It takes love and time to heal a comfortably numb motherwound

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Well, I’m certainly not alone in harboring an old motherwound, based on the number of “me too” emails I received.

One in particular really rang true: When your relationship with your mother is troubled, and she dies, you grieve not only her loss, but also the loss of hope that things will change.

That hope permeated my entire experience with my mother. I had to practically jump up and down to even register as a blip on the periphery of her attention span, and longed for her maternal instinct to kick in and override her DNA of Scottish aloofness. Someday, I hoped she’d miraculously transform into the warm, loving, nurturing mother of storybooks and many, many, many reruns of “The Brady Bunch.”

When she was hospitalized with a brain aneurysm, and I imagined she might end up just as disabled as my father was from the same thing (read: pretty much totally), I even managed to twist that into a positive: I’d bring her to live with me, and even if that meant wiping drool and changing diapers, at least, she’d be near. Just to have her physically nearby — and not just for her compulsory visits lodged between appointments or destinations — but for a satiating length of time. I was actually excited.

But she didn’t end up disabled.

She died.

I didn’t see that one coming. Aren’t all your grandparents supposed to go first, and give you some practice for your letting go of your own parents? Apparently, Life didn’t get that memo.

I guess this is all on my mind because besides the recent Mother’s Day holiday, this is also the season during which my mother was hospitalized in 1986. She checked into the hospital with a bleeding aneurysm on April 22, and left under a white sheet on a mortuary cart on May 28. The time in between was a long stretch of delay and incompetence on the doctors’ behalf, who didn’t seem to know what to do with a bulging, leaking aneurysm 26 years ago. Basically, they just shelved my mother and put their hands behind their backs to wait and see what would happen.

Nowadays, we know what happens when you leave a bulging, leaking aneurysm be: eventually, it bursts. In my mother’s case, it finally burst with such force that it caused a second aneurysm in her brain stem, and well, that’s the end of the story, people. You can fudge along without several parts of your brain, but not the brain stem. Roll the credits, turn out the lights. It’s over.

Yes, I’m still angry about the doctors’ incompetence. Oddly enough, I didn’t realize that I’m still angry about that, as well as the reality of my relationship with my mother, because it’s taken me until now to write about it.

The last day of my mother’s life, I had to work that evening, and went to see her at lunchtime. Life had settled into a daily routine of driving to Sacramento and back, and there was a certain comfort in knowing that I’d at least be able to see her every day, although the quality of the visit depended a lot on the level of medication. Some days were lucid, some not so much.

I remember so many peculiar details about that day. I brought her crepes from Café Bistro, and she was a bit woozy, but at least not hallucinating. Could I bring anything, I asked her. She told me she’d always wanted a pedicure, but never had one. Could I arrange that? I pondered how ridiculous that was. It wasn’t like she couldn’t afford one. So, I spent the next half hour calling beauty shops, seeing if any pedicurists would be willing to come to the hospital. None were.

It was time to get going, and I told her I’d work on getting her that pedicure. We exchanged that familiar stiff, uncomfortable hug, leaving just enough space between us to prevent any substantial body contact, and air kisses past each other’s cheeks instead of real kisses that make contact.

As I drove home, “Comfortably Numb” by Pink Floyd was on the radio… “Hello… is anybody in there? Just nod if you can hear me… Is there anyone home?” is how the song begins. “When I was a child I caught a fleeting glimpse… Out of the corner of my eye. I turned to look but it was gone, I cannot put my finger on it now, the child is grown, the dream is gone. I… have become comfortably numb.”

How profoundly appropriate. It’s almost a soundtrack of our relationship, as well as the aftermath of it.

I drove home from work after midnight that night, and an amazing full moon lit the stretch of black fields between Davis and Winters. Another song came on the radio: Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All” — a song about cherishing children and learning to love yourself in spite of what life dishes out to you. I sang along at the top of my lungs, tears spilling onto my cheeks: “Everybody searching for a hero, People need someone to look up to. I never found anyone who’d fulfill my needs… a lonely place to be. So I learned to depend on me.”

I got the call at 2:30 a.m.: “You need to come now, and notify your relatives.” What follows is all quite cliché, right down to the doctor’s, “I’m sorry, there’s nothing we can do.”

It’s true, you know. There’s nothing you can do to prevent death. But there is something you can do to heal. Like Whitney sang, learn to love yourself. It just takes some time. As I said last week, it took my mother 27 years to tell me she loved me. It’s taken me about the same amount of time to get over it.

— Email Debra at; read more of her work at, and

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