Living

My mother's parting words

Stacy Morrison put aside her feelings when she quit her high-flying job to care for her dying mother, despite their turbulent relationship. Six months later, an undiscovered letter helped the former editor-in-chief of Redbook magazine come to terms with a troubled family legacy

Clockwise from top: Stacy’s parents; her mother as a toddler; Stacy when she was a cheerleader, with her mother

Stacy at home in her living room, sorting through her mother’s photographs

My mother had refused to speak a word to me for three days. This wouldn’t feel great in normal circumstances, but since she was lying in her bed dying, I was upset. As in angry. This seems inhumane, I know, but for a long time before this early-summer day last year, I’d simply decided to accept the truth that loving my mother really hurt sometimes — and that I was going to keep loving her anyway instead of shielding myself from her. I had just arrived at my parents’ house after the hour-and-a-half- long drive to Philadelphia (where they lived) from Brooklyn, New York (where my seven-year-old son and I lived), for the third morning in a row, and I stood at her shoulder as she refused to greet me again, and cried, “Why, Mama, why? Why won’t you talk to me?” She just opened her eyes to look at me, closed them slowly and turned over in bed, giving me her back.

For most of the life we’d shared, my mother and I had been more like sisters: inseparable, the utterly fantastic vision of mother-daughter closeness. When I was a child, the lack of definition between us was thrilling for us both: I got to feel old and wise; she, young and free. As a unit, we were vivacious, dramatic, wise-cracking, attention-seeking. The two of us out in public together were a highbrow carny performance of sorts: charming waiters and shop clerks (or so we imagined), laughing at our own witty observations of the world and the people around us, trying on scarves and jewellery and personas at department-store counters to see which made us look the most ravishing. We entered every room expectantly, and might as well have raised joined hands and said, “Ta-daaah!” In return, we were rewarded with smiles, laughter, engagement and the occasional free blossom from a flower vendor, which my mother would tuck behind my ear. In the evenings, I would lie on her bed, she under the covers, me on top, and we’d commune for hours while my father and brothers circulated outside the bubble the two of us had created.

But the truth was that things were becoming much more heavy. Our connection took on a more earthbound weight: Home was where my mom struggled with her depression and with my short-tempered father, and where she got caught in the eddies of her family history and her sense of not having lived the life that was her destiny. And home is where I learned it was my job to save her, and to love her best of all. Since I believed so deeply in her own numinous power — the way she could predict what people in a room would do, instantly charm strangers and conjure magic just by taking me on a walk through her wild and beautiful gardens — I assumed I had the same magic. I simply believed, with all my strength and character, that I would succeed at this dreadfully imposing task. As did she.

“You are the best thing I ever did in my life,” she’d say to me in her saddest hours, palm pressed to my face. When my father bought her red roses for their anniversary instead of her favourite blue iris, she and I would commiserate over his lack of understanding. When they sniped at each other at the dinner table, I’d catch her eye and raise an eyebrow. As I got older, I started picking fights with him as well, pitying him for not being strong enough to handle my mother’s volatile personality, as if it were his failing. I had to pick my ally in our riven household, and since both my brothers had retreated in the face of the constant tension, I threw my weight in with her.

She and I escaped all that we didn’t want to see by disappearing into poetry and books, writing and storytelling about ourselves. As I succeeded in high school by focusing on these pastimes and turning them into passionate avocations, she sat forward and came alive with the anticipation that I would live the life she had failed to invoke for herself. I felt destined for greatness with her powerful will on my side. I went away to college in her home state of Virginia, the South’s enchanting mists of ancestry further binding us together. She slipped into an all-consuming depression in my absence, but it didn’t dampen our connection. With uncanny regularity, she would call my dorm room just as I had fallen into tears over one of the quotidian heartbreaks and disasters of college life, and we wrote each other long, impassioned letters about our strengths and frailties in which she urged me to live my life to the fullest and I ministered to her spiralling sense of futility, urging her to find comfort in her life’s rewards and pleasures.

But in college, I also began to discover who I was without her, and my world expanded exponentially. I fell in love with bluegrass and grits (two things my mother brushed aside, a part of her country past she’d tried to distance herself from), met other people who loved words as much as she did, found my soul in mountains and rivers and tried on new religions, ideas and postures in the way that college encourages. At home on breaks, it was obvious to me that my mother was coming undone. My father asked me for counsel; he knew that I knew her best. I wanted to believe that her leaving him would help, but I was starting to see she was not whole in herself. Still, I kept fighting for her.

When I was barely 20, I asked if I could attend one of her therapy sessions. I sat in a chair opposite her and her therapist, my hands crossed gently in my lap — my idea of poise in the moment — and said, my voice shaking, “I want you to know, Mom, if you reach your end point and decide you truly can’t make it — which I don’t believe is true, at all — and you decide to take your own life, I will absolutely know there was nothing I could have done.” I was giving her permission, setting her free. But she couldn’t do the same for me.

Decades later, I would be horrified that I had done this, while still practically a child, and wondered why my mother’s therapist didn’t feel responsible for me, didn’t run after me and demand I get help in separating from my mother and thus set me on the road to dealing with the grief of losing half of my identity. But the truth is that adults were easily seduced by my precocious “wisdom” and “maturity.” I was too. I thought it made me untouchable, that life’s damage would slide off me like morning dew, that my being able to witness pain at its very roots and not recoil would keep it from weaving into my soul like a choking kudzu, the way it had so obstinately twined itself into my mother’s.

As I moved ahead in my life, and farther away from her (not geographically, as I was only 97 minutes away), she took to picking fights with me whenever I came home about our differences in opinion on turkey stuffing and slow drivers and Martha Stewart’s prison conviction. My mother’s attacks on me became increasingly vicious — “You think you’re so smart now because you’re so successful! Such a superstar! Well, welcome back to earth!” — and I began to fold up and withdraw from her, casting my eyes to the floor and waiting for her anger to extinguish. My refusal to parry prompted her to levy her greatest insult: “You’re turning out more like your father than I could ever have imagined possible.” My father and I had come to terms with our own relationship a few years before, which I suppose my mother could never forgive. My mother once again took to writing me letters, this time adopting a strange saccharine stateliness that had become her armour against my betrayal — the betrayal of living my life for myself. “Dearest daughter,” she’d write, “I’m not at all aware of when or how I could have inflicted damage so deeply that you would react to me with such animosity.” And she’d sign it, seemingly unironically, “Mommie Dearest.”

These moments of her rejection took my breath away. They taught me not to trust her. I stopped feeling safe around her. But we still shared many passions and interests, including our love of gardening as well as our ever-confident take on other people’s agonies. I lived our relationship in those moments, and merely endured the rest. I had to accept the truth of her, or choose to live without her — and the latter seemed a much worse fate than suffering the predictable thorns of her love.

My mother’s world got smaller and smaller as she got older, and she would occasionally remember to blame me for it. I knew that was why she was turning away from me that morning as she lay dying. I knew she was angry at me for so much: for selfishly living my life for myself; for not being able to cure her cancer; for not moving to Philadelphia to help her through her last months, even though I was there three or four days a week. I was there for every doctor’s appointment, to speak for her and comfort her, there to explain to her about the terrible tragedy of my father’s having ended up in the hospital with an inexplicable brain infection that would soon take his life, just a few months after their 50th wedding anniversary. Now my brothers and I had to take his place and walk her across the finish line.

It was a terrible, confusing time. All my fantasies of helping my parents die peaceful, conscious deaths were dashed, since my father had suffered tremendous brain damage and my mother was disappearing into herself. She had some days of clarity, and many days of just sleeping. Those were the days when I would simply crawl into bed with her, she under the covers and me on top, and caress her arm and cheek, incanting the word “Mama, Mama, Mama” over and over, probably soothing myself more than her, but at least sharing her bed, her breath, witnessing her last days as best I could — and letting myself be angry when she was being cruel. My brothers and I reminded each other that of course she would die as she’d lived. As will we all.

But I found beauty in this heartbreak. What my mother was leaving behind in her passage was a message she’d always taken such fervour to impress upon me: Burn through life in your own indomitable way, as she did, and live passionately, because life is filled with regrets no matter what. Whether they become vines that bind you is up to you — but that lesson I had to learn for myself, because she couldn’t teach it to me.

She died a few weeks after the days when she wouldn’t talk to me. We had more afternoons together after those days when she did speak, days we cried together, followed by weeks of her disappearing slowly, her body present but her being no longer reachable. Still, I would caress her arm, over and over, and beg her to let go of her body. Six months after her death, in a strange and ordinary miracle, I got a letter from my mother at Christmas. She had given it to my older brother, Gregg, the previous spring, along with letters for my younger brother and him, the day he’d driven her to the lawyer to release her power of attorney to him. As I opened the lavender envelope and realized what it was, I began sobbing in a way that felt as if I was launching into air, breaking the surface after years underwater. The letter was perfect: a moment of piercing clarity about what she would have to say to me after she was gone that I still can’t quite believe. The letter was also, in its very existence, totally Sharon: dramatic, florid and printed on an image of paperwhites. In the letter, she asked forgiveness for having burdened me, and said she feared the damage she and my father might have done by depending on me. And then she wrote a paragraph that brought me to life, a me I recognize, the me I think I am. I felt my heart open with glorious relief: Even in all my mother’s lifelong confusion, she did actually know me and love me mightily for the me I made for myself, not the me I was supposed to be for her. We can all hope to be loved this way, for the truth of who we are, even when it hurts.

But now that she is gone, all I live every day is her love for me. The residue from the years of pain and confusion vanished instantly after she died, even before my brother handed me her lavender sachet. And now that spring is coming and the tender shoots and plump buds are presenting themselves to the sun, I find myself thinking about her almost constantly, throwing off at last the months of cloaking grief that came after her death. I’ll stoop over and admire the maroon of a peony’s wrinkled first shoots — it’s the flower she used to toss to me as I walked offstage after my high-school choral concerts; she was always one for the memorable gesture — and I’ll feel her memory and her presence so strongly that I’ll catch my breath. Then I close my eyes and whisper aloud the syllables that will keep me in her comfort and company forever: “Oh, Mama.” And I keep my eyes closed for another second, making a wish that one day I’ll be able to love my imperfect self the way I learned to love her.

Stacy Morrison is the author of Falling Apart in One Piece about her marriage breakdown.