My mother was an anxious person. She panicked easily (and often). There were drugs in the cabinet to help her with this. Librium was the main med, I think. She was also a sad person, an envious person, a doubtful person, an insecure person, a fearful person. When things were going well and life was balanced, she was charming and funny, but it was far too easy to knock her off balance.
She did not like me very much. I think that was always the case. I don’t think it happened later in life as the result of teenage independence fights. I think it was — early on — the status quo. I was a “colicky” baby and it made my mother feel that she was a failure. Very insecure people have an exaggerated idea of their own importance (a paradox) and so my crying and discomfort were all her fault or me doing something to her. She also relied on me, from a very early age, to help her. Helping her was a thankless task, but I loved her and saw it as a privilege to step in where she felt unable. I even made phone calls for her when I visited her in Montana. Once her stove broke, and she just used the one functioning burner until I got there and could call a repairman.
When my father died, my mom broke inside. It was horrible. He’d lived with ever worsening MS for 20 years. In the last years, we cared for him at home as long as we could. I couldn’t bear the thought of him being “sent away to die.” As a kid, I had no clue, really, what was happening. Finally he went to live in a nursing home. That should have alleviated some of my mom’s burden, but it just meant she had to drive on icy streets to visit him, and that terrified her.
When my dad died, she was a tangled mix of emotions. Since she lived in her own world, in which she was the center, she was increasingly trapped. Without my dad there to need her, to praise her, to love her, she felt she no longer existed. She retreated further into Librium and Bourbon, passivity and darkness. She was unreachable for a long time.
Then, somehow, it seemed miraculously, she rallied herself. She sold the family house (built for my dad, a special house for disabled people paid for partly by the Veterans Association) insisting it be sold to a disabled veteran. She moved from Colorado Springs to Denver where my aunt lived and not as far from where I was with my husband in Boulder. She tried (and fairly succeeded) to build a life.
Still, as dependent as she was on others, the life stood on shaky ground, and as time went on, life’s normal disappointments dragged her down again to the dark place where, finally, I think, she surrendered not only her life but her soul.
Yesterday, in the process of cleaning out the garage, I opened the box marked (by my mom) “Family Photos.” I don’t have any family that will want these photos, and I had determined to throw them out. There was a plastic bag with letters in it that my mom had saved. Many were letters from me to her while I was in China. There were a few letters from my brother, I kept them. Letters from her friends. Not my business. There was a letter from the man who had been the minister to her family all my mother’s life. He had baptized her (and her sisters) in the Little Bighorn River. He officiated at my parents’ wedding in 1948, he had done the funeral for my father in 1972. His name was Chet Bentley.
Rev. Bentley had suffered one of the greatest losses any human can experience; the death of a child. His son had fought in WW II. He’d survived and was coming home. Just a few miles from Crow Agency, less than 30 minutes from home, he was killed in a car crash. My mom, telling me this story, said, “I don’t know how Rev. Bentley survived that.”
The letter to my mom answers that question. It opens with, “O Helen, what in the world are you doing to yourself?” The rest is an impassioned plea that my mom pick herself up and find meaning in her life. He writes about the importance of will. He quotes Scripture (minimally) “As a man thinks in his heart, so is he.” He then writes, “It takes effort, it takes a change of mind sometimes and an act of the will, as well as reliance on the Divine Power. You can do it, Helen. I believe you can. I’m praying that you will find something to live for – in yourself, in Martha Ann and in some thing to you want to accomplish…”
I have wondered if this passionate, inspiring letter was the reason, the motivating factor, behind my mom’s effort to find her feet again.
After finding the letter and thinking about the times I met this man, I wanted to know more about him. I “Googled” him and found this amazing bit of history. It told me things I didn’t know — such as the Crow Indians refused to let the government put the Japanese who lived on the reservation (and there were many) into the internment camp at Hart Mountain. It’s a beautiful, inspiring piece of western history in which this passionate, kind man played a large part.