I don’t know what she was like as a little girl. Was she playful? Silly? Wild like me?
I have no idea who she was as a young woman, or what her wildest hopes and dreams were.
Did she want to work at the bank? Or did she have bigger things in store for her life?
Did she ever dream of things that felt impossible? And if she’d had the chance, would she have taken the chance on those dreams?
I don’t know if she was a good cook. A good wife. A good daughter.
Did she like to travel like I do? Did she ever have the urge to leave the country on a whim, to see what else was out there for her in this world of endless possibility? What would she have done with her life, if she’d known her story ahead of time?
I’ll never know how she felt when she found out she was pregnant with me, her first child. Or how it changed her life when she saw my face for the first time. Was she excited? Was she scared?
She never taught me how to cook. Or clean. Or how I was supposed to deal with heartbreak. And we never went for tea and talked about boys, or chatted into the wee hours of the night about what it really meant to be a woman, to be a human, to be alive.
We never talked about the idea of getting married. Whether she thought it was a good decision she’d made at the young age of 23. Did she believe in love? In the idea of “the one”? Did she even think about these things?
I have no idea how she felt about all the demons from her childhood. The ones I never learned about until way too late in life.
And I have absolutely no idea how she felt when she went to see her first therapist. Did she know it was the beginning of the end?
And when she and dad divorced, and she took me to therapy every week to talk about who I wanted to live with, did she know that this was too much for a child to take on? Could she see that deep down, I knew that she couldn’t take care of me? Did she know that I never once said this out loud?
I’m not even really sure when her illness started. Sure, I remember my grade 3 teacher asking me how she was doing. But when did it REALLY start for her?
I often wonder whether she was as aware as I was, that the fact that she never ate anything couldn’t be good for her. Watching her be fed through tubes on the psychiatric ward – the most aggressive treatment at the time, her doctor told me years later. Why didn’t she just eat normal food, like everybody else?
And why did I have to go visit my mom in a hospital anyway? Surely this wasn’t how most kids spent their Saturday afternoons. My 7-year old self couldn’t quite process it all.
But then how could any child be expected to understand the complexities of mental illness.
And when it got to the point when she actually lived in the hospital, did she realize how sad it made me to not have a mother?
I’ll never know if she ever had the urge to talk about her illness with me. Maybe she didn’t want to bother me with it. Or maybe she just didn’t even recognize she was ill. Maybe her anorexia distorted any kind of self-perception that she had. Doesn’t that happen? I don’t know.
Maybe she had no idea who she was anymore.
And when it got really bad, when all the other shit started to get worse – I wonder how she felt about being diagnosed with depression, anxiety, PTSD? Was she told that these were now the labels she was to live with? Did she notice how the meds made her act? Did she feel the stigma of these terms the way that I did as her daughter?
And when I was away and travelling and doing anything I could to NOT have to deal with my “crazy” mother, did she miss me? Did she blame me? Did she still love me?
I wonder if she ever wanted to reach out. To ask for help. To have a heart-to-heart, as I’ve heard mothers and daughters sometimes do.
And I wonder if she had, if I’d have had the courage to say yes.
I’ll never know.
Those years I lived away in Australia, and Korea, and Thailand, and Vancouver, if I’d known they’d mean not seeing my mom again, would I still have stayed away? And all the times I worried about being embarrassed about her at my future wedding – would I have changed the way I felt if it meant I could bring her back?
I don’t know. I don’t know.
I wonder if that last phone call I made to her house, out of the blue on a Friday night before heading out to drink myself into a numbness I could live, was my intuition telling me that I had better call my mom. It’s really too bad she didn’t pick up. I’d find out later she was busy dying, the exact moment I called. Dropping dead to the floor in the bathroom at a friend’s house while watching the Olympics. I wonder who was winning?
And when she moved out of her apartment just a month before, packed up all her boxes, stored everything away, and moved onto my uncle’s couch, en route to a local women’s shelter, I wonder if she knew she was packing up her life for good. If it was her way of cleaning up years of clutter and hoarding. Years of reminders of a life unfulfilled. Her way of helping make the whole thing just a little bit easier on us.
Hell – I sometimes wonder how she really died. Sure, the coroner explained that her heart just stopped – one of the not so pleasant side-effects of many years of not feeding her body, combined with a combination of cigarettes, wine, and god knows how many prescription pills.
But I mean – how did she really die? Was she in pain? Did she know she was dying? Did she want to go? Was she as ready as I think she was? And what would she have thought about the guilt and the shame and the utter relief I felt, upon heading she had passed?
And when we could only afford to get her the most basic of boxes, the one that’s pretty much only meant for the eyes of close family before they burn you in it, did she know that we had always wanted better for her?
And today, on what would have been her 60th birthday, almost 10 years after she died, does she have any idea how much I wished her life, our life, had been different? Does she know that all those times I was harsh to her, that I got frustrated with her, that I hurried through our visits and rushed off to hang out with my friends, does she know that it was simply because I didn’t know what else to do?
And my god… Does she know how much she changed my life? Not in the regular motherly-love kind of way. More in the “my life was pretty fucked up and now I’m taking back control” kind of way.
Does she know how much her life (or rather, lack thereof) has influenced who I am, and what I do, and what I want for myself moving forward?
My mother is responsible for you reading this today. She is responsible for anything you ever read on this site.
If it weren’t for my chronically anorexic, depressed, anxious, dead mother, The Uncaged Life would not exist. And I might not exist, at least not the ME that you know today.
I’m not writing this to make you feel uncomfortable. Or feel pity. Or feel whatever other things you might be feeling right now.
I’m writing this because I want you to know that no matter what happens in your life, no matter how shitty things get, how hard your business is feeling — you almost always have the choice to turn things around.
My mom? She didn’t have that choice. Her illness was beyond choice.
But in your case? I’m guessing you DO have a choice. It may be a hard choice. It may require strength and courage and the willingness to step outside of what you even believe is possible for yourself, and trust that in fact yes, it is.
But you DO have the choice.
It’s my mom’s birthday today. And since she’s not here to ask for a gift, I’ll do the asking.
Use this life for all you’ve got.
Play outside more.
Climb more rocks.
Drink more green juice.
Use the chances you’ve got, while you’ve still got them. Because you really never know what will happen. I doubt my mom knew when she was 20 that her life would turn out to have a seriously sad ending.
And I wonder how she would have lived differently if she had known.