Did You Bring Your Raincoat?

My mom died unexpectedly recently. To say it was unexpected is a statement that has a lot of layers to it — as does the story I want to tell with this post. The difficulty in separating fact from fiction, however, is part of what makes this post challenging to write. It’s not about whether or not I know what’s true and what isn’t. I’ve had a pretty good read on that for several years now. The challenge lies in telling the story in such a way to be fair, but also to be accurate to what I experienced.

The relationship I had with my mom wasn’t good. In the final eight years that she was alive, we’d talked maybe three times. This was a choice I’d made as an effort to protect my mental health. It wasn’t until years after first making this decision that I began to truly realize how much this had helped me, but I think I knew deep down that interacting with her was always a struggle.

I blamed my mom for a lot. Some of what I blamed on her wasn’t her fault, though a decent amount of it was. It wasn’t her fault that certain members of her family repeatedly screamed at me and told 7-year-old me I was going to Hell because I chose to live with my dad instead of my mom, though the fact that she routinely exposed me to those family members after telling her about it certainly was. I don’t fault her for not showing up to my high school graduation even after she told me she’d do so — a three hour drive is difficult for someone who intermittently struggled with various illnesses. I do, however, fault her for showing up at my college graduation, which necessitated a 4.5 hour drive for her, and making the only thing she said to me “no one who ever went to college ever amounted to anything”. It was fine that she got mad when I did something wrong. Having me get a wooden spoon wet and then repeatedly spanking me with it until the spoon broke over my legs or my butt? Less so.

The constantly changing narratives around her life and background were hard to keep up with. She died at either age 58 or 64, depending on who you believe. The last name she put on envelopes changed more times than I can recall. Every time I had a new girlfriend, I’d magically and suddenly have the same ancestral background as said girl, along with not-so-subtle mentions that we could be distantly related. Children’s Services showed up at my dad’s doorstep regularly early in my childhood. Phone calls to school led to me talking to the principal about how I needed to be pulled out of science classes because they taught evolution — only for me to go right back to class once they realized she wasn’t my legal guardian.

She cared about me and loved me. I completely believe that. She wanted to protect me and my brother from what she viewed as the various evils in the world. Yet, despite all of those truths, much of what she passed onto me as life lessons ended up being things not to do. There is, however, one thing that she passed on to me quite unintentionally that ties me more to her than most anything I can think of.

My mom didn’t work for a long time. From what I gather from most people, she last held a job when she was 19. When my brother and I were kids, this was largely because she felt that a woman’s place was in the home, taking care of her kids. I can’t speak for the time before then. That said, she did do one thing that I recall pretty vividly throughout most of my childhood. She wrote. I don’t know more than generalities that I fuzzily remember from then. I know she hand wrote pretty much all her manuscripts (at least until she got a typewriter around the time I was 12). I know that she hated how the term “romance novel” meant “a book with sex in it” and wanted to write books where the romance genre didn’t have to mean sexy times. And I know that she got a lot of rejection letters from publishers.

I don’t know that she ever ended up getting anything published. A fairly extensive internet search of the various names she went by leads me to believe she did not, though she could have used a pen name I’m not aware of. I can’t imagine she self-published, as she was known to be distrusting of the internet. But she stuck with it. I don’t know if it was stubbornness, determination, or a combination of the two, but I always found it admirable. I didn’t go into writing because of my mom. I started out writing fiction as a way to process emotions I later learned to be associated with mental illness. But I do find the act of writing to be redeeming and fulfilling, much in the same way she did.

A few months back, I had a discussion with one of my friends regarding the concept of the afterlife, particularly framing it around how the idea of an afterlife worked in books we were working on. I’d like to believe that the idea of reincarnation is real, though admittedly I don’t know that I believe in it. My mom had very strong Christian beliefs, subscribing heavily to the Pat Buchanan view of said religion when I was in my childhood. As a result, she was a strong believer in the concepts of Heaven and Hell. A part of me has always hoped that people get to go to whatever version of the afterlife they believe in. This has only reinforced that.

Because of some of the things I mentioned earlier, I found it challenging to believe she’d actually fallen seriously ill earlier this year. Yes, I believed she was sick. But the track record of information about her I’d received in prior years made me question what was really going on. In the end, it all made me wonder if yet another game was being played with me. But it wasn’t. And that makes the ending even sadder.

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