Forgiveness was never top-of-mind when I thought about my mom. A list of childhood grievances sat on my heart for decades. Now I think about how hard it was to be a young, single mother with a mental illness. Rita did some extraordinary, hair-raising things when I was growing up, like throwing her boyfriend’s computer out of a 17th story window, a window set right above the entrance to our apartment building. Another time she took me to the drug store to get crutches so I could pretend to have polio. She wanted her boyfriend to feel sorry for her. There are dozens of other stories like this. When your mother has a serious mental illness, she might imagine things that don’t exist, rage like a monster.
In sixth grade, I had to leave my mom behind. To this day, a bit of me feels like I abandoned her. It was day two of no food in the house. After scouring the kitchen, she had me dig through garbage looking for clues that we were being spied on. I think hunger drove me out as I was used to the spy narrative. We’d been “followed” for months. I rode my bike to a shopping center and called my father, who lived across the country, to come get me. He sent me to boarding school and my mom to an institution. She disappeared for a few months. I left for two years. My mom and I were reunited for high school and things went pretty well until senior year when we lost her again.
Remarkably, truly remarkably, my mother’s love inoculated me against all her frailty and pain. Rita loved me all the way through. I am so grateful I can see my mom as a love machine and as someone worthy of admiration. She was eternally optimistic. Great things were always around the corner. She had the courage to move us to Los Angeles when she was 26 so she could become a Movie Star. That didn’t exactly work out, but she appeared in a few motorcycle movies before she completely lost her mind.
The power of love is extraordinary, and it seems like it would be so simple to love someone. It’s so hard for most of us. All our frailties and misconceptions get in our way. When we can forgive someone we love, it’s as if floor-to-ceiling doors open to a sunny day. You see a quiet spot to sit under a leafy tree. There, you feel wonderful feelings like peace and gratitude. I don’t want to forget all the hurtful things my mom did. There is a lesson in each one, and they are markers for survival and emerging strength, but they can stay in a bag by the tree. I don’t have to carry them anymore. There is only room for forgiveness.
I developed bipolar illness in my sophomore year of college. I was treated for depression until I was forty. That left twenty-one years with the wrong medication and episodes when I hurt people deeply. I was a mother for several of these years. I don’t think my mother ever had the right medication, or if she did, she didn’t take it. No one ever explained her illness. Schizophrenia is my best guess, considering her bouts of extreme paranoia.
A very young woman, with a severe mental illness and no medication, managed to care for me. Being bipolar I have some sense of how hard that was. She even held onto jobs for a year and got more. It’s remarkable. She used to wake me up with kisses all over my face.
Love is a miracle.