My stepmother died Wednesday March 9th, at about 2:40 in the afternoon. My feelings about this are…complicated.
She was beautiful. She was also treacherous.
I remember the first time she came to our house for her first date with my Dad. Her hair was a little longer than in this picture, but other than that she looked just like this. I was captivated by her beauty. I had been without a mom for 2 years. I was 7. I looked up at her and said “Are you going to marry my dad?” She smiled, a dazzling smile.
She married my Dad.
I think my Dad was eager for his daughters to have a mother. Possibly he was too eager. Possibly he rushed in when he should have been cautious.
My stepmother was many things. Beautiful. Seductive. Talented. Vulnerable. She was a ballerina. She was a teacher. She knitted beautiful sweaters. She was extremely graceful. When she was happy, she radiated an ethereal light.
She was also a narcissist. And very certainly bipolar. She and my dad would have raging fights that could last for weeks. Sometimes these fights turned physically abusive. My sister, stepbrother, and I would cower in our bedrooms.
This abuse would also get turned on us kids. My stepmother would make it very clear that my sister and I were not her real children, and her cherished son was favored above all. I kept my head down and tried to stay out of the way. In this way, I avoided physical abuse. Mostly. Mostly the abuse was verbal, and that was constant. You would never know what you were going to get when you got home from school. Being ignored was the best you could hope for.
Sometimes there was kindness. Christmas was a time of joy. (Usually after an epic fight). Love was expressed with an absurd number of gifts under the tree. Christmases at our house exemplified the “Me” generation in grand fashion. Stuff was a token of love. But there was also kindness. Loving words. Laughter. My stepmother radiating her ethereal light. My dad elated to have this light shining on him. From Christmas Eve through Boxing Day, we were a real family. Almost three whole days of good will, before it would all start again.
My stepmother was sickly. She was in and out of hospitals always. She became anorexic. My Dad turned the other cheek at the abuses she heaped upon my sister and I, telling us we should be patient with her, she was sick and needed our support. He abandoned us to her abuses, which were sometimes sadistic indeed. No marks were made. Child protective services would probably not have taken us away. Humiliation was more her thing.
Usually it was my dad who lost his shit and turned to physical abuse. I do not ever remember him like this, until he married my stepmother.
I ran away from home when I was 15.
But first I tried to negotiate with them, to allow me to become an emancipated minor. I would stay in school and get good grades, I promised, and I would work after school, and get my own apartment nearby. I would still be in their lives, just not living under their roof. This was a legal arrangement you could make at the time, to be recognized as an adult at 16 instead of 18, if you met and maintained certain requirements, like staying in school.
They wouldn’t have it.
I could no longer bear to live with them and their horrific fights. I felt overwhelmed by feelings that if I didn’t get away from them I would turn out like them. So I forced the issue. I had to run 6 times before they would finally leave me be.
I thought it would be uncomfortable for 6 months, or even a few years, but once they saw I was getting good grades, working, and being responsible, once they saw I wanted to spend Christmas with them, that I wanted them in my life, they would come around. They would realize that it wasn’t much different, that I just moved away from home a few years earlier than normal.
That’s not what happened. They held a grudge for years. They got me fired from every job I got, threatening my employers with legal action, telling them I did not have a work permit. Which I didn’t. Because they wouldn’t agree to sign one for me.
I didn’t stay in school. I lived on the street. I slept in parks, storage units, garages, laundry rooms, friends’ cars. Sometimes men offered to let me stay at their houses. But not out of the goodness of their hearts. I usually chose the park. This went on for two years. Then I fell in love and moved in with my boyfriend. I was 17. When I turned 18 and was able to participate in adult society, things got better.
My parents didn’t speak to me for twelve years.
My sister also ran away. She was 13. Things were harder for her than they were for me. I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me that without her big sister at home, she would feel even more vulnerable and want to run herself, but it didn’t. In my own panic, I abandoned her, just like her mother and her father had. I have carried guilt about this my entire life.
My stepbrother didn’t fare well either. My perception was that he was the spoiled child so he would get whatever he wanted. This was not his perception. The family pretty much came unglued once my sister and I left. The aftermath was not awesome for my stepbrother. The violence escalated dramatically.
My parents ignored all attempts at reconciliation. This was excruciating for me, for, despite the abuse, the humiliation, the cruelty, they also created a beautiful home. With normal things in it like ballet lessons and road trips and visits from grandparents. Like tea time and warm cookies and British comedies on the telly. There was a middle class when I was growing up, and we were in it. There was the possibility of a loving home, like the Brady Bunch, if only I could be good enough. But I never was. Christmases without my Dad were so painful I can’t even begin to express. I remember one Christmas, when I was about 22. I came home to where I was living at the time – I can’t remember where I’d been, with my sister maybe – and the entire house was empty. My room mates were all with their families. My boyfriend was with me, but he went to sleep right away. And the darkest loneliness and abandonment washed over me then. I thought it would crush me, snuff me out of existence entirely in its utter despair. I felt outside of everything good in life, a loving family completely unavailable to me. I have felt this many times since.
I remember another time, living on the street, when I was about 16. I had been sick for a month. Somehow I heard my parents were going to be away for Thanksgiving, and I snuck into the house. It was raining and I needed to be warm and dry, and to eat real food. A house sitter came, and I freaked out, and hid in the closet beneath the stairs. The house sitter freaked out too. Different lights were on. The dog was in and he was sure he had let the dog out. The house sitter – a friend of my brother’s – and I had a good laugh about this many years later! Living on the street was rough, but I was far more afraid of my parents, and what they would do if I came home. So I never did, not when they were there.
My parents finally began to come around when I got married. Yes, in case this tale sounds familiar, I did marry the handsome prince. I invited my parents to the wedding, and they came. The first step in healing began that day. The doors were open for me to resume a relationship with them. I was so grateful. But also cautious. For a few years we visited them and had Christmases with them. Things seemed better. The violence seemed to have subsided. Then they moved to Portland. Because it was more affordable. But also because my stepbrother was there. For my stepmother, everything was about her son, (whom I’ll call James), and my dad blindly followed. He was the good child, the one who did not run away. Of course they would move to Portland to be with James, even though my sister and I had only been renewing our relationship with them for a few years. All the old hurts were so easily triggered, the reminders that my sister and I were second best.
I was glad to come back into their lives, and so was my sister. But my stepmother still monopolized so much of my dad’s attention, we rarely got any time with him. All visits were constantly consumed with her medical needs. Even when we made it up to Portland, Dad was so distracted catering to her that there wasn’t much time to just sit and talk.
Then my Dad got cancer. He died 5 years ago, on February 10th.
Shortly before he died my stepmother was away in a convalescent home for some illness. I had a few days just with my dad. We talked about everything. We cried a lot. We forgave each other. We were both filled with regret that we hadn’t done this years earlier. Late though it was, I am so profoundly grateful to have had that talk. He died a few months afterward.
Fast forward to the current era.
Winter and I rented a cabin by the sea for a few days, a much needed vacation after a very busy season. The minute we returned to the land of cell reception, there was a message from my sister, with “bad news about our stepmother.” I figured she had some sort of medical event, maybe a stroke. I did not expect to be told she was dying.
Winter and I immediately turned around and went to Portland to be with her. No one had thought to call her son, James, who is now living in Boston. Or even message him on Facebook. I did. His phone was disconnected. He hadn’t posted anything on Facebook in a month. I sent him Facebook messages anyway. I didn’t hear back. I stalked his Facebook friends. I found someone I vaguely remembered him dating. I contacted her. Luckily I remembered correctly, and she is now his girlfriend and I was able to get a message to him through her. I arranged money for him to fly out. I needed to negotiate this with my mom’s power of attorney agent, who has no love for my brother. She said if I was sure this is what we wanted, she would release some money to get him an airline ticket.
I wasn’t sure. Is this what Michele would want? Or would it cause agitation for her? She and James have had their own issues over the years, and were not entirely on good terms. Was I interpreting her desires correctly? Or was I projecting my own self-importance onto the situation, thinking I knew what she’d want? Was I projecting what I would want? How can we be sure we are interpreting the wishes of the dying correctly? She couldn’t squeeze my hand. She could barely open her eyes. My brother wasn’t sure he wanted to come. He wasn’t sure he’d make it in time. We agreed we would check in the next morning.
That night I saw her Advance Directive paperwork on the table. In the section where it asked who she wanted with her when she died, my brother’s name was listed. My name was not. This should not have blindsided me, but it did. Completely. All my abandonment issues came flooding back, threatening to drown me. I am nothing, I don’t matter, I have no family, no mother who loves me. She didn’t even want me there. What the hell was I doing there? Trying to make myself the hero? The good child? Trying once again to get approval that I will never, ever attain? James should be here, not me.
I began to second guess her expression when Winter and I arrived the evening before. When we arrived we announced our presence – the dying can hear right up to the end, even if they can’t do much else. She opened her eyes a bit and looked glad, but then bitter, as though she were angry or afraid. I thought it was that she became aware of her situation, but now I wondered if she was disappointed that I wasn’t James.
I tried not to make this into a thing, but by the next morning I was so triggered I could not find my center at all. I was afraid to go into her room. I considered just going home. I felt ashamed, like I had no business being there and it was just my ego, thinking I am some great “Midwife to the Dead” and I was making her death about me and I should just go away. I was interjecting myself where I wasn’t invited. I decided I would try and talk with her one more time so that I could let James know her condition, and he could decide whether to come or not. And then I would go home.
I went up to her room. I asked her if she wanted me to get James out here. All I could do was try and read her energy, what little expression she was able to make. I felt something in her surge, as though she were trying to scream “yes, yes!” Even though her PoA agent was saying “I don’t know know how you can interpret anything from her, she is just lying there” and the nurses saying “It’s hard to say what she wants”, I felt strongly that she wanted James to come.
I called James and told him I thought he should come. His name was on the list. It was his mom. And everything she has ever known or loved is going away, forever. She hadn’t seen him in three years, and of course she would want to hold his hand one last time.
We bought the tickets. He would take three different planes, and be traveling for about 10 hours. Would he make it in time? Was I interpreting her correctly? Or would there be angst between them? Was I being irresponsible with my mom’s money? Was this the right call?
I wasn’t sure. And meanwhile I was struggling with my own emotions. My own fear that I was meddlesome and unwanted.
I tried to just be present with her, and throughout the day, I began to calm down. I sang to her and she seemed to appreciate that. I talked to her, telling her about various family members and what they were up to, and that seemed to bring her comfort. I began to feel that, even though I hadn’t been on the list, she was grateful for my presence. My sister’s daughter called her, and she was visibly glad to hear her voice. She sent pictures from New Zealand, and my stepmom tried to sit up and look at them. She wasn’t able to but this made it clear she could hear and understand what was being said. A hospice nurse came in for the night. My mom’s vitals were stable, and I felt I could get a few hours’ sleep. I was staying in a spare room at the assisted living center where she lived, so I was right down the hall. At this point, I thought she would make it until James arrived, and I felt much more relaxed about things. I told her I was going but that I was right down the hall, and got the distinct feeling that she really didn’t want me to go. A slight flicker in her facial expression. I promised I was close and the hospice nurse would call me if anything shifted with her. Perhaps she did want me there, after all. Perhaps my emotional scars are not the sum total of reality.
I went to bed at 10pm. They woke me up at 12:30 am. Her oxygen levels were falling. My brother wouldn’t arrive for 11 hours.
Winter and I went to her. We wanted to make sure she had family with her, even if she couldn’t make it until James got there. She had definitely taken a turn for the worse. I talked to her. We had been telling her James was coming but at this point we felt we needed to give her permission to go, that she didn’t have to hang on if she wasn’t up for it. So we did. We sang to her and held her hand. All the nurses said she could go at any time. Around 5:00am I went back to bed. She was completely out of it and she had the hospice nurse until 8am. So I set my alarm for 7am, got a bit more sleep, and returned before the hospice nurse left. I sat with her, sometimes talking, sometimes singing, sometimes just holding her hand.
Sometime between 8am-9am, her breathing became considerably more labored, more agitated. The nurses said her systems were shutting down, and automatic functions weren’t happening automatically so much any more. Like breathing. It seemed to me that she was forcing herself to keep breathing out of sheer will. It was still at least 5 hours until my brother would arrive. I told her once again we would all understand if she needed to let go, and that we all loved her. She just kept breathing. Incredibly labored breaths, like she was running a marathon. For 5 hours. I would tell her each milestone of James’ arrival. “James is in Seattle now mom”. “Less than two hours to go mom”. “Well you’ve made it this far, you may as well hang in there at this point”.
Watching her in this state, breathing like that, as though it was taking everything she had to hang on, for 5 hours, was excruciating. It was one of the hardest things I have ever done, holding space for her while trying to keep my own emotions grounded. Trying to be the psychopomp and the family member at the same time. By now it was very clear that yes, she was hanging on for dear life to see her son one last time.
James arrived in time. We spent some time with her all together, and then I left them alone. She died an hour and 20 minutes after he arrived.
At this point, I allowed myself a moment: I fucking called it. If I wasn’t confident it was the right decision at first, I most certainly was by the end. My willingness to trust my judgement went a long way toward facilitating a good death for her. I say this not so much to pat myself on the back, as to remind myself that facilitating death is something I can do. And something I want to do for others.
So now it’s done. I served in my role as psychopomp. I was able to interpret what needed doing even when those around me didn’t know what to ask for. And now I can deal with my personal emotions.
Is it terrible to admit that relief is part of it? And not just relief that her suffering is over. Seeing her at rest after hours of labored breathing was a relief, certainly. But also, I realize I have been holding my breath since she married my dad all those many years ago. I remember their wedding day, and I remember a sense of foreboding. It seemed too fast. There was a “be careful what you wish for” quality in the air. She married my father, as I had asked, and a nightmare ensued. A nightmare that destroyed our family.
I loved my dad more than life itself. And I lost him the day she married him. I know that her cruelty toward my sister and I was jealousy. She wanted all his attention for herself. And she got it. I am certain she fueled the fire that kept him holding a grudge years longer than he would have on his own. Losing his relationship with his daughters destroyed him. I believe it put him in an early grave. He told me, that day a few months before he died, when we finally had some time to talk alone, that he probably shouldn’t have married her.
So there was relief. A sense of “It’s over”. My stepbrother echoed this, unbidden by me. He said “Is it wrong to feel that the curse is broken”? In a way, the terror she wrought did feel like the doings of a beautiful, evil witch out of a faerytale, who ensnares a man and holds him in a trance for years while the stepdaughters are slowly eliminated, while their father is driven to madness and ruin.
Her own son was hurt too, slowly withering from a poison not meant for him, but leeching out into his air nonetheless.
So yes. It does feel like a curse was lifted.
But it is too late. It is too late to resume my relationship with my father, for he died first. There is anger here. Anger, and loss, and regret.
These are the emotions that have compelled me to write. A curse lay upon our family; a curse of heartbreak and betrayal, of ruin and madness. A curse of guilt and regret, of abandonment and worthlessness and black bottomless despair. A curse of failure and wrong choices and hopelessness, of never belonging. A curse finally broken on the merciless wheel of death.
Do I sound heartless in the face of death? I am not dancing on her grave by any means. Compassion won out. I know she suffered too. She had her own childhood horrors, and unless we come to terms with our damage, we pass it on. She apologized later in life, more than once. She mellowed out considerably after my Dad died, and I came to enjoy who she was in the last few years. I forgave her, of course I did, though I can never get those years back. I had genuine compassion for her in the end. I did not play the martyr. My desire for her to have a good death was sincere.
I did love her, as I loved my dad. When she was joyous, she was beautiful. When she was dancing, she was beautiful. When she was excited about one of the many trips she took with my dad, she shone. She was capable of sweetness. She was capable of remorse. Her apologies were genuine, and I accepted them wholeheartedly.
Healing was possible, with both her and my dad, before they died. I am very thankful for this. Now, both of the parents who raised me are gone. I don’t know that anything has ever made me feel more like a grown up. I don’t even know what this means yet, or what this “It’s over” feeling will grow into over time.
I do know that my sister, my brother, and I can now be free of who we were in relation to them. We can be free of the grasping for approval, the never feeling enough. We can define our lives on our own terms. We always have, of course, but we were compromised. Those hooks were always there.
I know that I like who my sister and brother have become. Survivors. Strong. Compassionate. Committed. These are people I want to know, people I am proud to call family. I know that something has come full circle, and that the feeling of brokenness I thought I would never be free of has begun to heal. I know that I am capable of doing “family” after all. This is something I thought was simply not available to me. For the first time in many years, I see a glimmer of possibility, that it may not be too late for me to experience a healthy, loving, supportive family. Even the bleakest pit of despair can eventually turn in upon itself and be swallowed up by hope, light, and love. There is always a chance for redemption, though it may be years before we can see our way through.
If you have read this far, I am moved. I don’t know that this will have meaning for others. But I know I needed to write it.