I have never been good at relationships. When I make friends with someone, it often starts out strong–emails, texts, Facebook messages back and forth–and then the buzz dies. I fall into a hole of writing or regret or get too busy with work–and now the baby!–and I don’t do my part to keep the friendship going. Unanswered emails sit in my inbox for weeks and then months, and eventually, they are archived, sent into the Gmail abyss because I’m convinced that my reply, after so much time, wouldn’t matter anyway. It’s even worse with family and old friends from high school and college, all dispersed throughout New York and California, so far away. Whenever I do see them, it’s part small talk, part history of everything they’ve gone through since I last saw them because I’m so terrible at keeping in touch in the months and years between visits. I have good intentions, but quickly those fade when the guilt over not doing my part to maintain the relationship outweighs my desire, and the narratives I create in my mind all end the same way–you’re an asshole; they don’t care about you.
This is my mother’s legacy. More than twenty years ago, she systematically cut off communication with each of her six remaining brothers and sisters and eventually my grandparents with little explanation. When I’ve asked her why, her response has veered from the reasoned–a family squabble after her baby brother’s death when I was eight–to the hyperbolic–”You’ll never understand what they’ve done to me!”–but none of it ever seemed like a good enough reason to cut me off from the rest of my family before I was old enough to decide for myself.
As a boy, my grandmother was basically my surrogate mom, taking care of me after school, driving me to little league practice and Boy Scouts, always slicing my sandwiches diagonally, the way I liked them. My grandfather, far crasser than Grandma could ever be, was my father figure, teaching me the virtues of manhood from his chair, clicker in hand. My aunts and uncles, a motley assemblage of McGuigans, all played pinch-hit parent when my mother was working, giving so much of herself to her jobs the way I now do with my career, the other edge of the strong work ethic sword she’s passed on to me.
Over the last five years, my mother has cut me out of her life, too. It started with unreturned phone calls and emails, which later turned to letters and cards, each bearing more chat and history, catching her up on what she’s missed until I accepted that my mother can’t miss what she doesn’t wish to be part of at all. After two years, I wrote less and less and eventually gave up after sending her a picture of the baby’s first sonogram last Mother’s Day and never hearing back. In the card, I wrote, “I know we’ve had our problems, but I want you to be part of this baby’s life.” I was convinced her first grandchild would turn her around, and when it didn’t, I didn’t feel sorry for myself but for the little boy in Jaime’s belly who wouldn’t know either of his grandparents on my side of the family.
Then, in November, the week of my thirtieth birthday, a package arrived from a mysterious address with an all too familiar cursive. I knew immediately it was my mother, and when I opened the package sitting in Jaime’s car before our breastfeeding class, the box was filled to the brim with boy’s baby clothes, a short note where she said she knew the baby’s gender because “McGuigans produce boys,” and, at the very bottom, a Christmas ornament, my first Christmas ornament, dated 1981. Jaime asked if everything was okay, and all I could do was cry like the baby she was about to push. I had assumed my mother didn’t care about me anymore when I never heard back after sending the Mother’s Day card. I knew she was still alive, but it was easier for me to pretend she was dead, slowly cutting off my emotional attachment to her until she was a memory, a shimmering light in the distance slowly fading into nothingness. Staring into the box resurrected the pain I forced myself to bury and left me with so many questions I’m not ready to ask. Six months later, I still can’t look at the baby ornament without that overwhelming burn of sadness creeping up through my throat and around my eyes.
Another package came New Years’ Eve, more clothes and a note asking if I received the first package, wondering about the baby. I should have been happy that she cared and was concerned, but I couldn’t be, spiraling into a pit of anger for avoiding my attempts to contact her and regret for not replying after the first batch of clothes. I still haven’t written back or even sent a thank you, a picture of the baby, something to acknowledge we did, in fact, receive the packages. Each time I’ve sat down to write my mother I struggle with what to say, veering from the logical–”Why didn’t you return my phone calls or letters?”–to the hyperbolic–”You’ve hurt me more than you can even imagine.” I’m not ready to pull the Band-Aid off that wound, not until it scars and fades into the skin, because it hurts less to imagine it’s not there than to face the blood, the puss, the way the crust forms around the opening.
When I finally do write, I want to tell my mother I miss her, that her first grandchild, Sonny, is my greatest work of art, that I think about her everyday, especially when I say, “Oh my God!” with her Brooklyn-born disbelief or laugh so hard I snort, both of which I inherited from her, that for the last five years I wondered if we’d ever see each other again, that sometimes I feel like an adult orphan, that I wish I had a parent to be proud of me and how far I’ve come. I want to tell my mother I love her, but I wonder if she loves me back.