A friend’s father recently passed away. I’ve never liked that expression, passed away, preferring the hard simplicity of died. But I suppose I want to soften this post, before I’ve barely begun. So. Died. Yes. Last week, while she and I were having lunch, she looked across the table at me, trying to put words to her thoughts and feelings. She’d had an immensely complicated relationship with her father.
“I supposed I preferred it,” she said, “when his spirit was contained in his body. Now he’s gone, and it feels like his spirit is unleashed.”
I knew what she meant, felt it with a shiver. When my father died twenty-two years ago (he has now been dead almost as long as I knew him) I felt as if I had a guardian angel, someone watching over me, giving me signs, helping me along the way. I don’t know if I actually felt this, believed it–or made a decision to believe it. But I do know this much: my father’s death formed me, as a young adult, turned me into a person I wanted to be, a person I respected and liked. Before taking an action about which I was unsure, I would ask myself whether it was something that would make my father proud. I lived my life by the answers to those questions, and slowly I grew up, built something out of the sadness and dust of my childhood.
But when my mother died just a few years ago, I found I was having a very different experience. Like my friend, I worried about my mother’s unleashed spirit, even though I’m not at all sure I believe in spirits. I didn’t want her looking over my shoulder. I avoided the whole notion that she might be able to affect my life in any way, from beyond the grave. I tried not to consider the logic that whatever laws of the great beyond would apply equally to my father and my mother. That if he was able to keep an eye on me, so would she. Still, when something particularly good would happen in my life, I’d credit my father. And–fairly or not–when something bad would happen, I’d secretly fear that my mother had a hand in it. I remember something a therapist told me, as my mother was dying: “There are two kinds of people in the world,” he said. “People who would, at the moment of their death, choose to press a button and take the whole world with them, and people who wouldn’t.”
I’m thinking about all this because of a discovery my husband made a few days ago. In our basement, for the past years since my mother’s death, we’ve kept many boxes of slides and micro-cassette tapes that I hadn’t been able to bring myself to look at or listen to. At times, it has felt to me that our basement is throbbing with it all, with the detritus of my mother’s life, the stuff of my parent’s marriage. Finally, Michael started to take a look. He began to go through the tens of thousands of slides, throwing away the meaningless vistas–mountains, oceans–and keeping the ones with the people: me with my father in London, outside the Dorchester Hotel, dressed for all the world like a five-year-old princess in a burgundy-and-white checked Marimekko coat. Me, at the same age, at my half-sister’s graduation from Brandeis. He picked a micro-cassette at random, and played it to see what it contained. He came up to my office, sat heavily down in the chair near my desk.
“Your mother recorded her own therapy sessions,” he said.
“She recorded herself in therapy,” he repeated.
So that’s what I’m left with. Hours of my mother’s voice, on tape, as she talked to her therapist in the early 1980’s. I’ve started to listen, and I can hardly bear it. The sheer weight of her unhappiness. What daughter gets to have this knowledge of her mother? How do I explore it, how I think of it? In the years since her death, she has become more human to me. In the absence of her overwhelming presence in my life, I have found room to be more sympathetic to her. She was a profoundly miserable woman who could never get at the source of her own misery. She skated along life’s surface, stumbling, tripping, hurting herself and others–never able to stop. To look, really look. Instead, she pointed her finger, always blaming. The source of her frustration and unhappiness was out there. Not inside, never inside. These therapy sessions, which she taped for some inexplicable reason, are the closest to the inside that she ever got.
I remember the first time I ever heard the expression: The only way out is through. Intuitively I got it. I had to go through. I had to take a hard, hard look at myself. I somehow knew that there was freedom in that self-examination. In the willingness to say: this is me. And part of being me, the most uncomfortable part, is being my mother’s daughter. I can’t get away from it. I can only try to understand.