The small and otherwise sparse attic held our three beds. They were set only about two feet apart, or even less; I could reach out my right arm, and, if I stretched hard enough, touch my brother Ron’s bed from my bed. The ceiling was low and pretty severely slanted following the roofline so that my older brothers especially had to watch out for their heads. This roof space was a scary place. As a little guy, it seemed so far away from my parents; it was like being in another world. The creaky dark-brown wooden steps up to this attic abode emerged from a very small room off the kitchen where I once slept as an infant and toddler, with my brother Ron next to me in a big-boy bed.
I was about three when my parents fixed up the attic into one large bedroom for the three of us boys. My parents thought I was ready for my own big-boy bed. The dark-brown wooden steps leading to this other world actually wound around a corner like a spiral staircase, except there was only a quarter turn. In my nightly climb up the steep steps, I’d nervously round the corner——no longer able to keep a fix on my old bedroom. It was as if my parents were a thousand miles away. Although my brothers slept up there as well, being the youngest by many years, I’d go it alone virtually every night. I normally went up with no one to take me up, tuck me in, read to me…or hug and kiss me goodnight. Mom just sent me up——with no ritual except that of going up alone. Not even a stuffed animal.
Besides the typical fear of the dark and separation anxiety of going to a different world by myself, I carried my fears from the day into that eerie nighttime attic. Looking back, the core fear in me——terror actually——that emerged in that attic world was my mother’s day-to-day silence. She rarely talked. To this day, I cannot hear her voice in my memory. I recall some words, but not her voice. Her depressive indifference was shrouded in an alcoholic fog. My mother’s profound emotional neglect stirred such inner turmoil that I’d lie in bed at night panicky. I’d suck my thumb and frantically rock my head back and forth desperately trying to keep that terror of my own mother from breaking into consciousness——although as a young child I didn’t know that’s what I was doing. All I knew was that I felt scared of the dark and panicked by the several monsters that were lurking in the shadows to get me.
Let me tell you about one such monster. I wish it were something more benign like Bill Cosby’s chicken heart. My father told me the story of when the military stationed him in Louisiana as a private in the army. My mother had recently given birth to my brother Herb, or as my father affectionately called him, Herbie. My father told me that, one chilly night in Louisiana, he noticed a black widow spider crawling in Herbie’s crib headed for his infant face. Though he felt panicked, my dad said he moved quickly to whack the spider away, saving Herbie from a possible lethal bite. Beyond any willful intent, but sensing my father’s intense fear, I unconsciously and creatively borrowed his story to represent the terror I felt for my own mother.
Night after night, once in bed after my long trek up the winding attic stairs alone, I imagined a black widow spider ever so slowly and gently lifting its many legs to ascend those same stairs. It stealthily ambled across the attic floor; its sole mission was to devour me. The pitch-black creature was huge——about five feet wide, with large, long, hairy legs. Reaching the bottom of my bed, it climbed up onto me with deliberate and torturously slow movements of its hairy legs, mounting itself directly over me with its mouth wide open, poised to eat me alive. I rocked my head back and forth like crazy trying to make it go away. If I rocked hard enough and fast enough, I could momentarily outrun the terror. I’d retreat under my covers, feverishly sucking my small thumb with my heart pounding in fear. The bed covers gave the illusion of some protection from the monster, magically keeping it a few inches away. I wanted to scream out in terror; I just couldn’t. So I clenched my jaws as tight as I could, frantically rocking my head back and forth——fighting the valiant fight against terror until one of my brothers came up to bed.
When my brother Ron finally came up——being younger than Herb he was usually the second up——I would typically reach my right arm out to touch his bed. I desperately wanted to reassure myself that he was there…that I was no longer alone. Sometimes, the fight for sanity was so nerve-wracking that I’d climb into his bed, down by his feet, curling up like a dog. He had no idea why——and I couldn’t tell him. After all, no one talked about anything in my family. My mother lost herself in an alcoholic fog from day to day and my father ran in terror from his multiple sclerosis that finally turned him into a quadriplegic. Not knowing I was shaking like a leaf, Ron would shoo me away. I’d climb back under my covers but still reach out my arm to connect with his bed…anything to anchor myself to a reality other than the residual fright I yet had coursing through my body. By that point, fighting the turmoil had stiffened my entire body. Only after Ron came up to bed could I begin to unwind.
Such was my nightly bedtime “routine.” It was my regimen for five long years until we moved and I no longer had an attic prison.
The drama of fighting off those attic monsters felt real. I didn’t see the spider in the attic space like a hallucination——though my fragile mind had been on the verge of psychotic terror. I only “saw” the spider in my mind just as all children “see” the monsters of their creative imaginations. But I was fortunate. My mother was emotional quicksand. I could have lost touch with reality as I struggled not to be consumed with the terror induced by her utter silence and lack of affection. During the nightly ordeal, I’d clench my jaws so tightly holding back primal screams of terror——and did that for so many years——that, to this day, I have significant muscle damage in my jaws. I often get low-level headaches and, sometimes, intense headaches that feel like migraines, lasting for days in spite of medication. If it were not for my father’s anger at me; if it were not for his playing with me; if it weren’t for Herb introducing me to Mother Nature, I believe I would have, as the saying goes, “lost my mind.”
During the day, the monsters would recede from consciousness; I didn’t need them then. Instead, those nightly symbols were replaced by the actual realities of what I saw and felt each day. While my mom cooked my meals and darned my socks, while she saw to it that I had a good Catholic education and wrapped the Holy Scapular around my bedpost for protection, while she set up a shrine to the blessed Mother and placed a Saint Christopher medal on the dashboard of our car, she never held me, hugged me, talked with me, or read to me. When I was about four and fell on the sidewalk, she walked over, looked at me, and walked back into the house. No words. No hug. No comfort. Nothing. At six, when I put my arm through the plate glass of our back porch storm door, she wrapped a towel around my arm and called a neighbor to drive us to the hospital. We sat in the back seat. I noticed the white towel quickly turning crimson red against the backdrop of the olive green seats. My mother, sitting next to me, did not touch me. Nor did she speak to me. At the hospital, I sat on a chair by myself. I felt scared and not well. A nurse told my mother I looked like I was going to faint, so the nurse took me to the table where the doctor was going to stitch my arm. She warmly smiled at me, and held my left arm firmly in her two hands while the doctor took small pieces of glass out my arm and stitched the wound. When he finished, I looked at the stitches, thinking, “My arm looks like my darned socks!” And then, looking at the nurse’s smiling face and feeling the warm, firm grip of her hands yet around my arm, I thought, “I wish you were my mommy.”
Fast forward to a cool evening in 2012. My daughter’s former bedroom was dark except for some light peeking in from the hallway. As I rocked my dear grandson to sleep in the same chair I once rocked my daughter, I noticed how warm and peaceful his tender body felt against my chest. While I gently held him and kissed his precious head as he fell asleep, I had brief moments when I teared up in keen awareness that I never, ever felt such comfort as a little one. Inscrutably, I could feel the contrast between the cold and ever so slight disquiet within
me——of the emotionally abandoned toddler in me——in contrast to Dylan’s utterly relaxed presence. While having been very grateful that my little Dylan is so passionately loved by so many, the toddler in me was momentarily but painfully aware of the difference between what is dear Dylan’s place in his childhood universe…and what had been mine.
Fast forward again, this time to a recent Saturday evening in April, 2015. Over a post-Easter dinner of ham and scalloped potatoes, I shared with my wife some thoughts I had for this article; I was going to start to write after dinner. My wife was headed out shortly to sing in a local Bach concert, but I couldn’t go due to my permanent disability——a disability that ultimately emerged eighteen years ago from my parents’ poor choices during my childhood. The double whammy of not being able to go to her concert, combined with the mission of writing an article for Mother’s Day, stirred me. Though it certainly wasn’t the first time I thought of these matters, I nevertheless found myself at a loss for words. With all my clinical experience, and with all the technical jargon, I still fumbled for the words to nuance how it all emotionally felt inside me…how it viscerally impacted me not having had a mother who touched, hugged, comforted, or talked to me. As I struggled for words, my wife affirmed that I am a very warm person. I do know I am. But I feel a palpable cold emptiness inside…and a blankness when I look inward searching for how it must feel to have a warm, loving mother. My wife noted that I am gentle and comforting. Yet, the fact is, when in distress, I cannot comfort myself. I have to have her or my daughter hug or hold me; I cannot “hold” myself from within. I have no internalized mother to do that. My wife then described how I have always hugged our children and now our grandchildren. Yet, candidly, I do it thoughtfully. It is not yet completely natural to touch or expect to be touched.
I laid my fork down on the dinner plate, and choking up a bit, I told my wife how much I love her smile and her warmth. I affirmed the joy that flows through me when she breaks into laughter on a dime, and doing so, as a friend of ours once mused, from her coccyx on up. And she does. I don’t think I know anyone who beams with laughter as fast or as fully as she does. But with tears streaming down my cheeks, I then found myself saying, “I wish I could just tuck you inside me…inside my body, with all the softness and warmth and comfort that makes you you.” She gently squeezed my hand. But alas, the damage to my psyche has been too massive for way too long for that full redemption to happen. I can only tuck her inside me a little at a time. I am like a stuffed animal with most of the stuffing missing. I have tucked pieces of my wife in me here and there over the years. But the fact is, I’ll never have a healthy woman…I’ll never have a healthy mother within me. It’s too late. It’s been too late since my youth.
But there’s never been a question of it being too late for our children. Our children——and now grandchildren——have had a warm, engaging, smiling, laughing, sweet woman as a mother and grandmother. She smiled and tickled and touched and hugged and talked up a storm with them from infancy on. Now, my daughter and her mother can talk at such length and so vigorously that I struggle to get a word in edgewise. Good for them. With our boys, my wife often uses her pet phrase, “it’s a mother thing, get over it.” With that, they know they are loved. The fact is, these men have been built from the inside out from infancy on by this woman. They live out their lives by unconsciously yet inevitably drawing on her warmth, compassion, love, and wisdom that have been forged within them. Their very minds and emotions have been built by her. She is the wellspring of their emotional health. She is the source of their strength of character in Jesus Christ. In these ways, my children and their mother are one.
I do see that I am a fortunate man. I love my charming and engaging wife, my children who are my friends, my son-in-law who is like a son to me, my daughter-in-law who is another daughter to me, my grandchildren, and my beloved friends. I am fortunate for having had so many years beyond my fortieth birthday to enjoy all of them…years I once thought I would not see. While my life is still so incredibly limited physically, I am grateful that it has been and continues to be so unlimited in its richness of meaning. Still…the reality is, I have no idea what it feels like to have had an emotionally invested and affectionately caring mother. And that reality has left me, in some big ways, an empty man.
So——mothers…know your power. If you are a mother who emotionally invests in her children, know that your sons and daughters will be, or already have been, exquisitely and eternally shaped by your wondrous love. Their character is your character. Their emotional health is your emotional health. Be proud.
And for those of you who have had such a caring and affectionate mother, know that you are who you are because of her. Your very identity has been forged by her. Whether your mother is now dead or still alive, she is forever within you. You and your mother are one. Your mother within is your wellspring of your emotional health. She is your strength of character. If that kind of woman is or has been your mother, on bended knee, be most grateful.
On Mother’s Day, I will celebrate my wife through my children as a wonderful mother. In the background of my mind, I will be aware of what could’ve been but never was for me. But may you, my dear brothers and sisters in Christ…may you be able to celebrate the most powerful person on the planet in your life——the mother within you that made you you.
Happy Mother’s Day!