“No, I’m not ready,” I was adamant. It was winter 2018 in Seattle, Washington, and I was in the middle of maintaining a somewhat unrealistic boundary with my mother. I was not ready to meet her new boyfriend, and she couldn’t make me.
I was 25 years old when my dad died; he was 65. He died from complications with early-onset dementia in our home during the Fall of 2016.
On the surface, my mother’s and my experience with losing a loved one were fairly benign. My father had lucid moments up until his last evening. He never forgot who we were to him, or stopped telling us how much he loved and appreciated us. However, his experience was more insidious under the surface.
As a career scientist, losing his mind was my father’s worst nightmare. He spent the majority of his diagnosis in an immovable state of depression. He rebuked and ridiculed cutting edge nutritional treatments when all he wanted to do was sleep, eat, and watch the news. His judgemental and self-righteous tendencies became even more entrenched the sicker he became. When he was hospitalized for pneumonia, I moved home to Seattle to live with my parents, and help my mother take care of him. What I soon realized was that he was already past a point of no return. He didn’t want my help, or anyone else’s for that matter. He had resigned himself to his fate and seeing him that way broke my heart.
Since birth, it seems like it’s been my mom and me against the world. At my dad’s urging, she moved from Chicago to an island in the Pacific Northwest only accessible by ferry. Being a textbook extrovert, this was an especially rocky transition period for my mother. She always told me this story of when I was two years old and found her crying on our front porch. My little toddler hand found my way onto her shoulder and whispered, “It’s going to be OK Mommy.” Even at that age, I thought it was my responsibility to take care of her feelings. I thought my survival depended on it.
It was more complicated with my dad. He inherited his father’s close-minded judgemental and self-righteous tendencies. He shut down any conversation that felt uncomfortable with “You’re hurting my feelings,” or “I feel attacked.” He belittled my mother and retaliated against her codependency with harsh words and controlling behaviors. Naturally, I felt it was my job to mediate between them and, ultimately, defend her. When he started showing signs of cognitive impairment, I realized that I didn’t have as much time as I’d thought to make amends and to forgive him. If there’s anything that imminent death brings, it’s an awareness of the unconditional love that was always present, but perhaps masked in resentment or fear. I had no desire to end our relationship on that note.
About two years before he died, I wrote him a letter wishing him as much peace and acceptance as I could muster, and read it to him next to the Santa Monica Pier — a few miles north of where he grew up. After, I found it still sitting in his desk drawer, the familiar scrawl on the security envelope reminding him that it was “Leigh’s Letter For Alan,” lest he forgot.
The years that followed his death were…difficult, to say the least. It took my mom about a month to disconnect his phone, and I would call his number just to listen to his recorded voice speaking back to me from the digital ether. It didn’t make sense to me that someone so essential to my life could leave the world and the world wouldn’t take notice. My world hadn’t exactly ended, but it was forever altered, and no one but my immediate family seemed to clock this change.
I didn’t speak to my mom for the next three months — the longest we’d ever gone without talking. His death pushed us both to address our respective parts, and I couldn’t gain the perspective I needed while still acting as her emotional crutch. I needed to be with my own grief; without feeling like I had to take care of hers, too. For the first time in our relationship, I wanted to be the kid, instead of the adult; and in order to do that, I had to be alone. We both learned the hard way that grief is not something to take personally. We can never be the best versions of ourselves if we’re holding onto ghosts.
She started dating again about a year after he passed, and I didn’t like it, but I didn’t judge her for it. She was lonely and sad, and she wanted someone to spend her evenings with. In reality, she’d lost the man she married years before he died.
Christmas of 2018, she told me that she was seeing someone and that their relationship was getting serious. She wanted me to meet him, and I promptly refused. I was OK with the idea of her dating, but I had no desire to put a face to a name. I told her that I wasn’t ready to meet him, no matter how much he meant to her. I was ready for her to experiment, but not ready for her to move on. Looking back on it now, I would say that I really wasn’t ready for her to be happy with someone else.
I know my mom tried her best to respect this boundary while still spending time with her new partner. I remember telling her that I was going to spend the day out, only to find myself coming home early. I called my mom to tell her when I would be home. She told me that she had invited the new beau over for dinner…I was furious. I felt betrayed that she wouldn’t ask my permission before inviting him to spend time in the home we were sharing during my trip. She sounded surprised; like a teenager caught sneaking her boyfriend in through her bedroom window. Eventually, I won.
That night, I spent over an hour sobbing into the phone with my uncle on my father’s side. The memory of losing my dad still felt so recent and raw; I didn’t think I could stomach seeing someone else lay a hand on my mom or sit in his chair at the dinner table. I felt like she was asking me to admit that he was really gone…that there was no possibility of him ever coming back.
As gently as possible, my uncle told me I was acting like a selfish child and that my mom’s relationship really had nothing to do with me. He was right; I was treating her like a teenager, so it’s no wonder she was acting like one. Instead of taking care of my own boundaries and deciding to spend the night somewhere else; or asking her to warn me; I’d made it her responsibility to uphold my proverbial line in the sand. Of course, she’d failed.
Over the next year, I realized that my ask had, indeed, been unrealistic. I apologized to my mother, summarizing what I figured out above, and telling her that I understood her need and her right to spend time with her partner, with or without me.
Yes, I eventually met the man in question, but that’s not the point. The moral of the story really is: It’s none of my business whom my mother chooses to spend her time with — as hard as that was for me to admit.
I was grieving — I still am — and I judged my mother as trying to cover a broken heart with a Band-Aid. I put expectations, stories, and conditions on a stranger who I’d never even laid eyes on. My grief does not excuse my behavior, but it does soften its effects.
Once I got clear on my part in creating conflict with my mother, I was finally able to see her and meet her where she was, instead of trying to push my reality onto her. She was happy, and she wanted to share that happiness with me. She wasn’t trying to replace my dad, or pretend that everything was OK. She was just happy.
My relationship with her depends on my acceptance of her happiness, and vice versa. Her relationships with men, or anyone else she should choose to spend her time with, has absolutely nothing to do with me. It’s never been my job to fix her, or save her, or parent her, no matter how hard I’ve tried. She is my mother, and she is her own separate person. I trust her to take care of her own happiness, whoever and whatever that may involve. That is mutual respect.