The last words I ever spoke to her were, “I wish I’d never been born.”
Even in my adolescent arrogance, I saw my words slice her open and cut through her pristine exterior. At the time, I was glad for it. All I’d ever wanted from her was a reaction.
Throughout my childhood, she’d been cold, distant, impossible to connect with. She was never Mom or Mommy, always Mother. Even my dad called her Mother.
She ruled our home. All decisions were hers and final. There was no negotiation or discussion. Do what you’re told or face the consequences.
The consequences were as steely as the woman who gave birth to me. I was never physically hurt but the scars on my heart and mind are more like scar tissue. A hardened damaged part of me that will never fade.
But those words, flung in her direction, as I made a grand exit, complete with slammed door, felt good. I was right. Vindicated. She’d never wanted me.
I stayed away for the weekend. Afraid to go home. Afraid to run away for good. Everyone knew where I was. Pete had been my best friend since first grade. If you couldn’t find me, look for him. I expected my father, maybe even my aunt, to come looking for me. No one expected police officers.
My first reaction was anger. How dare they send the cops? Then fear. Maybe they weren’t here for me. Maybe something happened to Pete’s brother. I quickly wished the thought away. I’d rather them take me to jail than bring sorrow to my friend’s life. I couldn’t foresee they brought sadness and guilt I might never recover from.
I don’t remember much after they said, “She didn’t make it.” I hid away deep inside myself, in a place where no one could touch me and nothing could hurt.
I came to days after the funeral when I found my father passed out in vomit and whiskey. The bottle loose in his hand. Picking it up, I considered swigging down the rest but someone needed to be sober for the meeting with Mother’s lawyer, Mr. Reilly. Because of course she had one. Of course she’d neatly planned, like a general readying for battle, for her own demise.
We sat in her study. Maybe in other family’s the study was a man’s haven, but not in mine. The dark room was Mother’s domain. I’d only been allowed to enter for lectures and the doling out of consequences. It wasn’t a place that filled me with fond memories.
“Tom, your mother left something specifically for you. She left it in my keeping about a year ago with a quick addition just before she died.”
A year before had been my first act of defiance against her, yelling, cursing, and leaving behind a slammed door. Just before she died had been my last. My face burned with shame and remorse.
He handed me a box and an envelope. Of course, they were both labeled. “Read first. Open second.” Even in death, she was directing my every movement. For once I cherished the control, happy to do as she wanted this one last time.
Her bold, florid handwriting took my breath away. This was her. As my eyes moved down the page, I heard her voice in my mind.
My darling Tom,
I know you find this hard to believe but I love you, utterly and completely. Since the moment Doctor Geffen told me I was expecting a child, I cherished the very thought of you. You do not like or appreciate my parenting these days. You feel I am cold and harsh. And you’re right. Life is not kind to anyone, certainly not me. My mother died when I was young, leaving behind only the keepsake you’ll find in the box. I fear I will do the same to you. I must tell you what I wanted my own mother to tell me but she died too soon.
You don’t agree with my methods. You don’t agree with my rules. You think me cold, distant, and uncaring. You are not wrong. The only thing I know about raising children is that you are my legacy, you are the proof that I existed. I must raise you to be the best man you can be. Not just for me or your father, but for your future.
I did not know affection as a child. My mother believed to spare the rod was to spoil the child. When my grandmother took over my care later, she thought my mother had failed in her mission and set out to beat the submission into me. I say this not to make excuses for the nights you spent in cold darkness or hours without meals, only that I knew no different. Showing love and affection as a child was forbidden. The times you put your arms around me and held on were some of the most beautiful moments of my life. My only regret is that even now I do not know how to reciprocate.
I can only hope that I have many more years to learn how to show love and affection. I fear I will not.
In the box is the pen I have used to write my journals throughout the years, the only safe haven I have ever known to express my feelings. The inscription is “Hope, Faith, Love” – things I have always longed to share with you. My hope for you is that you will be a better person than I have been. My faith is in your inherent goodness and kindness. My love for you, inadequately expressed, knows no bounds.
I love you, son.
I looked up, blinded by tears and rage. How dare she keep this to herself? And yet, I think even then, I understood. If showing affection was an offense worth a beating, how could you ever feel safe?
I opened the box and looked down at a pen that I’d never known existed. A note lay on top that said simply, “I forgive you for your anger, and I love you.”
I can tell you, 20 years later, my mother’s wish came true. I’ve broken the cycle of abuse and lack of love in our family. My kids will tell you I never leave them alone. My father says I spoil them rotten. Show me the person who was ever spoiled by hearing “I love you” on a daily basis and being hugged and kissed over and over again. The person doesn’t exist.
I write in a daily journal, as my mother did, to deal with my emotions, express myself, and leave behind a record of who I am as a man, a father, and a husband. I cling to the sentiments expressed by my mother, allowing her delayed love to wash over me and soften the scar tissue of my memories and soothe the guilt that’s never dissipated. When I die, I will leave this pen to my oldest but I will also leave behind a legacy of love and joy, nurturing and compassion, and more than a few words scratched out on paper. That is my promise, my faith, my hope, and my love.