The photo of my mother and me below was given to me a few years ago by my brother. I was probably about 2 years-old in the picture, perched on her lap in a cute dress and a halo of hair in the same shade of red as the one she had transformed her previously brownish hair into. She was beautiful.
While I’m staring directly into the camera in the photo, my mother is looking off to the side at something unseen. To my adult eyes, she doesn’t look particularly connected to me. I think I look like a prop of sorts but, admittedly, my vision isn’t necessarily without the need for correction. Perhaps she’s more engaged than she appears.
As a kid, I can remember often feeling like a performer. I knew what was expected of me and I was pretty good about providing it. I was polite and hard working and well dressed and independent – all things my mother liked for me to demonstrate for her friends.
I didn’t mind doing what she asked. I understood that her life had been difficult and was raised to respect that. I was willing to reflect the best parts of me because they were, in fact, the best parts of her.
Things changed, though, when I began to embody different characteristics, ones my mother was less inclined to take pride in or encourage. Granted, they were by no means all positive traits which I began to display. Think “pregnant teenager” and “high school drop out,” for instance. Certainly nothing to brag about.
At that time I was being a version of me that wasn’t the finest representation of who I could be but, in my defense, I was a young adult trying to find my way with very little parental guidance or involvement. And, for the record, being a teenage fuck up is normal.
Once I stopped channeling the best version of herself, I think my mother lost interest in being my mother. It’s a total narcissist move, isn’t it? Since I was no longer mirroring my mother in an admirable way, my value (to her) diminished. I moved further away, physically and metaphorically, and began to exercise the independence with which I had been raised, causing the connection between my mother and I to continue to unravel until all that seemed to remain was hurt and disappointment.
Neither of us were ever going to be who the other one hoped we were.
As a kid being raised by a true single mother, I dreaded Father’s Day, never imagining then that Mother’s Day would one day become even more distressing. It’s just not a holiday that I get excited about anymore. There’s simply too much weight that comes with the day, especially in years when it arrives a mere week after my mother’s birthday.
You see, in my world birthdays are special and people should be honored on their very own holiday – even when feelings of estrangement and discomfort are as plentiful as candles on a cake.
That sense of honor was what brought me on the first of May to the nursing home where my mother now lives. The idea was my own, prompted by two people who both mentioned that she had said it would be “fine if Silvia came to visit.” I asked my brother, who has a much less complicated relationship with our mother than I do, if he would join me for a visit. He agreed and we made plans to meet in the afternoon, on our mother’s 84th birthday at the nursing home.
I was not going in alone.
The visit didn’t go very well, but not because of any of the reasons I had imagined. I had expected some tension and discomfort, an awkwardness after not having been in the same room, the three of us, for more years than I can remember. What I hadn’t anticipated, much less imagined, was what actually happened.
My mother didn’t recognize me.
There’s something incredibly surreal about being in a room with the only parent you’ve ever known and listening to them speak disparagingly about you, to you. It was bizarre to say the least.
My mother doesn’t have diagnosed dementia or Alzheimer’s – and, other than the length of my hair, I don’t look all that different than I did previously. My voice, just like my mother’s own heavily accented voice, hasn’t changed. She acknowledged my brother and his girlfriend warmly and without issue.
I was the only one she didn’t know.
In the days since my mother’s birthday, I’ve thought about the visit quite a bit. A close friend suggested, after hearing about the visit from me, that my mother may have actually been pretending to not know who I was. I find that idea to be incredibly disturbing and have elected to draw a different conclusion.
Perhaps my mother didn’t recognize me since I no longer resemble or reflect her as I once did – because I’m happy.