NaNoWriMo: Happy Birthday, Mom

Today would have been my mother’s 65th birthday.

In years past, I’ve written extensively about my mother. We had a complicated relationship, even by regular mother/pre-teen daughter standards. She was a deeply flawed person, in the way that we all are, but likely due to a rocky upbringing and no real parental compass, those flaws surfaced and were made tangible in ways that had a profound, lasting impact on those around her.

My mother stole, during the course of almost ten years, $250,000 from her employer by cooking the books. No one was ever really sure why she did it – she and my father both worked, and while we were never wealthy by even the slightest standard, they did well enough and didn’t live extravagantly by any stretch – but I believe the theory was that she was supporting my uncle. In the moments she wasn’t handing over money to him, she was funding regular, impromptu shopping sprees for me and my sister at the Louis Joliet Mall; buying us whatever we wanted was the manifestation of her feelings made true. To this day I have to work hard to catch myself to not just buy for people when all I really want to say is “I’m sorry” or “I am so proud of you” or “I love you.”

Cathy’s transgressions cost us all greatly – my father his job, our family its dignity. I spent a good amount of years in therapy unraveling all that it meant to have been part of a family dealing with a public scandal like that one, and that, despite protestations to the contrary, I really was changed profoundly by those circumstances, no matter how well I “dealt” with it.

But such is the burden of adulthood. You have to grow up and see things for what they are and lay waste to what you’ve clung to as a child. In doing so, you uncover some of the simple truths: the world is never black or white, right or wrong, and a good night’s sleep usually cures what ails you.

(Those are really the only things I know to be true.)

Cathy was many things – short; quick-tempered; loyal; good with numbers (HA!); lacking fashion sense; a lover of romance novels – but she was not a bad person. She just did a really bad thing that unfortunately had really bad consequences for her children. And of all of the things I thought about her actions when she was alive, I knew inherently that she was never motivated by greed. Cathy wanted to care for the three people who meant the most to her, and knew of no other way to do so. Her love for me, my sister and my uncle doesn’t excuse pilfering cash, but it’s easier to function as her daughter not wondering if somewhere wrapped within my DNA strands lives a compulsion for thievery.

But more than anything, I have come to have a compassion for my mother in a way I likely couldn’t have arrived at had she lived, and it’s one of the sadder truths of my life. In the final years of her life, her marriage collapsed, her brother struggled with drug addiction and she had no friends to speak of. Cathy was broke, angry and lost.

If I had a girlfriend like Cathy in my life, I would wrap her in hugs and wine and prayers and unconditional love and it breaks my heart in two that my mother had none of those things in her final years, even if it some of it was by her own accord. She was the loneliest person I have ever known.

I am only three years younger than she was when she was killed in 1989, the result of a car accident in the southwestern suburbs of Chicago. Since turning 37, I’ve spent a large amount of time thinking about where Cathy was in her life when she was my age. How adrift and sad she was, how alone she clearly felt, how scared. I am blessed beyond all measure in comparison with a wonderful marriage, a successful career and supportive friends. Rosie O’Donnell once said that people who lose a parent at a young age spend their subsequent years waiting for the year that they turn the age their parent was when that parent died. This is absolutely true for me.

I would be lying if I said to you that I don’t spend some time thinking about what I need to leave behind for Abigail in case I don’t see 41.

A few weeks ago my sister unearthed my mother’s obituary, and in it were the details of the location where she was killed. It’s been years since I visited my mother’s grave, and I’ve never visited the crash site. But, it being 2013 and all, this morning I pulled up the spot on Google Maps. The location looks largely residential and quiet – if memory serves, the area wasn’t built up much 25 years ago. If the intersection is largely unchanged, and recalling what I do about what happened, it’s easy to see how the accident took place. The streets are hilly and still tree-lined; the left-hand turn onto 131st completely blinded by this topography.

I said a prayer this morning for my mother, looking at this site, right here from my dining room table. I love technology.

I was talking with a friend the other day about family dynamics, and how the circumstances by which some of us grow up and engage with our family look very sad and complicated to those who grow up relatively normal. For those of us who experience otherwise, the toxicity and sadness creates a clearing. Though naturally I would give the world to have my mother here, I confidently tell you that of the many gifts Cathy has given to me, her death was the greatest one.

I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that a majority of the good about me is shaped by the hardship of who she was, her actions and her death. In that, Cathy provided for me what she never could have had she lived to turn 65 today,¬†and I don’t romanticize things otherwise. She just wasn’t strong enough, and life was as terribly unkind to her as she was to it.

As a person of faith, I like to believe that my mother is watching over us. In the subsequent years since her death, good fortune and favor have fell to my sister and I in almost an about face to where our lives as children seemed to be heading. Kate and I have often thanked Cathy for pulling strings on our behalf. For as grateful as I am to have her on our side, on the other side, I do wish she was here now and maybe we could go shopping together.

Happy birthday, Cathy. Hope however you’re celebrating today it includes Danielle Steele, a nap on a great couch with a Golden Retriever at your feet and a good cup of coffee.