The prodigal sister has been having a really tough time at work. Now I find it difficult to take her problems seriously, from where I am standing, surely the biggest problem is finding work. And once that bridge is crossed, any problems you may have are problems you’re being paid to face. Not such a bad deal as problems go.
My derision might also have a little to do with the fact that she is currently estranged from her parents, has no personal, meaningful relationships other than with people from work, and is blissfully unaware that these are her real problems. So when she was crying about her work, part of me wanted to shrug my shoulders and roll my eyes, while the other part wanted to point out how ironic it was that she was asking her six years younger, unemployed sister for help when she could have asked her fifty something, highly successful mother. Surely age and experience is what you look for in advice givers? Oh, wait…. She hasn’t talked to her mother in a year. And if her mother is dispensable, what value would her advice have?
The only thing that makes me angrier than her blatant disregard of my mother is my mother’s unshakable love for her. Even if she can’t see her daughter rolling her eyes at every phone call, or smirking in derision when she tells her about her day, I am sure she can get the tone. But she just doesn’t seem to get the message. She still calls everyday, she still asks after her everytime, she still prays for her every night. No matter how badly she’s treated, or how much she’s hurting, she still loves my sister as much as she did twenty years ago, when she was too young to bring anything but joy. I don’t know what my mom is made of.
Actually, I do know. She’s made of her experiences.
A few months ago, on a particularly dismal Thursday, when life was edging from disappointing to pointless, she saved me. As she does on a regular basis. But this time, it wasn’t with a well timed cup of tea, or a particularly extravagant pair of shoes, or a new haircut. I had ventured well past the Happiness through Possessions detour, and was edging dangerously close to the Point of No Return. And that’s where she was waiting, this time with a glimpse into her life to help me rediscover mine.
You see, her feelings for us are more than the unconditional love of all mothers. If you doubt me, try living with us. We’re so utterly depraved, and rude, and callous. The prodigal daughter for instance, told my mother all of last year she couldn’t visit sooner because she was planning to come on my mother’s birthday for a month. She didn’t. And my mother waited in vain for a phone call, let alone a visit. Its now been a whole year since she’s seen her daughter’s face. As someone who stood over her shoulder as she glanced around the room with barely concealed hope, trying to spot sis hiding in the corner as she cut her birthday cake, I would understand if she stopped loving my sister. Or at least demanded an apology. But not my mom. She just loves her children with all her heart, without expecting even basic human decency in return.
And would you believe it, there is an explanation for it? I always suspected her overwhelming affection stems from the fact that she was an only child, brought up by a single mother, and wanted desperately to have a family of her own. What I didn’t suspect was that our family was originally bigger than it is now. Apparently there were five little monsters, instead of four, but my older brother didn’t make it. She miscarried five months along, alone with three little children, while my father was away on work. She wasn’t showing, he never knew, and neither did any of the other little ones. It was her silent hope, and her silent loss. Which is why, I suspect, she is handling this situation so well. My sister isn’t the only child she ever lost, and this time, there’s actually hope of getting her back. No matter how unlikely it may seem, no matter how unworthy that child maybe. My mother still peers into dark corners looking for her.
My mother is an exceptional woman, like most mother’s are. Forged in the fires of adversity, condemned to love children who owe them everything but think nothing of them, who never love them as much, as deeply, as openly. I made a mistake in thinking my mother was made weak by love; she is in fact the strongest and most accomplished person I know. Her love perseveres. Her tragedies are her life lessons. Her sorrow gives her strength. She has known how bad life can get, how unrequited love can be, how final some losses are. And because she has gone to the Point of No Return, fallen down the cliff, and climbed back up, she no longer fears anything. She saved herself, and so she knows how to save us.
I’m not my mother. Not in the least. I cannot save my sister. But I can try to pass on the lessons my mother taught me. She might listen. And luckily for me, even if she won’t listen to anything I say, she will, as we all tend to, trust the wisdom of strangers. So I have lent her my copy of The Joy Luck Club, a tale of extraordinary mothers who are mistaken for ordinary creatures by their own daughters. And maybe in those pages, she will hear my mother’s voice. And find her own.
“So this is what I will do. I will gather together my past and look. I will see a thing that has already happened. The pain that cut my spirit loose. I will hold that pain in my hand until it becomes hard and shiny, more clear. And then my fierceness can come back, my golden side, my black side. I will use this sharp pain to penetrate my daughter’s tough skin and cut her tiger spirit loose. She will fight me, because this is the nature of two tigers. But I will win and give her my spirit, because this is the way a mother loves her daughter.”