I finally began writing this piece yesterday evening, Mother’s Day 2014, after having struggled the entire day to reach a point of composing even an opening sentence for it. Originally, I had intended to fashion an essay on mother-figures, and the ways in which some of the prominent women of my childhood, my own mother included, have helped lay the foundation for my life in the creative realm—primarily in the areas of music, visual aesthetics, and writing.
And it still seemed like a noble and workable idea as early as that morning. But then I began to overthink things, as I often do, and my instinct to avoid certain matters came to the fore, ever coaxing me to abandon the theme in favor of something … less uncomfortable.
It probably didn’t help that I also spent a bit of time perusing my Facebook newsfeed—a holiday profusion of glowing tributes from adult children to their mothers, both living and deceased. A few days before Mother’s Day, I’d posted a picture to my profile page of my mom as a girl, in 1940, posed between two older brothers; but from there I didn’t venture beyond making a droll—read: sidestepping—comment about the composition, which to my mind made it appear as if she might’ve been under arrest or “in the custody of federal agents.”
I could have gone further than that. I might have opened myself up a bit more, utilized the gift of expression that normally comes natural to me, and written a paean that was more poignant and befitting of the occasion—at least something closer in content and message to the tributes that my friends had posted.
But in the end, I never took the extra step; just as yesterday, when I found it so difficult to begin the present essay. Why is that?
If we can agree on a working definition of “mama’s boy” as being a male child who exhibits an extraordinary emotional bond with his mother, then I admit I’ve never quite fit that role, especially not in my adult life. It isn’t that I did not love my mom. I did. And I know that she loved me. But our relationship was sometimes contentious. My love for her was imperfect, an “ambivalent attachment” in psychological terms, which may or may not be rooted in the fact she entrusted my daytime welfare to babysitters a mere two weeks after my birth, in order to return to her job of running the floral business that she owned and, I now also realize, loved as deeply as she loved anything or anyone else. Later on, there were issues with trust and temperament that got in the way. These I encountered with both of my parents. And like many other families, alcoholism factored prominently in our dynamic, along with the associated behaviors that mortified or enraged me to the point where, over time, I set myself apart from my folks emotionally for the sake of my own sanity and self-preservation.
At least that’s what I’ve always told myself.
But here I go in my typical fashion. Some people deflect discomfort over a situation or relationship by making light of it. I certainly do that, as the above example of the photo caption illustrates. More often, though, I will retreat into psychology to explain away my past, and how I came to be who I am. While the knowledge of clinical concepts has its place as part of a healing strategy, using it as a means to avoid facing emotional pain in a mindful, forward-looking manner is a coward’s way out. And significantly, since my chosen mode of autobiographical exploration and expression is the written word, then the act of avoidance—regardless of what technique I might use to achieve it—is not only cowardly, it is pointless.
Tristine Rainer, champion of the “New Autobiography” and author of the creative-nonfiction guidebook, Your Life as Story, provides valuable insight on avoidance in an aptly-titled chapter, “How to Write What You Dare Not Say.” According to Rainer, the very time to write about a topic is when the instinct to avoid it arises.
You know you’ve hit the truth when it gives you heart palpitations, when you think, I can’t be writing this, when you feel exposed and vulnerable as a shucked oyster. There is a self-recognition and sudden release of emotional tension when you have written as far as you can go, reached ground zero, been completely honest with self. Such emotional honesty, though, is the most difficult part of autobiographic writing to achieve.
Indeed. But it is the most vital part too. Why, after all, do we cling to compelling works of fiction or “human interest” features in magazines and newspapers? Certainly not to stumble over abstract rationalizations for human behavior, right? Instead, as readers, we crave those close-up, intimate details of life for the simple reason that we, like the writers themselves, are human beings. We might not have encountered the same events as the authors, but we have all experienced the emotions and gut-reactions associated with them: fear, rage, hatred, love, lust, jealousy, guilt, shame. We have all been betrayed, and we have betrayed. We have seen our highest hopes dashed. We are addicted, abused, drawn or misled into toxic relationships. On the other hand, we are also capable of visiting our toxicity on others. We are guilty of perpetrating our own forms of abuse. And sometimes we’ve been willing, or at least acquiescent, to look aside as others harm themselves or the people we love in horrific ways.
The reading of life stories unites us in an appreciation, though not always a celebration, over the totality of the human condition. It may not always be a joyride, but bearing witness to life on its own terms can be liberating, as well as an essential component to healing, personal growth, and the development of a sense of compassion for others and, coincidentally, for our own selves as well. There is a reason Siddhārtha Gautama had to leave his princely compound in order to understand the world around him.
By the same token, the writing of life stories can and should also yield a similar liberating effect. Which brings me back to the discussion of my Mother’s Day reticence this year. For some reason, I’ve never had an aversion to pointing out my parents’ foibles, whether in written form or verbally, in conversation. (But, then again, I also train the same lens upon myself, and have never shied from admitting my own shortcomings and challenges: a struggle with alcohol and drugs during my younger years; the host of personal fears, prejudices, and emotional encumbrances that have stopped me in my tracks time after time.) Paradoxically, what I found increasingly difficult as I grew older was the act of acknowledging the love and respect I did feel for my mom and dad. It was there. I felt it—often to a great degree. But I could rarely bring myself to speak of it, write about it, or even consider the notion in my own head. I recall many instances when I would abruptly and decisively shut my mind off when such thoughts arose. Sometimes the aversion was so intense I would verbally exclaim “no!” before I could think to suppress it.
Even now, eleven years after my mom’s death and nearly eight since my dad’s, it is still difficult to bring myself to that point. But, despite my hesitance yesterday to craft something worthy of my mom and the positive contributions she made to my life, I can at least admit it is gradually getting easier.
But it’s been a long road, and unfortunately, my process of overcoming began too late for them to fully appreciate it. With my mom, it began on the morning she died of a stroke, when I held her head in the closing minutes of her life as my dad went into the hallway to summon the nurse. And for my dad, it came at a nursing home, on the second-to-the-last day of his final ordeal with pneumonia. He was already unresponsive by this time, and sedated with morphine too, so I don’t know what, if anything, he was able to understand. But something very important broke through for me then, compelled me to sit next to his bed and finally say the things I could have—should have—told him earlier: that he was a good dad, a loving grandfather. That I loved him, and that I was sorry I’d held back so long in saying so.
Today is the first time that I’ve written with any detail about either of these brief, intensely personal incidents from my own story. And right now I don’t know quite how I feel about having exposed myself in this way. But I have done it. So now, perhaps, I can also move forward with it, expand upon the tale—drawing not simply from the particulars with which I’ve been comfortable, but rather from the whole of it. This, after all, is real life, right?
At least it’s what I might tell myself.