POST 4: Good Bye

Sometime during my first year of kindergarten, Frances ran away. POOF. One day you are living with your mother and the next day you're not. She left during the night while I was sleeping. What does a five year old think when her mother disappears in the night? Aliens. Had to be. It never occurred to me that my mother would purposefully pack a bag of clothes and intentionally leave me behind.

Now that I am a mother, I feel as though I can speak with some limited authority as to how mothers feel about their children. How can you describe a bond that begins with a person before he or she is even born? A person that grows inside your body like a very tiny, very precious jewel? But not just any jewel - you are being entrusted with the most precious jewel in the cosmos, one who is completely unique to any other jewel that this world has ever seen. Every thought is peppered with care for this unborn life. Every food decision. Every monetary decision. Every health decision. From the moment you find out this life is growing, he or she is the first thought on your mind when you wake and the last thought on your mind as you drift to sleep. You rub your belly. You talk to your belly. You choose the perfect name (hopefully not Crystal Chandelier). You decorate a room for this new addition long before necessary. You Ooh! and Aah! over tiny baby clothes and find ridiculous pleasure in shopping for mundane things like baby bottles and butt cream.

The day finally arrives when your little wonder makes his or her first appearance and when your eyes meet... you stop breathing for just a second. You've never seen anything, anything more beautiful than this little person and you know that this moment when you meet this new life-long friend is the moment of your own rebirth. You are a new person. You see the world through fresh (and cautious) eyes. You stare at those little ears and that tiny innocent face and you've never felt anything like you are feeling right now. Being a child's mother is taking part in creation, taking part in the Creator. It is a heavenly, unexplainable experience that is both common and uncommon, profound and ordinary. It is a love-mystery never fully captured nor contained by human words.

And just when you think your heart can't possibly contain another ounce of love and your cheeks ache from smiling .... your baby smiles back at you. A purposeful smile! Is there any sweeter moment? And then they get older and they reach for you. A purposeful reach! Then they say your name. You really said my name! You know who I am! And then one day they say I love you, Mommy. And you just look at those eyes and that face that you've known since it's tiny, microscopic start and with tears in your eyes, you just say, "Yeah, me too," cause that's all you can manage to say. Not that it ever needed saying; there are some things between a mother and her child that are just known without it ever being spoken.

So, imagine if you will that you realize after a few days of your mother being M.I.A. that she isn't coming back. And instantly, sharks begin to circle. You weren't good enough. Maybe if you had been nicer. You weren't pretty enough. The thoughts plague your little five-year-old mind like a a swarm of flies you can't swat away. You feel sick. You can't eat. It's like you're missing a limb, or a segment of your brain. And you need all of the segments of your brain, right? You've never been afraid of the dark before, but suddenly you can't sleep. Your world turns gray.

Mothers don't leave their children; it's just not normal. It's not right. It goes against everything society and your heart tell you. Mothers stay with their babies. Baby birds have a mother. Even pigs have a mother. All of the other kids have mothers. And then it hits you like a sucker punch - She doesn't want me. The sharks' circle starts to close in tighter. I am worthless. And there it is. CHOMP. The first bite. Just enough so you notice it, but not so severe that you think you're a goner like an injury you think is minor until you realize after it's too late that you have internal bleeding.

Being abandoned by the person who made you, who gave birth to you, who nursed you, who loved you and cared for you... it is a wound so deep that it never heals. A scar so ugly you never want to show it. A hurt so profound, so incomprehensible, that your life is forever changed. No amount of swinging in the world heals the pain of losing a mother.

What was in her mind that night? Was this the first time she had packed a bag only to reconsider it later and unpack her things again? What made her go this time? I try to imagine what it must have been like for her to leave us that night. Did she sneak in my room and stroke my hair, debating her leaving with each caress of my cheek? Did she linger with her hand on the doorknob, pausing for just a moment to reconsider what she was about to do? I would like to think it was a hard decision for her to make. I hope, at least, it wasn't an easy one.

Looking back now with an adult perspective - as a wife, a mother, and with a little time and healing under my belt - I try to empathize with her. Maybe she thought she wouldn't be so toxic to us if she left? Maybe she thought we deserved better? Maybe she didn't really care at all?

My mother would continue to appear and reappear in my life throughout the next several years, showing up when her money ran out. Our house was a convenient place for her to board when life was hard and most times we were happy to have her back for as long as she was passing through. Sometimes she would come home and stay a month or two, sometimes just a few days. At most we didn't see her for an entire year, but usually at least every six months or so. Each time she left again we clung to her body sobbing and begging on our hands and knees for her to stay. Other times she would leave just like the first time with a vanish in the night. No note. No phone number.

On and off Frances popped in and out of my childhood like a song bird you get to sit on your windowsill - feeling wonder and elation and gratitude by it's presence and wishing it would return but never quite knowing how to get it to come back. I spent so much energy trying to figure out how to capture her attention, how to make her love me. Was I that unlovable? Then, one day, I stopped caring. If I ever carried any hope of her loving me or us being mother and daughter, it died. The last of any remaining embers I kept burning for her turned black and cold. I never wanted to see her again and I made it my business to avoid her... not that it took a lot of effort. On the few times she made an attempt to see me, I declined. If she ever called me, I don't remember it. If she ever seemed disappointed by my lack of interest in her, she didn't show it. I think it may have been a relief to her that I had come to the same conclusion that she had years before: She was incapable of being my mother.

The last time I saw Frances as a child, I was thirteen years old. Fast forward seven years later, my junior year of college, someone called me to let me know Frances was sick. She had cancer and she was dying. Frances was homeless. She was disabled. She was a mother who abandoned her children. She was the daughter of alcoholics, liars, thieves, murderers, and abusers. She was abused, neglected, unloved, and unwanted by the world. But she was my mother. She was dying and if ever there was a time for grace and forgiveness certainly this was as good of a time as I would ever get.

My best friend Kari made that long drive to Chapel Hill with me. I will always, always be grateful to Kari for being with me then. She didn't lecture me on what I should or should not say. She didn't judge me or ask questions. She just drove me there and when the time came for me to go to Frances' hospital room, she just said, "I'll be right here if you need me." It was a true testament to our friendship, her waiting patiently outside that hospital door and praying for God to guide my words.

Frances was so different than I remembered her. Not as pretty. It was obvious the last seven years had taken a toll. She was even more thin and even more pale. When I came in the room, she just stared at me. She didn't recognize me, her own likeness, and when I told her who I was, she said, "Crystal. Crystal? I thought I would never see you again," and she began to cry. It was awkward. So awkward. To top it off there were nurses and family members standing around staring at me, like Wow. Her long lost daughter. This would have made for an excellent moment on a Lifetime movie.

I was polite. I was sincere. I told her I was sorry she was sick and that I hoped she would get better. I knew she wouldn't - the cancer had spread to her liver and brain. I was only there a few minutes. I told her I would come back and see her. I didn't. My cousins Mat and Rebekah were there. (You'll learn more about them in future posts.) Mat prayed. We all cried. And I could tell when Frances looked at me and said, "Well, I am really glad you came. Thank you." That she meant it. And I was, too.

There was something good for my soul to go and be with her days before her death. It was closure. And in some small way I felt like it was a pardon. I pardoned her for being a shitty mother. I pardoned her for having me. I pardoned her for leaving me. You don't need to have any regrets. I turned out okay after all, despite the mess. Debatable.

It was a sad moment, but a precious one. Not many people get to minister on death's door to the person they have spent their whole life despising. It was releasing some of the poison. It was forgiveness at the precise moment it was needed; a ray of love and humanity on an otherwise bleak existence. And although I never said aloud the words I forgive you and she never said aloud the words I'm sorry, I'd like to believe we each understood what was being spoken to one another in the silence of that room. Because that's how it is between mothers and their children; there are some things between a mother and her child that are just known without ever being uttered... even with a history like ours.


Kari May said...

I remember that time well. I'm glad God gave me the opportunity to be with you. No matter what happened, what she said, or what others thought, I was going to be there to remind you that were loved and precious to me. There are not many people in this world who could survive your life and turn out as well as you did. By God's grace, you have thrived! Besides, no one should have to be alone in those types of situations. Even with all of the baggage, she was still your mother and she was dying. If you were willing to go to say goodbye, I was willing to be by your side the whole way. I would go again in a heartbeat if you asked me to.

Cris Tolbert said...

That's cause you're my best, good friend.

Thanks for the gentle spelling correction for "dying." You were always awesome like that. :)

I love you.

b nowlin said...

I stumbled onto your blog tonight. Someone recommended it and I decided to check it out. I started reading at the beginning. Immediately I saw similarities between your story and mine. Then I read the post where you shared about Frances' cancer and death.

My "Frances" died in October 2008. From cancer. Like you, I went to her in her last days. Those days were so awful. I didn't know what to say or how to respond to her. At the same time, those last days were a release. All of that garbage from her childhood, from my childhood, from toxic words spoken, from abandonment... it was all washed away. I attribute that to God's grace. Surely there is no other explanation.

I am sorry for spilling so much here in your comments, but your first few posts resonated with me because I have been where you have been. I am so sorry. Thank you for sharing your story.

Cris Tolbert said...

Not at all. I am glad you commented. Thank you so much for sharing.