What I Should Have Said…
The premise for going home in 2017 for Christmas was based on proving my mother wrong. In the summer prior to this visit, I was responding to a message my mom had sent. On a whim, I’d decided to honestly share a piece of my life with her in real time.
It had been a while since I pulled a stunt like this, but I was on a high after a recent visit my in-laws had made. After spending a week with them, I (re)convinced myself that it was entirely possible for me to develop the loving, genuine relationship with my mother that I had witnessed happening with my husband and his parents:
They were genuinely interested in what was going on in his life. They were loving, happy and openly expressed how proud they were of him — and me — for getting to such a successful place in life. They revelled in their joy and shared that happiness with us.
Certainly, my own mom could appreciate my success in a similar fashion?
And so, when she sent me that fateful text, “Hi Alexis how are you and Ian?” I didn’t follow my usual pattern of conversation with her. When Ma started a conversation with me by asking this question, my go-to response was always something like, “I’m doing okay mom. Ian’s doing well at work. Things are really good. Work keeps us busy. How are you doing?” Then I simply leaned back, and let my mother take over the conversation, always ignoring the fact that there were never any follow up questions for more information about my life.
I’d grown used to this process. I’d accepted that, in reality, mom was not really interested in my life at all. Yes, it hurt every time her actions confirmed this, but that was just what being in a relationship with her was like. One-sided.
However, this time around, I decided to share the truth. I decided to show her that I was happy. Like I said, I was on a high from being with parents that behaved vastly differently to Ma, and it fully convinced my hopeful, inner child that she could be the same…I just had to give her the chance.
As with any time I truthfully opened up to my mom, things quickly turned sour.
So she asked the routine question, and instead of answering back in the expected way, I proceeded to tell her that I was happy, that work was going well even though it was often stressful and that Ian and I were happy living in our new home.
And then I sent her pictures of where we lived.
I fully believed that she would be proud. After all, I had accomplished nearly everything she had told me and my siblings to work for in life: get a good job, live in a comfortable house, take care of yourself. I thought I was giving her something to be proud of as a parent, something that would confirm that her influence on me helped me get to where I was in that moment. I thought she would be happy to see my success. And then:
“I guess you won’t be coming back to see us anymore.”
I was crushed. This was not the outcome I had expected. I had imagined her expressing similar statements of joy and pride while I thanked her for being the one who helped me get to where I was. My inner child hoped for something that would make our already thin bond just a little stronger.
From this, I made a series of impulsive decisions. I changed our Christmas plans for that year very quickly under the premise that my mom was not doing too well health-wise, and it would be best if we spent Christmas in Tampa instead of going to the UK as we had planned. This was partially true: my mother was suffering with kidney failure at the time, and things were very up and down with her. The honest and unspoken truth was that I fell into the same trap I always did with Ma. I did something that I hoped would finally get her to openly love me, and for the first few days into our Christmas visit, it worked.
Then I made some decisions that would ruin everything.
Now, I’m not excusing my mom’s behavior, but I cannot ignore the nagging feeling that there were some things I wished I’d done differently. Mom was very sick at this point, so things at home were off-brand for her. She was normally a meticulously tidy person. Everything in her home smelled good. Everything in her home gave lookers-on a small glimpse into her heart: she was a carer.
It was just her execution of caring for me that often missed the mark.
The home I came to that year was a thick layer of illness. Medicine bottles everywhere. Half full glasses of water. Unwashed dishes in the sink. Molding food on countertops and in the fridge. I could tell that Ma had made an incredible effort to prepare my room for me and Ian, but it wasn’t the same. The room felt cluttered and claustrophobic. The sheets were perpetually covered in a thin, damp layer of something unknown. The closet was full of mold that had me and Ian coughing in the night.
We toughed it out for a few days, but, ultimately, we couldn’t take it anymore.
I don’t remember the series of events and explanations to my mom that led to our decision. I only remember that we booked a hotel room. Mom didn’t show it outright (She never did.), but how she responded afterwards sent a clear message: I hurt her feelings immensely, and she was going to make me pay.
Our standard counter moves ensued: I timidly remained quiet in my little corner and reiterated a stock answer to legitimize my first bad decision while Ma called everyone she could to talk about how inconsiderate and mean I’d been. Her messages would make it back to me, and I would crawl into a place where my voice didn’t exist. Mom would openly ignore me when we came around for family gatherings, acting as if I wasn’t there, effusively engaging with others around me to drive the knife in further.
This time around, it was a Christmas Eve themed rejection. The first blow came when we arrived. It was all love and hugs with Ian with only a curt nod left for me. I kissed her on the cheek as she prepared food in the kitchen and said, “Merry Christmas, mom.” She didn’t even look up.
The second blow came at present time. Someone handed mom the present I got for her, and after refusing to open it, she covered up her outright rejection by saying she wanted to see other people open their gifts first. With her full attention on everyone but me, she happily engaged with our family while they opened presents; she made jokes with them about past Christmases; she hugged and kissed and loved. An intermediary handed me mom’s presents, and when I thanked her for her gifts, she said nothing and continued to lavish her attention on anyone else but me.
After a while, she finally gave into everyone pushing her to open her own presents, now piled precariously high on the coffee table. She gushed over the things my brother and sister got her, and when she begrudgingly opened mine — a foot massager I’d bought her to help relieve the daily pain in her feet — she simply tossed it down and proclaimed, “I can’t use this. You can return it.”
Normally, I saved my crying for a private room, but this was the last straw for me. My heart was crushed, and I didn’t know what to do to mend the tear that I had created by the first bad decision. I cried silently — trying to wipe away the tears before anyone noticed — and focused on the presents while I waited out the moment where it would be most appropriate to take my leave.
One of our close family friends stood up for me. She berated my mother, telling her that what she was doing was wrong, that her daughter came all this way to be with her for Christmas, and she needed to let her anger go. In Ma’s classic style, she ignored it all, pretending that nothing was out of the ordinary. Eventually things calmed down, and with the bridge between me and mom remaining impassable, we got through the evening and retreated to our respective corners for the night.
The next day was a relief. I came over for Christmas dinner, and mom seemed to have finally absorbed the rebukes she’d received the night before for her behavior. She made her usual moves to reopen the bridge between us: she hugged me, gave me a kiss on the cheek, and said, “You know I love you, bae.” Then she gave me a present. I followed my usual moves too: I numbly allowed her physical affection to happen, held back tears, took her present with open gratitude and said, “Thank you, mom. I’m sorry.”
Even writing this out now, I feel the numbness taking over, warning me that something about that exchange was wrong.
Christmas that night was less tense and more congenial all-around now that mom was done punishing me. Part of me was happy and relieved, but I was still hurting. I didn’t understand how someone could flip between extreme anger and love so effortlessly.
After a while, when the hurt feelings shrunk almost to nothing, I let my guard down (a little) and enjoyed my time with everyone. By the end of the night, I felt more normal and wanted to do something on my end to repair the conflicts that arose from my first bad decision. I decided that I would clean mom’s house for her with help from my husband, sister and her boyfriend.
This move ultimately became my second bad decision.
Initially, we thought the idea was a good one. Mom was sick and couldn’t handle much housework. Hanging out at the house and helping her with cleaning tasks would lift her mood and make her feel good that we were taking care of her. On the surface, it did seem like she appreciated the help. She thanked us, kept feeding us and happily chatted with us throughout the house. She even asked us if we could help her with a few extra things we hadn’t noticed. I was elated. I’d finally done something good for Ma.
Wanting to keep the good feelings going, I came in hot the next afternoon with food for my nephew. Because Ma was quite ill, she was often too tired to get up and make him food, so I decided to help her with that task. I brought in food, and with an open-mind and a naive heart, I happily entered my mom’s house, talking to her, calling out to my nephew and setting the table for an early lunch. I walked over to a silent, grimacing mother and handed her a sandwich. She tossed it on the table next to her perch on the couch with a curt, “Thank you,” that alerted me to something unpleasant on the horizon.
I don’t remember how it started, but I do remember standing immobile in the living room, unable to speak as my mom yelled things at me that I always suspected she thought but never fully believed she would actually say out loud. Every insult on her tongue stabbed into me like a knife blade, and I remained quiet, openly bleeding before her anger.
I was ungrateful, arrogant, rude, mean-spirited, unloving, hateful, despised. I was a family abandoner. I had no place with them anymore. I had my new family now with my husband, so I didn’t need to bother coming around to see mom anymore. She wanted nothing to do with me. She wanted me to leave and never come back. And after she had decided that her skewering was sufficient, I filled the bloodied silence between us with words of kindness and apologies. But the deed was done. The flimsy, often precarious, bridge between me and her was obliterated to nothing. There was no crossing to be done, no mending, no rebuilding.
What I should have said was nothing.
After her tirade, I should have simply gathered my things and walked away. I should have left the silence unfilled. If I were even smarter, I should not have gone back a few days later, the day Ian and I were on a plane back home, naively hoping that we would mend the bridge I watched explode before my eyes. But damn it to hell, that hopeful, inner child in me kept believing her mom could love her unconditionally.
Just like Christmas Eve, my mom did not acknowledge me when I came to say goodbye. She didn’t look at me, didn’t touch me, didn’t talk to me. Even when my godfather chastised her and demanded she acknowledge me because I was her daughter, I was leaving the country, and she couldn’t predict the next time she’d see me in person again, she remained unmoved. So before I left, I kissed her on the cheek, said, “Love you, Ma,” and walked out the door.
That was the last time we saw each other before she died.
If I’m being fully honest, I should have said nothing when mom sent me that text message that started this whole thing. I should have swallowed my pride and accepted that mom was always going to be a little abrasive with me, a little dissatisfied, a little angry. But I let my pride get the better of me, and I kept giving into that kid inside me that just wanted a mother’s love. With Ma, that was never going to happen, and that is a fact that I’m still struggling to accept even now that she’s gone.
That day I left, the last day I saw my mother alive, our flight was cancelled due to snow storms in New York City. My first impulse was to go back to Ma’s house and try to make amends. It was the only time I decided to do and say nothing. I stayed with my sister, hitched a ride up to Orlando International Airport the next morning with my godfather, and returned home without saying a word to my mother.
That choice effected no sense of satisfaction. I’d made it far too late.