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I hardly ever wondered any more, if Mom was or wasn’t sober. After years of riding the waves of recovery and relapse, I’d finally accepted I was powerless, that my desperation for her to be well had no bearing on whether or not she was. My anger and resentment had, for the most part, been swept out to sea. But remnants still pooled in the whirling eddies and refused to surrender to the outgoing tide.
It was the third day of spring 2016, yet Toronto winter lingered like the last guest at the dinner party, oblivious to time and the host’s heavy eyelids.
“Enjoy the sun if it peeks out,” the weatherman said. “We’re in for more snow and freezing rain.”
I reached for my phone and dialled Mom’s number. “Happy birthday,” I said with childish glee. “Only one more year till your 80th.”
She and Dad were in Florida, enjoying their annual mid-winter sojourn and escape from the Canadian cold. Desperate for Florida sunshine, I begged her. “Please, pretty please, send us some warmth. It’s so damn depressing here.”
She offered me her sympathetic ear, knowing the effects of endless winter gloom.
As the conversation wrapped up, Mom took me by surprise and said, in earnest, “I miss you.”
“You do?” I asked, glad to have the phone to buffer my unease.
“Yes,” she said, her tone gentle, yet emphatic. “I miss you.”
I gulped, swallowing the words I ached to speak. “Well,” I stammered. “Have a great day. Love you."
That evening, puzzled by my reluctance to return Mom’s sentiment, I replayed the conversation to my husband. “The thing is,” I said, “I think I do miss her. And it feels good to miss her. Why couldn’t I just say it?”
He told me to be patient. To give it more time.
More time? She’d been sober for seven years. I’d moved from my front-row seat to the bleachers long ago, to observe from a distance. I’d become cognizant of the tiniest nuances: her eye-to-eye contact, inflections in her tone of voice and her capacity to listen. Any flickers of doubt about her sobriety were fleeting, the subtle changes in her behaviour suggesting that this “in recovery” was different. Mom’s heavy burden of shame carried no weight in a sober world. As Mom shed her shame, I shed my blame, and the bitter antipathy choking my ability to forgive had lost its purpose.
So why, after seven years of baby-stepping our way back to one another, was I unable or perhaps unwilling to say, “I miss you, too?" I had no problem telling her that I love her. What was the difference?
Perhaps saying “I love you” to parents is easier than revealing the vulnerability of missing them. Missing can hurt, the way it did in the summer of 1970, during my homesick-ridden month at sleepover camp. The dull pain in my gut heard only grown-up messages, “Stay strong,” or “Don’t cry,” and I’d bury my discomfort for fear of being exposed.
Or maybe it was simpler than that. Maybe I didn’t want to give Mom the satisfaction of knowing that I missed her. After all, she’d ignored me for 20 years. She’d never paid heed to my pleas. “Stop drinking. I need my mother,” or “My kids need their grandmother.” And what about the tiring uncertainty, never knowing whether she was or wasn’t drinking, the hidden empties, three stints of in-patient rehab, a broken hip and the lies, so many lies? Petty payback fixated on the negative. It didn’t care that sobriety had been working its magic, releasing the wrinkles that pursed her lips, silencing the streaks of resentment that strained her voice and washing away the dull hue of sadness and fear.
Or perhaps, my husband was right. Time simply had more work to do.
Mom’s been patient. Never pushy and never presumptuous, she’s given our relationship plenty of room. “Don’t plant the perennials too close together,” she reminds me every year. They need breathing space. Room to grow. To re-establish their roots. To flourish and prosper. And sure enough, after each winter freeze and spring thaw, the plants burst through the earth more poised, more self-assured, their blossoms more plentiful and colours more vivid.
Four months later, a midsummer morning found me lazing in the backyard captivated by the brilliant, red belly of a male cardinal trilling to his mate. My garden in full bloom boasted plump purple leaf sand cherry bushes, clusters of lavender buds, shoots sprouting from coral bells and hostas, and a bed of proliferating hens and chicks. Another year to marvel at its miraculous return.
I snapped a picture and messaged it to Mom, then followed up with a phone call to the cottage. She raved about my garden, then apprised me of hers and how the unseasonably cold and damp summer was stalling its progress.
In desperate need of summer sun, Mom begged me to return the favour, “Please, pretty please, send some warmth and sunshine our way.”
“I’ll try,” I said, knowing well the effect that the cold and dreariness have on her mood.
As the conversation came to a close, Mom said, “I miss you.”
A moment of awkward silence, then I closed my eyes and replied in earnest, “I miss you, too.”
Linda MacDonald lives in Toronto.