouchable number one.

But tragically none of the grandsons has clamored to hear to her stories or put on plays for her. She thinks that’s because they’re boys. She hasn’t considered that perhaps it’s because she has shown no interest in them, never visits them and has made no effort to connect with them.

The grandsons are aware of the favoritism among their ranks and joke about it. Still, it must hurt number 6 Jay at least a little that his brother is adored while he is barely tolerated – even though he goes over to her condo to solve her many computer issues whenever she calls. Anne and I have tried to figure out the sources of her disdain for Jay. But we don’t know why. I guess he just failed to amuse her.

Well, there was one other incident. She bitterly complains about the time then-college-student Jay brought a paperback book with him to a family dinner at a restaurant, took it out of his pocket and placed it on the table during the meal. He didn’t read it or anything. He just took it out because it was uncomfortable in his pocket.

This scandalous display occurred at a meal he was invited to attend when my family and I were in town. So I was a witness, though I admit I thought nothing of it at the time – well, beyond some amazement that he could fit a book in his pocket. This wasn’t a fancy restaurant; it was a casual place with paper napkins, but she talks about it as if he’d taken off his shoes and put them on the table. The point is that Jay can do no good, just as his brother John can do no harm. If John put a book down on even the fanciest restaurant table, she would proudly comment on this delightful evidence of how much her favorite loves to read.

All of my mother’s grandchildren have only my mother for a grandmother. I feel sad that my kids have no experience of a warm and loving and helpful grandmother. I wish they had a grandmother like I had, my paternal grandmother who loved to see us and enjoyed doing things with us and for us, who never made us feel like we were any trouble at all.

Why Women Don’t Just Speak Up About Abuse

When women don’t say anything about their abuse, it’s because we’ve spent a lifetime observing the high cost of revealing what men have done to us. We’re watching, and we see that though more women are speaking up, the reception hasn’t really changed. We know what happens next.

You attack us.

You humiliate us.

You scrutinize our lives for a way to turn the blame and shame our way.

You say we asked for it.

You question what we were wearing, whether we were drinking, why we put ourselves in a vulnerable position.

You investigate our motives and our morals.

You call us liars.

You jump on any weakness in our story.

You call us snowflakes. Whiners. Cowards.

You say what happened wasn’t that bad and should be buried to avoid “ruining a man’s life.”

You dismiss us for not speaking up right away if we wait to report what happened.

You ignore our trauma and refuse to show empathy for how hard it is to report sex crimes.

You make excuses for the man we accuse.

You refuse to face that you have power that you feel entitled to and that we can’t reach for without being beaten back down and shamed.

You ignore the impunity the man assumes he has when he attacks us (well, as long as he’s white). You decline to consider that men attack women when we are vulnerable and even less likely to speak and to be believed.

You say we shouldn’t rush to judgment without the facts. Because our word is not a fact.

You say the man should suffer consequences if our allegation is proven to be true.

Okay, maybe you wouldn’t do anything of those things. But plenty of people do. I’m asking you to recognize that this victim-shaming, disbelieving treatment is typical. It is loud and humiliating and drowns out sympathy.

If you can’t imagine enduring abuse or rape or harassment, it’s because it never happened to you. Because you are used to power. Because you may not have fully developed empathy. Because you don’t want to admit that suffering a sex crime is not the same as being the victim of any other crime. We are used to being disregarded, judged, shamed and used even though you are not.

Girls are taught early to internalize responsibility for how boys treat us and how people judge us. We are expected to limit our public activities and police our dress and behavior so boys don’t use us and people don’t belittle and ostracize us for even innocent missteps. Boys aren’t judged the same way. There’s no male version of the word “slut.”

If we are harassed or assaulted, many women react by doubting and blaming themselves and fearing condemnation or suspicion. So we don’t say anything. We tell ourselves we can deal with this on our own. We try to forget and hope no one finds out.

Please try to put yourself in our shoes. And remember, any woman who does speak up expects nothing but humiliating negative attention. So when we do speak up, why would we lie? What would we gain? We already feel powerless after an assault, so why would we want to lose more? We see how you treat the women who dared to go before. We’ve already been violated. Why would we subject ourselves to that?

We know the man has more power than we do, more credibility than we do. That’s why he abuses and expects to get away with it.

Yeah, we know. There was that woman that time who lied. But we see how often that rare incident is brandished to attack the integrity of every woman who dares to speak the truth. We see that people with power can control what is perceived as the truth. Dare to speak out, and you are putting yourself at risk.

So we stay quiet. We rationalize that it could have been worse. We soldier on, pushing the pain and fear down. And if we summon the courage to speak up, and we’re dismissed while the man is protected, yeah, every other woman sees that.

The Hardest Thing

Someone asked me to name the hardest thing about having a parent on the autism spectrum. Speaking only for myself, I guess I’d say it’s the radical imbalance in needs recognition and fulfillment. Everything my mother thinks she needs is red-alert urgent until the need is fulfilled. Anything someone else needs is of no value to her – maybe even stressful for her to consider – so she ignores it. If you try to get her to acknowledge your need, she squirms away from this threatening information and gets mad if you don’t quickly drop it.

We were well-trained as children to meet her needs and not to expect much from her. That dynamic hasn’t changed. Here are two examples of what it’s like to be her child:

Last summer my sister’s husband was badly hurt in an accident. Nine months later, he still can’t put any weight on one leg. He’s had multiple surgeries and excruciatingly slow progress. My mother knows that this is difficult for my sister and her husband. But this understanding has no effect on her demands. One recent morning she knew my sister was at the doctor’s office with her husband but still called her repeatedly. When my sister didn’t answer the phone after several calls, my mother got a staff member at her assisted living facility to call on her behalf. I guess she thought my sister could be tricked into answering. So what was the emergency? She wanted a laxative. Sorry – no, she desperately needed a life-saving laxative. She couldn’t grasp why my sister wouldn’t immediately abandon her husband and rush from the doctor’s appointment to the drug store and then race over to deliver the medicine right that minute.

On my wedding day 18 years ago, my mother insisted I do her laundry. There are zero extenuating circumstances that would make this demand reasonable. She’d been in town for just 3 ½ days and was returning home the next morning. She was physically capable of doing her own laundry and had laundry machines right outside her bedroom door in her condo. I know it seems hard to believe I couldn’t refuse this demand. You’d have to know how she behaves when she thinks she needs something to understand why I gave up and did her damn laundry. I had no trouble saying no to my kids when they were toddlers, but they were not in her league of frantic and escalating persistence. She can make you feel like you are refusing to let her in the house during a blizzard while hungry wolves are biting at her ankles.

Wait. After writing this, I realize I was distracted by the regular frustration of her blindness to our needs. I should have said the hardest thing is feeling that she doesn’t love me. I am just someone who can be called on to meet her needs. When I’m not being useful, she forgets all about me. I have always known that I am her least favorite child, though she came to appreciate me when I became an adult and could be more useful. But my siblings don’t feel loved either. It’s ironic that she has the least relationship now with the child who was her favorite when he was young. He isn’t at all useful to her now, and as a teenager he was quite rebellious, so she dropped him down in favor and rarely talks to him.

I understand that she can’t love me, but not all of me can accept that. I am – I let myself be – caught in this cauldron of feeling angry that she doesn’t care about me and hanging onto the enduring need to accommodate her just in case I finally locate the one thing that will open her heart.

We’ve all read lines like this: Our mothers are the first ones to teach us the true meaning of love. I know that kind of statement is supposed to be a beautiful tribute to motherhood. But not every mother is able to provide the kind of love that nurtures a child’s soul with the conviction that they are lovable and treasured and their needs and happiness are important. I didn’t get that kind of uplifting love from my mother. She couldn’t teach me that meaning of love. And that’s the hardest thing.


Copyright 2017 Sarah Meyer Noel