It’s nearly a year since my mother died. My father died a couple of years previously. So I am parentless. There’s been a difficult period of adjustment to this fact, but I’m finally beginning to get used to it. It feels good.
I was present at the moment of my mother’s death but I felt nothing. I felt a stony absence where one might expect feeling to be. It was the same at her funeral. To this day, I have not shed a single tear for her. (I only shed a couple for my father.) Immediately after my mother died, I sat alone with her body for a while. I didn’t speak to her, and I am still careful not to speak to her as some people like to do to their dead. I do not want to give any sort of house room to the idea that she might be alive or listening. Nevertheless, as I sat by her body, I imagined she spoke to me. As it became more gaunt in the final days, her face, with its prominent nose and pointy chin, had become a little witch-like, reminding me of her sharp face in pictures from my early childhood which always stir in me a certain icy fear. And now, alone with her body, I imagined her saying to me in a harsh, mocking voice, ‘Don’t imagine you’ve got away from me because you never will. Now I’m inside your head.’ I didn’t literally hear this, but it was vivid enough to frighten me, and I had to resist an impulse to run from the room.
I should be clear that she had never actually spoken to me in that way since I was a child. She was no monster. She had a number of admirable qualities. She was creative and talented and liked to laugh. She was a good neighbour. I don’t think, generally speaking, that she was deliberately cruel or unkind, and I completely understand that there were reasons for her limitations. She was also very affectionate towards me and, a lot of the time, I enjoyed her company. But my absence of grief tells me one thing that I wasn’t entirely sure about until now: I did not love her.
It feels wrong to say it, it feels ungrateful, it feels disloyal, but love isn’t something you can just switch on. Undoubtedly my mother deserved to be loved, and I performed, as best I could, the part of a loving and affectionate son. I’d even say the affection was real. It just wasn’t love.
My mother said to me on more than one occasion that she herself was only capable of loving anyone if she pitied them. This explained a lot. I’m simplifying of course, but there was a sense in which, when we were children, you simply couldn’t get loved by her by being brave or healthy or happy. On the other hand, if you were sick, or maimed, or distressed, my mother, who was a doctor, was always interested, to the point that there was often rivalry between myself and my siblings not to be the best, but to be the most wounded.
I didn’t completely get this until sometime into adulthood. Indeed I think that for a while I myself bought into the idea myself that love and pity were synonymous, and (even more weirdly) that being maimed was synonymous with being lovable. (Thank god, I was past this before my own children were born.) But the fact was that revealing your wounds to my mother, while it would certainly attract her interest, came at a great cost. She would want to wallow in them, to build them up and make them define you, and to discuss them with her friends, much as other parents discuss their children’s changing circumstances and achievements, the latter being things that, like my father, she showed remarkably little interest in.
There was also an ever present risk that she might suddenly turn, for though she preferred us to be wounded, she did not want us to be more wounded than herself. The competition to be the most wounded was one she saw herself as very much part of and, if you made her feel that her position was challenged, her frightening, sudden, witch-like anger might suddenly flare and she’d tell you that your problems were nothing compared with hers.
So I learned as an adult never to reveal anything of my inner self, and certainly not to tell her of any problems I might have. We developed a not-unpleasant, bantering, affectionate kind of relationship which I think she enjoyed, and often I did too, but I did not trust her with my core self, or anything even close to it. In fact I think I was around forty before I learnt to trust my core self with any other adult at all. And I guess that explains why it was possible for me to feel affection for her (which, after all, you can feel for people you don’t know very well), but not love, which surely requires that you are able to make contact, to some degree, at a level that feels like your core.
I know what grief feels like. Grief is like a hard cold wall, seperating you from something precious that someone gave you and that you can never, ever have from them again. Her death has not separated me from something precious and I have not grieved for her. It’s true that I have often grieved, over my life, for the absence of something I would have liked to have had from her and my father, and, in the aftermath of their deaths, I have certainly recapitulated some of that. (Four months after she died I saw a news story about the death of the ‘clown of Aleppo‘, a brave young man who did his best to cheer up the children there, and for a short time I was quite beside myself, though it was the first time I’d ever heard of him!) But that’s another matter entirely.
I find myself thinking of suns and black holes. Both have gravity, and both can draw other, smaller bodies into their orbit, but suns give out warmth, and black holes suck it in. I would have liked parents who could warm me, but at least now they can no longer suck away my own warmth. And I don’t even have to feel badly about depriving them of it, because at last those two needy people no longer need anything at all.