My Mom Died: A Story About My Struggle to Care

My mom died recently. Well, if I’m being honest, she actually died about a month ago and her body was only recently discovered in a state of decomposition when she failed to pay rent for her apartment. They tell me she was discovered wrapped in blankets, crashed face first into the floor as if she were standing there and then just fell over. But I know differently. She died wrapped in blankets and on the floor because that’s exactly where she was sleeping. She was a frail older woman and a pack rat, and the amount of stuff in her apartment prevented her from getting to her bed so she was just sleeping on the floor. This is just the first sad and terrible part.

The second terrible part is that I knew she was living this way, and until she died, I didn’t care. I grew up in foster care because she was an appalling mother. At the age of 12, I spent an entire summer living on the streets between Portland, Olympia, and Seattle, before finally being put into foster care. While homeless and while in foster care, I spent a lot of time with a lot of different terrible people but none quite as terrible as my mom. There were people that tried to abuse me, rob me of what little I had, and take advantage of me, and still, living with mom was worse.

The third terrible part is that it took me four days to clear out her tiny one-bedroom apartment because there was just so much stuff, and it was really the first time that I’d gotten to know her. There were polaroids of naked men (some I’d met, others I hadn’t); there were written prayers for god to grant her sexual purity; there were letters from family I’ve never met telling her not to write to them ever again; and there were desperate cries for help and companionship littered on the walls, in the trash, in “Dear Abby” letters (some of which were actually responded to) and emails to the government — anyone that she thought would listen.

And the final terrible and sad part of this story is that now that she’s dead and despite what she put me through, I kind of want a relationship with her. I like to imagine that I’m not alone in this odd position. In fact, I’m willing to bet that this is a common experience for a lot of people, but especially for those that come from the foster care system. In fact, this story about trying to have a relationship with someone who we despise but can’t seem to forget is probably the rule as opposed to the exception for foster youth.

Before my mom passed away I told myself I wouldn’t care if she died. Her death, I thought, would mean as much to me as any random person on the street. It’s not that I wouldn’t care if that random person on the street died but I told myself that her death wouldn’t be any more significant than theirs to me. In some ways I was absolutely right about this and I feel monstrous for it. When I found out about her passing I didn’t know what to say but it was only because I didn’t know what to feel. In some ways it was liberating to know that I was that much closer to burying my family history forever, while in other ways I know that I’ll never get resolution to some of the greatest problems of my childhood. Mostly though, I was just confused and that made me feel nothing. If I was sad about anything, I was sad about feeling nothing.

To add to this thought, I didn’t cry once. I didn’t cry when I found out she died. I didn’t cry when I found the letters from my biological father telling her that he didn’t want me at all. I didn’t cry when I read through my VERY extensive case history that she inexplicably had every detail of from the state. I didn’t cry when I read her tortured letters to no one that all seemed to say some version of, “I’m sick, I’m bad, I’m so alone, I need help, I wish I were dead.” I didn’t cry and I felt confused, and more than anything, that made me want to cry.

Again, I know I’m not the only one for which this is true. Foster youth are victimized by their biological family all of the time — their credit stolen, their bodies bruised, emotions toyed with, they are isolated, alienated, humiliated, intimidated, starved, sold, raped — and yet many of us will still go on to try to connect with those same victimizers later in life. In my mind, it’s not totally unlike Battered Housewife Syndrome. While it’s not a one to one comparison, I think Battered Housewife Syndrome is still a helpful way to think about the foster care experience, if for no other reason than this “return behavior” doesn’t make much sense to anybody else but the one who was victimized. I think that, underneath all of the awfulness that we suffer through, we are profoundly (at times stupidly) optimistic that there was some measure of love and care from our abusers despite their behavior.

It’s easy to misread me here. I’m not saying that we should ignore victimization or that every single victim returns to their victimizer, but the dynamics of familial ties are complicated. It’s okay for people with these kinds of relationships to be confused about the role those relationships play in their lives. And even though we tend to view other people’s relationships as black and white, right and wrong, stay or go, I don’t think that foster youth should be obliged by these tendencies. This is to say again that, after my mom died, I was confused; I’m still confused, and that’s okay. My confusion is my grief. And if you want to help me or help a foster youth that you know, you have to be okay with my confusion. You have to be okay with their confusion. You have to be okay with your own confusion because the day will come when a young person from foster care tells you that they have returned home against better judgment and your choices are either to drive them away with your bafflement or take comfort in the fact that you get to be confused in this thing together.

  • Jeremiah bear
    Posted at 01:03h, 17 September Reply

    Well I wasn’t in foster care but I was raised by an alcoholic dad who was very selfish, I would seen my mom on summer breaks for about a week. My mother had a drug problem and that is why she isn’t here anymore, but when I found out about her passing I didn’t know how to feel, she wasn’t mean or anything like that she just wasn’t there. It took about 2 to 3 weeks before it really hit me.

  • Normaliz Morales
    Posted at 20:40h, 23 September Reply

    Im currently feeling the same way…been in foster care since I was four… I cling to the few memories that I had but over the years in foster care I despised my mother for her decision of giving me up.. I was blessed to have my brother and sister with me throughout the process but they were dealing with the same emotional problems that I was faced with… I was the youngest so at times it got harder for me to deal with my emotions, even till this day… But when I found out she passed it was like I got kicked in the chest by a stranger… I really didn’t know how to feel about the situation. Truthfully I still loved my mother because the memories I had she loved me… Buts it’s hard because her decision affected me in a way that I wish it hadnt… But now I’m trying to find comfort and understand my emotions towards losing a women I have already lost so long ago

  • Connie Gray
    Posted at 04:56h, 22 April Reply

    Thank you for sharing your truth. When those who have been in care speak out, it empowers others.

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