I returned from being hospitalized in London in mid-February 1985. My mother, her sisters, and my sister kept calling me to say I needed to visit my mother. Her cancer, first diagnosed in 1983, had returned and she was now paralyzed from the waist down. By mid-March, although my illness was still undiagnosed, I felt well enough to visit and asked a friend who my mother adored, to drive me. A few days before I was scheduled to leave, my mother’s youngest sister called to reassure me that my mother would be alive when I visited.
“What?” My aunt explained that my mother had asked my uncle to buy pills that she would take just before my visit so that when I arrived, she would find me dead.
“What?” My mother hated me so much she wanted me to travel four hours just to find her dead? I cancelled the visit.
No matter my reasons for not going, I was barraged by phone calls from my mother, aunts and sister telling me I needed to visit. I was assured by my aunt that my uncle had not bought the pills, that my mother would be alive when I arrived. I kept saying no until I was worn down and said yes.
My friend and I drove to my sister’s house, a mile or so from where my mother lived. As we drove, I entertained my friend by imagining worst case scenarios. When we arrived, I called my mother’s nurse to tell her I needed a nap and would come afterward. I could hear my mother screaming in the background, “Tell her to come NOW!” The nurse told me to call when I was ready to come, that she would make sure my mother would be calm.
When my friend and I arrived, my mother was furious. “I told you to come by yourself.” She was not mollified by the presents we brought. Her years-long adulation of my friend vanished, despite her efforts to pacify my mother. When my friend saw my anguish and my mother’s increasing rage, she volunteered to sit outside on the steps while I visited.
To prepare for the visit I had followed a friend’s suggestion and wore a red silk scarf around my waist to ward off anger and emotional abuse. I decided ahead of time that I would not defend myself, nor would I confront or challenge my mother. I was tired, sick, and what I wanted was for her to be kind.
What I got was a two-hour diatribe: what a terrible daughter I was, what a terrible person I was, what a terrible mother I was. The intensity of her fury astounded me. The session was ended by the nurse coming in, a horrified expression on her face. “Mrs. Rubin, your daughter is ill. She needs to rest.”
“She’s not sick. I am. She’s just pretending,” snapped my mother. The nurse said it was time for my mother’s pills and suggested I leave. Immediately.
I met my friend on the stairs and we drove to my sister’s house in silence. My sister excused our mother’s behavior as she’d always done. I asked her to leave me alone and took a long walk thinking about what I wanted to do. I decided I would briefly visit my mother the next day, just before we drove home.
In the morning, as we were about to leave my sister’s house, my brother-in-law said, “Nancy, for once in your life think about someone else besides yourself.” I left without acknowledging his words or presence. However, if looks could kill . . .
I told myself to forget about him, to forget about my sister, to do what I came to do, which was to have as good a visit with my mother as possible. En route, I planned what I would say when I saw my mother, knowing the words were lies, but the words were all I had to try end the visit in a better way than it had begun.
When I entered her bedroom, I gave her the coffee and doughnuts my sister and I had bought on the way. My mother complained the coffee wasn’t hot enough, the doughnuts were the wrong kind. I listened, then, without emotion, said, “Mother, you and I are both sick. I don’t know how much time either of us has so I want you to know that I forgive you.”
Her response was quick and venomous. “There’s nothing to forgive me for. You’re the one that caused all the trouble. You’re the one who was so horrible.”
“We’re both ill. This might be the last time we see each other.”
“You’re not sick. You’re just pretending so people will feel sorry for you.”
At that moment I decided this would be the last time I would see my mother no matter what. I also decided to keep saying what I didn’t feel: “I love you.”
I wanted and needed my last visit with my mother to be one without accusations and arguments. I’d had enough of her vitriol. She had a terminal illness. I had what might be a terminal illness. We’d run out of time. I had no idea how to make this happen but I just kept saying, with whatever pretended feeling I could muster, “I love you.”
After what felt like hours but was probably less than half an hour, she said, without feeling, “I love you too.” This was good enough until she added, “I love you more than your sister.” I didn’t want to be loved more than my sister. I didn’t want to be loved less than my sister. I just wanted to be loved.
Mindful that this was my last visit, I forced myself to kiss her on her forehead and say, “I love you,” as my sister came into the room. She was so pleased with what she saw she invited me to stay for a few days so we could enjoy each other. When I reminded her I had a lot of scheduled medical tests, she urged me to cancel them. I reminded her again, to no avail, that I had an undiagnosed illness, that I needed to have the tests in order to get a diagnosis. She ignored what I said and urged me to stay. I said goodbye in all senses of the word and left.
As my friend and I drove home, I thought about the scenarios I’d imagined on the way up. The reality had been so much worse, and yet, I chose to behave lovingly even though I didn’t feel loving. A good enough way to end my relationship with my abusive mother.
How do you prepare for a situation you know will be difficult?
Life tales from a woman different living in The City Different.