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For the Gifts She Gave Me

Friday, August 5, 2011
Bob’s Java Hut
Minneapolis

Right now I am sitting at a picnic table outside Bob’s with a stuffy head next to two men who are talking about a motorcycle accident, and between eavesdropping and trying to organize how I am going to write this post and ride my bike home by 11:30, my head is swimming.

Anyway.

Today would have been my mom’s 63rd birthday.

How can I and why would I try to squeeze the enormity of my thoughts and emotions about this day into a 20-minute blog post?  I don’t know.  One word at a time.  We’ll see how this goes.

My mother was an alcoholic.  At the time of her death, we were “estranged,” which is a very clinical and arid way of saying I couldn’t talk to my mother anymore while she lived in her alcohol-induced haze.  I couldn’t listen to her lies.  I couldn’t hear her blurry speech over the phone.  Couldn’t watch her formerly petite body bloat.  Couldn’t witness her pain.  Couldn’t beg, coax, scream, wish, or pray that she would quit drinking and reclaim her life so that I could have a mom who would help guide me through the twists and turns of Life.

I had to save my life.  Because the weight of hers was pulling me under and I was drowning.

I was 21 when my therapist suggested I “let her go,” in order to save myself.  This advice struck me as callous and impossible.  How can I “let go” of my own mother when I could see she was in such great pain?  Plus, what if she died while I was “letting go?”

“Well, your mother makes her own choices in life.  You are her daughter.  She is the adult.  You only have power over your own life.  She will likely have to hit rock bottom before she can begin to heal herself, and you letting her go will bring her one step closer to that point.”

I could not, at that point, let go.  The mere thought made my stomach twist into a tight knot.  Still does.

Years passed.  My mom went in and out of treatment, and I went in and out of hope.  Finally, at 26, I understood what my therapist meant, understood that I had no power over her life. Over the phone, I told my mom I could not have a relationship with her while she was drinking.  While I said it, I felt like someone had hijacked my mouth and sent those words through my lips.

Five years later, my biggest fear came to be: my mom dropped dead in a hospital in Florida from a pulmonary embolism.  She was 55 year old.  My mother.  Mom.

The finality was and is shocking.

It has now been eight years.  The cycle of life has continued to turn, and now I am a mother.  As I have evolved through this privilege of motherhood, I realize, both despite and because of her mistakes, my mom gave me profound gifts–courage and fierce determination.

When I made the decision to let her go, I simultaneously made the decision to jump on the horse of life, grab the reins, and ride it with everything I was made of.  Witnessing her fear taught me to find my courage–courage to live, courage to reach into the Unknown, and determination to give voice to my dreams.

The pain and confusion I experienced through my mother’s life nudged–no shoved–me to take up my pen and begin to write, to draw out the confusion, to know and understand myself, to reflect on my life, to live it with intention, and to look at myself and my life with honesty.

Her life was a potent lesson that we each have a choice–to either let life live us, or to live this life.  My mother’s life gave me the impetus and reason to choose the latter.

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.
-Maya Angelou

My mother was an unsung woman.  But where her song left off, I grabbed it, opened my throat, and continued to sing, in honor of her, in honor of me.

I am so grateful for her, my mom, for this precious life, for the gifts she gave me.

  1. This post leaves me with tears in my eyes. Wherever she is, I imagine she must be so proud of you, Janna. I have clear and fond memories of her, and I can see her in the kitchen of your house on Drew. She made a mean fried chicken.

  2. I love you

    • You are my Supreme Dream. Thank you for your love, support, and awesome egg sandwiches.

  3. Kirsten just told me of this post; I did not know about your mother’s struggle. I am grateful for your words and for your courage. I have often marveled at your ability to live life “out loud”; it’s not easy to do. Take care.

    • Brian! Thank you for reading my essay and for the comment. You are a kind soul. Hope to hang out with you guys soon. When all of the repairs and construction are done on the house, we’ll have you over for a little deck gathering. Until then, be blessed and take care. Love, me.

  4. this leaves me breathless. i am so glad you chose courage. you inspire courage in those around you. those of us close to you get the gifts from your mom too. the tentacles of life, and death, are amazing. thanks for this.

  5. wow. Hit me like a ton of bricks. Need to breathe and think a little, but I can say that after 14 years of no contact with my mom, and letting her go — day by day it seems — I understand. I fear the day that she dies without meeting her only grandchildren. What you write in your blog is such a gift to me, thank you Janna.

  6. I never cease to be amazed at the power of words and your gift of writing. Life is a tangled web and how and why we all fit together always has fascinated me. I absolutely love your stories. You always inspire me. I am seriously considering taking your six month course.

    • Oh, bless your heart Sherri! I would love to see you in my classes, or outside of my classes, or whenever. Thank you for taking the time to read my stuff. You are an angel.

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