I knew a woman once who collected other people’s mistakes
And with her voodoo magic, she could make them all her own
Merriam-Webster defines “selfish” as:
1: concerned excessively or exclusively with oneself : seeking or concentrating on one’s own advantage, pleasure, or well-being without regard for others
2: arising from concern with one’s own welfare or advantage in disregard of others <a selfish act>
3: being an actively replicating repetitive sequence of nucleic acid that serves no known function <selfish DNA>; also : being genetic material solely concerned with its own replication <selfish genes>
My mother wielded this word as a weapon against me as I was growing up, and boy did I spend many nights scribbling away in my journal, wondering whether or not she was right.
Well, certainly she was and is right… to a point.
Today I am a self-employed DIY musician. I burn a lot of fuel on myself. Writing, composing, practicing, rehearsing, booking, promoting, performing, traveling. Is this out of an excessive concern? I don’t know about that. Maybe by some people’s standards.
I do not agree, though, that I do all of this “without regard for others.” It is because I wish so deeply to share my love of what I do with others, in hopes that they will enjoy it, too, that I continue to push ahead, push myself.
But I wasn’t always a self-employed musician.
I was once a child, and then a young adult, working regular jobs (while gigging on the side) and living with my parents, feeling the exciting tug of the wondrous world on one shirtsleeve and that of my mother’s irrational desire to keep me home, obedient to her and safe from a harsh cruel world, forever, on the other.
I rebelled late. Most kids go through their rebellion at a much younger age than I did. Sure, I snuck around and drank and smoked pot in my room like every other kid I knew. I’m talking about really rebelling against parental authority. I rarely dared to speak my mind, to express my deepest emotions, to question the illogical rantings into which my mother often launched. On the rare occasion that I did, I was usually ridiculed and punished for it, and called that terrible “s” word.
As I got older and a little wiser, I began speaking out more. When I finally summoned enough courage at the age of twenty to say, “Mom, I think you have a drinking problem” – this was the beginning of the end.
Despite the many years that I’ve spent fighting against that small yet cruel voice in my head, I think what my mother was really expressing was her frustration with what appeared to her as my not putting her needs and wants ahead of my own. Maybe she didn’t realize that that was precisely what I did. For many years, in fact. To my detriment.
Sure, everyone has issues with family. The old joke about “putting the fun in dysfunctional” is not too far off the mark for most people.
I’m sorry to have to bring up such tough stuff. Mom has been on my mind this week. It’s hard to believe that she has been gone for seven years now.
January 28, 2007, just two weeks after my birthday. Heart attack. A policeman came to the door to deliver the news. I hadn’t even spoken to my mother in over two years.
“I’m alone now,” I remember thinking at one point that night as the news sunk in.
But I’m not!
Believing, with both of my parents gone and with no siblings or close family on whom to depend, that I’m alone in the world is a somewhat selfish thought. It is easy in a moment of pure despair to forget about the love that is to be found in the loving embrace, literally and figuratively, of those numbered few friends without whom life would not hold nearly the sweetness that it does.
It happens to the best of us, eh?
After so much sadness in my mother’s life – the loss of her parents, of her firstborn, of her first husband – I get it now. She crawled inside that bottle and rarely came up for air.
Then, once her second husband – my father – died, things just fell apart for her, for the both of us. I went on duty – I put my own grief aside and tended solely to her until that expense of energy was no longer sustainable.
Our bond slowly and surely crumbled.
I really wanted to have a deep and meaningful relationship with her, but there were too many things standing in the way. She couldn’t meet me halfway. Or even less than halfway.
I loved and feared her.
She never did find help for her alcoholism, nor did she ever even admit that she had a deeply debilitating problem with drinking. When she died, the hope that I carried quietly in my heart that she would get help died with her.
Do I regret finally standing up to her as an adult? Do I regret saying, “I love you Mom but I can’t have you in my life”?
I can’t regret it. Why? Because of all the times she said, “All I ask is that you just be honest with me” and I know she meant it.
Do I know that she loved me? Of course I know that. Rarely did I doubt this, though she certainly had trouble expressing this love.
I guess I did too.
Selfish? Yeah, I probably was a bit selfish sometimes – but she was too. And she must’ve realized that.
Certainly a little bit of selfishness is needed to survive and to be happy, isn’t it? Without some focus on the self, there is no meeting of one’s needs and desires. If I don’t take care of myself first, then I can’t be fully available for anyone or anything else.
I may always wrestle with this word, with its implications, with what could have been, with the ghost of my mother. Perhaps it’ll be a match to the death, perhaps there will be a winner. I like to think I’m slowly marching towards a victory. Some days, it’s a tougher fight than others. But I’ll be damned if I won’t give it my best.