I’m going to see my mother I decided as I was speaking to a friend on the phone. This may not seem like a big deal to anyone who visits a mother with regularity. For me, it’s mammoth. For decades, I wasn’t able to go at all. Then I could only go with my sister. Then, for a while, only with my intuitive healer as she held my hand. When I became able to go alone I could do it only with my camera in tow. My camera provided me with an extra wall of protection from my feelings.
“You’re too sensitive” my father would tell me when I was a little girl. “Hannah, you have to control your feelings, don’t let your feelings control you.” he said later when my mother wound up in intensive care at UCLA hospital. My mother is the longest living resident in a home for the aged. Perhaps it would be easier to accept if she ‘d actually been aged when she entered the hospital-like setting thirty-one years ago. She was forty-one years old then and my family had been trying for five years, between rental homes and hired help, to take care of her after she suffered brain damage at age thirty-six. She had left my father for another man. That man abused her to the point of life in a wheelchair. That man, whose name I still can’t say, was no longer in her life.
When my mother entered the home, we had run out of options. I understood her anger. I’d be pissed too if I ended up crippled but the women taking care of her couldn’t handle her explosions. My mother was a passionate brunette from Guatemala who used to dance the Flamenco. My uncle told me men would throw their wallets at her. Today she is incapacitated to the point of not being able to walk, feed or clothe her self.
I pulled off the freeway and into the familiar lot. I just wanted to see her and tell her I loved her. A wave of emotion came up inside of me and as I backed my car into a parking spot, I realized I couldn’t go in. My eyes were red, the tears rolled down my cheeks. I felt utterly exhausted from the emotion. Sometimes my emotions overwhelm me and all I can do is crawl into bed, into the fetal position that I sleep in, my way of saying I want back in the womb. “Mami, some days just bring the feelings back” my friend said to me on the phone that afternoon. Mami is a term of endearment we say in Guatemala. It seems to have stuck with certain friends.
“But why” I asked as if she could give me an answer. “I thought I was doing so much better.”
Her compassion and understanding were exactly what I needed. “Think of physics. Nothing can ever be at the same place at the same time. A spiral. If you start to go around the spiral, you can be right next to where you were but you will never be in the exact place. Does it ever end up at the same place.” Her words were so soothing as I was melting.
I gathered myself enough to walk into the metal doors. I took a deep inhale before I entered as always. Then I take a deep breath to exhale as I walk down the hallway of familiar linoleum floors that look as if they haven’t been changed in thirty one years. The smell hit me as I was buying a little time with my exhale. A combination of old, sick people, disease, disinfectant, dirty skin, age. I poked my head into my mother’s room. I notice the green curtains long ago faded by the sunlight. Three wheelchairs gathered in a corner of the room. A border of pink & blue flowered wallpaper along the top of the wall. A miniature lone Christmas tree on top of a cabinet from one of her room mates. Never mind that it’s April. My mother was sleeping while a woman in the next bed kept crying and pleading to no one in particular; “Oh, I didn’t do nothing wrong. I didn’t do anything wrong. I did everything correct. Please G-d help me up. Please G-d ayudame por favor. Please help me up. I have no shoes on. Nurse, nurse” at which point her cry turned into a wail. To keep from crying myself, I had to pretend I couldn’t hear her.
How has my mother managed to sleep with all the voices, noise, lights, blaring TV? I guess after all these years she’s figured out a way to block it all out. I wish I could say the same for me. I am sensitive to certain voices, the sound of television commercials bother me, my cell phone ringing sometimes startles me and I have to switch it to vibrate, jack hammers make me cover my ears and run for my front door. I know I sound dramatic. I have exaggerated emotional responses to just about anything. I have a friend who used to say I was dramatic. She’s right. My brain behaves differently than the average bear’s. Part of the damage that remains for me after watching my mother being abused when I was nine until fourteen; when she landed in intensive care after one night when the beatings went too far. I had pestered my father to bring my mother one of the leather jackets he sold. She liked pretty clothes. That night, a fight ensued between my mother and her second husband. We all have secrets from childhood. My secret for decades was I thought it was my fault she wound up in the hospital.
As the nurse came to help the crying woman up, I turned to my mother in her single bed. Her eyes were closed. She was sleeping quietly. Seemingly careless to our world. She seemed serene. She wasn’t suffering. But I was. My mother taught me forgiveness. I have come down a long road to get to where I no longer judge her as a bad mother. She wasn’t a bad mother. She fell in love with someone else after my father. She listened to her heart, not her head. I’m not different from her. Perhaps that’s why I judged her. I was still judging myself. I’m not anymore. I love whom I love and I don’t care who judges me.
I fire off some photos from my camera. Direct, straight, honest, without pretense pictures. I don’t have a modicum of regret about expressing my feelings through my photos. These photos are meant to take me out of my comfort zone. When I return home to view the pictures I’ve taken, I experience my mother again and I feel my emotions without fear. I was in denial for so long. My photos force me to accept the reality of her right here and now. I wonder when she suffers. I know she remembers so much. That’s why she speaks in her mother tongue of Spanish; she remembers her past. I miss never truly having her in my life. I have the courage to feel all of the sorrow I ran from all those decades. She’s influenced my life in every way but she doesn’t know that which makes me feel an intensified anguish that seems unbearable at times.
My mother doesn’t need a fancy home or clothes or car to feel good. When I brought her a cheeseburger from Fat Burger and I asked her “le gusta?” “Do you like it? “She answered “me encanta.” “I love it.” She’s so in the moment it hurts because she mirrors back to me that I’m frequently not. She suffered to teach me to forgive her. It took me forty-seven years to meet the intuitive healer who would help me heal my anger at my mother for leaving. The healer that I love like the mother I never had, a long lost sister and a friend all wrapped up in one. That’s another story.
I looked at her feet. Her toes are permanently bent down in a way that says decades of not walking. Her feet have not been touched, or rubbed or massaged in probably 41 years. I mean really touched, stroked, cared for. You know the way you rub someone’s feet when you really love them. Part of my sadness is I was not able to visit her let alone rub her feet for too long to admit.
I didn’t need to travel around the world to deepen my spirituality. My greatest teacher was in front of me my entire life. I just couldn’t see it was my mother;a true Bodhisattva. She forgave me for not visiting her all those years and she did that without uttering a word. I forgave her for leaving. For me, forgiveness is when you care about the relationship more than your ego.
One of the nurses banged hard into my mother’s bed while trying to help the woman crying in the next bed. My thoughts were interrupted and my mother was awakened. I just shook my head in silence. She can’t even get in solid sleep, I thought. I watched her open her eyes. I could see she was tired. She looked in front of her, couldn’t see it was me without her glasses, closed her eyes and fell back into sleep. After 31 years of living in that room, in that place that is her home, in that building, I suppose everything must make her tired.
This is my mother. No wonder sometimes I’m tired too.