I am my mother’s oldest son. I'm here to honor my mother by speaking my truth about her life and death. I won't smooth over the rough parts and it is only one perspective and not the total sum of who she was. I love her and miss her and hope this message is of value to you. (I welcome you to share your thoughts and memories in the comments below or by emailing me)
My mom was a learner. When I was asked by the cremation facility what occupation should be listed on her death certificate, the first thing that came to mind was “student”. Over seven decades she acquired her bachelors, multiple master’s degrees, all kinds of training certificates from attending various programs and seminars. She never stopped learning.
She needed to know and needed to figure things out on her own. But once she felt she knew, she needed to share her knowledge with others. Over her lifetime she dedicated herself to trying to understand both herself and the world around her and sharing those lessons learned with others.
I have no doubt that my late night reading of obscure journal articles got it’s start with the flashcards and learning packages she buried me with as a kid.
My mom was stubborn. I know from many late night conversations with her she was rarely 100% confident she was right. But she did believe she was supposed to know. She believed she was supposed to be able to figure things out on her own. She expected nothing less of herself. This meant criticism wasn’t feedback it was an existential threat. So even when she was able to ask for help she had to so on her own terms.
She could ask for specific help to tackle a project, to apply for a program, to receive services, or to take people up on specific offers, but her stubbornness meant she couldn’t open herself up to examination or inquiry. She could not let go of who she thought she was long enough to become who she needed to be.
Like most of us she resisted help for those parts of her life where she felt shame, guilt, and fear. Who doesn’t fear being vulnerable? Who isn't sometimes stubborn?
My mom was an addict. But she didn’t drink or take drugs. Instead she found refuge in faith. Many people chose dysfunctional ways to escape pain. Drugs, alcohol, gambling and sex steal the headlines but who among us hasn’t blocked out the world using work commitments, volunteering, exercise, eating, risk-taking, reading, TV, gardening, gaming, gossip, shopping, or even countering emotions (such as anger or indignation) to barricade ourselves against our feelings?
Instead of helping my mom manage her fears or process her problems - faith helped her avoid them. Faith can be helpful. The certainty of meaning can be a comfort. A community of believers can be a resource. And faith did do her some good. It provided her with the hope that she could turn things around. That the class she was taking would advance her goals; That the program she was in would help her get a job; That relationships could be repaired; That the effort to clean up a small problem would provide momentum to fix other problems. That tomorrow would be better than today. Unfortunately faith wasn’t enough.
My mom was a hoarder. Perhaps because in her life she experienced many losses (her parents divorce when she was 8 1/2, her fathers early death when she was in her 20's, frequent moving as a child and later as an adult with the resulting loss of friendships and aspirations, her two divorces, and loosing both my brother and I as we grew older) Because of these losses, perhaps that’s why she invested so much into “stuff.” “Stuff” stuck around. “Stuff” held the weight of the relationships she lost and reminded her of the people she cared about. “Stuff” had the potential to be useful to someone someday.
“Stuff” also carried the weight of her identity. Cookbooks provided self-talk that she was a good cook. Even if she never opened them. Thrift store finds were proof of her frugality and resourcefulness even if they got lost in storage.
All her collected “stuff” clearly complicated her life and most certainly contributed to her tragic death. Her accumulated “stuff” overwhelmed such simple logistical problems as “what’s for dinner?” and “where’d I put my address book?” And when a plumbing leak required repeatedly moving things out of harms way I think she lost track of where everything was and she finally gave up. Once she lost hope of knowing where things were she was surviving in her home, not living in it.
We’re all hoarders though. True, most of us to a significantly lesser degree than my mom. But who doesn’t have a drawer filled with things we think will be useful someday but don’t quite know where they belong, or a stack of boxes somewhere we’ve forgotten the contents of? So my mom’s hoarding was more a problem of degree than of kind.
My mom wasn’t unique. I hope you understand that hoarding didn’t make my mother any less lovable or valuable. Having flaws doesn’t make any of us less lovable or valuable. Our flaws provide us with the opportunity to grow, to learn, to become better people. Our flaws often provide the hooks others need to help us and to love us. So our flaws are the key to understanding our strengths.
Sadly, over the years my mom’s hoarding built a literal and figurative wall that limited her ability to connect with people. “Stuff” became an anchor that prevented her from moving, from changing, from being, who she wanted to be. It’s ironic that the same time “stuff” that meant, “I have been loved,” “I can be loved,” at the same time, blocked her from letting anyone in.
And yet my mom was special. I believe the same insecurity that fueled her hoarding helped her love unconditionally. Because of her hoarding issue she was very sensitive as to whether she was truly accepted or merely tolerated. For her acceptance meant love.
Person after person has come up to me since her death to share stories of how my mom deeply affected them. It’s been apparent from their stories that my mom saw people’s hearts not just their surfaces. She truly tried to live up to the calling of her creed to love strangers as herself. Her impact was the love she showed others by accepting them. Her legacy is not her “stuff.” Her legacy is: She made people feel loved and accepted.
Her life and death have provided many lessons for me. Let me share a few of them with you:
- Learning isn’t over until you’re dead. If you think you already know everything, watch out, someone is about to cover you with dirt.
- The more baggage you have (literally and psychologically) the harder it will be to pick up and go where you need to go, the harder it will be to become who you were meant to be.
- Faith isn’t enough to change the world; you need good works applied to where the problems are.
- Love everyone you meet unconditionally. Understand the huge difference between discernment and judgment between acceptance and tolerance. And know that there isn’t anyone that can’t benefit from being loved just as they are.
“People will forget what you did, they will forget what you said, but they will always remember how you made them feel.” CARL BEUCHNER (via MAYA ANGELOU)