Saturday, February 24, 2007

Whom do you expect to see when you die? Do you need a specific message from them? 

I know this is a way bizarre topic, but a couple of things got me to thinking about it. Again, I am killing time on the computer while copying medical records, so why not ramble about something other than the usual health and attempts to unpack? And I've already filled two posts with details about taxes, so why not talk about the other inevitable thing, death?

Last night, the movie "Contact" was on cable. It's the movie in which a scientist receives a decodable signal from extra terrestrial life. In order for her to be able to comprehend what they have to say, though, they pick a messenger from her past: her father who had died when she was young.

And on Thursday night, a "Grey's Anatomy" episode aired in which the main character has drowned, and while co-workers attempt to resuscitate her, she has an out of body experience during which her mother, who had just died from a heart attack, hugs her and tells her that she was an extraordinary person. This helps Meredith realize that it is not her time to die yet, and she revives. Of course, we don't know if Meredith was really dead or just hallucinating during hypothermia, but the "afterlife" she had was sad and a bit disturbing, especially the notion that she might have let herself drown because of some cruel words that had been said to her while she was alive.

Assume for a moment (and this is a BIG assumption, I know) that the fictional representations are accurate and that there is an afterlife and that you do see loved ones in the afterlife who had passed before you. Whom would you expect to see first? In my case, it would probably be my mom, who died ten years ago.

The next question would be: would you need that person to resolve anything? Would something that troubled you in life still be so troublesome in death that you would need an apology or some sort of reassurance? In my case, I would not.

This is not to say that my mother and I left nothing unresolved at her death. In fact, we had some very serious issues, the kind that can leave you traumatized forever. And I think my mom was still suffering from unresolved trauma when she died.

I, however, do not remain traumatized despite making very painful discoveries about my mother after her death. They were extra frustrating at the time because I could not discuss them with her or fix anything. But I was able to make peace with her and myself, which is something I guess not everyone can do.

My mother had a deep-seated mistrust of me as an adult and hid her anger with me for reasons that were unknown to me then. She did not treat me poorly in any obvious way, but I nevertheless could sense in her a coolness that she did not seem to have with other family members. At the time, I thought it was sad but figured she would only change if she so chose.

Probably anyone that knows my mother thinks this is an exaggeration because she was so funny and eloquent. I too was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt and never addressed her seeming discomfort with me just in case I was imagining things. It was only after her death, when I had to sort through her possessions and came across her journals and letters that I found I had actually underestimated the extent of her anger and discovered the nature of the grudge against me that she had carried for the last 15 years of her life.

There were two major reasons for her lack of trust in me: one was my suicide attempt, and the other was that she was actually jealous of her second husband's interest in me. The reaction to the first one is pretty understandable. The second one, though, sounds petty without any explanation of the situation with my stepfather.

Mom's second husband was a sweet talking con man, to put it nicely. He was 17 years older than my mom, and since my mother's own dad had died before she reached the age of two, I'm guessing that she perhaps subconsciously thought of him as a father figure. He charmed her into thinking that he was her knight in shining armor.

At first, I was flattered that he paid more attention to me than my own father did. I was accustomed to a family somewhat on the cold and distant side. I was a teenager then and actually naive enough to believe him when he claimed he acted the way a father was supposed to act.

But unbeknownst to me, he started staring at me from across the room all the time. He was coming into my bedroom to watch me sleep. I never noticed, but my mother did, and she was insecure enough to believe that I must be flirting with him when she wasn't around or something like that.

My mom and stepfather purchased an old fashioned-type photo shop in a tourist town 85 miles away from where we lived. Because my mom was the only one with a job and benefits, she had to stay in town and work while my stepfather rented an apartment in the tourist town and ran the shop. They could not afford to hire any help, so during the summer I was 17, I was expected to work at the shop with my stepfather.

It was all right at first; I got to hang out with the locals and eat at all kinds of restaurants. And my stepfather was nice to me, so nice in fact that I barely noticed that he was standing a bit too close to me in the darkroom and that his hugs lingered a bit too long. As an adult, I now see that he was grooming me in order to eventually molest me, but I was completely oblivious at the time.

I was startled and a little creeped out when he kissed me on the lips and remarked that he would have to teach me how to kiss properly. I convinced myself that he must have been joking. After all, he was married to my mother, not me.

But then one day he made a grab for my chest, and I realized I had NOT been mistaken, that he really was a pervert. I kicked him away from me and ran into the room I'd been using for a bedroom. I barricaded the door and didn't come out until the next morning when it was time to open the shop.

I did my job at the photo shop without comment for the rest of the summer. My stepfather never laid a hand on me again because he was smart enough to know I would put up a hell of a fight. My mother noticed me avoiding him, but never said anything because she was glad her husband started paying attention to her again.

I considered warning her that hubby number two was not the sweetheart he seemed to be, but my naive teenaged mind feared that she would be too devastated to handle the truth because she seemed so happy and in love. I actually thought she would be better off left in the dark. It never occurred to me that by staying silent, I was actually putting other women and/or girls at risk because it left him free to prey upon someone else.

Believe it or not, the suicide attempt at age 18 had nothing to do with my stepfather. I had been planning to kill myself for years prior to my mother even meeting the guy. But my mom thought otherwise.

Not all of this thinking was her fault. The shrinks at the institution I was placed in were merciless in their attempts to blame her for my suicide attempt, implying that she was a bad mother or didn't love me enough or something equally atrocious. In the end, she decided that I did it because I resented her, and in return, she resented me.

The truth is, nobody was at fault for my suicide attempt but me. I was not trying to make a statement or bring my family together or lash out at anyone. I simply developed a tunnel vision, possibly caused by a chemical imbalance, where I could not see beyond a narrow range of choices about how to cope with life in general.

My mother, though, saw it as an intentional betrayal on my part and could never trust me again. I found it shocking that time barely dimished this wound for her. But I admit I could see why she felt that way.

When I first found out after her death how she had really felt about me, I experienced my own feelings of betrayal. I was angry and couldn't even yell at the source. But I worked through it, worked very hard in fact, with excellent grief counselors I was lucky enough to find, and after a year or so, I gradually was able to release the emotional pain.

So if I see my mom after I die, I don't need her to fix anything for me. I am already fixed. I will simply be glad to see her.

But will she need me to say somethng to heal her? I don't think so. I like to believe that after we die, we lose our preoccupation with such things.

I hope that if she sees me, she'll be happy about it.

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