“I love you, Mom.” Those were the last words I spoke to my mother while she was alive. There were words of comfort at the hospital less than a week later, as much for myself as they were for her. “Go be with Violet.” My mother’s mother, Violet, died when Mom was just seventeen. And now, as she lay unconscious, struggling to breathe; as the cancer that had wracked her body for years smothered the last bit of life from her chest, I encouraged her to go be with her Mom.

My mother and I had a very complicated relationship. It was rocky and full of unpleasant encounters and fights that now seem so petty and childish. Her life wasn’t easy. She was so wounded and broken. Negativity oozed from every single cell in her body. Yet I loved her, even though there were times when I thought I hated her. I came to understand in the last decade or so that it wasn’t hate that I felt, but dislike. Dislike of some of her actions. Her words. My absence was self-preservation more than anything.

In many ways we are a mirror of our parents. And maybe that’s one of the things that bothered me the most about my mother. I saw in her some of the things I didn’t like about myself. Like a wild beast locked in a cage, she would lash out at anyone who got too close, even the ones who tried to help her. I too had been like this once. Her mental health issues reared up like a three-headed snake at different times, and the depression and hurt would make her spew vile from her lips.

The fact that I had trouble being around my mother as she got older says as much about me as it does about her. I simply didn’t have the patience or the desire to rebuild what had been fractured. Some things can’t be fixed. We would go long periods, up to a year sometimes, without speaking. The manipulation, the lying, it became too much for me. Mostly, though, I didn’t like the person I became around her. Most of the time I wasn’t nice to my mother. We brought out the worst in each other.

She could be loving, mother, but her friendships always came with an expiration date. She sought in others what she herself lacked. No matter where she moved – and she was always running, searching, hiding – my mother would befriend an older woman who would become “Mom” to her. These relationships always ended the same, with “Mom” becoming the enemy. My mother expected so much, from everyone, from the world, from life.

In the end, my mother admitted she wasn’t afraid to die, she had been afraid to live. It was extremely hard to hear those words. Her mental health struggles, her brokenness, had so overwhelmed her throughout her life, my mother lived in a frozen state of fear, desiring so much, but unable to break the chains and live the kind of life she longed for. We forget that our parents are people, flesh and blood beings with hopes, fears, desires, dreams and hurts.

I didn’t cry when my mother slipped from this world to the next. I still haven’t shed a single tear. My heart ached, and still does. I feel different, empty in so many ways. I think about her. It’s still so raw,  her death. I try to process our relationship, to understand how it deteriorated so badly over the decades. How this woman who used to sit and watch hockey games with me; who put up with my music obsession and listened to some god-awful bands in my teens, became someone I hardly knew.

One memory sticks in my mind; it’s tattooed permanently on my heart. It was my eighth or ninth birthday. My father was missing in action, off drunk somewhere (before he sobered up and completely changed his life). Mother scratched up a bit of change and sent my brother to the corner store. Later that afternoon, mom presented me with a cake – the kind that came out of a box that included the container to cook it in and all the mix – and a tiny, toy car (actually, a small front-loading tractor). It wasn’t much, but it was all she had. It stands as one of my best birthdays ever.

She was complicated, and scarred; beaten down by personal demons, but my mother loved me and my brothers in her own way. And now she is gone, along with a piece of me.

“I love you, Mom.”