BY SUSAN ESTRICH
My mother died just over 11 years ago. What did I know? My son was about to be Bar Mitzvahed. After moving six times since getting divorced, one apartment after another, we had just moved to the house I still live in today. Then I was relieved to finally be in a place big enough for me and my two teenage children [now it’s just me, and it’s way too big]. My kids were still at home. My career was still on the upswing. My hopes, well – I was full of hopes.
I had no clue what my mother’s life was like.
I knew, by then, that she was depressed. I knew that she was alone. I knew that she had few hopes left, that she was afraid of the world, so afraid that she was paralyzed. She didn’t visit my sister when she had cancer. She didn’t visit my brother when he had open-heart surgery. I lived 3,000 miles away and I couldn’t remember the last time she’d visited me. She skipped my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah.
I didn’t always answer the phone when she called.
I suppose every mother tells her daughters that when they have children of their own, they will understand. But I didn’t, not then. I felt like I’d won the lottery when my children were born. I had never been so happy. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like when they grew up, left home and found people they would rather be with than me.
It wasn’t having children that made me understand. It was having them leave. It was finding myself alone again.
And by then, it was too late.
I wish I had answered the phone when it rang. I wish I could have convinced my mother to visit more, to share in my joy; I wish I had tried harder to share it with her.
I had no idea what it meant to be alone and depressed. I had no idea how much a visit could mean, or a call, how I could hold onto a promise so tightly that could then be tossed away so lightly.
My young colleagues think I’m a little silly when I ask them where their mothers are, and how often they see them, and whether they call to keep them up to date. These young women are busy, for goodness’ sake, tired and overworked, stressed, trying to find time for themselves in days that have too little.
Mark my words: You will have time later. You will have all the time in the world to work. Some days, many days, that will be all you do. And if you can’t do it, you will be replaceable. At work, we all are. No one will need you to pick them up, to wipe their tears, to do carpool or hot-dog lunch. No one will be begging you to go to their game or their show. All the calls will be about work. Or there won’t be any.
Whenever I talked to my mother and asked what she’d done that day, she told me about one doctor after another. I never stopped to think about what it was like to go alone. “Nothing but doctors’ appointments,” I would say with a laugh. What could possibly be funny about that?
Comparing notes, my sister and I figured out that my mother was probably depressed for most of her life. But who knew? And what would we have done if we had?
Now I understand. Now I am depressed, too, and I have access to all kinds of medicines my mother didn’t have, although none of them work. I spend too much time going to doctors, mostly because my doctors have made too many mistakes. Did that happen to my mother, too? Did she ever get better help than me? The answer, I am certain, is no. Now, days pass when all I do is work, earning money not for myself [there is nothing I want] but for my children, so that they will not know the hardships I did.
I know now what I wish I had known then, though it is too late for me – but maybe not for you. Happy Mother’s Day to your mother.
– Susan Estrich’s columns appear regularly in The Oklahoma Observer