Wombs of our Mother’s
An exclusive preview excerpt from my new writing project!
Healing childhood trauma sometimes feels like falling back in a well after you’ve climbed your way out, your fingernails still broken and caked with dirt. I was a failure to thrive child. Born full term at 4 lbs 12 ounces I couldn’t even get what I needed in the womb. My mother was a paraplegic and walked on crutches. I was forty-nine-years-old and healing from a major spinal fusion when I was ready to assemble the pieces of my childhood having officially buried both my parents. My dad had died of Alzheimer’s and my mother had died two years earlier of a myriad of complications, most significantly alcoholism.
I’d already done the hard work around forgiveness and acceptance. Somehow, I’d been able to connect with their pain and their struggle. My father got sober when I was fifteen and through the thirty-three years of sobriety would often include me in his amends process. It was easier to forgive him. In my adult years, we built enough positive experiences to reconcile those early years of neglect and abandonment.
My mother was a completely different story. She was bitter and cruel to the very end. For some reason, she concentrated all her resentment and brokenness on me. Once, after she’d fallen down the stairs drunk shattering T1 and T2, the anesthesiologist asked her if she had a DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) order. The surgery would allow her to sit up but she would have very limited use of her arms leaving her a quadriplegic. She said very emphatically, “Oh no Doctor, I want every means necessary used to keep me alive.” Then she painstakingly tilted her head towards me and sneered, “Angela, you are going to have to suffer for a very long time.” It’s painful to watch someone you love, destroy themselves.
I did suffer for a very long time until April 1st, 2018. She died late morning on Easter Sunday while some were celebrating the rebirth of Jesus Christ. I felt as if the stone on my tomb had been rolled open. My mother was the ultimate paradox. She did some extraordinary things. She helped victims of domestic violence and brought the first community health care clinics to rural Colorado. As a former Director of Adams County Social Services, she ran a poker night once a week donating ALL the proceeds, without any conditions, to local non-profits serving community needs. She was seen as a modern-day Joan of Arc in prominent circles.
She also did some terrible things. Once when I was about twelve, my best friend spent the night. I left my necklace on the bathroom counter and when I went back to get it, it wasn’t there. After, looking throughout the house, I assumed my friend had taken the necklace. She was so insulted by my accusation that she called her mother to come and pick her up. My mother stood next to me on the front porch watching their car pull away. When the car turned the corner out of sight, my mother pulled the necklace from her pocket, “Be careful with your conclusions, Angela.”
I lived in that world until I was sixteen and couldn’t live there anymore. When I was twenty-three, I was given guardianship of my brother. He was fifteen. Leaving him alone with my mother when he was only eight years old was the most painful decision I ever made. As an adult I worked with therapists, healers, and spirit to salve the wounds of childhood. When my daughters were born, I gave my mother a choice of getting treatment for her addiction and participating in the lives of my children. She chose to keep drinking and I chose to spare two innocent lives from enduring the pattern of dysfunction.
Mom and I were appropriately estranged for many years until her breast cancer diagnosis in 2008. That too was a difficult decision. How could I be there to help and support her when she’d been so utterly rotten? But there are defining moments in our lives and resentment is too heavy a weight to carry. I remember one time when we’d had a fight over lunch. She was listing off all the ways I’d failed her, too locked in her own victimization to recognize any of my pain. “Mom,” I pressed, “Can’t you see I was the child? It wasn’t my job to take care of you, it was your job to take care of me.” Later, as we were getting in the car, I thought, “I’m forty-years-old, who gives a rats ass, if our versions of my childhood vary.”
Then the answer came. I told my mother sulking in the passenger seat next to me like a wounded bird. “Mom, to heal a wound, it must first be recognized. Please, for a moment, can you acknowledge my loss and sacrifice?”
Unfortunately, my mother carried her rage and righteousness with her until the end. She spent the last year of her life bed bound and neglected, refusing nursing care so she could drown herself without interference. As much as I hated what she had done to me and my brother, being a witness all those years to the harm she inflicted on herself, was excruciating. Eventually bed sores had caused infection to spread throughout her body and her kidneys began to shut down. After I signed the DNR order, I pulled the ICU curtain closed and climbed in the hospital bed so I could hold this damaged, broken little bird. I held tightly the shell of a woman who never received the love she needed and deserved. “I’m sorry momma. I’m sorry we didn’t have the kind of relationship we both hoped for. I’m sorry your life was so hard. I’m sorry we were both so lonely. I pulled her closer so the words would travel beyond the morphine, “I love you mom. Despite our challenges, there was still love. When you go mom, leave everything behind but the love. Take the love with you.”
Her breathing tube prevented her from speaking but I could her reply as clear if she had spoken the words, “You kept those girls, my granddaughters, from me.”
I answered, “Yes. I did and I saved myself too.”
Or at least I thought I had. I guess trauma is something you unpack over time. Understanding the mind, body, and spirit connection, as my bones, nerves and tissues began to knit themselves together from a spinal fusion, I once again began investigating the unfinished emotional lesions hidden away. I thought my slipped vertebrae were the result of a difficult delivery with my first daughter twenty-three years earlier. The spiritual practitioner I was working with explained this was an injury that went back to the womb. I asked myself, “In utero could I have internalized my mother’s broken back or was this simply congenital?”
When she asked if it could be related to something in my childhood. I explained how although there was no conscious memory, many family members had retold the story from when I was a toddler. As I’d started walking, the doctors identified some structural anomaly. At sixteen- months-old I’d been cast from my toes to just under my armpits. My mother needed her arms to walk on her crutches and could not carry me. My father, during that time, decided it was all too much and ran off to live in New York and try a career in journalism. Melanie, my cousin, once described her early memory of playing outside with the other children and peeking inside the bedroom window to see me as a tiny baby, napping on the bed in my full body cast, looking so fragile. As I relayed those images, I felt myself returning to the well, the darkness of my childhood where the body remembers.
Fragile was always something that felt like a luxury not available to me. It may be the reason I ignore adversity or deny fear. Vulnerability has always felt like a life-or-death proposition to me and given that early experience of losing mobility at a time when I was just coming into some freedom and independence, makes so much sense. My caregivers simply weren’t available, and I learned in a deep sense that I was on my own, figuratively and literally. It was an early decision not to trust anyone and to learn to make my way alone. Unfortunately, trust is essential to intimacy and the meaningful partnerships I’d sought to create as an adult.
It was true, I’d resolved the relationships with my parents as best I could. I’d extended them the empathy needed to reach forgiveness. What I had not done was give myself that same compassion and tenderness. How could I when I was so busy growing up, creating a different experience and getting far away from the ugliness of the past. Quite honestly, until now, I couldn’t go back. The bottom of the well is cold and dark and wet. It’s the place of scarcity and deprivation. It’s the reason that Doctors determined my development was two years behind and gave me injections to support my growth. A realization so tragic I’d repressed it for decades.
Maybe those shots offered me the nutrients I needed to live. Or maybe I just decided to fuck the dismal conditions and live anyway. I can’t even stand to think of myself as a survivor because that would imply, I was a victim. Empathy towards others is easy, looking at my own trauma feels impossible. Yet, how can I heal the loss or acknowledge the sacrifice if I refuse to see the depths of my own wounds?
I’d been doing inner child work for years, but I hadn’t been able to really see her, to see myself, in my most fragile state. When I opened my eyes, the image of that underdeveloped little girl, failing to thrive, that powerless little baby immobilized and trapped… the weight of it took my breath away, still takes my breath away. As I relived this fragile state while recovering from surgery, the bottom of the well was once again crying out to me.
My neurosurgeon had severed tissue, sawed through bone, removed disc, and inserted screws to straighten my spine. It required a couple of months of rest and recovery. I wanted more than physical healing, I wanted to integrate all the parts of myself, the parts I’d missed before. I was ready to step back in the past, previously too painful to see clearly. I wanted my own resurrection to be complete and so I answered the small voice inside that said, “Come back for me.”
To be fully whole, and completely integrated, we must go back to the well, descend to the dark places again and look with new eyes for the inner child left unclaimed. This time, when I reached the bottom of the well, my sight had not yet adjusted. The inner chamber was surprisingly warm. I could hear the rhythmic beating and the distant pulsing of life. I reached around the dark earth until my fingers found the small hand of innocence. I pushed back the mud and dirt and pulled free the tiny fragile body. For a moment I sat and held her feeling the fear. Feeling the sadness. Feeling the forgottenness. Then wrapping her in golden threads, I swaddled her against my chest. We ascended the top of the well swiftly this time, having mastered the way. I cradled her gently and as I washed her tender skin in warm rose water, her flesh came alive. Lungs filled with air in full and complete breaths. Eyes blinked open and our gaze knowingly met. “I came back for you. I won’t leave you again.”
For the wound to be healed, it first must be acknowledged.
To go back to the well, is to live fully inside of our own heart.
©Angela Engel 2-18-20