By Leslie Wibberley
I should have seen the signs, long before she fell so far and so hard. Instead, I just kept pushing. “You can do this, sweetie, just focus and try harder.” Seemingly innocuous words, I thought. Encouraging words, right?
I should have known better. After all, I’d grown up with a mother who suffered from clinical depression and had attempted suicide on more than one occasion. With that kind of family history, you would have thought I’d have seen this coming.
Well, I didn’t.
I grew up with a mother who lived in perpetual darkness, but also with a father who epitomized sunshine. For every storm cloud that gathered and dumped its torrents of rain across my mother’s sorrow filled shoulders, there came a gentle breeze filled with warmth, sunshine, and the music of song birds; my dad.
I like to think I take after him.
It took me a while to find and marry the man of my dreams. It took me longer still to find the courage to have children. I wasn’t exactly sure what being a good mother entailed, but I worried I didn’t have what it took to be one. I also worried that my children might fall prey to their grandmother’s illness.
I have two girls, both bright and beautiful.
My first daughter is a very intense being. Jennifer lives in a world of black and white with no room for any shade of grey. Ruled by rules, she finds comfort in order and structure. I worried so much about this beautiful daughter of mine whose glass was often half empty, much too like my own mother. I watched her closely as she grew; concerned she was headed on the same path as her grandmother.
But I worried for nothing, for it wouldn’t be this daughter of mine who would suffer my mother’s fate. It was my second girl. A baby so filled with sunshine that everyone she encountered needed sunglasses to ease the brightness that burst from her soul. Her glass wasn’t just full – it spilled over.
It was this child, my wonderfully insightful, brilliant and empathetic gift from God, who was the one I should have worried about.
Claire faced the world with a joy and enthusiasm that left me exhausted. But my girl experienced sensations too powerfully, and she cared too deeply. She worried about the earthworms, about the honeybees and the frogs, about the downtrodden of the world, about…everything.
She wanted to heal the world’s hurt and end all strife, an impossible undertaking for such a tiny being, and one that wore her down.
Bit by bit, year by year, the world chipped away at her confidence, and dulled the sunshine in her soul.
Her brilliance came with expectations, laid like heavy, earthen bricks upon her narrow shoulders. Placed there by her teachers, by her friends, and yes…by me. Expectations that weighted her down until she collapsed, crushed by the impossible load.
A profound sadness and sense of failure replaced her sunshine.
I watched, helpless as a falling leaf, as blackness crept inside her soul. Despite all my efforts to nurture her and convince her that the world was safe, and that all would be well, she continued to tumble down that tortured path towards the darkness.
A mother should never, ever have to feel that helpless. To not be able to stop Claire’s descent into hell was almost my undoing.
But she had such inner fortitude, my darling daughter, and somehow she drew from a pool of resilience just what was needed to pull out of the darkness.
She has done this twice. Twice her sunshine has returned along with her joyful enthusiasm for life. Each time my heart eased with the resurrection, but fear was always lurking in the shadows as I waited for her to fall again.
I check her face daily for any sign of gloom, but as she has gotten older, Claire has become quite adept at presenting a happy facade to the world; one she believes the world wants to see, and one I desperately wanted to believe was her true self.
And so I missed those warning signs completely. I didn’t realize she was falling again until she landed on the bottom and I heard the crash.
I am so afraid that this time is different from the others. I can see that the hurt is deeper and darker, and this time…she is not rebounding.
My baby girl is drowning, suffocated by despair. Her tall, muscular body curls into a tiny ball. I feel her withdrawing inside. My ears bleed with the agony in her sobbing. Tears soak the pillow beneath her head, and I am lost in her grief. Anguish oozes through her skin and strangles my mother-heart.
My arms enfold her. I struggle to keep her from sinking beneath the pain.
We float, my baby girl and I. Jetsam upon the sea of her teal and white quilt.
My lips press against her forehead. I taste her sorrow, her fear, her suffering.
Her pain swallows me whole; consumes me. I scream without sound. Frustration tears at my throat because I cannot soothe her; heal her. I cannot end her pain.
I know this is not my task. It is hers. Somehow, she must find her own way back into the sun. But I want to take away her pain so desperately that my heart is being crushed under the weight of my failure.
This is the cross I bear. To know I cannot fix my broken girl and mend her soul.
But mostly to realize that I, her mother, the one who was supposed to nurture and protect her, am part of the reason she has reached this place of darkness.
So no, I cannot fix Claire, but I can support her. In any way possible I will support her and love her, unconditionally.
And, I will promise her that I will stop cajoling, bribing, pushing, and yes…even threatening her. I swear that I will stop all the well meaning but horrible things I have done in the guise of love, trying to force her to become something she is not capable of being.
I will swear to my sweet girl, and to the universe, that I will finally see her. For who she is, and not for who I want her to be.
*This piece was previously published in Mamalode
Leslie Wibberley loves the written word almost as much as her family. Her creative nonfiction essays can be found in Mamalode, Mothers Always Write, Literary Mama, and The Manifest Station. Her short stories have appeared Devolution Z and Chicken Soup for the Soul. Her work has also won a 6th place and an Honorable Mention in Writer’s Digest’s Annual Competitions.