I was 22 when my dad committed suicide, that was just over 14 years ago. I had a turbulent relationship with my dad. I have a books worth of stories about growing up with a dad with an undiagnosed mental illness who abused opioids to numb his pain. For a long time I charactered how my dad made me feel by saying I felt “confusion” and lots and lots of therapy and a masters in counseling psychology later, I learned what I had felt was afraid. In my fear I walled up and became stone cold. I did not, would not, could not feel for feeling would be far too risky. Three years before he died he was diagnosed bipolar. A diagnosis can provide some insight and understanding but it doesn’t always, or at least not immediately, provide relief for a strained relationship or make up for a history characterized by pain. When my dad died I was full of sorrow, regret, sadness, more regret, shame; there was so much shame. Also, in a surprising way, I was filled with sweet memories. I wanted to speak at his funeral and tried to land on something to say. But I couldn’t think of words or even locate specific emotions I was feeling. Instead of me or my brother speaking, our mom spoke on our behalf. She mothered us in a way I will never fully be able to comprehend when she stood up at her ex-husband’s funeral and paid tribute to a man who had largely abused her in the nine years of their marriage and mistreated her in the 18 years of their divorce. She stood up there and told the story of how over cheeseburgers he had worked his way into her heart and how that date would change the course of her entire life. She honored him. She honored us all. It was holy. I just knew, even at the time, that I didn’t have the capacity to feel both all the anger and all the love I was feeling at the same time. I am not ashamed of that, but I also wished, then and now, that I would have been able to. I wish I could have known that my hatred came as the direct result of how much I loved him and wanted so desperately to know love from him in return. That is complex, too complex for me at the time of my dad’s death. Unfortunately, by the time I was able to work out some of this, my dad had ended the opportunity for me to engage him in the complexity. I have deep sadness about that.
Twelve years later I was 2 weeks shy of 35 when my mom died suddenly from an aneurysm. I had a beautiful relationship with my mom. I have at least a book’s worth of stories about growing up with a mom that was deep and light. I had a mom who experienced and processed more hurt and pain than I knew and also who emanated love and light that extended far beyond what I could have even imagined. Growing up I was easily her biggest fan and simultaneously her biggest critic. I thought the world of her and wanted to be exactly like her and I was so very hard on her. I loved her hilarious bedtime stories. I blamed her that I had to have visitation with my dad. I loved cooking and creating with her. I blamed her that she would have married someone that would treat her the ways my dad continued to treat her even after they were divorced. I loved the songs she sang. I blamed her that she had to work. I loved that she was my coach for everything. I blamed her that she wasn’t always available to bring volleyball kneepads or left behind homework to school like so many of my friends moms were. I was hard on her because she was safe. And she and I both knew that. She was able to receive my anger and not crumble and that strength created a closeness between us that defies words. There were not topics I couldn’t broach with her in fact we talked about everything. She was around and available and she was delighted in my very existence. She encouraged me and gently steered me. If someone was my friend, they were her friend as well. When she knew I wanted to go to graduate school in Seattle, she booked us a 2 week vacation to get out there and explore. When I hurt her feelings with my sharp edges she told me. When she would hurt me she was quick to want to know more about how and would apologize with depth and sincerity, every single time. When she died, I didn’t have the same complexity of emotions I had with my dad. It was so different. My very own heart was so different. The last 10 years I learned the importance of holding tension. I have been hurt by my dad and I love him. I have been broken beyond what I thought was possible and I did not die. I entered into the depths of my grief and loss and was not swallowed by sorrow.
In this decade we are saying goodbye to, I stepped into my strength. Not the stone cold “strength” I once put on, but the authentic strength of being brave enough to be broken. My moms cousin told me shortly after my moms funeral, “Our mothers birth us twice in our life. Once in our birth into this Earth. And the other time, in their death.” That wisdom rushed over me like a life giving current. If you would have told me last decade my mom was going to die this decade, I would have thought I would just die right along with her. And in my mothers death, in my second birth, I have chosen life. Do I wish I had her here with me still? Every single second of every single day. But this decade, I learned I can hold tension. I can let the anguish in and know with certainty it will not overwhelm me it will only make me richer, fuller, deeper.