Remembering Who I Am

September 30, 2010


When I was small, my greatest fear was that my mother would die and leave me. I used to wake up constantly in the night and go to her room and check that she was there and still breathing. My whole world centred around her. Even when I went to boarding school, distance and separation didn’t really do anything to weaken our bond.  In fact it made it more intense. For me she was and still is the definition of unconditional love.  I never felt alone when she was alive. My sense of self was deeply enshrined in the way she saw me. She made me believe that I could do or be anything.

I always used to say “When mummy dies, I’ll have to jump in the grave with her.”

My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1996 and had  a lumpectomy followed by radiation therapy, then a mastectomy and more radiation therapy. She refused chemotherapy.  She considered this to be “an unnatural extension of life”. Even though she was sick she had a way of building delight into everything. On the days when we would go to hospital for her radiation treatment, we would stop off at the Harrods Food Hall for grilled salmon and champagne afterwards! It seemed there was always something to celebrate.

In the Christmas of 2000 her doctors told her that the cancer had spread to her soft tissue and that she would need chemo.

I was in New Orleans, my sister was in Johannesburg, her brother was in Brooklyn and her good friend was in Trinidad. We all got a call from my dad to get to London as fast as possible. I got in  ( the night before her chemo was due to start) and had a bed made up next to her. I spent the night listening to her suck air into her lungs, it was a grating noise, like the air was somehow scraping her   lungs. I could hear that this breathing was different.

She had waited to gather everyone that she loved into that room to be with her as she left this world.  I thought death would be some really loud final blow. Big and huge, full of screaming and shrieking, wailing and lamenting. But no. This was very quiet. A nurse sat behind me whispering  ….”She’s almost reached her last breath now….her breathing is shallower….”  My heart was beating in my ears as I watched for each breath and then finally she just did not breathe in again. That’s all. No drama. She just did not breathe in.

Soon after we were ushered to the family room, and we all sat there and ate a meal, making polite conversation. Absurd.   I remembered that I had left my handbag in my mother’s room so I went back down the corridor to the room where she was.  I walked into the room where I thought she had been and there was no one there so I walked into the next room and there was another patient in the bed, I was instantly annoyed that the doctors had already moved another patient in. Inconsiderate bastards. She had barely been gone five minutes and already  they had moved someone else in. As I walked out, something made me go back into the first room and suddenly it hit me. My mother had gone. This is the moment I had been dreading my whole life – that I would go into her room and she’d have stopped breathing or be gone.  Well here I was and she was gone.

My mother was cremated but I proceeded to build my own mental grave in which to jump. I had no other plan so quit my job and gave birth four months later. Having lost my sense of self I adopted anybody’s and everybody’s plan for me –  model mother – knee deep in home-made organic baby food; the model wife – always compliant; the model daughter – I took over the running of my dad’s life.  From the outside I looked very busy and content, but something was not quite right. Always the restlessness, always the searching, an emptiness, a slowly mounting anger, the never ending questions. The exhaustive thoughts –  The ever present grief.  I heard people say time heals all wounds.  Well not mine. Eight long years later I was still stuck in fresh pain.

I had unwittingly  started to believe that all my loved ones could not survive without me and this thought became suffocating.  Now I was gasping for air.  Then one day I walked in to a meditation centre and was drawn to a training called “Who am I?”  One question led to many. “Who am I without my mother?” “Who am I to be?”  “Who does the world think I am?” After three months of writing on this every day I concluded that whoever I am , “I am enough”. I didn’t have to live up to any pre ordained standards of what I should achieve.

The next nudge came when I moved  across the country to a new house and  town where nobody knew me. Moreover nobody knew my mother. I was forced to recreate my life or stay cocooned forever. I moved house but my thoughts came with me…………..

“She abandoned me.  She died too soon. There’s no one to show me how to be a mother.  No one will ever love me the way she did. She has gone forever. I will never get to talk to her again.  I am lost without her.”

Confronted with these thoughts I decided to investigate each and every one of them to see whether they were really true and what I found set me free. I found that she had not abandoned me. I had actually abandoned myself by numbing out and living some half life. I found that she died right on time. She always used to say that she would rather die than have chemotherapy and she died the evening before her chemo was due to start.  Had she lived  she may have been in great pain and my life would have been in   more turmoil – new baby, sick mother, divided loyalties and extensive travel between London and Johannesburg. The picture I had painted in my head would never have been. As for no one loving me the way she did, I have come to see that everyone, all together loves me the way she did. I have found little bits of her in every one. She hasn’t gone forever because I can never divorce myself from my memories. She gets to live on in me  forever. I find myself talking to her and know exactly how she would respond.  Not always what I want to hear.

In the process of re – membering who I am and putting  all the lost parts of myself back together, I finally understand how she showed me to be a mother. As mothers we all want for our children to stand on their own two feet and see themselves as the magnificent creatures that they are. I see myself. I breathe alone. I am free.

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