Missing Grandma: Meditations on my mother's mental illness
I vividly remember the last time I heard my mother's voice. It was the summer of 2002.
Missing Grandma: Meditations on my mother's mental illness
Today, my mother-in-law arrives.
My husband’s mother visits every four to five months. Her soft blouses predictably sport cheerful, butterfly designs. She enjoys drinking a cold Stella beer and walking barefoot in the backyard of our south Florida home. Her beautiful, white hair shines in the sun. She loves to read to our two-year-old boy Taber. He calls her “Nana.”
Nana is an important part of Taber’s world. Should I forget to include her in our prayers before meals, he reminds me to bless her. As he begins the journey of toilet learning, he asks, “Nana, pee-pee, too?” In between visits, Taber loves our weekly Skype dates with Nana. Occasionally, he’ll play heartfelt songs for her on his blue ukulele. It’s beautiful to witness my son embrace his paternal grandmother -- his Nana -- so tenderly. I’m grateful she arrives today.
However, there are times when Nana’s positive presence in our lives stands as a stark reminder of the gaping chasm of my own mother’s absence. My mother has never met my son. In fact, she hasn’t seen my face in 16 years.
No, my mother isn’t dead. She’s very much alive -- though the parts of her I remember fondly are now lost within a confusing labyrinth of mental illness. It is impossible to connect to the mother I knew as a girl. That woman is gone. I hear updates about the woman my mother has become from time to time. It’s hard to recognize her.
I am the oldest of her seven children. I come from a large, extended Mormon family in Utah. I treasure the positive memories of my youth. My mother taught me many virtues, including the importance of standing up for the underdog. Yet, her confusion and delusions cast a long shadow of fear into our home. She struggled to let go of any perceived wrong done to her -- especially coming from my father. As her illness progressed, her long list of his faults twisted and turned into a belief that my father was literally at the command of Satan. It’s hard to be married to a devil or align yourself with children sympathetic to his plight. After my parent's divorce, my mother refused any medication associated with her diagnosis of “paranoid delusions of grandeur.” She swiftly cut ties with most of her children, including me.
For the first few years following the divorce, I sent lengthy, tearful letters -- all to no avail. Over the course of the next decade, I sent cards twice a year, for her birthday and Christmas. I never received a reply. When Taber was born every single door in my heart burst wide open. I reached out to my mother again -- even sending along a photo of her beautiful, new grandson. Perhaps this time she would respond. Perhaps this joy would be enough to pierce the darkness in her mind. It wasn’t. I never heard a word from her about Taber’s birth or my transition to motherhood. So, I decided to stop reaching out and focus instead on the healing, maternal light unfolding within me.
But I still miss her.
I vividly remember the last time I heard my mother’s voice. It was the summer of 2002. While completing my 200-hour yoga teacher training at The Kripalu Center, I received notice that my maternal Grandad had died. I went for a long and tearful walk in the woods of western Massachusetts. I also called my Gran. The phone rang four times.
“Hello?” A woman’s voice echoed through the phone lines.
The voice took me off guard. It wasn’t Gran, yet I could recognize the familiar, singsong way of answering the phone in my sleep. After five years of silence, I was speaking to my mother.
“Mom, it’s Amy.” I stated summoning my courage.
“Amy! My Amy?” she replied with dramatic surprise.
“Yes, Mom. It’s me. Your Amy,” I took a deep breath. “I’m calling to say I’m sorry to hear…”
“Amy? Amy?” she quickly interrupted me. “I can’t hear you. I can’t hear you at all.” Again, the singsong pattern of speaking took hold.
“Mom,” I spoke twice as loud. “Mom? Can you hear me now?”
“I can’t hear you Amy,” she stated emphatically.
We repeated this dance two more times. Then I understood what was happening. “Can I talk to Gran?” I asked. There was no reply. I waited in silence. A few moments later, Gran got on the phone. She could hear me perfectly.
American poet Sharon M. Van Sluys wrote, “Do not allow yourself to be buried in the howling of what might have been.” Years of therapy, yoga, dance, meditation, and the guiding wisdom of older female mentors helped me overcome the howling fear I had of repeating my mother’s life. Instead of running from the shadow of my mother wound, I can now turn around and embrace it with tenderness. Today, when the deep sense of missing rises up, I hold it close to my heart. I’ve learned to breathe through the tears. How is this possible? Yes, I credit the remarkable presence of a sound mind and the skillful use of various healing modalities. However, the grace of motherhood best explains this healing.
The profound quiet, calm and peace felt while resting next to my sleeping child moves me to tears. This is the heart of spiritual life. This silent, wise, feminine abode of love fulfilled. My mind is transformed with stillness. No longing, no craving, no thought, I simply experience a womb-like wonder of love for the sleeping two-year-old next to me. His flesh was once in mine, my heart now beats in his. I am forever transformed as a mother. Who would have thought such peace could come to me?
My pregnancy was pure joy. Love guided me through a difficult labor and permeated my postpartum experience. In my memoir, “Birth, Breath, and Death – Meditations on Motherhood, Chaplaincy, and Life as a Doula,” I write:
As the skull of my baby’s head parted the tissues that had protected and sustained life in utero, the hard shell of my wounded heart irreversibly cracked open. Light poured in… Through the birth of my first child and the subsequent opening of the deepest parts of my heart, I came to see that the balm for my pain entailed a loving return to the wounded place.
The silent, vast, spacious love that holds me now leaves me speechless at the feet of grace. Tears fall in meditation. I sit in the silence as he naps. I imagine he visits God in his dreams. I am softened. The chaos of unmet desire and crass commercialism that characterizes our culture cannot pierce this abode of peace. Nothing can. Sages over millennium have known the peace of meditation transcending time, culture, and confusion. I find it as a mother. And I think of her. Did she know this peace with me? If so, how is it possible that paranoid delusions of grandeur seized hold of her mind? I read about the causes of mental illness and pray for understanding.
One day, Taber will ask me about his missing grandma. He knows Nana is “Daddy’s Mommy.” One day he will inquire about mine.
How I wish Taber could know my mother transformed by the light of healing. I imagine visiting her in the beautiful mountains of Utah. Taber eats her delicious homemade bread and granola. He benefits from my mother’s infectious love for learning. She encourages him to study for the sake of wisdom alone and avoid focusing on grades. Because of her, I learned that effort is its own reward. “Just do your best,” she used to say, “and that is enough to make me proud.” I imagine the good she shares with us. I imagine Taber lovingly calling her “Grandma.” But these are only dreams. Though my mother’s very DNA is woven into every cell of my being, she isn’t a part of our world.
My husband and I play out various developmentally appropriate responses to his future queries. How to knit together the juxtaposition of his innocent wonder and this difficult loss? Trying to explain my mother’s absence opens my heart again to a familiar sting of grief. I remind myself to breathe. I remind myself to trust a wisdom greater than my own to guide future words.
“Nana look!” Taber shouts. He takes my mother-in-law’s hand and pulls her towards his collection of monster trucks.
I watch them play and reflect upon the immensity of what my own mother is missing.
I also celebrate what is. I celebrate Nana’s presence. I bow in gratitude for the beauty that surrounds us. Yes, Taber is missing a grandma. And yes, Taber is surrounded by a deep and abiding love. Both truths exist side by side. I can do little about the missing grandmother, but I can do a great deal to nurture a home full of love.
I vow to pass along the good of my childhood. I vow to do my best to share the wisdom hewn from the heavy weight of my mother’s absence.