My mother was mean. Seriously. Most of my memories of her center around being yelled at, criticized, slapped or belittled. That caused me to become very independent at a young age. I became contemplative long before I knew the meaning of the word. Introspection was how I handled pain. Still is…sometimes.
Growing up was more of the same. The wounds were deep and she seemed to take delight in twisting the knife. My sister felt the same way. As a young boy, I often wondered how my parents stayed together. They both had their own unique brand of dysfunction. When I was fifteen my dad announced he was leaving. He said he'd had all he could take. I remember thinking to myself, "So now we have a broken home, but by the grace of God I will not be a broken man." In reality, I was…for a number of years. I simply didn't have the emotional maturity to handle all the chaos.
After my parents divorced, we had to sell our house and move into a small two-bedroom apartment. I slept on a hammock. My mom and sister took the bedrooms. Mom got a job making $80.00 a week in a bindery. She bought a car for $400.00. I went with her to pick it out. The next day the transmission went out. They had put silica sand in the transmission so it would shift smoothly when it was test-driven. Mom was devastated. They wouldn't give her a refund. I was furious. So I became a mechanic. I became a plumber. I became an electrician. I became a builder. I went to the library and studied all these things, checked out books and bought tools. In short, I became the man of the house long before I was really a man.
Mom talked of suicide frequently in those days. I hitchhiked home from college one weekend simply because I was afraid she would take her life. By the grace of God, she didn't. I'd like to tell you that she changed. She didn't. By the time I reached my 30's she was so difficult to handle that I decided there was only one way to keep our "relationship" intact. I determined to be kind to her "for the glory of God." Seriously. I used her outbursts and criticism to turn my heart toward the Lord in each moment. It was my way of turning lemons into lemonade. It was a way to find joy in the pain.
Mom died in late 2011, of cancer. I drove to Louisville three times a week for the good part of a year taking her to chemo and radiation. I've been with many terminally ill people. I've never seen anyone more determined to fight their disease than my mom. Over the course of her illness she never went to bed. Regardless of how terribly she felt, she would sit in her overstuffed chair and watch tennis matches (her favorite sport) on TV. She would fall asleep sitting up.
I'd say, "Mom, why don't you lay down?"
She said, "Beds are to sleep in. I will not lie down because of cancer or any other disease."
Relentlessly stubborn. Even to the end.
In her final days she began to tell me things she had never told me (or perhaps anyone) before. Her dad, once a successful dentist, had become a raging alcoholic by the time she was in the 9th grade. "He beat me," she said point-blankly, "more times than I can remember. He did the same thing to my sisters and brother, but I got the worst of it."
"They took us kids out of the home…back in the early 1940's. Nobody did things like that in those days. My sister and I were put in a home for girls. The men who worked there did things to us that I will never forget and never forgive."
I had often tried to talk to mom about forgiveness and had gotten nowhere. Now I understood why. I'd never seen anyone so eaten up with bitterness.
Two weeks before she died, Linda (my wife) and I visited her in her tiny apartment. I left to run a few errands. When I returned, Linda was kneeling next to my mom as she sat in her chair. Linda was holding her hand and praying over her. I stood there and watched. It was holy ground.
Mom had never treated Linda well either. I marveled at such unconditional love. I still do. When they finished praying, mom looked at me and said, "I'm okay now. I got some things sorted out with God…because Linda prayed with me."
That was all she said. Those words masked a lifetime of emotional turmoil, disappointment and pain. But mom was matter-of-fact till the end. "I'm okay now." And she was.
Today, I can say the same. I'm okay now, mom. I love you, and I'll see you when I get Home.
Sometimes it takes a lifetime to understand.