This post is of a very personal nature I’m still processing, so please forgive me if it rambles a little…
A short while ago, I was at the wake for my mother, Diana Mary Carsten. She died early in the year. On a Tuesday night, I drank wine at the local Odd-fellows hall in Corvallis, Oregon while listening to her husband and many activists in say how lucky they were to have her in their life. My brother was there and said something banal about how she believed in mind over matter. I didn’t speak. In an environment where you’re supposed to say positive things, I didn’t want to say anything when my feelings were so mixed.
She was a fighter. I heard this over and over again from representatives from all her causes. She was a great advocate and board member for social movements: the League of Woman Voters, the Odd-fellows, the Oregon Green Party, a court advocate, the local symphony, her Christian Science church, and the Peace Vigil. She loved hiking in nature and would travel around the world. When she felt something was wrong, she would fight and not back down, stubborn as hell. You were glad to have her on your side. One young mother might have ended up on the street if not for her.
It was surreal being there. The woman who influenced my life by far the most of anyone was talked about, and it was all about the last 10 years of her life. There was nothing about her family or earlier years. Her second husband, my step dad, had his family there, a group of Mormons. I had never felt any connection to them and they showed no warmth to my emotions or lack of desire at the time to engage in social niceties. When commanded by my step dad’s mom to arrange pictures before the ceremony, I didn’t feel like explaining and quietly walked off and stood on her porch and let my tears come. My brother was the only family there, and by family I only mean in the biological sense; with his Asperger’s syndrome, it’s impossible to hold a conversation with him. He won’t look me in the eye or volunteer anything. He spent the evening staring into space only talking briefly when responded to. When I talked and hinted of what was going on, he simply didn’t respond. At any sign of emotion he freezes and stops talking.
I’m grateful that my girlfriend Aleksandra came down with me.
Neither me nor my brother had seen (or talked, for all I know) with my mother in years. Too many bridges burned, trusts betrayed. I still wished her happiness in that time. Just not at my expense.
Hearing all those stories about what a fighter she was brought it close to home. She was a fighter. Perhaps that’s why she found her home in American politics rather than in Canada. She was a fighter through and through. It was how she approached life.
The thing is, sometimes in a family you have to know how not to fight. To just breathe. To listen. To bring warmth and gentleness. To show that no matter what happens, the connection is there. No one spoke any words of that side of her. I tried to remember some of it at the wake and couldn’t.
My memories of my mother were radically different from the others that were voiced. Aside from my brother, no one had met her in the 70s or 80s. Back then, she didn’t have any causes to fight for. She was a single mother with few friends and very little emotional support. She fought for herself, worked hard, and found solace in her children. I was for many years her only support, her confidant, her comforter. It just got too much way too quickly.
In Oregon, she had an incredibly beautiful house on the hillside. I love that house. There were always the sounds of birds, from starlings to hummingbirds, and deer walking by regularly. You could see a pair of mountains called the Sisters in the far distance with caps of snow, bringing a sense of the seemingly unattainable within sight. The house was open aired and spacious and it was at least 200 feet to the nearest other home.
On that Tuesday, I stood on the porch looking at the landscape and hearing the birds swirl around me for an hour or two. I couldn’t always tell what I was thinking or feeling; it was a maelstrom of many emotions and thoughts, bursting free from wherever I’d put them away.
How numb I’d forced myself to be around her. How I’d watched what I said, what emotions I showed on my face, how I moved, all to try to avoid that fighter. Over the years after I had moved out, my body started speaking out and I started listening. I did not want to be touched by her. There was no feeling of safety or comfort near her, no matter how much I thought there ‘should’ be. She’s my mother, after all!
This hit home a couple years ago when I was standing alone with her in the ICU unit of a hospital, watching her helpless body and blank eyes cope with 3 major bleeds in her brain. In a strange way it was only then that I felt safe enough, in a peculiar way, to realize how terrified of her I truly was. How broken and beaten I felt regarding her.
My mother was truly a fighter to the end. And that was her response to everything. I was her son and she took my state incredibly personally. I was her blood. If I felt hurt, she couldn’t take it. It hurt her too much. If there was any possibility that she might have caused the hurt, she simply couldn’t take it. She would fight for my healing, for me forgiving, for me feeling better. She longed for the days of a 5 year old child saying “you’re the best mummy in the world” with eyes that saw nothing that could be wrong. She wanted to be perfect, to be seen as a good, loving human being. And so she would fight for it. She would fight for me to be happy, for me to be warm. She would fight for me to trust her. She would fight for me to support her, because that’s what children should do to good mothers out of gratitude. She would fight with everything she had, with her MA in Counselling Psychology knowledge, with pleas, with threats, with sudden withdrawals, with all her relentlessness and stubbornness – with everything that served her so well as an activist in her later years. In the end I gave in, telling her what she wanted, touching her how she wanted, and trying to feel what she wanted me too. It was the only seeming way to get the battles to end. But there was a price for me always controlling myself – trauma. Body issues began to appear over the years. Sleep disorders. Anxiety. Debilitating back pain. Dizziness. Chronic Fatigue. All of which can get into the nice term of “Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder” or C-PTSD.
But in my visit, in that space of beauty that was her house, I felt for a moment what I must have felt as a child. Cared for. Safe. Surrounded by beauty. I remember feeling that as a very young child, and I did feel it around my mother before things went sour and into a negative feedback loop. And I knew it was me feeling it, not just because it was what I was supposed to feel because she was my mother. I cried and cried. The truth is, I loved that house. I loved being in that house – so long as my mother wasn’t there. I could feel her presence still – but for 30 years I haven’t felt safe or relaxed with her near. Of course there’s love there. It felt so good to feel some of that love without feeling that sensation of no man’s land, a war zone of impending attack.
A week later in a strange way, standing alone by a rushing river, I talked to my mom. I actually felt that wherever she is, she is sorry. That was a word I never heard from her. She would rather fight than say sorry. But this time I felt it. I never wanted to hear “I’m a bad mother” from her. I wanted to hear it wasn’t my fault, which was what I heard over and over. I wanted to hear that she cared enough to listen to my hurt without trying to fight or change me, to just listen. That’s such an important part of love.
I’m still processing that she’s gone. What does it mean? How will all the defense I built up react when ther person they were created for is gone? But maybe things are moving. For years I didn’t remember any good feelings in my body, and now I can, like waking from a bad dream. As my previous post stated, I’m more committed now to just being where I am, letting go as best I can and taking the next breath. Pretending to have more answers than that just hasn’t served me.