How an inexplicable urge to return to her hometown mended her difficult relationship with her mother.
Posted in , Nov 24, 2021
A friend and I had just finished having dinner at our favorite spot in Reno, Nevada, where I’d lived for 23 years. We paid the bill, got up and hugged in a tearful goodbye. She was the last friend I’d see before I moved across the country.
“Are you sure about this, Joanie?” she asked. “What is there for you in West Virginia?”
It was a question I couldn’t answer. I’d simply woken up one morning in early February with an undeniable urge to return to Huntington, West Virginia. I asked God why. In Reno, I had friends, a business—a full life. The only person I knew in Huntington now was my mother, and she and I didn’t get along.
When I was growing up, I never felt close to my mom. She was guarded around me. She hardly ever hugged me or held my hand. She was distant and bitter, often keeping to herself and watching TV in her sewing room. At 15 years old, I learned that she’d been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. That may have explained her behavior, but for a daughter who wanted to know her mother’s love, the diagnosis didn’t erase the hurt her behavior had caused. My father loved us both and had always hoped that Mom and I would somehow develop a real relationship. Dad had died without seeing it come to pass. I couldn’t imagine it ever happening.
“I can’t explain it,” I told my friend. “I just know I have to go.”
I’d arranged to stay with my mother while I looked for my own place. I’d sold my business and given away most of my possessions, and now I’d said goodbye to my friends. I packed up my Saturn and drove some 2,290 miles to Huntington. When I finally arrived, I walked up to the door with my suitcase and rang the bell. Mom answered, stone-faced. She eyed me up and down.
“Oh, it’s you,” she said.
She let me in and led me to my old room. On the way, I peeked into her sewing room. What am I doing here?
Over the next month, I settled into my new life and found an apartment nearby. I visited almost every day out of a sense of duty. Mom and I fell into a kind of routine. I’d come over with food, work in her garden. One day I joined her in the sewing room, where we sat quietly, watching TV.
“I had a dream about your father,” Mom said out of the blue. She went on to explain. She’d been standing here, in the sewing room, when Dad walked in. He took her hand and sat her down in her armchair. Then he grabbed another chair and put it in front of her, facing her. “Wait here,” he said in her dream. “I’m going to get Joanie.” He left the room, and Mom woke up. It was more than she’d revealed to me about anything since I’d arrived.
“When did you have this dream?” I asked.
“Back in early February,” she said, “before I knew you were coming.”
The same time I felt my urge. Mom retreated into her shell before I could tell her. She didn’t mention the dream again, and I didn’t ask about it. She’d never shared anything so personal with me before. I didn’t want to ruin it by prying.
Our visits continued, unchanged. Until Mom’s forgetfulness became alarming. I took her to the doctor, who diagnosed her with dementia. Because I was the only family she had and we had a steady routine, the best solution was for me to move back in. I became her full-time caregiver.
As Mom’s dementia progressed, her guardedness fell away. She became sweet and easy to get along with. We talked more and even laughed together. She spoke a lot about when she was younger, as if she were reliving those days. She mentioned her sister, Margaret, a lot. I knew Margaret had died when my mom was in her early twenties, before schizophrenia took over her life. Perhaps I was seeing Mom as she was back then, as the woman she used to be. The possibility filled me with a new kind of compassion for her.
One day, I went to ask Mom what she wanted for lunch. She was sitting in her sewing room, and I sat down in front of her to help her focus. She leaned forward and took hold of my hand. I froze. She’d never touched me in such a way. She talked about some far-off memory. As she spoke, she played with my fingers, as a child would, then grasped my hand and looked deeply into my eyes. She held my hand in hers with the love and tenderness I’d longed for my whole life.
I wish Dad could see this, I thought, blinking back tears. Then I remembered Mom’s dream—and the divine nudge that brought me home. I believed it wasn’t only Dad who was looking down on us now.
Mom died peacefully a few years later. When I think of her, I remember her as the mother who held my hand that day in the sewing room. It was a healing experience that I will cherish forever. That’s what I had waiting for me back in West Virginia.
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