My relationship with my mother has never been better since she died.
Our lives together were fraught with contention (The Letter, The Mother Load). A healthy, enjoyable rapport, elusive. One of the many things I found nearly intolerable was her insistence on taking on everyone else's problems, a crisis magnet, a drama sponge. She absorbed every iota of someone else's misery and lept into Cirque du Soleil contortions to fix it. A hero complex for the ages, in my opinion.
Yes, my mother's ability to feel compassion, and put it into action, made me want to shake her, hard. I felt she went too far, held back nothing in her quest. She gave away so much of herself that it undid her. I questioned her motives on more than one occasion. At the end of her life she was left penniless, a host to a litany of addictions, and illnesses both mental and physical, and many who benefited from her largess couldn't find time for her.
So, I figured - compassion is for suckers.
Then, she succumbed to the bad health I thought she'd somehow always survive. As time will, it passed and I saw an upside to death.
A legacy is whatever the living choose to remember.
We hone it, define it, relate it. I could pick and choose the memories of my mother that I wanted to keep, or dwell on. Without the carousel of baggage that circled our relationship like buzzards over a carcass, I found more space to consider her life, and its lessons, with more objectivity.
Through those memories sifted, I found out what compassion is and what it is not.
It's not love. You can love someone yet feel little to no compassion for them. I know. Been there, done that.
It's not generosity. Too often generosity is accompanied by its ugly twin - self serving. The hyper giving can dole out gifts with strings attached to their personal agenda. Giving often has more to do with the giver than the receiver.
It's not forgiveness. You can forgive, but seldom forget. You can forgive and never want to see whoever it is you've bestowed forgiveness on again, or care what happens to them.
It's not sympathy. You can cluck cluck about someone else's misfortune and never break a sweat.
No, compassion is its own thing - the ability and willingness to feel someone else's pain as your own.
Without realizing it, I started down a path I'd never been on. I began to wonder what it must've been like to be my mother. To live her imperfect and painful life, to suffer her disappointments, to keep her chin up, to offer up everything and anything she had to be loved.
Yes, I started to feel compassion for her. And, let me tell you, it could break me.
While I stand by my opinion she over did it, and that sometimes her intentions got mucked up by her less noble, but human side, I choose now to remember it in its most flattering light, to reflect on her life with compassion instead of criticism, and it hurts. Inviting her pain into my life can bring me to tears quicker than anything else.
We're a culture full of individuals that can't handle our own troubles without therapy and a Prozac chaser, much less someone else's. To think that my mother bore her own considerable burdens yet still devoted much of her life to alleviating everyone else's without the benefit of psychiatry or pharmaceuticals, says a lot about her grit.
For the first time, I really get it.
Compassion's not for suckers or sissies, it's for badasses who possess an inordinate amount of strength and fortitude. Especially if they've got the spine to live it and not just feel it. Digging in, armpit deep, eyes wide open, with someone else who is suffering, to take it on in full, is not for the weak. I don't know any other undertaking that will separate the men from the boys faster than putting another's calamity ahead of your own.
So, in death, my mother taught me more about living a compassionate life than I ever imagined she could. Even though I wish I would've summoned the courage to look on her with a more committed kindness while she lived, I know it had to be this way. It was how we rolled, for better or worse.
In case you're wondering, I do understand that compassion, after the fact, looks a lot like guilt.
I'm still a work in progress.
I've heard that Valentine's Day is second only to New Years Eve for suicides, which says a lot about love. It doesn't always turn out well, or like you wanted it to, or like you thought it would.
And, some pay the highest price for it. Yet, we're all looking for it.
For all its hype, love is rarely a Cinderella tale. For me, the real story lies with the ugly stepsisters. No one ever asked them what they thought about love. They got left behind like so many ill-fitting shoes and rotten pumpkins. But they could tell you - love bites. For every girl who gets invited to the ball, there are at least 100 pressing their faces to the glass watching the dance.
And don't even get me started on the frog to Prince ratio.
So this is a salute to the ugly stepsisters, to those who struggle with love - to find it, to keep it, to let it go with grace, to redefine it, to live through it. You know...the rest of us.
The ones who find out quick that everyday life is the fingernail on the chalkboard of love.
These are the real heros of Valentine's Day.
They get out of bed everyday, go to a job they don't necessarily love, get little to no fanfare or praise and not enough money, but they do it anyway because they have families to raise. They come home to piles of laundry, dishes and bills. But, they still come home. No rich, handsome prince or princess riding in at their house to save the day.
They weather job losses, poverty, general disappointments, children with heartbreaking disabilities and illnesses. They get a big bang out of very little buck. They seek out, and feel enormous gratitude for, the simpler things in life. A barbeque with friends, cookies for everyone at work, a few christmas presents under the tree for every kid, enough food on the table, a trip to the grocery store with their daughter in her new wheelchair.
They leave unhealthy relationships. They find the courage to try it again. They stay together when they don't feel like it. They muddle through. Always hopeful, sometimes down, but never out. They take a crushing beatdown from love and still stand.
And if that's not enough to make the most optimistic heart close up shop, then shit gets real.
They nurse spouses through surgeries, failing health and old age. They find themselves the one left behind. They care for dying parents and grandparents. They raise grandchildren who would otherwise fall through the cracks. They wring their hands in helplessness and prayer over a wayward daughter. With uncommon bravery they usher their terminally ill children out of the world with even more love than when they brought them into it.
Yes, this is for all of you who recognize yourselves in these words. For those who've been shot in the heart with cupid's arrow only to find out it hurts like hell and leaves a scar. And Hallmark isn't writing cards with any of this inscribed on them. So, I'll write them. You are all like precious metals, thrown into the flames, to come out bent but never broken - shaped into something new - built to last.
I think Valentine's Day is a celebration of you and all you endure for love. And, this year, I'm reminded that love isn't in the air. It's in the trenches.