my first country
the first place I ever lived
A day whose origin is wholly 20th century American. More than ever it is commercialized, turned into a day of material obligation and expectation—of chocolate and flowers and cards, of restaurant dinners…sterilized of authenticity. A tool for profit.
And yet it holds sway in deep ways.
It’s easy to forget the sacred in today’s world. We are overstimulated, isolated. Busy. Always busy. Our familial foundations awash, diluted by the buzzing mundanity of modernity.
I imagine for some a kind of blessing.
Then the day.
From the radios. From the televisions. From the publications. From the Internets.
Don’t forget Mother’s Day
Don’t forget Mother’s Day
Don’t forget Mother’s Day
Don’t forget Mother’s Day
We are left staring at our consequential maternal reservoir, pleasure and pain in all its iterations leaking through the dam’s cracks. What should been allowed to flow as river though our lives, in then out, now threatens to become a deluge.
Sometimes we scramble to patch the leaks with romanticism. Sometimes demonization. Sometimes escapism. In these extremes we dodge the complexities of the human condition. To face and reconcile the light and the dark, to acknowledge and embrace both equally is a birth itself. The heart is pushed through a keyhole. There is pain. Blood is shed.
For those that don’t this day is not welcome.
The footing of our lives begins with two people. This, the first chapter of our origin story. Much of it is penned maternally…nine months, give or take—a connection the masculine is only capable of being witness, even if they are brave enough to embrace it fully.
The inexorable intimacy of those first words marks the soul, both mother and child, regardless of outcome. Regardless the theme or count of the chapters that follow.
Mom died the third of May, 2011. The day before she called me while I was working but this time I didn’t let her call go to voicemail like I had so many other times. Somewhere within me I knew.
I rushed to her house and called an ambulance. I was the last to speak words to her, to see her conscious.
This is gift and curse.
But oh, those precious words were wasted helping to explain medical protocol to her. I didn’t say I loved her before they put her under sedation. She’d never wake up again.
Mother’s Day came five days after. After. My grief was too fresh for that first one so it didn’t register. But they’d all be after now.
The next couple of Afters were difficult. Anger, shame, longing, resentment, forgiveness, regret—a court trial for all the words said and unsaid between us. These Mother’s Days would be the exclamation points in the processing of my grief. They were violent tugs on the unspooling of everything about her that lived within me.
The Afters since passed by with relative ease. Or did they?
This year is different. Something I hadn’t expected happened in February. While at a retreat organized by the Hoffman Institute, I drained an abscess of rage and resentment towards my mother that I had no idea existed. She’d caused me deep pain, pain subconsciously denied for decades out of adoration and fear, a wounding gone septic.
It explained much.
It explained why I wrecked my body in my teens, and then more times as a young adult. I had no insight to the source, let alone a path to vent what was held inside me. All I had was pain. So my subconscious sought somatic means. I expressed my anger and resentment left by her trespasses with the only thing I could control. I’d break what she held precious.
I wouldn’t be her perfect little boy anymore. I’d shatter him, scatter his pieces. I’d leave him permanently scarred, a breath from death. Over and over. This resolved nothing of course. My body expressed the pain but the suffering remained.
At the retreat my body had a second chance.
I was armed with a wiffle ball bat, a giant pillow before me as I sat on the floor. I was instructed to think of the things that had happened in my childhood that I resented my parents for while hitting the pillow. They told me to hit hard. They told me to separately imagine my mother, my father, my stepfather before me. They told be to tell them everything they’d ever done that hurt me and to do it ruthlessly. Curse at them, call them awful things, they said. Do not stop.
There were 38 others in the room doing the same.
None of us wanted to do it. We were scared and embarrassed, ashamed of what was held within. But I was committed and did as instructed even though I was more focused on my surroundings than the task. The enthusiasm and technique varied between us but what started out reluctantly began to thaw as the physical exertion took hold.
I thought it’d be dad I would be most angry with. He abandoned me as a baby, leaving absence as his only presence. My stepdad would come next and then maybe, maybe, some would be left for mom.
That was until I started thinking about her.
It was glacial at first, but my surroundings began to fade and then my inhibition. When I thought of mom my swings hit harder and hot tears began running down my face. My accusations turned into growls then howls. My emotional moorings slipped, slipped…then fell. A fury ripped from my lungs that rose above the chaos around me, the force of it blooming into a stabbing pain behind my eyes that threatened to cleave my skull.
“FUCKYOUFUCKYOUFUCKYOUFUCKYOUFUCKYOU FUCKYOU FUCKYOU FUCK YOU FUCK YOOOOU,” I roared.
I wailed, snot running unchecked down my face, my swings hitting the pillow, whap whap whap whap. I didn’t stop. I couldn’t. The avalanche of rage had turned involuntary. I could taste blood in my screams. I choked back vomit. My arms burned, sweat stung my eyes. I did not stop.
For 15 minutes we did this. A five minute break spent with my chest heaving for air and then again. Three sets in all.
Each time we’d start I’d think, there can’t be more, and then and I’d lose my shit. Again.
By the last round my voice was a rasp. Every scream felt like breathing fire but the sound only held the power of an old man bitching. I screamed anyway. Mom was gone now, lost in the emptying remains of my decades-long stuffed emotion. My swings into the pillow were slower, spaced. A rhythm.
My heart was through the keyhole.
I buried my face in the pillow. We were only halfway through the last round but I was tapped. Something new was rising.
At first it came as a whimper, then a sad cry that turned into a grievous wail. I choked and spattered on the mourning that escaped past my lips. An instructor came to my side and asked why I’d stopped. My reply was lost in tears.
“You’ve got to keep moving,” he said. “Keep moving.”
So I rocked as I knelt, face still planted in the pillow as grief and loss gutted me. My racking sobs filled the void.
“FIVE MINUTES LEFT, GIVE IT ALL YOU GOT,” the instructor commanded. And with that I found the strength to sit up and hit the pillow again as snot swung from my chin. I wanted to be sure. I wanted to be bled dry.
For the past few months I’ve felt good. Dare I say happy? I mean, to notice this is a big deal. Things are still tough. The same challenges face me. Doubts are still lingering, fears still nipping, but I’ve changed. Some of my shift is profound…yet subtle. Its gravity only detected in hindsight.
So when I started feeling sad and not knowing exactly why a couple of weeks ago I was at a loss. The anniversary of mom’s death is coming up, is it that? Maybe. Not exactly, but in part maybe. What is it then? What’s different?
The anniversary came and went without an answer. Then Mother’s Day came and I felt uncomfortable so I started writing. In that stream of thought, the words you are reading were born. Basically you are reading my process. This plus this plus this. What’s it equal?
I’m different. Mother’s day feels different because I’m different.
From the space that emptied during the retreat a peaceful grief flowed for the mother who’d brought me joy. Nothing specific, just longing. I fought it at first with my go-to coping mechanism: comic relief. I was afraid that I’d end up with my face in a pillow again, writhing in the jaws of grief.
I gave it up to the words. I always follow where the words go anyway. They’d know.
I shed some tears along the way. They were good tears.
“All we can hope for as parents is that we’ve done more good than bad.”