Notes On Proper Usage is a memoir about my relationship with my mother, the discovery of her secret collection of documents and personal journals, the abusive man who marked both our lives, and our journey toward forgiveness and reconciliation in the face of terminal illness, life, and death.
When I was a girl, my parents took my brother and me to the east end of Long Island for our family vacations. When we reached Old Montauk Highway, a stretch of hilly road, my father pressed his foot on the accelerator. It was as if we were at the beach, riding the waves, only it was the road, not the ocean. With each tarred drop, my stomach fell, making me feel sick and mad and sad and scared. I asked my father to stop. He said, beg me.
This was how it went, summer after summer. Please, I pleaded. Please stop. But he didn’t.
Beside my father was my mother, in the front passenger seat. “You’re scaring her,” she said sternly.
“I’m just joking,” my father told her. He kept it up, and my mother gave up trying to stop him. She turned her head to focus her gaze out the side window — and she was gone.
Years later, when I was 29 and in therapy, and diagnosed with PTSD, I disclosed to my long-divorced mother that my father had sexually abused me during my childhood.
“When did this happen?” she asked. “Where was I?”
I told her how it’d occurred over the course of many years. Sometimes she was in the next room, asleep, or reading a book or The New York Times.
“I know it happened,” she cried. “There were signs!”
Then she asked me not to talk about it. She couldn’t hear or know of the truth, she said; if she did, she wouldn’t be able to get out of bed in the morning, go to work, do her job, live her life. “I won’t be able to function,” she said.
This was how she survived.
This was how we became estranged.
“How can you be angry with me?” she asked. “I didn’t abuse you.”
“You were my mother,” I said. “You were supposed to protect me. I was a powerless child.”
“I was powerless too,” she said. “What if I had intervened? What would’ve happened to our family then?”
When I shared my upset with my friends, many said, “I hope you can forgive your mother,” as if forgiveness were an imperative, a measure of my inner goodness. But as I struggled with debilitating anxiety and depression, I wondered, what did it mean to forgive? Who was forgiveness for?
In July 2010, when I was 36, my mother, then 65, was diagnosed with Stage IIIC ovarian cancer. I drove four hours from where I lived in Boston to visit with her at her condo on the border of New York and Connecticut. She asked me to bring a copy of The Southampton Review, in which I’d just published my first short memoir piece, an account of our Old Montauk Highway rides.
With my story in her hands, my mother bowed her head. I watched as her eyes moved back and forth across my words. When she reached the end, she began to cry. Then she stood and linked her arms around my body, and hung onto me like a heavy worn coat.
“I’m so sorry,” she said, “that I wasn’t there for you. You captured it accurately on the page. None of it was your fault.”
I heard my mother’s apology — and I sensed she genuinely meant it — but I didn’t forgive her, not because I didn’t want to, but because I didn’t feel forgiveness.
In the weeks and months that followed, my mother resumed her disavowal of the past. When I asked if she’d sign a written affidavit corroborating my claims of abuse, she said no: “I believe that it happened,” she said. “But I never saw it with my eyes.”
Over the course of the next year, I watched my mother decline. She kept her condition to herself, going through her surgeries and chemotherapy treatments without letting on to her neighbors or boss or coworkers or the people at services at the synagogue, presenting her hospital stays as “having a stomach issue” and her cancer wig as a new hairstyle. When I asked why she didn’t let people know the truth, she said she was afraid the information would find its way to my father. She didn’t want him to know she was vulnerable. Although it’d been close to 20 years since their divorce, and my father was remarried and lived far away, my mother believed he still wanted to hurt her, and could, and would.
She allowed fear to guide her decisions. As I witnessed my mother’s physical and mental suffering, I saw her limitations, her inabilities, how her world was shrunken. I was surprised, then, to notice forgiveness growing inside myself.
During a visit, I told her: “It’s taken me a long time, but I’ve come to forgive you.”
“I’m glad to hear it,” she said unfeelingly, and then with a push: “Because I want you to move on.”
“It’s not about moving on,” I said. “It’s about forgiveness.”
Forgiveness: I wanted her to take it in. I wanted what I said to penetrate her soundproofed heart.
“I forgive you,” I said again.
And then I realized I’d set myself up for failure: for my mother to feel my forgiveness, she’d have to emotionally face her role in the painful events of our past.
“If I had known,” my mother stated, “I would have done something.”
Then she changed the subject, as if I hadn’t said a word, as if the interchange had never happened.
“Thank you for visiting,” she said, and then softly: “The best part was when you said you forgive me.”
She had taken it in.
She walked me to my car. In the misty air, I drew her close. I didn’t want to let go, but I knew it was time.
“I love you very much,” I said.
“I love you too,” said my mother.
The following week, she died.
After the funeral, as I went through my mother’s belongings, I found notebooks full of poetry and prose she’d crafted when I was a girl, a written record of her unspoken thoughts and feelings. In a 3×5 green Mead notebook, she detailed my father’s verbal abuse during their marriage: “Did the surgeon take off part of your brain when he took off part of your breast?”; “You’re deaf and dumb”; “How much are you soaking me for this time? You only put your hands down my pockets for money”; “I’ll remember this and get you back.” She described interactions of intimidation and bullying, marking the date and time.
As I contemplated why my mother kept a record of these things but never told anyone, I came to understand that on Old Montauk Highway she couldn’t help me because she saw herself as a victim. In truth, she was a victim. This fact doesn’t excuse her, in my mind. Rather, it tells me that her inaction throughout my childhood wasn’t motivated by malice but by her own paralyzing fear — her survival instinct.
Forgiving my mother doesn’t mean I don’t feel upset that she failed me. It doesn’t mean that I condone her negligence. It means I’ve put down the impossible task of trying to make her go back to the past to save me.
For me, forgiveness means finding compassion for the little girl I was in the backseat of that car, the one who grew up in an abusive home. It means bearing witness to the moment I saw my mother turn away, how it felt to be utterly helpless, and how, as the years progressed, I, too, began to turn away, like my mother, to focus my gaze out the side window, to emotionally leave my life.
Forgiveness means separating myself from the unhealthy parts of my mother that took root inside me, including the fear I, for a long time, let drive my own adult decisions.
For me, forgiveness was a decision to stop suffering, to put down a burden that didn’t serve me. When I faced and accepted the truth of the past, only then could I see that I’d survived the horror. Only then could I feel my uncensored anger and disappointment and sorrow, and my mother’s toxic denial and terror — along with her love, and her regret.
Only then did I see the whole picture. Only then could I reclaim my power and look to the road ahead.
*The above originally appeared as an essay titled “Forgiving My Mother,” in The Huffington Post.
The author wishes to thank the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund for its support of Notes on Proper Usage.