Chronicles of a becoming: How to be a lilac offspring
This past Sunday, I opted out of joining in on the PR Parade festivities. Instead, I went into the page, because this life and this healing require sacrifice and a sitting with myself that jostles and shakes, but is forever necessary. I wrote this over last two days.
This time last year, I was on my way downtown with mom. She wanted to buy a juicer for my brother Carlos who by that time had been in the hospital or rehab for the past three months. I’d introduced my brother to the magic of juicing, bringing him a different juice every time I visited (which was three to four times a week) – Spinach with strawberries and pineapple one day; kale with mango and ginger another. He said he wanted to change his life and as soon as he got out of the hospital, he was going to start working out and eating right. Juicing was a part of his grand plan. Mom said she didn’t know how to pick a juicer and asked me to help her pick one out at JC Penny on 34th Street. It was the first time I’d gone anywhere with her alone in years. So many years that I can’t remember the last time. She’d only just started talking to me again in March more than a year silence.
She called early, like 9am early. It was a weekend my daughter was with her dad so I’d gone out the night before and had only been asleep three hours when the phone rang. “Meet me in your aunt’s house,” she said. I tried to hide the hangover with a layer of foundation and bronzer and walked the three blocks to my aunt’s house. “Salistes anoches, verdad?” she said more than asked as soon as I walked in.
We made small talk on the train, mostly about my brother and his plans for when he was released from the hospital. “Maybe this is what he needed to dejar esa maldita droga.” Mom was so hopeful that Carlos would finally leave heroin alone for good. We all had hope beyond hope, even in those last days when his legs swelled up like elephant trunks and he could barely walk.
“¿Mandastes las 50 paginas?” she asked. Carlos had told mom about VONA and what it meant to me; why I went every year and why this year, my fifth consecutive year, was especially important since I was so close to finishing my memoir. I had fifty pages due the next day and had been stressing over it for days.
“I’m not even there and I already have shaken baby syndrome,” I told Carlos. The machines around him beeped. He adjusted his IV drip and pushed himself up in the bed. “Just send it and stop complaining.” I looked at him, injured, and he gave me that playful smile he’d given me since we were just kids. “You got this sis, don’t worry.” His belief in me was bottomless.
I looked around the train, at all the banderas on their sticks, at the little girl in her coche, the PR flag wrapped her head like a bandana, a coqui on her t-shirt, she smiled and waved her flag at me.
“No, I have to finish reading through it one more time. It’s right here.” I patted the bookbag on my lap.
A mischievous look came over her face, “Oooh, let me see.” She reached over to grab the bulto.
I snatched it back, laughing. “No, mami.” We both laughed. Then I dared. “How do you feel about me writing about you?” Mom stared ahead at the guy across from us, a too small “Yo soy Boricua” t-shirt stretched across his protruding belly that shook with every jerk of the train. “I don’t care,” she shrugged. “Just don’t use my name.”
Then mami started telling me stories about her life. Stories she’d never shared with me; about the rape, how she met Millie, her grandmother Tinita who raised her, her terrible relationship with her mother, their agarrones. I was stunned.
I’d built an entire narrative around my mom and what she’d do when she found out what I was writing. She’d hurl herself at me, all fists and venom, call me traicionera, scream “como te atreves?!” and she’d ostracize me yet again from her life.
She’d do that in December, anyway. Ostracize me, that is. That’s how mom punishes me, she denies me her love.
I respected mom. I’ve never used her name but on my blogs and on my FB, I posted pictures of my family—me, my brother and sister when we were kids, mom holding me when I was a year and a half, just after I had overcome the odds and survived after mom was told to say her goodbyes, that I was never going to make it. I posted the family pictures we took when I was seven or eight, when the Woolworth picture guy came to our railroad-style apartment with the sky blue background rolled up like a portable movie screen. I posted the pictures thinking she’d never know. It wasn’t malicious, I swear, but, yes, it was careless of me. I’d ignored what she’d said to me so many times, “No pongas fotos de mi en ese feibuk.” I never thought she’d find out. How could she? Mom barely knows how to use a computer. Then, in December, she sent me a scathing text message about respect; how if I wanted a relationship with her, I’d have to respect her wishes and not post pictures of her online. I apologized. Told her I’d take the down. That wasn’t enough. It became a full blown textument about how disrespectful I was, how I didn’t care about her or her wishes, how insensitive I was. It was hard to sit there and have the woman who’s always been so incredibly insensitive and disrespectful of me and my needs for my entire life accuse me of something she’s been consistently (and unapologetically) guilty of. So, yes, I went off. I told that she didn’t respect me, never had. We went back and forth. It was ugly. Mom hasn’t spoken to me since, except to send me message telling me who I am, what a bad daughter I am, a bad mother, a bad person, per usual.
Two months ago, I woke up to a message from her that read like a suicide note. “Perdoname hija…” I called her frantically. No answer. I sent her a text message, “Please tell me you didn’t do anything to yourself.” Her response in essence was that she had a moment, “No te quize molestar.” What the fuck? We texted back and forth and she called my pain over our antagonistic relationship “ridiculezes.” She’s always denied me my feelings. As a kid, I was told I was too sensitive, “Ay, a ti no se te puede decir nada.” It’s only now through therapy that I know better.
My therapist says, “To deny someone their feelings is to deny their existence.” I’m still processing what that means but I heard this in my head as I read mom’s messages.
Finally I said, “Just stop, please. I’m tired of being at war with you.” I haven’t heard from her since. Does it hurt? Yes. But it hurts more when we’re actually on speaking terms.
Today, during a long conversation in the park with a beloved, we were talking about my memoir and how I’m writing again after a long time away from the book. I confessed, “In a way, the book has taken on a different meaning. It’s a goodbye and I don’t wanna say goodbye.”
“I know, V, you’ve been saying goodbye to your mother for so long.”
Something shook in me. Like a piece that had been hovering snapped into place with the force of a jackhammer. A wrecking ball snapping from the thin thread it was hanging on. I was Wile E. Coyote being crushed by the anvil.
See, I was referring to my brother when I said I didn’t want to say goodbye. I hadn’t thought this book was also a goodbye to my mom, but how is it not? A Dim Capacity for Wings is about the silence that devastated my family. It’s about why my mother can’t love me the way I’ve always wanted and needed her to. It’s about coming to terms with that and saying, “Ok. I give in. I give up.” It’s saying I am enough, I’ve always been enough, I forgive you but I just can’t do this anymore, mom. It’s a letting her go, too.
How do you let go of your mother? Of this hope that she will one day wake up and love you? I’m on that path. I’ll tell you when I get there.
A few weeks ago I discovered that there’s a term for people like me—an “unmothered child.” I even created a word doc to collect information relating to us unmothered children. I remembering thinking, “there’s an us? So I’m not alone in this.” That realization felt heavy and freeing at once, a “shit, of course you’re not alone in this” and then “but, fuck, this shit has felt this lonely for 38 fucking years.” There’s something beautiful and shocking when you discover that there’s in fact something to what you’ve felt all this time, that you are not crazy for feeling this way, like an orphan, often unanchored, drifting around like seaweed in an ocean, nothing rooting you to the earth. This unmothered life. It’s especially difficult, for me at least, being motherless when you know your mom is alive and living her life in that same apartment you grew up in in Bushwick, Brooklyn. And I hear in my head, “she doesn’t mother you because she doesn’t want to.” It’s a choice, you tell yourself, and that just makes your chest heave.
The first entry in the “Unmothered Info” doc reads:
“Being without a mom wears heavily on a soul. There is none of the expected nurturing, support, and guidance. You feel untethered and adrift without the emotional umbilicus of mother. Your world is slightly off its axis. There is something missing and that missing is mom.
“For those oh-you-were-way-too-young-to-lose-your mother, sometimes a dad or a relative tries mightily to fill in the gap and other women step in and step up to offer motherly guidance and affection. And no matter now lovely and well-meaning they are and the myriad of kindnesses they heap upon you, it is still not enough. It can never be enough, because you want your mom — the mom that you hold in your heart — the mom that is supposed to be with you, right now, at this very moment.” Six Struggles and Coping Strategies for the Motherless and Unmothered
I thought of my Millie and how she loved me, and how not even she could protect me from my mother and the pain of not having her. No one could.
I wasn’t really maternal before I had my daughter. Yes, I thought babies were cute. I’d hold them and coo at them but I always felt relieved when I handed them back. I didn’t ovulate at the sight of chubby cheeks or the fatty rolls of baby thighs. I was one of those people who huffed and got up and changed her seat when a snotty nosed kid sat next to me on the train and moved around too much, scrambled himself up to look out the window when we went above ground. I was happy being childless. Then I got pregnant and I knew I had some serious healing to do. I knew I didn’t want to be the mother my mother was to me. I knew I had work to do. Major work. My baby girl will be ten in two months. I’m still a veritable construction site. I’ve been on this mission ever since and will be on this mission forever: to be better; to mother her; to love her without conditions, no matter what.
Oxford’s online dictionary defines unmothered as: Deprived of or without a mother or maternal care.
The example sentence reads: “when these unmothered monkeys finally became mothers their behaviour towards their offspring was unmaternal.”
So wait, only animals can be unmothered. And humans, what?
Dictionary.com has no definition for unmothered at all. The site takes you straight to the definitions of mother. There are five definitions for the first entry. Zero for unmothered. We don’t exist.
Unmothered to me means that for much of my life, childhood and adulthood, I was not seen or heard or acknowledged and I had to adapt to fit in, to exist, to survive. I had to learn to mother myself. How do you do that when you’re not mothered? How do you become a woman when your mother does not mother you because she doesn’t know how; because she was unmothered? How do you in turn mother your own child?
Mothering becomes a revolution.
Unmothered looks like:
When I gave my daughter’s father the ultimatum, “when I get back in two days, I want you gone or you’re gonna really see crazy,” I went to my mother’s house. When I explained that I was leaving him because he was abusive and controlling, the first thing she said was, “No te creas que vas a venir a vivir aqui.” I was leaving an abusive relationship with a one and a half year old child and she made it clear in no uncertain terms that living with her was not an option. The truth is that I never considered moving in with my mom; when I left at 13, I knew I would never return, but shit, that’s not what you want or need to hear when you’re terrified about being a single mom and doing it alone.
On my graduation day from Columbia University, at lunch just after walking across the stage, while I was still wearing the CU gown with the crown emblazoned on the lapel, my mother flipped out on me when I told her I wasn’t going to law school: “İYo sabİa que no ibas a ser ni mierda con tu vida!”
I can’t count the times my mother has stopped speaking to me because she didn’t agree with a decision I made, who I was involved with, or just because she had a bad fucking day.
In December of 2011, my brother was found overdosed on the street. I didn’t go to the hospital. I didn’t visit him when he got out. I was exhausted from loving him and trying to help. I couldn’t watch him kill himself anymore. I’d been enabling him for more than ten years, letting him live with me only to have my door axed in because he stole drugs from the wrong person. It was too much. I couldn’t live my life, be a mom and a teacher and a writer, I couldn’t function and take care of him at the same time. It was too taxing. I gave up. Mom stopped talking to me for more than a year because of that decision. Carlos didn’t. We’d call and text and I confessed that was all I could give him. He understood or at least said as much. Mom was vicious. When I saw her in my aunt’s house, she’d ignore me, throw indirectas at me in conversation, or stare me down in a way, her lip curled with a hatred that would send me reeling into depression for days. And she took it out on my daughter.
One day, we ran into her at titi’s house. Vasia hadn’t seen her in months. She ran to her and threw her arms around her, yelling, “Tata!” Mom said, “What’s wrong with your hair? Tell your mother to wash your hair.” Vasia limped away. I gathered my things and ran out. I wasn’t yet strong enough to give myself an antidote to her venom.
It’s only now at 38, after my brother’s death eleven and a half months ago, that I can say “Enough already!” Porque coño, a person can only take so much abuse. And, no, I don’t want to hear “but she’s your mother.” No one has a right to treat me like that. No one.
But what shall we say for the woman who truly has had an experience of destructive mothering in her own childhood? Of course that time cannot be erased, but it can be eased. It cannot be sweetened up, but it can be rebuilt, strongly, and properly, now. It is not the rebuilding of the internal mother that is so frightening to so many, but rather the fear that something essential died back then, something that can never be brought to life, something that received no nourishment, for psychically one’s own mother was dead herself. For you, I say, be at peace, you are not dead, you are not lethally injured.
As in nature, the soul and the spirit have resources that are astonishing. Like wolves and other creatures, the soul and spirit are able to thrive on very little, and sometimes for a long time on nothing. To me, it is the miracle of miracles that this is so. Once I was transplanting a hedgerow of lilac. One great bush was dead from a mysterious cause, but the rest were shaggy with purple in springtime. The dead one cracked and crunched like peanut brittle as I dug it out. I found that its root system was attached to all the other living lilacs up and down the fence line.
Even more astounding, the dead one was the “the mother.” She had the thickest and oldest roots. All her big babies were doing fine even though she herself was botas arribas, boots up, so to speak. Lilacs reproduce with what is called a sucker system, so each tree is a root offshoot of the primal parent. In this system, even if the mother fails, the offspring can survive. This is the psychic pattern and promise for those with little or no, as well as those who have torturous mothering. Even though the mother somehow falls over, even though she has nothing to offer, the offspring will develop and grow independently and still thrive. ~Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Women Who Run with the Wolves
There was a time I didn’t believe I could be different or live differently. I was angry and resentful and in so much pain. I didn’t know how to heal from this raw, gushing wound that is my relationship with my mother and my want for her to love me, and the inescapable truth that has never and will likely never be able to. That was when I was surviving. Doing what I had to do to make it through my days. I’m different now. Enduring the most devastating loss of your life can do that to you.
I’m learning to thrive. Learning to take this incredible resilience and audacity I’ve always had to become a better and more whole me. A better mother. A better teacher. A better woman for myself and by extension everyone else I come in contact with.
My beloved told me today, “it’s no wonder you took on the wolf as your animal alter ego.” I didn’t tell her that the wolf chose me. She came to me on a day a few years ago when she knew I would listen to her howl. I saw her and felt her in a vision. She was running through the forest. I saw her and was her. I felt the underbrush under my paws, I felt the branches snap under the weight of my running body. We came to a clearing and there were two pups there. I knew one of them was Vasia. The other, my son. Suddenly, she started to growl, and I felt my lips curl over my long canines. I felt the saliva drip from my gritted mouth. I looked over and met eyes with another wolf. A male. My partner. He was on a knoll just feet away. He threw his head back and we howled. Loud and sing song like.
The wolf came to remind me that I am she and she is I. We’ve survived on less. Now we’re learning that we don’t need to live like that anymore. We can thrive, but it’s up to us to create that abundance. That’s the trip I’m on. I’m in the becoming. It’s a process.