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Good Questions

September 2, 2010

I’ve been thinking a lot about my mother. Maybe it is because Lee’s parents came to visit us last week. They are delightful people and very easy company. Lee had to work one of the two full days they were here, so the parents and I had time alone together. It was quiet time. We did a bit of shopping and had plenty to chat about, but there was no deep conversation. I found I asked most of the questions.

Since their visit, I’ve been thinking about questions and why we ask them. I am basically extremely shy. I am an introvert in every sense. That I spent the last years of my life speaking publicly could alone explain my having heart problems! It was never easy. I discovered though, many years ago that asking questions of others was an effective  way to handle being in a crowd. Asking someone I didn’t know a question could start a conversation and make the uncomfortable time go faster. It could break ice and  effectively mask my insecurity. As a bonus, I often learned a lot and sometimes even made a new friend. Still, it wasn’t easy.

I also ask questions to learn about those I am comfortable with, my close friends and family. I ask because I care. I want to know what they are thinking and how they are feeling. I want to know the multitude of thoughts that are influencing their current state of mind and the memories that are fueling them. I want to understand their viewpoint and I want to stand in their shoes for at least a moment or two. I care about their day, and their hour and their second thoughts. I ask because I care. I want to know. I want to know the answers they will give me and I want to know them. They, like me, change every day. I don’t want to miss it. I don’t want to miss them and find a week from now someone I do not recognize. I do not want to find my loved one has moved from a place we both lived to a place I now need a map to get to. I want to be familiar with the truth of who they are. So, I ask questions. Still, I never seem to ask enough and find blank stares from strangers residing in bodies that look my spouse or my child or my friend. Still, I hang on words and answers, and regret all that I forget or miss.

I want to know, really know my in-laws. I want to be not only family, but friend. So, I asked them questions both to break the ice and ease the discomfort as well as get to know them and to understand them. I wanted them to let me in those places that told stories and had albums of pictures telling a thousand words. I didn’t ask the right questions maybe. They asked few of me.

Friends and family alike ask me about my dogs and about my day. They ask trivial things, easy things. They ask of things that are light as air and uncomplicated. They ask for simple answers with questions of simple things. When they dare to ask of my health, they listen without comment to my answer, never feeding the conversation or fueling the reply. They wait with un-ease for my answer to end, changing the topic by the asking of another question. I sense their unease and try to stop my mouth from speaking. I do. Yet, each time I stop that way, a sadness grabs me tightly and holds me close. It is not that they do not care. It is not that they do not want to know. It is that they cannot know. They cannot hear. They cannot understand and cannot try.

Lee is the exception. Hours have been spent as I poured out my heart and fears and hopes, complaining of every little ache and pain and doubt. Not a day goes by when I am not asked by my love how I feel with my honest and true response both accepted and expected in great detail. Yet, there is a weariness that is simply born of work and fatigue I cannot overlook and my love cannot hide. So, details are sometimes left out in my answers and the sadness comes.

When Lee’s parents went home, I listened as they spoke on the phone. Lee’s mother was clearly asking question after question of Lee. I recognized the tone in Lee’s answers. Her mind was being poked and prodded, her heart peeled back and exposed, layer by layer. Her mother wanted to know it all. She wanted to know Lee’s thoughts and feeling and the thoughts that led to her state of mind and the memories fueling them. She wanted to understand and to not miss a moment.

What I listened to, what I heard, what I witnessed, was a mother. It is not that others do not care. They care deeply. It is not that others do not love. They love profoundly. No one was ever quite so interested while at the same time, quite so good at hiding fatigue and weariness from me as my mother. Only mothers are, I think.

I’m going to try and be a better mother both to those I love and to myself. I miss mine. I know she would want to know every detail. She would listen as I rant and rave about meds and costs and side effects. She would agree that the drugs had caused every bit of the weight gain I’ve experienced. Then again, those scariest parts and darkest thoughts not even she could bear to know and I could never bear to tell. Not even her. I did not ask those questions of her. I could not bear to hear her answers. I could not bear to know her truth. I could not accept what we all expected. She was ill for two years. It was as if she died with that first stroke, and it took us all two years to accept that she was gone. The broken and childlike fragment of her that remained was far too honest and raw and real. I could not ask a question I could not hear the answer to. Nor could she. So, she passed with words unsaid but with hearts somehow exposed anyway. Love is like that, but how? That’s a good question.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Donna permalink
    September 10, 2010 4:02 pm

    The most difficult question I ever asked was of my mother. It was 1968, I was 22 years old and a patient in a mental hospital in Illinois. It was not my first visit, nor would it be my last. My stepfather had relocated my mother and my siblings to Hartford. My mother was ill. I kept asking everyone in my family questions, and everyone told me a different answer.

    My mother was my biggest supporter. She always believed I would survive and live normal, she never gave up hope. She wrote long letters to me every week, she had beautiful penmenship, something people just don’t have today. Of late, the letters had started to frighten me. The sentences made no sense sometimes, and her handwriting had become terrible, sometimes sliding completely off the page.

    One evening, I had become so upset I called the hospital where my mother was a patient. I called from the pay phone in the day room of my ward. I called collect, and told them who I was, Dolores Riha’s daughter, and for some reason the operator accepted the charges and connected me to my mothers room. We talked for a very long time. It was a conversation that has lived with me all these years. I can hear her speaking to me as if it were yesterday. Her voice was weak and hoarse. Her breathing was labored. She told me how much she loved me, and she told me a secret that had haunted her. She told me I could never tell the secret, it would hurt others, and because she was ashamed. It answered questions I had always wanted answers for but had been afraid to ask. I knew it was her deepest, darkest truth.

    Then I asked my question – “Ma, are you dying?” There was a long silence. Then she finally spoke. “Donna Jean, you and I are both going to get well. Then, you will come home to me and start over. You can go back to college and fulfill your real purpose.”

    I sat on the floor of the day room of the Illinois State Hospital, under the pay phone, crying. For the first time in my life, I knew my mother had told me a lie. About 45 days later my 41 year old mother died of cancer. She left behind a husband, a 9 month old daughter, a 4 year old son, a 17 year old son fighting in Vietnam, and a 22 year old who is still unsure of her “real purpose” 42 years later.

    I don’t regret my question, nor to I regret the answer was to painful for her to speak. I believe she knew that I knew. I do regret that I did not ask the other questions I had all my life.

    • September 13, 2010 2:11 pm

      Dear Donna,
      Thanks so much for sharing that with me. Even at my age, I often feels as if I am now an orphan. Perhaps everyone feels that way when both parents are gone. That I had my mother for 53 years is so much longer than many do, and far longer than you had your mother with you.
      With children of such varied ages, from you who clearly needed her to an infant daughter, I imagine she had no choice but to deny. I have reassured my own daughters that I’m not going anywhere, knowing full well I have no idea whether or not it is true or not. Some things are just unspeakable. I’m sorry you never got those answers.
      As for your purpose, I know there are hundreds, if not thousands of people who believe your purpose was to say just the right word at just the right time, or to listen to them, hear them, see them, kick their butt, be a part of their salvation from themselves and a part of the reclaiming of their lives. Maybe purpose is a million little pieces. Love, Al

      • October 7, 2010 4:03 pm

        Allie, just found your blog on WomenHeart and am in awe of your writing — and Donna, of yours, also. I’m always so succinct and direct, I miss out on the beauty of the way words flow, and the feelings they communicate far beyond the mere letters on the page. I’m spending some time today catching up with you but will be along for the ride as I’m also a “new vegan’ and you say it how I FEEL it! Thanks for sharing.
        Lynn

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