Orphan in the Storm

My mom and I hadn't talked for 10 years. And then my father died.

Photograph by Twenty20

I started to wonder if I was a middle-aged orphan soon after my father died. I, along with my sister, husband and brother-in-law, had nursed him through his illness until the very end. Days after he passed, I thought about my mother — the person I hadn’t talked to in ten years.

The beginning of life with my mother was magical. She was the ultimate playmate, taking us out of school to go to the movies, the beach or wherever it was that she thought we’d have an adventure. When the time came that my sister and I began to think for ourselves and say no to her, she'd spend hours trying to talk us out of going to school or our jobs just so we could go on an excursion with her. This was fun when we were kids, but as we got older, it became a pit-in-the-stomach burden to bear. What kind of mom doesn’t want her kids to be responsible?

As her children, it was our job to be at her service, making sure she never got bored. This was all fine and dandy — as long as we didn’t want our own lives. Relationships that didn't primarily revolve around her and identities of our own didn’t sit right with my mother. All these things made her angry. So as time passed, it became more and more difficult to have any kind of connection without drowning in the sea of her.

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During our ten-year separation, if people found out about my mother, they’d often ask how it was I was able to endure not having any contact with her. I never divulged this, but during those ten years I felt like a free woman after serving a long stretch in prison. I moved a short distance from where I had previously lived, so she didn’t know how to contact me. Just knowing this brought me tremendous relief as well as tremendous guilt. What kind of person doesn’t speak to her own mother?

She had once told me that I shouldn’t have been born. So during those years when I felt horrible about being a bad daughter, I thought about the things I was giving myself time to figure out and recover from. I was putting together a different puzzle with the same pieces I always had. Not having her influence me brought crisp clarity. I needed that time to unravel myself and then put myself back together. I desperately needed to see and experience the world without her toxic presence.

But after my dad died, I started seriously thinking about contacting her again. Over the years that we weren’t speaking, I had called her number a handful of times just to see if she was still living in the same place. Several times I got her machine and didn’t leave a message, but then I started to get a disconnection recording. She had also tried to contact me in the initial estrangement stage before I moved, leaving messages every now and again, saying what a horrible person I was. My instinct to contact her ebbed and flowed, but after I lost my dad something in me shook loose and I decided it was time to reach out again.

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Since I could no longer contact her by phone, I called someone who I knew would get a message to her. A week later, she called. I was driving on the I-10 just west of downtown when my phone rang. It was a blocked number, and, uncharacteristically, I answered it.

That conversation was the awkward beginning of a reconciliation. Although my sister and I tried to talk to her about those years that we weren’t in contact, she chose to not acknowledge that period of our lives. At first, it seemed that the ten-year hiatus had softened her a bit, but it soon became clear that she was still the same person she always was. I, however, was different.

I don’t know if it was the shame and grief of being estranged from my mother that finally led me back to her or whether it was watching my father die that motivated me to find her again and make sure she doesn’t die alone.

No matter what happened to us in those ten years when we were apart, we’ve reconnected in the best way we know and however confusing and messy the process has been, I’ll never wonder if I’m an orphan again.

Tags: family

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