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.