I flipped my phone to view the screen but almost didn’t answer. Usually, I’d let it roll to voicemail.
“Hi, Cand, can you talk?”
Irritation rose like goosebumps.
I shouldn’t have answered.
“I’ve got some bad news.”
My shoulders tightened — just another “poor me” tirade.
“I’ve been diagnosed with macular degeneration.”
A breath — shallow and filled with gravel — was followed by a soft hiccough.
I tamped down my annoyance. We rarely spoke. When we did, it was typically short, tense and impersonal.
“I’m going blind.” Mom’s high-pitched whine pierced my soul. I cried when I got off the phone. For her loneliness. Her fear. For the bad breaks she’d seemed to have her whole life.
Unwilling to abandon her to her terror, I called the next day.
“Hi, Mom, how are you?”
“I won’t be able to drive anymore,” she spat as if it were my fault, and I struggled to stay in the moment rather than revert to my child self. Ever the dutiful daughter, I’d grown up walking on proverbial eggshells. But after a deep breath, I listened. Faced with blindness on top of COPD and CHF, she laid out the picture of the rest of her life: the need to leave her home, 24-hour oxygen, and needles in her eyes.
Thus, my quest began: to do what I could to ease my mother’s pain.
Our disaffection stemmed from our own traumas — including a childhood of neglect, an alcoholic father, sexual violence — but it was the pain we shared that truly kept us apart: my relinquishing my son for adoption when he was an infant 25 years earlier. The terrible words she’d spoken after I’d signed away my parental rights — ”he’s dead to me now” — had cut deep and forced our already-frayed relationship into near-complete separation. I’d walked away that day feeling both motherless and childless and resorted to the only coping mechanism I knew ― dissociation.
Many people experience mild forms of dissociation, like daydreaming or getting lost in a book, but for me, it meant complete detachment. I concealed my son’s existence from everyone, myself included, because if my own mother could hurt me so grievously, surely the rest of the world could inflict even greater pain.
When I finally talked to her, I pretended nothing had happened, just as I’d done as a child after bouts of abuse. Unfortunately, I continued to live disconnected for many years to follow.
What finally pulled me out of the fog was reconnecting with my son, Michael. We reunited when he turned 18, and the possibilities and promises of the future let light into the dark places of my heart. I gave him control over how our relationship progressed, and when he was 20, after two long years of waiting, he asked to meet face to face. Until then, I hadn’t truly realized how I ached for the boy I’d lost.
But the sheer rapture of holding him in my arms would never be repeated: Before we had the chance to meet again, he died in his sleep at just 23 years old.
I floundered in the aftermath of losing him a second time. I never truly processed his loss the first go-round, and now I confronted the need to mourn both. But how? My life was an endless parade of should haves, could haves and would haves. Anxiety filled my days. My heart raced. I couldn’t eat or concentrate. Then the holidays arrived, followed closely by his birthday. Every day seemed to present new horrors.
I finally broke.
Collapsing on the floor in the middle of my bedroom, I surrendered to the pain. When I finally came up for air and saw my reflection in the full-length mirror, what I saw wasn’t a grown woman but a little girl. All I wanted to do was reach out, brush the hair from her forehead and hold her as she cried. That’s when I realized what she needed ― what I needed ― was to be mothered. But, because I didn’t trust my own mother, I decided I’d have to do it myself.
Through a conscious effort to learn self-compassion, I built new pathways for my brain. Instead of running from the pain, I sat with it. Instead of listening to old internal, judgmental messages, I spoke aloud affirmations and declarations of acceptance. Instead of viewing myself as the enemy, I pretended the face looking back at me was a friend. Eventually, I didn’t have to pretend any longer.
“When I finally came up for air and saw my reflection in the full-length mirror, what I saw wasn’t a grown woman but a little girl. ... That's when I realized what she needed ― what I needed ― was to be mothered.”
So, when my mother called to tell me she was going blind, what I heard was her fear. Faced with a future in which she couldn’t breathe, see or care for herself, my heart broke ― not in half but open.
Maybe I could share what I’d learned with her. But what could I do? I lived thousands of miles away, having moved there largely to escape her.
What I did was start to accept her calls or return her messages. Sometimes she railed against the unfairness, voice condescending and bitter, but no matter what she said or how she said it, I never told her she should “look on the bright side” or that “everything’s gonna be all right.”
Because it wouldn’t be.
Using the same techniques with my mom I’d used to mother myself, I asked questions and encouraged her to share memories of happy times, people she loved and places she missed. I sang songs and played my guitar for her ― the miles between us diminished by technology and kindness.
Ultimately, I called almost every day, sometimes just a quick, “How are you doing?” If she was in the middle of a panic attack, I’d talk her through the five senses exercise ― adapting a four-senses version since she couldn’t see. I urged her to develop a gratitude habit and learned not to suggest she take a deep breath ― because she couldn’t.
Three years after my son’s death, out of the blue, she asked, “Can I have a picture of Michael?”
My heart flipped. I swallowed, unsure of what to say.
“I have pictures of the other grandkids on my hutch, and I was hoping, even though I can’t see anymore, you’d send me one of Michael.”
“Um, yeah, sure.” I began to pace. “I have one of his graduation pictures. I could make a copy. Would that work?”
“That would be perfect. Can you make it 5-by-7? I have a frame already.”
“OK,” I said on autopilot.
When I got off the phone, I went to my remembrance shelf, picked up his high school senior picture and studied it closely. In it, he stood leaning against a tree, his black turtleneck sweater contrasting with his fair complexion. Shaggy hair hung just above his eyes, expression serious.
The bitterness that I’d missed his graduation had given way long ago to gratitude that I had a copy of this photograph. I brought it into the kitchen, took it out of the frame, smoothed it out on the counter, and it finally struck me. My grief had so consumed me that I couldn’t see the truth: My mother had also lost a grandchild.
How could I have remained in the dark for so long? When the pain of Michael’s absence crushed my spirit, how could I not see that it did the same to my mother? Youth played a role, certainly, ignorance more so, but I am relieved that I finally saw the truth.
I didn’t think I’d survive losing my son twice, but I’ve found hidden amongst the despair a gift. The coping tools I’d discovered after his death helped my mother endure the pain, fear and uncertainty leading up to her own. And the compassion I extended to her gave me a sense of serenity I never expected to achieve. I am so grateful for my son ― for many reasons ― and although I miss him terribly and always have, I think without him, I may never have rebuilt a relationship with my mother.
Candace Cahill is an artist and park ranger from Denali, Alaska, and the author of “Goodbye Again: A Memoir.” You can find out more about her work at candacecahill.com.
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