The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

On Mothers Day: Caging a Nightingale

It being mother’s day, and the entire world conspiring to tell me about it, over and over again, I’ve been thinking a bit about my mum.  She died 3 years ago of cancer.  I spent her last two weeks by her bed, and she died the night I told her that everyone had come and that it was ok for her to die.  By that point she couldn’t speak, and while she didn’t seem to be in much pain, she certainly wasn’t enjoying what was left of her life.

She had lived her life for other people—for me, and for her husband.  I don’t know any of her close friends who didn’t think she should have gotten a divorce when I was a young kid, but she didn’t.  At that time I’m pretty sure it was because she was threatened with losing me.

But really, the woman she was when I was young died when I was 13.  I remember it well.  My father had gotten a job with the UN, in Bangladesh.  My mother didn’t want to go.  As far as my father was concerned, where the husband went the wife went.

In Canada she had a job, as the secretary to the woman who ran the Coquitlam library system.  It was the most senior secretarial position in the organization and quite responsible.  In her early forties, she looked ten years younger, fit and slim, with dark black hair.  She walked everywhere, regularly walking 30 or 40 blocks a day, and while I think it’s safe to say she wasn’t happy, she had a life with some happiness in it.

She went with my father to Bangladesh.  I went to boarding school in Vancouver.  4 months later I visited my parents, for Christmas, in Bangladesh.    She had no job, no life outside the house.  She had loved children, and they loved her, but now she had no child to look after, neither me nor our cousins.  Her life was completely her husband’s. My mother had put on 40 pounds, her hair was half gray and her eyes were dull.

She had been broken.  The woman she was had died.  Like a man who cages a nightingale in his fist, by not letting it have any freedom, my father had killed what he loved.  I don’t know if he ever even realized it, or if he did, if he cared, or if the pleasure of imposing his will made up for it.

The women in my family usually make it to their late 80s and my father was 10 years older than my mother and not in good health.  So I always assumed she’d have a good 20 years free.  She didn’t.

But she died free.

About 3 weeks before she died, when she knew she had cancer but assumed she had 8 months to a year left, we talked.  She told me that she had decided to move out, and that she would never live with him again.  I was never so happy for her.

A few days later she collapsed, and never walked again.  Then she died.

But she died free.

My wish to you and for myself, this mother’s day then, is this.

Don’t die free.

Live free.


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  1. riks

    Sadly, I have seen similar experiences, multiple times, where I come from – India. Somehow the culture and situation is such that the woman ends up having only her children to hold on to. Which means that as soon as he/she goes to college, she goes into a shell. It is becoming less common, but not fast enough.

    I wish I could wish for her a day without feeling the stupid pinch that comes from the Hallmark signs all around.

  2. Hillsfar

    Ian, you got a soul and now we know where you got it from.

  3. senecal

    Someone observed to me once that marriage, the institution, evolved when couples rarely lived beyond forty or fifty. Expecting people to be happy in marriage well into their eighties is a bit unrealistic. The main thing in its favor is that humans do seem to become more conservative and habit-bound as they get older — willing to trade freedom for security.

  4. someofparts

    I’m certain having you for a son was a great joy to her. If I had had a son I would have hoped he turned out like you. I hope your mum knew you well enough to know the sort of person you’ve become. When you have your own children I’m sure you will be a better dad than your own father could imagine and your children will be lucky to be your kids.

  5. senecal

    someofyourparts: you’re a generous soul, but maybe over-optimistic. I had enlightened parents, and was a model kid, but it was easier then. Given that the important values you receive you acquire somewhere between ages five and 12, and you in turn pass them on to your kids thirty years later, that’s quite a cultural gap you’re trying to bridge. In a fast-moving society like ours, maybe parenthood is just as outmoded as marriage.

  6. adrena

    Thanks for sharing this beautiful story. I agree with Hillsfar. Your essays, no matter what topic, always exude a unique perceptiveness and vision that I find appealing.

    I live free and hope all women can escape from their cage (not escape from men but from their restrictive societal script).

  7. rumor

    Thank you, Ian, for sharing such a deeply personal part of your life. I’m touched, truly, and just want you to know that it’s appreciated.

  8. someofparts

    I didn’t realize how my post would read in sequence.

    Not to be unkind Senecal, but I was speaking of/to Ian.

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