We sat at the kitchen table. The apartment smelled of cigarettes and stale coffee. Even after eight months, the place wasn't free of the stench of the past. She was fairly strong that day, sitting at the table, only a few weeks from her death. Seventy isn't too short a life, is it? Living in the shadow of abuse and neglect had become a way of life in our family, and had extended beyond my father's death two years before
"I'm sorry, honey....I never knew how much it hurt you (and my sibs) that I stayed with your father." She started to cry; the only time in my adult life that I saw her do that. God knows she had every reason to cry every day. Her father abandoned her and her siblings and mother when she was still in grammar school. She quit school in ninth grade to help support the family; and she married a volatile but passionate man eleven years her senior.
Their relationship was up and down all through their marriage, and it did nothing but hurt me and my sibs. There were good times; almost every family has some, I suppose, but I'd be sorely pressed to remember them.
"Mommy...what's wrong?" I asked...her expression had changed, and she was sad and almost scared at the same time. She looked at me almost apologetically and said,
"I know what he did to me and you (us)...but there's...part of me....that..." She paused and blinked out the tears and sipped her coffee. She hadn't turned her back on that one remaining vice.
"There's still part of me that loves him." She wept again, this time harder, and she grabbed my arm while covering her face with her other hand. At one time, I would have been angry at her confession, considering what my dad had done to all of us. But he had made his peace with us and her a long time before. Nothing really would have ever compensated for the havoc wreaked upon our family, but the reconciliation helped to begin the healing that still is being worked out to this day, years later.
"Mommy...it's okay...I still love him, too." Odd to say, perhaps but true none the less.
Since we were being honest with each other, it came to me that I owed her as much to be truthful. I had a secret I had held from almost everyone; my ex-wife knew, as well as a counselor of mine in upstate New York. I don't know why..or least I didn't until I spoke, but I felt almost compelled to seek her forgiveness; absolution for decades of shame and guilt. I swallowed hard and said softly, trying hard and failing not to cry.
"Mom..." The word "mommy" didn't seem appropriate at the moment. "I've got something I've got to tell you..."
"Dougie...why are you crying...what's wrong." My mother always called me "Dougie."
"I....when...." I paused and used a napkin to wipe my tears.
"When I was thirteen....I think...maybe fourteen...I'm not sure..." I started to cry again. She reached over and put her hand on my arm, which gave me the strength to continue.
"I...used to sneak in...your closet." She looked at me with the kindest expression I can ever remember, as if to say, "It's okay," even though she just smiled through her own tears.
"I....wooo....wore your clothes." The floodgates opened and I put my head on my arms on the table and cried in front of my mother like I had never before; not when my dad died, not when I messed up my first marriage; not even when she told me she was dying. As I wept, her hand touched my arm. My mother was never a physically affectionate woman, having been neglected in that manner by her parents and my father. She rubbed my arm and squeezed my wrist, as if to say, "Look at me," even though she was silent. I sat up and wiped my face and looked at her.
"Dougie....I know" Not the "I know how hard this is for you, but I know already." I looked at her and to this day I don't even know if I asked how, but she told me this one thing.
"Honey..." Perhaps the only time she called me that, ever. "I'm your mother...you could never keep a secret from me." She smiled through her tears and said, "I don't think boys could ever keep a secret from their moms."
Nothing else other than another squeeze of the arm and a final smile. No questions, no talk, but that one last smile, almost enigmatic, like the Mona Lisa, was a gift, the last gift I ever got from my mom...she accepted me and still loved me, and after all that, I was still her son.
She died about five weeks later, finally succumbing to the cancer that had spread throughout her body; nine months from diagnosis to death. And I cried that day...I still cry on occasion, even perhaps as I write this. Toys and model planes and clothing I actually liked, from when I was small all the way up to cards and hugs from a woman who hated hugs when I grew older. But the greatest gift she ever gave me; given almost as a blessing instead of just "that's okay," a smile that approved of me wearing her dress years before. She grew up broken, ashamed and almost bitter, but became a loving caring person through what she'd been through. I often think of what she might have turned out as if she hadn't been hurt the way she did. We often give gifts in exchange; almost a barter or a swap...a tie for a necklace, a bike for a pair of socks or a tie. Well, it's almost Christmas...several weeks away I suppose, ads and billboards not withstanding. But since it is a time of restoration and hope, and since I never got the chance to give her anything after her gift to me. Mommy...that smile meant the world to me...the best Christmas gift ever got; acceptance, love, approval, validation...
So here's your gift, Mommy. You never got the chance to be everything you could be, so this is for you. Maybe, like some of us believe, you're in heaven right now and much stronger and happier and healthier and prettier than you ever were here, so here's a picture of how I see you now...maybe how you might have turned out if someone treated you the way you treated me that last time in November.
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