Jan 19, 5:35 pm
Just got a call, your mom passed.
I read the text message in the backroom of Babeland during a ten minute break in my first training shift. With raised eyebrows, I blankly stared at my phone.
“What is it?” My manager asked.
“I just don’t get any reception back here.”
What could I say? In shock, I decided to think about it later and just finish my shift, and for the next hour I performed my best impression of myself. As I left work, walking down the street feeling like a stranger in my own body, I called my husband. It was raining, but it’s Seattle; it’s always raining, so there was no poetry in it. I asked if he could meet me out -- I couldn’t go home yet.
As I sat quietly with my drink, I thought, I’m 26. My mother is dead. We haven’t spoken in over two years, and she’s dead. My mother died. I really don’t have a mother. When Chad arrived, he put his hand over mine and joined me in silence. After dinner, I ordered another round of drinks. Then a dessert.
“Your mom only dies once, right?” My voice fell flat. I couldn’t go home yet.
Two years ago, I was having a regular phone call with my mother. I picked up the phone in Santa Cruz, 800 miles south of hometown, Portland, Oregon.
In California was the beautiful man that would end up my husband, but there was also life. Since moving four years prior, everything had begun to shift in incredible new directions. I loved my friends, my work, and I was in a positive, healthy community that loved me well. Toxicity was a hurdle I had begun to overcome, both in my life and in myself.
As the conversation wore on, an argument came up, rather predictably. In the heat of it, she spat out,
“You’re just an idiot!”
Words I’d heard her say many times before. I went blank. I thought about how that tiny insult picked at the wounds I’d been working for years to heal. Behind that idiot, I could also hear all the times she’d called me useless, worthless, a baby, a wimp, a whiner, a brat, poisonous, venomous, evil, cruel, awful, a little bitch. I could remember the hard slap across my face when she sputtered a slew of insults at me and I asked her where she thought I’d learned it.
A caged animal, when provoked, will absolutely bite back.
It was a small, insignificant insult, but it was the last straw.
“I do not let anyone speak to me like that, and I’m hanging up.”
My partner held me as I cried on our couch and wondered what to do. I had wanted to end my relationship with her for so long, but she’d been getting better about her cruelties. She’d been less abusive. She’d been trying.
Above all else, I still wanted her to mother me, and I wanted it deeply, but it was that day that I realized she simply couldn’t. She wouldn’t.
The day that followed learning about my mother’s death, I expected to be fine. I had cried the night before, processed some of it, and I sat up in bed, about to prepare for my second day of training. I immediately burst into gulping sobs. Tears for the mother I’d always wanted, the one I never got, for the pain I put her through in pulling away, for my own forever pain, tears of guilt and also relief. I picked up my phone, clumsily finding, and deleting, words that didn’t seem to feel appropriate to send to my manager.
There was no correct way to say what needed to be said.
Hey, it’s Callie. I got word that my mother died last night. Can we reschedule my training that was supposed to happen today?
Similar to much of my maternal relationship, it wasn’t easy, but it was necessary.
The coming days were spent mainly in my bed, phone glued to my hand, posting essays on social media. To my surprise, most of my loved ones had no idea the details of my relationship with my mother. It was something that weighed so heavily on my mind, so routinely, I’d assumed it was as common knowledge as my name. Through writing about my pain, the lightness I felt within that darkness, and about the certainty that death provides, I connected to my community in ways I had never considered possible. Friends began sharing their own experience with estrangement and loss, some thanking me for my story.
The revelation that other people knew this pain was perhaps the most healing aspect of all.
When I searched for resources on grieving an abusive parent, I found very little. Some things I found to help were re-reading Susan Forward’s books, the support of my community, and, in an unexpected twist, a message left on my announcement of my mother’s death.
A friend of my family of origin, whom I haven’t seen or spoken to in years, left the following comment the day after my mother died:
YOU actually had a mother, a mother who, I saw that cared, a mother who didn't have their boyfriends and roommates physically abuse you! A loving family, a father, a mother, brothers, [name redacted], [name redacted] and I. As your brothers and I were teenagers and going through our own difficulties, YOUR mother and someone who I called mom, helped me through some extremely difficult times. As my own family was melting away, YOUR mother helped to pick me up. Stopped suicide that I was going to commit! You say she was a horrible mother.... she did nothing to you...you have no idea what MY own mother put me through. And yes I have no idea what what you went through when I moved out but I can guarantee it doesn't come close to anything that I went through. (What my mother put me through!) YOUR mother, MY MOM helped me get through the toughest part of a teenager's life and I will be eternally grateful! As you probably won't give your brothers any condolences, remember that you will eternally regret the relationship that you should of had with YOUR mother before she passed! At least I know that she was surrounded by the ones who TRULY loved her when she took her last breath! Rest in peace mom! I love you!
I was crying in bed, curled up against my husband’s shoulder when I got a notification alerting me to the message being published. As I finished reading, I began to weep, releasing unearthly howls. This person knew exactly how to hurt me, and what was more, they wanted to incite pain.
For an hour, I cried out, gasping for air, nose running, heaving, screaming in frustration. The same message I’d received so many times from my mother, my biological family and their friends... All of that being thrown at me in the most painful moment of my life was like being transported into the black hole of my childhood depression.
Once my tears began to dry and I came back to center, the gift they had given me became apparent: Here was tangible evidence of the toxicity I’d escaped.
I felt great relief as my own supportive, tender community came to my defense. Finally, my life is no longer filled with abuse and negligence; my life is full of helpful hands and warm hearts. Long gone are loved ones who would choose to be bystanders to my pain.
To say that my mother was simply abusive would not do her justice. She was a complex person who fell victim to the cycle of abuse she herself was born into. We did love each other; cutting ties was absolutely horrific, and to choose it felt like penance for our star-crossed relationship. In her death, I’ve been able to embrace that my love for her didn’t end with that phone call, and it does not stop with her death. The only thing that ever stopped was my own complacency in being hurt. However...to argue that an abuser’s human nature could somehow negate their victim’s pain -- or that their humanity could justify toxic behaviors -- would be to deny the intricacies of abusive relationships of all kinds.
Ending the interaction with an abusive parent, without death, is somewhat the emotional equivalent of the adventurer, trapped between boulders, who cuts their own arm off; you do it because you have to, but it’s horrible. You survive, but the loss is forever.
When the abusive parent dies, it is like the mountains opening their great, jagged jaws and offering you your own mangled limb back. There is no apology, and there will certainly be scarring, but all at once that part of you that was lost in the war comes back.
Suddenly, you’re able to be whole.
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Callie Little is a sex educator and writer living in Seattle, Washington. Her work can be found in Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire, Harper's Bazaar, The Establishment, Good Housekeeping, Thrillist, and more. Follow @goshcallie on Twitter, and visit callielittle.contently.com.