After spending nearly a lifetime as ‘father figure’ for a parent, a son reflects on the journey with his late mother.
Driving up Interstate 45 from Houston to Madisonville, Texas was not unfamiliar to us. Mama and I had passed through Huntsville en route to her mother’s home many, many Friday afternoons and evenings from Beaumont, Texas, where I was raised.
This trip, though, was different—-it was our last ride together.
My mother Eva died on Oct. 16, 2011, after a number of years in declining health. I was taking her remains up to place them next to her mother’s grave in the family plot on a blue-sky November afternoon. Just Mama and I…like old times.
Between this trip and the first one many years before, a lot of issues put us squarely together. From my youngest memories through her death, Mama looked to me for guidance, support and advice. She shared with me many things about her relationship with her mother, marriage to my father, and eyed me for all emotional needs. There were trips to doctors’ offices in Houston as a kid. I was born with a unilateral cleft palate, clipped lip and without a uvula. Plastic surgeries, orthodontist visits and other maladies (some psychosomatic, I admit in hindsight) drew us together even tighter.
Some early mornings, I remember she’d wake up, put on a pot of coffee and sit in her rocking chair in our den. I’d go in there from my bedroom to make sure she was alright. Mama would ask me about this, that and the other subject, and I felt compelled to offer advice. OK, advice from a 10- or 11-year-old boy to an adult woman on adult relationship matters? What is wrong with this picture?
She drank a lot (I’d call her an alcoholic) and developed serious mental health issues—including two nervous breakdowns and a failed suicide attempt two days after I moved away from home to Houston at 29. I discovered in my own therapeutic journey that a lot of this behavior is called “emotional incest.”
As a young man, adolescent, teenager and college student, I always felt this inner sense of loyalty to Mama. We would write notes to one another. She would call me “Handsome” and I would call her “Toots,” pushing these handwritten notes underneath our bedroom doors.
No one ever told me at the time that those behaviors were fucked up.
I never knew about personal choices. Choices? Not in my insular world where Mama and her own mother, to a degree, yanked my emotional chains until I was drained.
My masculine energy was screwy. I turned to alcohol and pornography to ease my pain. My pain didn’t get eased, just medicated. Thankfully, I have not had a drink since Jan. 1, 1997. Not bragging here; it’s data. The sexual area of my life continues to be an ongoing process of healing.
Just the mere fact that I know about masculine energy these days is a testament to the many men and women that have helped me grow up in the past decade-plus.
Experiences with 12-step recovery groups have definitely helped me. It was a feeling—a truth response—of saying “holy shit, I’ve found my tribe.”
One profound experience involved going through The ManKind Project’s New Warrior Training Adventure in 2003. Obviously, the biggest part of my work was around Mama. A few months before my NWTA, I spent a week in 2002 away from family and friends to get some real perspective on the one person I’d ignored (from a healthy standpoint) my whole life.
Shit! That pre-NWTA week felt like lancing a huge boil in my soul where a lot of pent-up anger, sadness and feelings splattered all over the place. Then, the NWTA helped me learn about this strange matter of healthy masculinity. Being around other men and seeing the courage they had to go into their own dark caves was something unique … and beautiful … to me.
The entire course of my inner life changed. Did everything become rosy and sweet between Mama and me for the rest of her earthly life? Honestly, no. I took care of her, paying bills when needed, making sure she got all of the help as her health deteriorated.
I moved away from Houston in 2004, driving from wherever I was living and working in Texas to visit her. There were frequent visits, but there were weeks and months that I didn’t visit Mama. In her later years, she needed a lot of support…more than I could personally offer.
Finding a better place for her to live and have that support system was a bitch. She was in a wheelchair by this time, unable to walk on her own after spending too many years lying in bed. Her physical body had weakened. After taking her to visit one place, she literally broke down, cried and said, “Don’t move me. Please Joe! Don’t move me!” These pleas sounded so familiar—like those from my youth and adolescence. I took her back to where she was living, rolled her wheelchair into her condominium and left. I had no words for her, and we did not say “The Lord’s Prayer” together as was our tradition upon visits.
In my heart of hearts, I want to believe Mama wanted me to get along with my life. She said as much to me a few times in years prior to her death. Yet, I also had doubts within me of her sincerity. Did she really mean it? Was this another emotional game she was playing? Would I give in and become the “sucker” after seeing this pattern play out over and over again?
Today, I don’t have to spend energy wondering about Mama. There have been moments in the past two years that grief has knocked me on my ass. I didn’t think her death would affect me that much. Hell, I’d prepared for it myself over a long period of time. Tears come easily to my eyes. Getting angry, resentful and pissed off at Mama—now—feels foolish and silly. At times, my humanity appears and those emotions crop up.
On that November afternoon, it was simply me, Mama’s remains and the Universe. I said The 23rd Psalm and, for our last time together, The Lord’s Prayer. Then I put her right next to her mother. They always were close and tight.
I took a few steps back while the mortician poured earthly dirt on her grave. He asked me whether I wanted to be present or not. I said yes.
See, Mama is finally at peace. No more emotional or physical pain at all. I’m happy about that … and I do mean it.
For me, life as a single man has its ups and downs.
One journey is over and another is already under way.
Photo: amarilloposters / flickr