My Mother

by Donna

Clockwise from top left: Patty, Donna and Elita

My Mom was different from other moms. Like most parents, she did what she thought was best for us. But because things were harder for her, she went out of her way to do things that a normal parent wouldn't have considered possible at that time. She would take us to the beach or some other activity just about every day that we were free from school, just to keep us busy. I have so many wonderful memories of recreational activities my Mom got us involved in, because it was easier for her than just interacting with us at home. Beaches, Boonie Stomps, T-ball and Girl Scouts, my Mom was the original Soccer Mom, a generation before the term had been invented. For any autistic parents out there, this is a great strategy to spend time with your children without actually having to talk to them!

My Mom and I went to college together for a few years. I think I did better having her there for advice and as a role model. I certainly enjoyed the one class we took together. It was Freshman English. The poor teacher was just not up to teaching a class to a former journalist and her opinionated daughter. I almost feel sorry for him.

Mom always seemed to be confused about what was going on around her. And yet, she always knew what the right thing to do was. Early on I learned that I could ask her a succession of questions, each more specific and difficult to answer than the last, and that she would do her best to answer them. She never learned to tell the difference between when I sincerely wanted an answer, and when I just wanted to see if she could answer. I learned from her that there is no question too small or too big to find an answer for. Today, I try to give my own children the same effort, unless of course they are just being silly (I have the ability to tell the difference!). I also learned that no question should be left unanswered. My Mom would spend days, or even weeks, trying to find an answer to questions that most people would do their best to forget. Her answers were always sincere and thoughtful, and she would always admit that she could be wrong.

My Mom was often unaware of what went on around her. I don't know how many times I was humiliated when she told some story to someone about me that never actually happened. Sometimes these stories were based on truth, other times they were so far gone that I can only assume she was hallucinating from the wrong medication. Unfortunately, this gives me a bad reputation with many of my Mom's friends. Even now I get to be humiliated because her best friend is full of stories of how I was taking advantage of her. The truth is, my Mom generally heard entirely different things than I actually said to her, and then completely overreacted. Now, I get these comments from people about how I'm so much nicer than I used to be, or how much I have grown up in the past few years. The truth is, I am the same person I always have been (except for three years when I was a new mother and didn't get more than two hours sleep a night--I admit to being extra cranky then.) The only difference is that now I have a Master's degree and a good job. This type of judgementalness hurts me, and I have only recently been able to forgive her for it.

I had an especially hard time with her not being a traditional grandmother. I expected her to take part in my children's life. I was very angry when she refused to spend time with my children. It was very hard for me to accept that she wouldn't even come over early in the morning to play with the toddler for a few hours so I could get just a little bit of sleep. I long ago accepted that she wasn't like other people, but I was desperate for help, and had no one to turn to ask for it besides her. Even now I get angry when I think about the email she sent to everyone she knows, about how I wanted her to baby-sit my kids while I was on vacation. In reality, I asked her to watch my boys for one day while I took my stepson, who I hadn't seen in two years, for a day at a theme park so he could have all our (mine and my husband's) attention for himself.

I guess it was the effort of raising her own children may have been what finally brought her to the point of disability, it was just too much. Still, I felt as though she should want to spend time with her grandchildren. She was the only Grandma I knew who preferred to help by washing dishes rather than taking the grandkids to the park. Eventually, I learned to accept her the way she was, and my children don't seem to know the difference. As they grew older, she did take them to the park a few times. It just took her some time to regroup between visits. My oldest was always the easiest to manage, and therefore became closest to her. For a short time, he shadowed her to church and to visits with her friends. I think she enjoyed his company and only brought him home early because he asks questions just like I did.

My Mom taught me to care about people. Even though it was a struggle for her to communicate, she never tried to avoid a social situation when my brother and I were children. It wasn't until later, when she realized she was autistic, that she allowed herself the luxury of being alone more often. But even in the past I noticed how she would relish her quiet time, the time when she could think her own thoughts without having to follow social rules or answer my questions.

I learned to value my own quiet time the same way. Sometimes I wonder if my own difficulty in social situations was learned from her, or just part of who I am. But, like her, I care too much about other people to cut myself off from them, even if it is easier, and more comfortable, to lock myself in my bedroom, and only communicate with people outside my family by email and text messaging.

My mother taught me to value people over things, and to enjoy the challenge of interacting with them. I have found that many people get upset with me because I will spend so much time and effort on them socially but eventually need to retreat and rebuild myself. Regrouping like this takes time, the more time you spend interacting, the more time you spend regrouping. How much harder must it have been for her?

My Mom pondered the big questions for herself, too. She taught me to be a freethinker, not to accept an answer just because it came from an authority figure. While she attended church regularly for most of her life, she never really believed in the prescribed answers the churches represented. I think she found the ritual comforting, and the social ties were what bound her to a particular church rather than any philosophy. It was her open-minded attitude, and her willingness to ask and answer questions about religious issues, that allowed me to find my own answers to the big questions. I have discovered as an adult (and was surprised--because my Mom seemed so comfortable with it) that many people feel discomfort, and even paralyzing fear, in not knowing the answers to the big questions with any certainty. Many people would rather submit their free will to an authority figure than face the universe with any sense of doubt. Not my Mom. My mother taught me to find solace in the questions themselves, and to trust myself to make ethical decisions regardless of what invisible person I believe in. My mother taught me to be my own authority figure. Any of you who really knew her know exactly how she would react when an "expert" told her she had to do something she didn't want to do.

If there is a Heaven, my Mom now has a personal room and a laptop, and is leading a support community for anyone who needs her. If not, she is busy creating a Heaven for the rest of us to find, because she won't settle for a no, when she thinks the answer should be yes. Personally, I believe my mother has accumulated enough wisdom over her life to sit beside the other Gods and Goddesses as an equal. Few people in this world can combine intense ethical convictions with the ability to question the unquestionable. Even fewer can be so disabled, and yet leave such a lasting impression on the world they lived in.

I will always miss my Mom. However, I already know what she would say when I want to ask her the next big question. She would say I need to find the answer that bets suits my needs and beliefs, and never accept an answer that causes someone else pain. I hope we can all take her advice, because this world needs less unquestionable answers, and more compassion, which is exactly what my mother stood for her entire life.