When I was a little girl my family and I lived in Heidelberg, Germany.
My father was in the Army and I remember him buying me a little, German-made stuffed rabbit, from the PX there on post. It was an old fashioned kind of toy, stuffed with real straw. My mother, my “Mama”, made Bunny “talk” to me, and when the fur wore away near it’s tail and it developed a hole, she resewed it several times. Like the Velveteen Rabbit, with the help of my mother’s voice, my bunny became real. It was loved into life. So when I came into Mama’s sewing room one day by chance, and to my horror, saw she had opened Bunny completely up to replace all the leaky straw with modern stuffing, to me she had skinned it alive.
I guess you could say that’s when my mother and I had our first disagreement of sorts, over what was real, and what was not.
My mother said the rabbit wasn’t real, and that’s why it couldn’t feel pain.
But she, a religious woman, had also taught me God’s love for us gave us a Soul, so I imagined my love for my toy rabbit, had also given it a Soul.
I remember contenting myself with the notion that Rabbit’s Soul was the real part of Bunny. And it couldn’t ever die or feel pain, or have anything wrong with it, unlike the shabby pink material, that now lay strewn across her sewing machine.
To tell you the truth, I still believe something along those notions to this day.
I remember my mother also sewing lots of clothes for me on that sewing machine, mostly dresses, as well as clothing for my dollies, and even some for my friends and my friend’s dollies. Mom loved to sew, and one of her first jobs had been working in a sewing factory. In the last year of life she imagined life could be better again, if only she still had her sewing machine.
It is true that in the days when my mother was young and busy sewing, rabbits came to life, and back to life again, entire wardrobes could be created like magic for little girls and their dollies, and life was very happy.
My Aunt Millie, Uncle Frank, Uncle Vic and Babci even flew in to Germany from America on occasion, and we traveled together to see places like France, Holland and Berchtesgaden.
I don’t remember the timeline or everywhere we visited, but scenes play through my mind of candle and cheese factories, beautiful castles that made me dream of being a princess, and fields filled with tulips. But I also remember seeing stark, underground tunnels bedecked with frightening images of horribly mistreated victims. I remember looking way up high at a balcony where a man with a short little mustache had perched, and at one time captured the attention of millions.
And I didn’t get the impression this man was a very good man, though I’m sure at my age, there was an attempt to shield me from the worst of it, the worst of the horrors of the Holocaust.
Especially by my mother.
At that time, my mother was only brightness and hope, as if she was really one of those beautiful princess creatures I had seen in books and imagined myself one day becoming. I loved her and my father with all of my heart, and all my Soul. There are no words, really, adequate to describe the love I had, and still have, for both of them.
Nonetheless, I remember my happy world, when I was a child, crumbling a little with a disturbing realization. This realization kept me awake at night, long after my mother had tucked me in bed, which was always, unfairly I thought, much earlier than my older brother. I remember crying and crying for her to come upstairs, and when she entered the room asking, “Mama, are there bad people in the world?”
I remember her focusing on rearranging the bedsheets, assuring me “bad people” couldn’t get me, and that I was safe because God was protecting me… something like that.
But that’s not what I had asked her, so her answer didn’t fit quite right.
“Mama, are there bad people in the world?”
She tried to divert again, saying something about God can make people good again, something like that, something which didn’t satisfy me at all.
I was still crying really hard the way children do, gasping for air. I asked her again, “Are there bad people in the world? Please tell me there are no bad people in the world.”
And I remember, finally, my mother giving in, telling me “There are no bad people in the world. God doesn’t make bad people. There are only people who do bad things”.
This satisfied me.
I felt now this, was theologically sound.
And I could now go to sleep.
Now that there weren’t any evil people, who could really intend, really deep down inside, anything inescapably evil.
But I remember first feeling a little bad for Mama, a little concerned that she didn’t really believe the truth that she had just spoken, that satisfied me simply because she had spoken it.
My mother grew up in a world in which her own family loved fiercely, but women were expected to take on the guilt and culpability of the very traumas that were imposed upon them, even if it severed them so to speak, from the inside out.
And my mother was severed.
Though brilliant, generous, funny, sweet, gentle and kind, those attributes one can, with all intellectual honesty, tuck handily into an obituary or a eulogy, my mother had suffered a great trauma in her youth. It was one of “those kinds of traumas” where she suppressed the pain of it, like so many women of her generation did, and as a result of that suppression, suffered diagnosed, episodic, paranoid schizophrenia.
And that schizophrenia left her, episodically, not brilliant, not generous, not funny, not sweet, not gentle …or kind.
Real ladies didn’t tell – anything the culture of the 1950’s or 1960’s – or the culture of a very patriarchal church or institution found scandalous, even if suppression of trauma, abuse, injustice or pain – the truth of them all – made the “ladies” in question, mentally ill. This is how ladies “protected” their family’s reputation, and families, supposedly “protected” them. Yes, even well meaning, loving Polish families. Women grieved in quiet submission to the very injustices done to them, by the very systems, and men, that they felt morally obligated to consider flawless.
Of course it all backfired, not only on my mother, but on me.
Because Mom began, as Dad (who was not at all about suppressing truth or tolerating injustice) put it, to project her pathology on me. She “targeted” me, especially as I entered my teen years, then even more dramatically, when my father died and Mom went off meds Dad had made sure she kept taking, for almost all of my life.
And my mother’s targeting of me became the most apparent when I started filling my father’s shoes as Mom’s primary caretaker, and now, as the only mental health care advocate in the family, could not get her back into that treatment.
The same loving mother who had made Bunny come to life with her voice, and sewn it back to life for me, now spun horrific tales about me that had social workers checking her for bruises, and neighbors and even some relatives believing.
And she didn’t just make clothing for me as a child, she had expected me to still wear little girl dresses when I was sixteen, seventeen, and eighteen.
When I was a teenager returning from one of my first dates, she yelled out the window late at night, so the entire neighborhood could hear, that I was a slut.
When I was in my forties, she committed business fraud against me, and I had to close my business and become her financial dependent, so that I could give her round the clock supervision, just to keep her alive. During the period my business was being destroyed, there were times when I had to move a heavy chest of drawers against my bedroom door to ensure my own safety, as she had been roaming the hallways, threatening my life.
So whenever I’ve thought, over the last few days, about what to write or say about my mother in remembrance, it releases a complex flood of emotions – for the beloved lady whose last words requesting “water, water… Judy, give me water” – called to mind our Lord’s on the cross when he said “I thirst”.
Not unlike taking a side excursion on vacation to tour Hitler’s underground bunker, you can rightly suspect, I am actually leaving the worst parts out.
Some have advised me to only focus on the positive, as if speaking the truth about my mother’s mental illness would be inappropriate, to speak ill of her, or to do an injustice to someone who cannot now “defend” herself. As if my motive for telling the truth about my mother must be anger, or might get me upset, all over again.
I am here to tell you the opposite is true.
I contend it is only this suppression of truth that would silence and prevent a full and unapologetic expression of love for my mother. It would also be a final, last injustice towards her. My mother, my real mother, deserves much better than that.
She is not the content of her pathology. She is neither the material trappings she came in, like the material skin of a stuffed rabbit, or her own material remains, reduced to ashes and placed in a box.
She is not the things she did or did not do. And I believe no one else in the family, me being the most often targeted victim of her negative, sometimes violent behavior, has a better right to say that, believe that, and truly know it.
My mother is the unique, exquisitely beautiful and unlimited Spirit or Soul which I always viewed her to be.
I even believe we worked as a team, my mother’s Soul and my own, especially this past two decades. Together, when I was trying to get my mother back into mental health care, we spoke the paradox of unapologetic truth and love to broken systems, to people in positions of power and authority, who have the power to effect change, should they choose to be a part of the solution for the most vulnerable among us, rather than part of the problem. I believe the expression “unapologetic truth and love must walk hand in hand”, because that is the only way they work, and the only real way human life and worth can be defended.
For in the end, though it was a long battle, in the last two years before her death – my mother and I ultimately won – over those that seemed to be only interested in protecting her pathology and hastening her death.
I had found my mother in medical neglect while she was visiting her son in Connecticut.
Taking her to the emergency room, my emaciated and very ill mother finally assaulted me in front of doctors and other witnesses. They had to see the truth of her dangerous and destructive pathology. They also had to see I was the only person she had left in the world, who would not compromise love for her by compromising truth or enabling self-destruction. Mom’s medications were quickly readjusted, and she was taken off those which had been accelerating her schizophrenic psychosis since Dad died.
Double rainbows had become for me a sign of my father’s continuing Presence.
And as if in confirmation of that presence, that my father was there celebrating our victory with us, as I left the Connecticut hospital to recover Mom back to our home in West Virginia that one final time, the rain cleared and a beautiful, double rainbow – streaked across the sky.
In the months that followed, our roles were reversed.
She became my child in a sense. And it wasn’t that everything was perfect. She had memory loss, cognitive decline and a pattern of sundowning, but we shared many beautiful moments again. She was generous, funny, gentle and kind. The woman that had tucked me lovingly into bed with a precious, pink stuffed rabbit had returned, only I was the one tucking her in. Not one of those times did we not exchange “I love you”s before going to sleep.
But one night, several months before her death, I heard her crying, and she started calling out to me to come into her bedroom. I came to her bedside, and quickly realized, it was just as she had done for me over fifty years ago.
“Oh Judy, I feel like there is something I have forgotten. Something really, really bad that I must have done. Something so bad that God can’t love me again, and I won’t get to heaven.”
I said “Mom, it is impossible for God not to love you. God is Love and your Soul is made of Love, because it came from God. So even if you made a mistake in your past, even if you did a bad thing on earth, it was because you were in a bad situation, or because you weren’t thinking straight, not because you are a bad person”.
Actually, I was shouting this to her, because Mom was so hard of hearing at this point that she couldn’t hear at all unless I shouted. I had to repeat several versions of “making mistakes doesn’t make you a bad person”, and point to her heart and say “God is right here with us because God is in you and in me and never left us”.
Finally I told her “Mom, there are no bad people in the world. Their True Selves can’t be bad. We are all made from pure love, and that can never die”.
And finally, she quieted.
Something I said must have struck a chord. Something I said must have worked.
She then said a really sweet thing, something I’ll never forget. She said, “Well, I guess I must have done something good in my life, one thing good … because God blessed me with having a daughter like you”.
And she was able to go back to sleep.
But several months later, unlike that evening, my mother wouldn’t be opening her eyes again, at least not in this world. I would not be bringing her downstairs for her coffee, toast and eggs in our little kitchen below.
When the Hospice staff called me back to their facility, saying my mother had just peacefully passed in her sleep, shortly after I left, I have to admit I was apprehensive about viewing the body.
Taking my long time friend in with me for support, I prepared myself for whatever my mother’s dead body would look like. Mom had suffered a stomach infection and sepsis, had not been digesting anything, and was swollen with fluids. But when I walked into that room and looked upon my mother’s dead body I was literally floored, literally felt like dropping to the ground and weeping with joy at how beautiful, maternal, peaceful, serene, and young looking my mother’s body looked. Her countenance was beatific. She was a beautiful, princess creature once again, just like the Virgin Mary.
I was stunned, completely dumbfounded.
And I don’t know, in fact I doubt, that anyone else there saw my mother’s body as I did, just as not everyone had seen her dark side, or witnessed her sick with psychosis. It was as if her Soul, now unburdened and free, allowed me to see her in that moment, transfigured. I saw her body as if through its final movement, the Soul had cleansed it of all suffering, had undone the effects of suffering in it, leaving me with no doubt, that pure Love had just returned to Source, even while still surrounding us, rejoicing, curing everything in its path.
she is shallow and lack
as well as the richness
of a starlit night
the desire to die
and the compulsion to dance
but the day of her passing
she gifts confirmation
that only the richness
and the dancing
are real ~
and they last