“I love you, mom.” Those were the last words I spoke to my mother while she was alive. There were words of comfort at the hospital less than a week later, as much for myself as they were for her.

“Go be with Violet.” (My mother’s mother, Violet, died when my mom was seventeen.) As she lay unconscious, struggling to breathe; as the cancer that had wracked her body for years smothered the last bit of life from her chest, I encouraged my mother to go be with her mom.

My mother and I had a very complicated relationship. It was rocky and full of unpleasant encounters and fights that now seem so petty and childish. Her life wasn’t easy; she was wounded and broken. Negativity oozed from every part of her body.

I loved her even though there were times when I thought I hated her. I came to understand in the last decade or so of her life that it wasn’t hate I felt, but dislike. I dislike her actions. Her words. My absence was self-preservation more than anything.

In many ways we are a mirror of our parents. And maybe that’s one of the things that bothered me so much about my mother. I saw in her some of the things I didn’t like about myself.

Like a wild beast locked in a cage my mother would lash out at anyone who got too close, even the ones who tried to help her. Her mental health issues reared up like a three-headed dragon at different times and the depression and hurt would make her spew vile from her lips.

The fact that I had trouble being around my mother as she got older says as much about me as it does about her. I simply didn’t have the patience or the desire to rebuild what had been fractured. Some things can not be fixed.

We would go long periods, up to a year or more sometimes, without speaking. The manipulation, the lying, it became too much for me. Mostly, though, I didn’t like the person I became around her. I’m not proud to say it, but a lot of the time I wasn’t nice to my mother. We brought out the worst in each other.

She could be loving, but her friendships always came with an expiration date. She sought in others what she herself lacked. No matter where she moved – and she was always running, searching, hiding – my mother would befriend an older lady who would inevitably become “Mom” to her. These relationships always ended the same, with “Mom” the enemy.

My mother expected so much from everyone, from the world, from life.

In the end, my mother admitted she wasn’t afraid to die, she confessed that she’d been afraid to live. It was extremely hard to hear those words. Her mental health struggles, her brokenness, had so overwhelmed her throughout her life that she sadly lived in a frozen state of fear, desiring so much, but unable to break the chains and live the kind of life she longed for.

We forget that our parents are people, flesh and blood beings with hopes, fears, desires, dreams and hurts.

I didn’t cry when my mother slipped from this world to the next. My heart ached, and still does. I feel different, empty in some ways. I think about her. It’s still so raw,  her death. I try to process our relationship, to understand how it deteriorated so badly over the decades. How this woman who used to sit and watch hockey with me; who put up with my music obsession and listened to some god-awful bands in my teens, became someone I hardly knew.

One memory sticks out in my mind; it’s tattooed permanently on my heart. It was my seventh or eighth birthday. My father was missing in action, off drunk somewhere (before he sobered up and completely changed his life). Mother scratched up a bit of change and sent my brother to the corner store.

Later that afternoon mom presented me with a cake – the kind that came out of a box that included the container to cook it in and all the mix – and a tiny toy car (actually, a small front-loading tractor). It wasn’t much, but it was all she had. It stands as one of my best birthdays ever.

She was complicated, and scarred; beaten down by personal demons, but my mother loved me and my brothers in her own way. And now she is gone, along with a piece of me.

“I love you, Mom.”

(November 2016)