What we say to each other can destroy relationships. But sometimes it’s the things unsaid that kill connection – words that sit like stale, unspoken resentments or fears in the thick space of silences.
I started detaching from my mom because I thought that “setting boundaries” was healthy. I left our visits without expressing my needs, feelings, or wishes. I repressed my longings. I became aloof and let her vent. I hid in my room or limited our phone calls. I thought it was useless to try, that she wouldn’t hear me, she was too difficult, but it was also my failure to try to be heard and to understand her better. I could have reached across the crevasse to explore what was going on between us, but instead a hollow cavity took the place of heart.
I became a poor listener, spacing out when she talked instead of saying what I felt or needed. I tuned her out. I’m sure she felt the disconnect, we all do.
As she aged, she got angrier and I shut down. I was afraid of her outbursts and criticisms. But it didn’t occur to me to tell her. I thought: “you can’t change people,” “I don’t want to rock the boat” or “I don’t want to hurt her or fight.” I could have just told her I was afraid of her and wanted to hear each other better.
I left my trips to see her in Seattle in a hurry. After one of those visits, she committed suicide. Her neighbors noticed the newspapers mounting up on her doorstep, and called the police.
It was a cold night returning to Seattle after my flight from the bay area. I entered the house that once was home, my chest pounding. Where was she? Was there a mistake?
Even in shock, I knew mom wouldn’t leave me without some words. And there, hidden underneath a towel in the kitchen were little notes she wrote as she wandered around…near the pills she took. Her writing was so like her: “Don’t feel guilty, you were a good daughter. I’m tired,” and “I enjoyed life, especially my little Toyota, but I’m exhausted from ailments and ambulances.”
I loved her deeply, we shared ardent, passionate rapport, huge humor and fiery opinions about literature and political leaders. We both relished books and writing.
The night she died, she called and asked what I was doing. I said I was praying – she asked me what, so I read it: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.” There was silence, then I said, “I love you,” so did she. That was it.
What I would give to have bravely talked to her about my unspoken fears and wishes. If only I’d had the courage to say: “Mom, I want to feel closer to you,” or “I’m afraid around your rage.” I was taught to have “boundaries,” so I withdrew and became devoid of feeling, like a wall.
Now I believe the main problems in this old world are anger or silence, they’re deadening. Unless you need to protect yourself or others from harm – boundaries are a substitute for soul.