My mother is 93 and in a wheelchair, mostly blind, often in pain. Her memory is going and it is hard for her to know who I am when I come in to see her, until I tell her who I am and sit with her and talk quietly. Then she not only remembers me, but she really knows who I am. Our lifelong connection is fully there. She is ready to go (from this life), she says. She dreams about her mother who died more than 40 years ago. Her body, however, is not ready to go. Nor is my father, her lifelong companion, ready to let her go. They have been married for more than 70 years. She stays for him, she says.
My mother and I had a normal relationship when I was growing up: the good, the bad and the ugly! But in my late 20s, when I was becoming a therapist and she, in another state, as a second career, was also becoming a therapist, we reconnected in a way that would change our lives. It started with passing comments like "Isn’t it interesting how many clients have issues with their mothers?" And then, because we knew how, trained as we were in all things therapeutic, we started to ask the hard questions. "And what about us?" And we dug deeper, looking at hurts and needs and history and hope. And we began to become friends and colleagues. We moved into the mother/daughter reunion. We have a name for this process, because we built our relationship and then built a profession on our work, offering mother/daughter workshops throughout the country, writing books, even jumping into the Chicken Soup for the Soul world and writing Chicken Soup for the Mother and Daughter Soul.
Adult daughters and mothers have an opportunity few other people have. We have grown up at our mother’s feet, seeing her not only as the role model for who we will be, but more often than not as the nurturer in our childhood. But the big parent/little child relationship wants to change. Every mother needs to become a mother-graduate. Every adult daughter (or son, for that matter) needs to become an ex-child. Then the reunion is possible. Like Demeter and Persephone, the daughter’s return to the mother, now as an autonomous adult, signals spring: a new beginning.
I am fortunate to have had close to thirty years working with my mother as a colleague. We shared the joys and sorrows of family life, through losses and good times. And we knew each other as competent, extraordinary adult women. We weren’t bff’s. We lived far apart and wrote together by email and came together once or twice a year to teach. Every time we worked with a group of women, we asked them the hard questions and we asked ourselves as well. I trust that our work has supported many women in improving their relationships with their mothers.
As my mother hit her mid 80s, she retired. Our last presentation together, as key-note speakers at a large woman’s event, was one of her best performances ever. She was worried about her memory and whether she’d say the things she was supposed to. She didn’t say the things we planned. But she told the truth. She made some great jokes. She showed up as a wise elder with nothing to hide.
She was feeling sad the other day and I read to her: articles on aging written by Ram Dass and Rabbi Zalman Schachter. We worked with those wonderful men in our workshop years and my mother was soothed in knowing that others struggled with the difficulties of aging.
Now we are saying goodbye, slowly, and this is a chapter we have yet to write. The last chapter of our book, Daughters and Mothers: Making it Work is called Enduring Love. We’ve got that one down, but we don’t yet know how to say goodbye. It’s not quite time to say goodbye, because she is still here, but it is coming and we both know it. Our reunion is coming to an end. And now I remember the very last thing in our book is a poem and the very last line of the poem reminds me about this circle of life my mother and I have shared.
I drew from you strength for my living.
Can you draw from me courage for dying?
(The complete poem and mother/daughter exercises are available at www.motherdaughterrelations.com)