“Please don’t share our family tragedy,” my mother whispered to me while we stood in church together in Pottsboro, Texas in 1990.
I understood what she was saying to me. “Please don’t tell these people. I can’t bear to deal with this now.”
Tragedy was not too strong of a word. We had just learned that my oldest brother had been diagnosed with AIDS. He had told us himself the words that encapsulated the situation: “The nurse came in and said, ‘We have two different types of medication. One that works for some, one that works for others. If those don’t work for you, then you need to know now we don’t use respirators.’”
Death was what AIDS spelled at that time. Protease inhibitors would come too late for brother John and his fight for life. He died in 1991, a little over a year after his official diagnosis.
My mother called him every day when he was sick, but visited him only rarely in Dallas, 60 miles from her home. When our brother Jim suggested John move to LA for better treatment, my mother encouraged him to go, but did not come out to see him once he was here. Instead she continued her routine of daily calls and saw other young men with AIDS for free in her counseling practice, listening with her trained ear to their pain and their isolation.
My brother seemed to understand. “Nothing would be more like hell to me than to see Mother standing over my bed, ready to change my adult diaper.” They had a clear-cut relationship: adoration at a distance.
My mother was a woman who walked out of a movie if it upset her. She stood right up and stomped out. “I just couldn’t bear it,” were words I heard from her on many occasions. Reality seemed to sap her of energy; cruelty was something that threatened to send her over the edge.
Her common method of escape from the persistent ugliness of life was Scotch. A glass or two or three or four in the evening helped soften all the ragged edges, or so it must have seemed to her. As for me, her retreat appeared to create more problems than solutions. She became critical when she drank, often shifting her gaze in my direction: the daughter who so reminded her of her husband, who she described as someone who “swept her off her feet,” but who had fallen short in the long run with his impeccable people versus book skills. She was a woman who believed in books – needed books to bring her out of her malaise.
Her method of dealing with my father was not unlike the method she used in church that day so long ago. Silence was her watchword. When in doubt, she stood up and walked out. No words at all. She simply retreated.
Ironically, my mother was a great communicator. She was a gifted therapist and a fine writer. She knew exactly how to verbalize someone else’s pain, as long as the pain didn’t get too close to her. If that happened, then she headed upstairs to her office to read or to write. No need to sully the experience with too much talk.
Now, as a mother myself, I understand not wanting to casually chat about a tragic diagnosis. How heart breaking. How devastating. No need to stand at coffee hour enlisting support from other parishioners. The pain was too raw; too deep. Now, I understand my mother so much better than I did then. Now I see so clearly her pain, her disappointment, her utter defeat. She had no words to convey the tragedies in her life; she had no need to see “movie” tragedies when hers felt so acute.
And yet, she kept right on living. Past her husband’s death, and then one son, followed by another. Her own life ended before two more of her children would die long before their time.
Perhaps on some deep level she already knew. Perhaps she was grieving in advance.
Perhaps “Don’t share our family tragedy,” stood for all the tragedies to come.
But as for me, I must err on the other side. I share and share and share. This is my way of making sense out of cruelty and inequity. This is my way of coping with loss. But, then again, I have never lost a child. I might be struck stone silent if I ever do. I only hope I can remember that making Scotch my comfort food will not help.
My mother finally stopped drinking. She took up gambling instead. But only for fun and that was a good thing. She and her friend laughed when they played Black Jack; their chuckles still bring a smile to my face.
I loved my mother. I still love her deeply.
Who knows the pain that lurks under the surface?
We all best be kind-hearted.