Opinion

Dear Mom: 'Please forgive me, I forgive you'

Before You Go: In this letter, Ellie Parks reflects on her mother’s life, the labels she wore—orphan, domestic violence survivor, bipolar mood disorder patient—and lessons she imparted along the way

It’s hard to see parents as individuals, but after 58 years, I think I do see you clearly.

The list of labels you have worn is harrowing; orphan, sole survivor of triplets, adoptee, abuse survivor, psychiatrist patient, unwed mother, alcoholic, bipolar mood disorder patient, domestic violence survivor, breast cancer and stroke survivor, person with a disability and now you have been diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Seeing you at your 80th birthday party, laughing, dancing in your wheelchair and, as you put it, being “surrounded by love,” was a joy. It was a delight to see the life you’ve lived celebrated.

I have such compassion for you as a little girl, the lone survivor of triplets adopted from Montreal’s La Creche orphanage by harsh parents living in a cold apartment over a shoe shop. There were rats in the cellar, where the bathroom was located, and as a young girl you saw a chicken being slaughtered, leading to a lifetime fear of chickens and pigeons.

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As a teenager, you rebelled, striving for independence, had mental health challenges. The medical system’s response was electro-shock therapy. Yet you persevered, getting a secretarial certificate and a job becoming a career woman in the early 60’s.

I was the next twist in your life story—an unplanned pregnancy with a father who refused to help. I marvel at your determination to keep your child, as an unmarried mother in 1962 in a French Catholic society. You named me Eleanor, after you read Eleanor Roosevelt’s book.

When I was four years old, you found love and got married to a man 12 years your senior. You had another child, Greg, and our little family moved from a rented Verdun walk up to a house in Pointe Claire. When I see pictures of the early years, my heart aches. You were so young and hopeful.

Then came the slow disintegration of a marriage: alcoholism, mental illness, financial problems, infidelity, loud arguments. I acted out, smoking, drinking and staying out late. Greg buried himself in sports.

Our close relationship became a source of arguments, with my stepdad favouring a strict approach, and your more permissive parenting style. I became more aware of your mental health challenges, but I didn’t have a label or diagnosis. I just knew that the parent on my side was unstable.

Our family imploded after 12 years together. After you left you had many false starts, new jobs, boyfriends, apartments, always new plans. I now understand those abrupt changes in the context of bipolar disorder, but at the time it all seemed incomprehensible.

I ran away from home at 16, started my adult path with a series of adventures and mistakes and later watched with despair when you endured an abusive relationship, trapped in a cycle of violence until you found the strength to finally leave. Watching you pull your life together, get a job as a wellness counsellor and get sober filled me with hope for your life and our relationship.

In your 50s, you wrote letters to Greg and I to make amends. You acknowledged you had, at times, been a terrible parent because of addiction and mental illness and sincerely apologized. That letter stopped my mind loop of wondering: Am I overreacting? Is this normal? My anger melted, my hurt diminished and our relationship improved immensely. I was able to heal because you were brave enough to state the truth and in doing so gave me a great gift.

Yes, the list of heartbreaking labels you’ve worn is long, yet you are also a wife, college graduate, radio host, secretary, follower of the Bahá’í faith, volunteer, women’s shelter worker, wellness coordinator, dancer, singer, drummer, friend and mother.

You made many positive changes in your 50s; got a diploma, a good job, got married, found religion, got diagnosed as bipolar and made a new home in Fort Smith, NWT. Although there have been challenges, I see that you have been happier in the last 25 years than ever before. I’m forever grateful to your husband Lewis for his adventuresome spirit and dedicated caregiving.

Together, you and Lewis have had many adventures: driving huge distances, camping, staying with old and new friends. Truly unstoppable! I’m so glad we went on two Alaskan cruises together. Even during the last 10 years, when you’ve been confined to a wheelchair, the two of you have travelled on epic trips through Israel, Alberta, BC and the NWT. I’ll never forget being on the upper deck of the ship, pushing your wheelchair as we did laps for cancer research. You’re truly unstoppable.

I think I see you clearly now, Mom. You are battling cancer and weakening, but your spirit is strong. We talk daily and when I ask about your pain, which I know is considerable, you always reply, “It is what it is.” Your grace in accepting your circumstances is a life lesson. Your legacy is one of resilience, strength and optimism.

I’m so grateful you are still here so I can say: thank you, please forgive me, I forgive you, I love you.