My mother, Kimberley, passed away on February 8. It’s taken me a while to sit with the feelings that this has brought up and to find the words to accurately express them. The situation is particularly complex, as my mother and I had been estranged for many years. The truth is, I lost my mother decades ago to Borderline Personality Disorder, a mental illness that is not widely understood or discussed. In my experience, it bred a very abusive relationship wherein as I grew older, I became a virtual (and sometimes literal) punching bag for my mother’s un-dealt with trauma. In my late twenties, I was faced with a very difficult decision: dedicate my life to pleasing my mother and live in a constant state of fear, or walk away. I chose the latter. I chose freedom. And I have zero regrets. Certainly, it’s no coincidence that I did a deep dive into treating my own mental and emotional health, which led me down a spiritual path that has totally transformed my life. I have worked through intense amounts of PTSD from the cycles of abuse that my mother perpetuated. And I feel totally on the other side of things, though my wounds still feel very fresh.
The remarkable thing about the healing that I’ve experienced is that it brought me closer, in many ways, to my mother’s love. I began to access it within myself, without her. And the more I understood how the way she treated me wasn’t personal (every single member of her immediate family and her closest and dearest friends had estranged from her as well because of her abusive behavior), the more I wanted to reconnect with her. I began to see her as a wounded child and with this deeper understanding of the bigger picture, I couldn’t shake the idea that perhaps all the inner work I was doing was leading me to some kind of miracle that would bring us back together. I just couldn’t imagine what that would look like.
In the midst of my healing journey, I wrote a love letter to my mother, which I shared on my blog in May of 2019. I did not share the letter with my mother at that time, as I felt a great deal of hesitation. I decided to wait, trusting that I would know when the timing was right. That moment came in January of last year, when I had a deep inner knowing that she needed the letter. This opened a window, albeit small, for us to communicate by email. Emails from her over the years had been consistently accusatory and bitter in tone. But, by simply expressing my love for her and nothing more, her emails were suddenly loving and sentimental. I was blown away.
Those first few months of 2020, my father began to inform me that my mother was losing her mobility. She had already struggled to walk, as she had long avoided having both of her knees replaced, but she was experiencing pain in her back as well. She would cancel and postpone doctor’s visits and avoid their calls, leaving my father confused and frustrated. She shared absolutely nothing with him about her state as he began to care for her around the clock. He would share with me that some days she would be screaming in pain for hours at a time. He pleaded with her to let him know what was going on, but she refused. Their marriage had been broken for many years, but my mother’s dependency on my father in every regard had kept them together. That, and my father’s unending devotion to her, a testament not so much to the love he had for her, but more to the kind of man that he is. Lord knows that after me, my father suffered the worst of mother’s abuse. But, he never abandoned her. And though there were times I almost wished he would, I will forever be grateful that he continued to provide for my mother in every sense of the word. His dedication to her was heroic.
While this was going on, my mother and I continued to share love notes via email from time to time. She never mentioned that she was mysteriously losing her ability to walk or that she was in a constant state of physical pain. On June 13, 2020, I wrote in my journal that I’d dreamed that my father called to tell me that my mother had died. I wrote that I knew in my gut she had cancer and wasn’t telling us.
In October, my mother went into the hospital for an emergency vertebroplasty to repair three broken vertebrae. Simultaneously, they conducted a biopsy of a large growth on her spine that was likely the cause (a procedure the doctors had been hounding her to schedule all year). By this time, I had been expressing for weeks to my father that I wished to reconnect with my mother beyond our light and loving emails and admit that I knew she was unwell. He asked me to be patient, as he knew how angry she would be that he had shared any details of her health with me. I knew he was right, but I was growing desperate to speak with her and be able to support her in any way she would allow me to. The day before her surgery, my dad gave me the green light. My mother was feeling extremely afraid and he sensed that she needed me. So, he told her that he had filled me in, not mentioning that I had been in-the-know all along. I emailed her to see if she wanted to speak on the phone and she enthusiastically agreed.
Our first phone call went surprisingly well. She was excited and playful and I was immediately flooded with warm memories of how she could be when she was at her best: fun, sweet, silly and caring, with a boldly outrageous sense of humor. I held space for her and dodged her more invasive questions about my personal life with such grace and ease that I honestly blew myself away. I was prepared to be triggered by her, and there was an uncomfortable moment or two, but the reality is that in the eight years we had spent apart, I had worked really hard to heal. And it showed. She wasn’t different. But, I was. And that was enough.
She quickly began to view me as a confidante. We talked on the phone nearly every day when she was in the hospital, sometimes for an hour at a time. And I continued to view it as an act of service. I offered words to calm her when she was frantic, made her laugh when she needed it, and held space for her as she bashed every nurse and doctor who cared for her, occasionally finding moments to offer alternative perspectives to her experience and gently guide her to a place of gratitude. She told me she loved the sound of my voice, saying that simply hearing it provided her with solace. This meant that she would call me over and over again at all hours just to listen to my voicemail. I have loads of messages where she expressed gratitude that she was able to hear the sound of my voice, which in one message she describes as sounding like something between “a temptress and an angel.” I’ll take it.
Two weeks had passed and we still did not have results of the biopsy (according to my mother). In a moment of divine intervention, she asked for me to make some calls and get in touch with one of her doctors to find out what was going on. I happily obliged. But, within hours, my mother backtracked, telling me that she didn’t think it was really necessary for me to call anyone and that she had overreacted. What she didn’t know was that I had already found out, somewhat by accident, that she did, in fact, have cancer. It was stage 4, had originated in her lungs, and had spread to her brain and spine. She had only a few months left to live. And she knew. In fact, she had known that she likely had cancer since December of 2019, one month before I had received a hit that I needed to send my mother the love letter I had written her. I also learned that she had been one of the most difficult patients that most of her doctors had ever treated, an admission by one of them that weirdly satisfied me, as it seemed to somehow validate my experience with her.
She returned home in November, where she was set up with hospice care. My father and I agreed that we should allow her the dignity of own experience and not mention that we knew she was dying. She continued to lie to us, proclaiming that she was in “perfect health” as she became totally paralyzed from the waist down. She even confided in me that when one of the nurses flatly told her she was receiving hospice care, she responded by telling the nurse that she was grossly mistaken and to come back when she had the right information. God bless that nurse and everyone who cared for my mother. I wonder now if that was her way of indirectly telling me the truth.
My mother spent the last few months eating chocolate cake, jelly donuts, online shopping, and repeatedly watching the movie Elf, which made her giddy like a child. We talked on the phone almost daily, which was beautiful at times, difficult at others, exhausting always, and miraculously healing during moments that are permanently etched in my brain.
I flew out to see her on Christmas, a surprise 48-hour visit that I dropped on her just days before. The visit began in a largely unremarkable way. It lacked the meaningful moments that I might have hoped for, given that it was the last time I would ever see her. What do you talk about with someone who is very visibly dying but refuses to admit or acknowledge their situation? In our case, we discussed what we should order for dinner for nearly two whole hours. We analyzed the number of egg rolls we might want for our initial meal and considered what we might want for leftovers later in the evening or when I returned the following day before heading to the airport. This was life with my mother now: over-analyzing a Thai food order for hours. If my father and I tried to interject or speed things up, we were met with an angry lecture and assured that our interruption was cause for her to begin her calculations all over again. When it was time for my father to go pick up the food, I jumped at the chance to join him for the ride and briefly get out of the house. “I don’t know how you deal with this, Dad,” I said when we got in the car. “Oh, this is nothing,” he said. “She’s been on her best behavior with you here.”
Unfortunately, when we returned home with the food, we witnessed her gradually transgress into the volatile and angry version of herself that had caused us to walk on eggshells around her for much of our lives. My father handled her with a level of grace and patience that he had worked diligently to master over the last few years, but I was immediately triggered. She became extremely abusive toward him, screaming out insults, low blows and insane accusations (all because he attempted to help her steady her dinner plate, which rested unevenly on her chest while she ate in her hospital bed). I took deep breaths from the privacy of another room in the house, hoping that she would calm down, but knowing that I would likely be her next target. Sure enough, I was. As she began to berate me for not joining her in bashing my father, I could feel my cheeks grow hot and the tears well up from hurt and disappointment. I wasn’t entirely surprised, but I knew that I had to do something that I’d never had the courage to do before. I looked at her and said, “I will not be spoken to in this way. I’m leaving, but I’ll come back tomorrow before I head to the airport.” She proceeded to sob like a baby, screaming threats of not letting me return if I walked out the door. But, she couldn’t beat me with an end table or throw a TV at me or slap me repeatedly to get me to stay. She could only yell empty threats at me from her hospital bed. So, I grabbed my things and left, shuddering at my decision as I walked to my rental car and backed out of the driveway. I felt horrible leaving her there, but I knew I had made the right call. Staying and allowing her to verbally assault me would only re-traumatize me and even worse, likely cause me to say something that I would end up regretting for the rest of my life.
Things calmed down for both of us and I returned the next day as promised before flying back to Los Angeles. She was grateful that I came back and told me she had been afraid that I wouldn’t return. I realized that in this one brief visit, I got to completely rewrite my story with her and was able to exhibit my new way of being. I got to uphold my boundaries and not tolerate her abuse, but also show her that it wasn’t the end of our relationship. We just needed to pause, recover and then reconnect. I got to show her what unconditional love, something that she had no real experience with giving or receiving, looks like.
By the end of January, she began to show signs that her brain tumors were growing. On February 1, I drove to Joshua Tree to get away and clear my head. I spoke to my mother on my drive and she sounded perfectly normal. On February 3, I called her on my drive back and she didn’t answer. I never heard from her all evening. Finally, I spoke to my dad who told me that she had been sleeping almost constantly and that she had started calling him “Ben.” His name is Derrick.
The following night, I sat on the phone with her for an hour as she talked about cats as if they were people. I don’t know if it was the increase in morphine, the brain tumors, or a combination of the two, but much of that conversation was her speaking total gibberish while I silently cried. I didn’t want to hang up the phone though. I debated keeping it on speaker phone for hours and just letting her speak in this made-up language of hers. But, after an hour, I decided I couldn’t handle much more. “Mom, you know I love you, right? So, so much?” I wanted to make sure I said it, even though I knew she already knew. “I do,” she said. “If not for you, I would never have known true love. I love you, I love you, a million times, ok?” They were some of the only words she said on our entire phone call that made any sense. Then, she asked, “What shape should our love be?” I suggested a triangle.
On the morning of February 8, my father called me to let me know that she was showing clear signs that she would likely pass that day. As she slept, I spoke to her over FaceTime, telling her things I hadn’t felt comfortable sharing until that moment. I made her a playlist of some of her favorite songs and had my father play them for her. I listened along for hours, feeling connected to my parents through the music we were sharing in real time. At one point, I decided to drive to the ocean. I was driving up the PCH and Cyndi Lauper’s “All Through the Night” was playing when I got the call from my dad. “Mom’s gone,” was all he could get out through his tears. He quickly hung up, saying he’d call me back. There was no place for me to immediately pull over and I felt a rush of energy through my body, a wave of what I guess was quite simply, grief. I burst into tears, trying not to crash my car, and bellowed, “I want my mom!” Knowing she was gone made me want her more than I ever had in my entire life.
As I processed my grief those first few days, I felt a strange sense of comfort in my own sadness. My grief felt universal, human, and mature. People continuously reached out to see if I was ok. This was a very different experience from the grief I had privately experienced for years after I made the extremely painful decision to estrange from my mother. No one sends you flowers or meals or checks to see how you’re doing then. I had spent years feeling like a weirdo, isolated in my very specific brand of grief that so few people could understand. But, suddenly she was gone, no longer plagued by self-sabotage, resentment, and emotional pain. She was free. And everyone was rushing to comfort me. I felt normal. Finally.
Two days after she passed, I was feeling particularly close to my mom and reflecting on the moment I got the call from my father. With six hours of music on the playlist I had made, I found it meaningful that “All Through the Night” had been playing when I received the news of my mother’s passing. On the morning of, I had texted my aunt, my mother’s sister, and her two daughters to see if there were any songs they would like me to add to the playlist on their behalf. My cousin Beth suggested “All Through the Night” because she had a vivid memory of visiting my mother when I was just under a year old, in which my mom was apparently singing this song to baby me, bent down and playfully tapped me on the butt. Beth said it was “wicked cute.” (We’re from Boston). I texted Beth and told her that I had decided this was my mother’s way of giving me a little butt tap on her way out, a reassuring sign that she was ok and that I needn’t worry about any unresolved issues we may have had. Then, I went into my kitchen and heated up some soup while streaming the Bee Gees documentary (very good, btw) on my laptop. I was half paying attention, doing stuff around my kitchen, but I noticed little notifications popping up that my dad was texting me. After a few minutes I walked up to my laptop to read the texts, pausing the doc to do so, at the exact moment that the Bee Gees were about to take the stage on their Spirits Having Flown tour and their manager, or whoever it was, winds up and taps one of them on the butt. My screen had paused on this exact moment. And for a literal second, I felt her. And I experienced a deep sense of peace and joy.
It’s been over two weeks since she passed and I’m realizing that grief really does come in waves and hits you at the most random of moments. And I’d be lying if I didn’t share that with her passing comes a sense of relief and liberation that both my father and I are experiencing. He especially had been somewhat imprisoned by his life with her. This is not to say that he was some innocent victim. He married her and he played his part in their issues. But, my father is a simple and loving man who only ever wanted to be treated with kindness and respect, which he absolutely deserved and she never really gave him.
In their final days together, however, my dad confessed that he and my mother began re-experiencing and expressing the love that they had seemingly lost for one another. It had been buried for so long that I had long assumed my parents truly hated each other and had merely tolerated each other for all these years. In some ways, that is true. But, after all they’d been through, my father didn’t just change her bedding, manage her meds and give her sponge baths; he also held her hand, kissed her cheeks and told her he loved her.
He called me the night she passed, after he had collected himself and her body had been taken to the morgue, and told me he was laying in her hospital bed with their two dogs at his side. He fell asleep there after we hung up and stayed there for hours. The following morning, he sent me a photo of his wrist with some beaded bracelets that I had gifted my mother for her most recent birthday and that she had worn every second since. He had taken them off of her wrist after she passed. Along with the photo, he sent a text that read: “I think I could wear these beads for a while, right?” I paused for a moment, feeling somewhat dumbfounded. Somewhere beneath all of the pain and suffering and abuse that broke up and destroyed my family, there was an incredible amount of love that I hadn’t even been aware of. It wasn’t the love story I would have written if I could have designed it myself. But it’s what we had. I smiled and cried at the same time, thinking about how bright the future is for my father. And I texted back: “Awww Dad… you can wear them forever if you want.” I kind of hope he does.