A letter to my mother

Dear mum,

‘You’re so much like me I want to kill you!’ – you once screamed these words at me, on a Christmas morning if I remember rightly. They so perfectly encapsulate the essence of our relationship that I’ve always remembered them; I don’t remember the ins and outs of our other many arguments. But we don’t have these arguments any more, and that’s the whole point of this letter really.

I don’t know exactly when things changed. It wasn’t after the diagnosis, but after the radiotherapy I think. Something softened, a perspective shifted, as I’m sure happens to so many whose lives are affected by cancer. Miles between us, I would receive semi-confessional outpourings by text. You had never been much of a texter, so the sheer volume of words was overwhelming. What they said was even more so. The first one I received, I remember throwing my phone to the other side of the room like it I’d just realised I was holding a venomous snake. It stayed there the rest of the evening; I didn’t know how to look at it again.

You never said the words, but you were sorry. You validated my feelings in ways that I never expected them to be validated, least of all by you, so sure had I become that I really must just be oversensitive, prone to overreaction. Your confessions mostly took place in my youngest years; you had treated me differently, because of x,y,z. The reasons didn’t seem so important to me as the acknowledgement.

These messages made me feel like I was being asked to forgive you. The height of anger riled by this unspoken request surprised me. To forgive you felt like letting you off the hook; as soon as I realised this, I also realised what a relief that would be.

Mother’s Day has always been a weird one for me. All it has ever served to do is remind me of our missing relationship, or at the least to remind me that our relationship is very different to that of my friends and their mothers. We haven’t so much as been for a coffee together mum, ever – I’m not sure we’d know how to manage a spa day or one-on-one lunch or evening out.

But it’s OK. We can hold a conversation now; you even send me the occasional emoji. Now, I have the chance to learn a few things about you, to see you with fresh eyes. I have apologised; I’m not yet a mother myself but as I’ve grown up I’ve realised that what I put you through as a teenager was probably a form of torture for someone who worries like you do. You were right, I should have just picked up the phone and that would have been that. As I’ve grown I’ve also realised the immense pressure on mothers – the relationship is such a vital one between mother and child, that it’s bound to be riddled with painful opportunities for failures big and small.

We still don’t know each other very well, but we seem to have come to a mutual understanding that we don’t want to argue anymore. I’m so, so glad we don’t argue anymore. I think for both of us, distance and protectiveness characterised our relationship. I remember on that Christmas morning after our fairly standard but nonetheless spectacular falling out, you went to hide in your room. Other family members arrived at the house and I remember feeling intensely that they had to be kept away from you, that you weren’t to be bothered and that you weren’t to be made to play hostess like you always did. So I rushed about being hostess instead, figuring if people didn’t notice your absence it would buy you some time. My grandmother, your mother, slipped past my guard somehow. As I stood outside the bedroom door, hesitant about my intrusion, I could hear her berating you and telling you to pull yourself together. It’s awful how things get passed down the line.

But then, opportunities for new beginnings do arise. I see how you treat your granddaughter, my niece, and it helps me to see that you probably really did try your best with the resources you had available to you at the time. You use her as a means of continuing to repair our relationship, constantly telling me that’s she’s so cute – ‘just like you were’; she’s so determined – ‘just like you were’.

We’ve never actually spoken about anything raised in those initial messages in person, not even on the phone. But here I am doing the same thing now, using written words – though I don’t have the courage to show you this letter. We’re definitely not there yet. But I’m happy with where we are.