Mother's heart | Mary Licanin Photography

My Mother, My Hero

Mother's love | Mary Licanin PhotographyI thought I could write about some of my lifelong heroes. Immediately, I mentally ran through a list of some of the greatest women to have ever lived. Where to begin? I decided I couldn’t possibly start that series without mentioning my first, and greatest hero — my mother. It may sound contrived, cliché or obvious, but my mother was no ordinary woman, and no ordinary hero. The unsung kind if there ever was one.

While many have undoubtedly shared kind sentiments and kind words about her, I also heard the quiet exchange of whispers and unspoken words that isolated her for one of her greatest struggles, which was her battle with schizophrenia. Harder than the fact that I heard those things and knew those things, she heard and knew, too. My mother was sharp as a tack and quick as a whip, up  until the last few years when age started catching up. I wasn’t around to witness first hand much of my mother’s dark days, but I heard stories from other family members, and from my mother herself. I remember mom telling me one of her darker times was having had delusions of grandeur, and in one of her breakdowns, thought herself a saint.

Mom confided in me that she was not religious for many years (which was really strange for me to imagine), and that she went back to the church when my father got very sick, I think somewhere after my 3rd brother was born. My mother went from playing with dolls at 16 to having a real baby at 18 and I suspect she was so unprepared for the slap in the face life would deliver to her over and over again that she reached her limit. “We all have our limits,” she’d nag, when she worried I was doing too much. She reached hers and broke, maybe somewhere in between re-embracing her faith, and in that place where sickness takes hold there is an inability to distinguish reality from delusion. In that time, my mother’s sickness got entangled with her religious devotion, and they walked hand-in-hand inside her for a time, each crossing over into the others’ lane at will. My mother was the stage where that entanglement played out for the world to see.

In time, I suppose because of improvements in medicine, she was able to regain control and keep her literal demons at bay. My mother had her final breakdown when I was an infant. In all my life, for as long as I could be aware of her state of mind, I never knew her to be unmedicated or out of control. I was fortunate that she revealed herself to me with a clear mind, and in retrospect. Others in my family were not so fortunate, and witnessed it happen firsthand. Having experienced this illness with my sister, I know how difficult it can be and must have been for my older siblings.

Unfortunately, what is seen can never be unseen. A lot of people saw my mother during her darkest times. She was fully aware after that, that some people looked at her differently. Naturally, when she tried to confront them about it, her accusation was chalked up to ‘the paranoia’.  What a frustrating cycle for her. I watched it happen. It came from family, it came from friends of the family, it came from people we knew at church, it came from doctors. My mom had few true allies, but I was fortunate to be one of them.

“Don’t tell anyone you’ve been on antidepressants,” she told me when I was in my early 20s, “because they’ll brand you forever and they won’t take you seriously.” For a long time, I followed her advice, because I saw how some people treated her. She couldn’t escape the stigma she inherited for having been sick. She was a prisoner – and yet she did not give in and cower in a corner or remain silent.

My mother never missed an opportunity to answer questions and challenges about her religious beliefs, Catholicism, Jesus, the ways of the church. She would say to me, “He who sings prays twice.” (St. Augustine) and as horrible as her singing voice was, (much to my dismay as an awkward teen) she’d sing as loud as she felt in her heart to sing when we went to mass together. She’d pray aloud, she’d go to mass, she walked the walk in the face of judgement, snide remarks and distasteful jokes about her.

She told me often that I should have been a lawyer, because of my ability to debate her on the church and, well, just about anything. She must have recognized that I got that from her. She wouldn’t ever back down from the opportunity to defend her beliefs, and at the same time, she knew when her opinion wasn’t being asked for and wouldn’t push religion on people.

She told me once I’d burn in hell for something but she still loved me anyway. I laugh when I remember this now, because it was so purely a ‘my mother’ thing to say.
I realize she said that because she truly believed I’d burn in hell for whatever it was, and she wanted to make sure I was aware of the fact. I also realize she  really did still love me anyway. Mom could be sharp, blunt and even hurtful at times, but I never had to wonder where I stood with her. 

I was fortunate in being the last, late child because I got so much one-on-one time with my parents that my siblings didn’t get because they were all growing up at the same time and the house was very crowded. I would often sit at the kitchen table with both parents, or just my mom, and I’d ask questions…and I’d get answers. I asked a lot of questions about when she was sick. I was always aware that her illness had a profound affect on my family, so I guess that made me curious about it and want to understand how it changed the dynamics of my family. One night it was just me and mom sitting at the table, talking as we did so many other nights. But this conversation I’ll never forget. She leaned in to confide in me that during one of her hospitalizations, they gave her a frontal lobotomy! She waited and watched my face change as the horror of it started sinking in and then let out a great big hearty laugh. The dark humor I carry around is, no doubt, thanks to her. She could laugh at herself and her imperfections, and that too, no doubt, I carry thanks to her.

My mother was my first hero. She was strong. She was a survivor. She was passionate about her devotion to God. She was pretty open minded (especially for a woman born in the 1920s), and funny as hell. If I grow up to be half the woman she was, I will consider my life a success.

As a side note, and a bit of background about the photo I chose for this post. I was born late in my parents’ lives, and there was always this concern about how long they’d be around. My mother and I talked very practically about death. She told me that at the time of her mother’s death, she could smell a very strong scent of roses, and she took that as a sign her mother was okay. I asked her to send me a sign, when she died, to let me know she was okay. We agreed she’d send me a rose if she could. Over the years, I reminded her when the topic came up. When she died, I lived in an old house in rural Southern Illinois. My backyard had a big, beautiful, old and gnarled sassafras tree. It was my absolute favorite tree. Under that tree, just around mother’s day the year after she died, I received my sign. (I don’t know what flower it is, exactly, but to me it looked close enough to a bazillion roses, and I took that as my sign.)