My mother spent a good deal of her life defending my father to me and my brother. “Your father didn’t mean it,” she would say. “Your father loves you—he just doesn’t know how to show it.” “Your father never cried when his mother died—that is why he is so angry now.”
Shortly after my mother died, my brother said to me: “I finally realized that the only way I could get along with Dad was if he decided on that particular day that he was going to get along with me.” My brother’s words hit me like a ton of bricks. At the age of forty-six, I was still trying to get along with my father. I had years of therapy to help me understand our relationship. My brother saw the truth without the benefit of therapy.
About six months after my mother’s death, I had the most amazing dream. Though I have alluded to it in my writing, I promised myself not to speak of it directly it while my father was still alive.
I had accompanied friends to the Greek Saturday night Easter service in their village. At the stroke of midnight we lit candles saying “Christ is risen, he truly is,” before embracing and kissing each other on the cheeks. I was sleeping in a guest room in my friends’ house. The dream occurred shortly before dawn. Though I rarely remember my dreams, I awoke with a clear memory of this one.
In it my mother spoke to me in Greek. She told me that now that she was no longer living, she had a clearer perspective on the way our father treated me and my brother. She explained that she had loved my father so much that she had not wanted to see that he had been cruel to us and to recognize the ways he had harmed us. She said she was very sorry that she had not protected us. Her final words before the dream ended were: “Don’t ever love anyone so much that you become blind.”
To this day I do not know why my mother spoke to me in Greek–perhaps it was a way of distancing herself from my father and indicating that she was on my side now. It seemed deeply appropriate that she appeared to me at the time when the Greeks were celebrating the resurrection of “life from the grave.” My mother’s words were a healing balm: healing the breach that her siding with my father a crucial junctures in our relationship had created in my relationship with her, and healing an even deeper would in my psyche.
About that time I was reading Alice Miller’s discussion of the poisonous pedagogy of control. Miller says that the most important words abused children need to hear are: What happened to you was wrong. This should not happen to you or to any child. In the dream my mother spoke the words she had been unable to speak while she was alive. She told me that she finally understood that there was no excuse for the way my father treated me and my brother.
I came to realize that the words my mother spoke when she was living, words intended to absolve my father and assuage my pain, had confused me about the nature of love. From my mother, I learned to imagine that people–especially men–who treated me badly loved me deep down but could not show it. No wonder I always ended up feeling hurt and abandoned.
My mother’s ability to acknowledge the truth about my father when she came to me in my dream was a revelation. The blinders that had clouded all my relationships fell away. I could now begin to see all of my relationships more clearly and to recognize which relationships were healing me and which were harming me. Before the dream I literally did not have a clue, because my mother had taught me love is a magical feeling that has no relationship to actual behavior. After the dream I learned that love manifests in both word and deed. My life has been different from that day to this.
Though I never doubted the healing power of this dream, I had some difficulty in squaring it with my belief that death is the end of individual life. If my mother was not living heaven or somewhere else, then how could she speak to me after she had died? In the ensuing years I have come to understand that the ancestors live in us. The words my mother spoke to me when she was alive became part of my cellular memory. The mother-daughter relationship is so profound that there are times when the mother-daughter boundary is blurred. As I recognize how deeply this is true, it no longer seems important to know if “my mother” appeared to me in my dream or if “my mother as she lives in my me” appeared in my dream. Her appearance transformed my relationship with her and my relationship with my self. And that is what matters.
In memory of Janet Claire Bergman Christ, August 11, 1919-December 7, 1991.
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