Recently, I mentioned to a friend that my Mum had voluntarily committed herself to Riverview back in 1980, and so (AFAIK) this had been easier for my family than if she had resisted the decision. My friend said that my mother had probably done us a favour. That made me feel like a door had opened to an idea I’d never considered before: maybe Angela’s admission to Riverview was, in part or in whole, a conscious decision on her part.
My friend is a caring parent and daughter-in-law, and I suppose it was natural to project her own tirelessness and self-sacrificial nature onto the Angela whom I’d described to her during our chats. For my part, the idea of selflessness had never occurred to me. I was shocked at how locked-in my image of Angela had been by comparison. She’d almost always been a victim to me – never a hero. That bias falls mostly at the feet of my father, who, in his grief, frustration and helplessness at her bipolarism and alcoholism, always railed at how spoiled she’d been. That was him unloading his burdens on her, one way or another. After I passed the age of eleven, my Mum was already out of our home and institutionalized. She couldn’t defend herself or modify our Dad’s stories about her. In his view, he was the selfless hero of our family drama, and his was the only viewpoint I’d ever heard throughout my life. Mum never said a word.
This possibility of Angela having a part in her own commission to Riverview mental hospital helped me reframe her away a bit from my father’s narrative of her “only child” self-absorption, into more of a responsible 50 year-old woman who possibly took some account for her own psychological care. It got me wondering if she thought that her actions might make things easier for her family. I’ll never know if this is true in any degree, but the possibility of it did a lot to soften Angela’s image in my heart, and that felt really good.
Over the past 40 years since her admission, my mother became abstracted down to a set of goals that I could held onto, instead of being able to hold onto her: “rebuild a relationship with Angela”; “remind her who I am, and that her family hasn’t abandoned her”. After Mum passed in 1995, she transformed further into a story of mine that always had a sad ending. But even though you can’t change the facts of events, you can change the story you tell about your loved one, and gradually as I learned and incorporated more memories, I grew and expanded upon the story of Angela.
When I was about four, and Kim a toddler, Mum and Dad had a bad alcohol bender on a trip to California, visiting Mum’s cousin. Angela was convinced by her cousin to consider giving us up, and letting them adopt us. Mum began to agree, from guilt from her and Dad’s most recent booze bender, witnessed by the cousin. Mum was probably guilt-ridden and emotionally malleable, ready to consent, but my Dad would have none of it. He probably told them to go fuck themselves, and so we went home still Angela’s kids. Learning later that for a brief moment I was unwanted hurt me, but it could also be viewed through the lens of “giving the kids a better home”.
My old man loved and hated with equal intensity, and it’s fair to say that surviving his love/hate single parenting, Kim and I learned through the “doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger” lens. Mum did eventually give up her freedom, her personal liberty, her family and friend connections, and lost giant chunks of her memories. But after all that, she really didn’t sacrifice her kids after all – just herself.
It may sound overly dramatic or like some wish to cast her into a heroic light, but that long, slow goodbye is so much more painful for its mystery and lack of closure. Some day, after a loved one is gone from your life and the pains have receded into the past, it’s healthy to dig around looking for those positive elements, and to try to replant and nurture them in hope of growing something new from old ground.
Angela’s ideals, her talent, beauty, and the joys she brought to her family and friends are all worth celebrating and searching for in the mirror 😉 and they can still be found budding on the branches of our family tree.