Life in Progress, Part 2: The God-shaped hole in my mom’s life

On the far left. One of the few childhood pictures I have.
On the far left.
One of the few childhood pictures I have.

I ended Part 1 of my 4-part “Life in Progress” series by saying that one would have to know the beginning of the story I share with my mom in order to fully understand her ending.

Since my mom’s death in June, my perspective on my childhood has changed. I’m realistic, but now I see it through a different set of lenses, lenses that filter with forgiveness.

I was 5 when my parents divorced and my mother and I moved to Central California. She battled depression for many years, and once we settled into our new town, the alcoholism that had snaked its way through my family tree caught up to her.  She was wildly discontent. I know now that she was searching for anything that would fill the God-shaped hole in her life.

A friend once told me that she didn’t want to have kids as a way to cure boredom. I understood, because that’s how my mom ended up with me. By the time I was in first grade, she had checked-out. A single parent without a support system, battling addiction, doesn’t make for the greatest care-taker, especially with a handful of a child.

Without the minutiae, my mom put my physical safety at risk a number of times. The emotional and psychological warfare was constant. And every argument, every threat was a brick in the wall I was building around my heart.

She experienced things that should have prompted her to get better. Her AA sponsor committed suicide. Money became a major problem, as in, there wasn’t enough of it. At 42, she had breast cancer. Still, nothing served as a wake-up call.

And she was a runner. When things got hard, or she wasn’t content, she’d run away.

The summer before sixth grade we moved to Southern California. The summer before high school, we moved to another part of our community that landed me in a new district. While I tried to settle in, my mom’s depression and mania grew worse. Any friends she had, began to retreat.

When I was a sophomore, she sat me down one day after school and told me to make arrangements, to “have a place to go,” because she was at her absolute end — emotionally, mentally, she was done. She said her only way out was death. I remember being raging mad, storming off and slamming doors. We rarely spoke of it again, which probably seems INSANE, but was indicative of our dysfunctional existence.

She’d make threats, and I’d compartmentalize them. Lock them away in my mind under, “Too hard to think about.” I was my mother’s daughter.

For a year after that, she stayed mostly in bed, didn’t work enough to cover our bills, took large sums of money that didn’t belong to her, and was putting together a stockpile of prescription medication.

By my junior year in high school, I couldn’t take it anymore.

I left.

Less than two weeks after I moved out, and just prior to my emancipation hearing, I found myself at a church service. I was at rock-bottom. I didn’t have my home, or my mom. I lacked the life skills that parents should model for their children. It was bad.

While teaching me to loathe organized religion, throughout my childhood my mom dragged me to all manner of churches and spiritual centers. It wasn’t uncommon for her to hand me a deck of tarot cards after I’d had a bad day, or tout some New Age philosophy.

I could tell though, sitting in that service, that what I was hearing had nothing to do with religion or spirituality. For me, it still doesn’t. I didn’t like religion then, and I don’t like it now.

For me, it had everything to do with truth and a relationship with Christ.

So on that day, April 13, 1997, I became a Christ-follower.

In my last post I wrote that my mom’s death was not the biggest part of our story. The decision I made to follow Christ, however, completely changed the narrative. That choice, combined with my very difficult childhood, are integral plot points.

And eventually, years after we parted ways, a divine encounter between my mom and a stranger in a Phoenix RV Resort started in motion a series of twists that I never could have anticipated.

That’s the beginning of the best part of the story…

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Life in Progress, Part 1: Why I wasn’t looking forward to school starting

Since July I’ve dreaded the back-to-school process.

The reason is probably not what you’re thinking. In fact, I’m almost positive it’s not.

My dread wasn’t because of early mornings, extra-curriculars, or the busyness that the school year brings.

It wasn’t because of the car payment’s-worth of school supplies, or the homework packets.

It was the question. The one I had no idea how to answer, but that everyone would be asking.

“How was your summer?” 

Parents, how  many times do we hear that during back to school time? Like 72,000, that’s how many.

It started a week before school began when I was helping out on my kids’ campus. “How was your summer?” another parent inquired. I thought I was ready for it, but I still had to think carefully about my answer.

“It was good,” I replied. “Pretty low key,” I added, lying.

When I was young I’d read those books that allow the reader to choose the outcome of the story. “Go to page 62 to find out where Mr. Buffalo hid the key to the treasure,” OR “Go to page 109 to learn whether Mr. Buffalo really does take up skeet shooting.”

That’s how I feel every time someone asks me how my summer was.

I could say “Fine,” OR I could say, “John and I went to Oregon for a few days.” If I pick the latter, the next question is surely, “What’s in Oregon?” I could say “We love it there” (which is true) OR I could respond with “Family” (which is sort of true).

I can’t say the thing though. The thing that made this summer hard and life-changing and eye-opening and breathtaking.

When someone asks me how my summer was, I don’t feel comfortable replying, “My mom died.”

Yaquina Head Lighthouse; Newport, Oregon
Yaquina Head Lighthouse; Newport, Oregon

That is not — not! — what people want to hear. Many people only ask about summer break because it’s the equivalent to chatting about the weather. If they really are interested, that answer is a serious downer.

What I’d say next, which would probably freak people out, is “It’s okay though!!” waving my hands around to smooth over the awkwardness. “That’s not even the big part!”

Then I’d have to explain the story. My history. And that takes some time.

I’d have to explain why I’m faced with grieving two different people. My mom, the one I was estranged from for the last 18 years. The one who fought psychological demons for a lot of her life, and most of my childhood. And the mom I didn’t even know. The one who, in the last several years — and unbeknownst to me — found love and peace and community. And faith. She found faith. There is no grieving competition, but if there was, I think I’d score high.

But like I said, her death isn’t even the big part. To understand her end, you’d have to know our beginning, and that post is coming.