79: I Lubbyou

79: I Lubbyou

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: My Amazing Mom

I Lubbyou

To love is nothing. To be loved is something. But to love and be loved, that’s everything.

~T. Tolis

My parents left Puerto Rico, my mother’s home, soon after they were married. My father was in the military, so they moved from base to base as they had their children. Shortly after World War II, they lived in Japan for three years. During the boat trip home across the Pacific, a typhoon hit the boat. That was when my mother, pregnant with me and terrified by the storm, began her descent into mental illness.

Stateside, once I was born, my mother refused to take care of me or my sisters. She was hospitalized, drugged and physically survived several electric shock treatments, but her spirit was broken, and she never fully recovered. She continued to be hospitalized on and off throughout my youth.

At the age of seventeen, I was off into the world. I found a job as a secretary at the Buffalo Psychiatric Center. As I stepped off the bus and walked toward the campus, I remembered that my mother had been a patient there when I was a child. I saw the road that tunneled under a walkway connecting two massive brick buildings, the same walkway I had viewed long ago with childlike wonder. I remembered the coffee shop above the tunnel, where my mother sat smoking cigarette after cigarette, eyes cast down, subdued by medication and shock treatments.

Dismay swept over me when I realized that the office was in the same building where my mother had been housed, the one with the large concrete porch and bars from floor to ceiling. I recalled my father lifting me up to kiss my lifeless mother goodbye through those same bars.

For several years, I worked in the mental-health system, which enabled me to understand and even help my mother through her last psychiatric hospitalization. I was in my late twenties when my mother had her final breakdown. This time, the hospital didn’t rely on heavy medications and shock therapy. Instead, my mother was given a new drug through injections. She could not refuse to take the meds. Slowly, she became more coherent, able to engage in short conversations, and show concern for herself and her children.

For the first time in my life, I could have lucid talks with my mother. At around this time, my youngest sister and her husband decided to tell their siblings and parents that they loved them. For our family, this was monumental. Kind words were rarely spoken in our home and we were not accustomed to displays of affection.

After being released from the hospital, my mother started phoning me at home. I’d never pick up the phone. She would always leave the same message: “Es mama from Nee-a-gra Falls.” My husband and I laughed at this, as if her accent didn’t give her away. Besides, what other mama would be from Niagara Falls? Then she would call again, leaving the same message, “Es mama from Nee-a-gra Falls.” Still laughing, I’d return her call. We’d have a short exchange.

One time, she ended the call with “I lubbyou.”

I froze. And then I said, “Huh?”

She repeated it.

“Okay, goodbye.” I hung up, almost dropping the phone.

Again, a month later, she phoned and left the same message; I returned the call and had a short talk. It ended with her saying, “I lubbyou.” This was too much to bear.

It took many months before I could say, “I love you too, Ma,” but the way I said it was just in lieu of saying goodbye—a kind of casual “I love you.”

I was confused about this new feeling. I decided that every time my mother said she loved me, I would use those words to heal myself. I let them wash over me and repair the jagged hole in my heart. I started telling her I loved her just so she would say those words back to me. Sometimes, I’d murmur “Huh?” to make her repeat the words. She never refused. She knew. She’d let those comforting words wrap around my heart and soul.

Through our discussions, I could see her life’s circumstances and her personality more clearly. I came to understand and appreciate her fortitude, strength and faith. I was able to forgive her.

As she lay dying years later, I sat by her bedside. She confided she was afraid to die. I told her that she had loved God so much throughout her life, it was time to let him wrap his arms around her and to melt into his love. She closed her eyes. Her body relaxed.

It touches my heart and consoles me that my last words to my mother gave her comfort. Those words—“I love you—can heal a lifetime of wounds.

~Catherine Shavalier-Chernow

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