The vast majority of the images from my youth were taken by my dad and so there are very few of me with both of my parents. The one I have sits in a corner where no one but me sees it, and I glance at it every day.

It was taken when I was about two, a year or so before my first sibling came along. Dad put his camera on a tripod and had us sit in front of the fireplace. One little moment in time from 40 years ago.

My dad passed away 26 years ago and last night, after suffering for far too long and in too many ways, my mom passed quietly. Within the last year she had told me how much she missed dad, how she wanted to be with him again, their time apart far eclipsed by their time together.

Teasing apart the memories of my life and how my relationship with her changed over the years would take up the space of several books. And none of them would be readable, the plot of my life and her’s, my siblings’ lives and her’s, is too complex to fully comprehend, I fear. Even having lived it, I don’t understand all of it.

Mom had diabetes, an insidious disease but a manageable one. She also suffered with mental health issues, too, and it was that combination – of not being able to treat herself – that eventually took her.

It seems so easy, diabetes – watch what you eat, take your insulin, life continues on. But when the depression dug in deep, when her memory faltered, remembering the basic rules became impossible.

My wife and I, as we have struggled with one of our kids this year, had a conversation a while back about terminology. You always say, “She has cancer.” For others, you hear, “She is mentally ill …” It’s a subtle shift in language, and maybe we were reading too much into it.

Why is it when it’s a physical diagnosis it’s something you have, but when it’s a mental health issue it’s something you become?

The twists of my relationship with my mom for many years moved around that dichotomy. At some level, I felt she was choosing her behaviors, controlling her interactions.

On a hospital visit many years ago, my Aunt Dea turned to me and said, “It’s such a shame that the mental illness has prevented her from dealing with the diabetes.” It was a quiet comment, one so obvious to her – but it hit me like the proverbial bricks.

For years, I wanted to blame the physical illness – something she had – on the mental illness – something I thought she was. Truth was, she had both. And she was neither.

We are making plans to travel, to pay our respects and say that last, sad goodbye. I find some comfort in thinking I was, finally, able to separate what was sickness and what was my mother. And I’ve taken that same attitude into my classrooms and relationships, trying to discern what is the person and what are the circumstances affecting that person.

It’s hard, but it’s what my mom would want me to do.

One Comment

  1. O Mark! This is sooooo beautiful. I hope that your mother is at peace. I’m glad that she is no longer in pain both in her physical self and her psychic self. What a relief for you, but so bittersweet. Lovely writing, lovely sentiment.

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