Written by Anna Winterling
My parents met when my mom was sixteen. They grew up together, bought a house on a dead end street, and started having kids. Things were going according to the grand plan, until my father was diagnosed with cancer and ultimately died from the disease. I was always closer to my father, so I felt especially abandoned when he died. I was internally resentful towards my mother because she was still here.
She started to drink after I went to college. I had never seen either of my parents drunk, so the first time I saw my mom stumble home from a neighbors party while I was on summer break was funny to a teenaged me, who had just started to do the same thing. I thought it was good that she was going out socializing somewhere where she could get home safe.
But every time I came home on break I would see her getting more drunk, I would see the house get messier, and I could see our family continue to fracture. She would start drinking at home with a friend and they would polish off a jug of wine. Then she stopped eating. Then she started being drunk all of the time. I would come home for the holidays and see she hadn’t decorated with my young brother and sister. She didn’t buy presents for Christmas or make Easter baskets. She just slept. By the time I graduated she didn’t want to come to the ceremony.
When I moved home after college, she could barely get off the couch. When I was at school, going to bars and spending time with my friends, I could be in denial about what was going on, but once back I couldn’t lie to myself any longer. I was afraid and unsure of what to do, but I also started to become incredibly angry. I was angry that she wasn’t taking care of my siblings who were already growing up without a parent. I was angry that she was taking out her pain on herself, and saying cruel, damaging words to her young children. I was angry that my father died of a disease he fought so hard against, and she was suffering from something that could be prevented. And I was angry that her friends and family saw her decline and no one wanted to bring it up. I didn’t know what to do.
My older sister and I eventually decided to involve our aunt to help figure out a way to save her. We got together, talked about it, and approached my mother – she was barely responsive to us, so we decided we would get help for her regardless. The next day, my mother had a massive heart attack and suffered permanent brain damage.
This was in 2013. The years since have and continue to be a lot of work navigating my mother’s care in a long term facility, and making sure we maintain some type of family. Some of the more difficult work for me has been coming to terms with my mother’s pain, instead of just focusing on my own. She lost her own mother when she was a teenager, and had to go through her life motherless. As she got older she lost her father, brother, and husband all within five years.. She was left alone, unemployed, with four children. Once people dropped off their casserole dishes and sent their condolences, there wasn’t any more help sent her way.
She had a hard time verbalizing her love for us, and when I was younger I didn’t see that all the work she did for us was an expression of her love. We always had somewhere to live, food to eat, clothes to wear, and everything we needed for school. It was so much work, and so exhausting to do on her own. I started to see my mother beyond the pain she caused me, and empathize with the pain she was in.
She never revealed a lot about who she was before she was a mother, but she was like me. A person dealing with loss trying to figure out what she wanted out of life and what would make her happy. Although I couldn’t see it at the time, her drinking was just rooted in her depression and feeling of defeat, and not a choice.
She needed help. She even asked for it once while she collapsed on the floor, and we cried holding each other. My feeling unsure of what to do, or who to ask for help, still devours me, and I wish I had seen my mother through a clearer lens then. I miss her. I’m going to miss getting to know her. I can still look at old photos and remember the mother she was to me and how much work she put into our lives so we could be where we are now. And I can look at the photo of her and my father, young and smiling on the beach together, and remember that despite all of her pain, she also had times of happiness in her life.
About the Author: Anna is a Philadelphia-based writer and nurse who is working towards making healthcare more accessible and inclusive.