Thanks to vaccination, I was able to get on a plane (no “hopping on a plane” since it had been well over a year) and fly to Tucson to see my mom for an extended weekend over Mother’s Day. I’m not saying this just because I know she’ll read this, but I’m very grateful for the adult relationship I have with my mom, that we’re able to explore a lot together, and that I don’t regress (too much) into feeling like child-me when we’re together.
Growing up, I had a very traditional relationship with my mom: she was an authority figure, not a friend. Sure, we had fun going back-to-school clothes shopping, and I felt safe around her, but I wasn’t confessing my crushes or watching the same tv shows or gossiping.
But the word is Daughter, not Mother. So my role, as a daughter (specifically, the kind of daughter I developed into, as the eldest responsible one who didn’t rock the boat), was to obey the authority figures that were my mom and dad, to please them—or, perhaps more accurately, to not disappoint them, and to navigate the knowledge that I had their unconditional love but also felt like I needed to earn it. Deserve it. Although I still struggle with that instinct to earn or deserve praise/attention/love (and creating a very high bar for what defines deserving), it’s no longer tied specifically to my parents. Somewhere along the way, I can have the sort of relationship with my mother that allows me to ask for what I want, express my feelings, and agree and disagree in a way that’s more in line with how I am in relationship with close friends.
I’m sure the transition into this adult relationship started the moment I moved out of the house, but calling Mom and Dad on the weekends from college still felt like I was calling “home.” I still felt like they were taking care of me, to some extent, and I had to repay them by doing well and not disappointing them.
If I had the chance to go back and tell my younger self what I know now, one thing I’d share with her, is that her relationship with her parents isn’t static. At some point, she’ll see them as humans rather than parents, with weaknesses and blind spots and opinions she will disagree with. She’ll worry and disappoint them when she moves across the world for a relationship that doesn’t last. She’ll need to—and be able to—set boundaries around the role she can play in her mother’s relationship with her brother. She’ll be the decision-maker and logistics coordinator in the days and weeks after her dad’s death. She’ll share bottles of wine with her mother and share insights from therapy sessions. She’ll learn hard truths that are both heartbreaking and explanatory from her childhood. They’ll travel the world together and cry at the view of Machu Picchu and giraffes and elephants and the sunset over the Namibian desert. She would write the following during a writing retreat and never quite forget them:
Bless the texts from my mom each morning that say, “good morning, I love you,” framed by smile face and cactus emojis, but which really mean, “I woke up this morning.” Bless the fact that she replaces the cactus with a palm tree if she’s in Florida with her sisters, or with a pine tree if she’s in Minnesota with my sister, or with waves if she’s with me in California (thus negating the need for a text altogether).
I remember when she told me she’d changed the batteries in her smoke detector, high on a ladder above her cement floor, a task she’d probably never done before, one of many tasks she was suddenly faced with. She’d graduated from setting the timer on the thermostat and putting air in her tires, to dutifully checking the batteries twice per year, when everyone else reset their clocks (she didn’t have to do that task, living in Arizona, where clocks never change).
She said she didn’t want to be mangled on the floor for days before someone found her. There many have also been coyotes involved, somehow finding their way in from the arroyo behind her house. I joked that I’d be more worried about javelinas, than coyotes, and she’d stopped to consider this new scenario.
She told me this as we were drinking coffee together in her bed one morning. I was sitting propped up against an elaborate tower of pillows on my dad’s side of the bed, which will always be my dad’s side of the bed, except in the morning during my visits where I’d take over after he’d gotten up; he’d have been up for hours by the time he’d bring my mom a cup of coffee in bed.
It was also my side the week after he died. She didn’t spend the night alone for a week. I was there within hours, after a tearful flight and taxis, bawling on the phone to friends, one of whom I lost touch with but then was one of the first people I’d called. I slept in his spot, the sheets unchanged, the smell of Dial soap still on the pillow, the shape of his body still pressed into the foam top. She’d curl up to me in her sleep, seeming so so small, attracted to the warm body. She said she wanted me there but I wonder if her heart broke again and again each time she realized it wasn’t him in the bed.
I’m working my way through this list of words that have changed in meaning for me over time.
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