“They hated us,” my mother said as she bent down to my level. “They called us subhuman. We have always been blamed, even for the killing of Jesus. You were born to show the world that Hitler didn’t win.”
“I don’t understand.”
“One day you will.”
That evening, my father explained to me that Mom was very upset and needed to lie down. He sat me down at the kitchen table. “We were hoping to protect you from what happened during the war. We planned to tell you about this when you were a little older. In history books it is called the Holocaust, or the Shoah.”
He patiently gave me some details. He had lost his parents and a brother and sister. One sister had survived and lived in New York. Mother lost everyone except for a brother who escaped to Russia. But the main thing I learned that evening was not to upset Mother. After that I watched her like a hawk, and without realizing it, her emotional needs took precedence over my own. Life at home was was walking on egg shells.
We moved to Canada that summer and I experienced issues in school. I couldn’t focus. I was called a dreamer, but I was actually experiencing headaches that lasted hours, even days. Lights would flash, and there was often a burning smell. Years later I was to learn that these were migraines. I thought it was all part of growing up. My mother had many headaches, so I thought it was something you just lived with.
My brother did not have headaches. He did well in school, and I resented him and the way he and Dad would tell jokes at mealtimes. Nothing seemed to be taken seriously by them. Mom didn’t see the humour, and the more they laughed, the more she scowled. Didn’t they realize they were upsetting her?
Then there was another turning point in our family. In his early twenties my brother got sick with ulcerative colitis. Stress was eating holes in his digestive tract. I thought he was a goner as he got skinnier and weaker. He was hospitalized and for the first time I really prayed to God. Not easy when I had migraines that lasted week after week.
He survived and I was in debt to God. And I was no longer envious.
I wish I could say things changed after that point, but my eyes were only partially open to the truth. Maybe I am a slow learner, but there was a part of me that said, There is something going on here that has given me these years of migraines and almost led to my brother’s death. I reluctantly concluded that my mother was the cause.
I completed university, but the migraines were now a regular part of my existence. And then there was work. Who thought a person who hated school would end up teaching high school? Though the migraines persisted, I thought I could handle it better than in my past, but I was in denial that these headaches were affecting my life.
Socially, I dated, but when any relationship got serious, the headaches intensified. In the back of my mind was always the question, “Would my mother approve of my choice?” I tried to convince myself that my happiness was the deciding factor when it came to whom I would marry, but my happiness was tied to my mother’s happiness, and hers rarely manifested itself.
I met someone who put no pressure on me, and I relaxed. When I proposed, I was pleased that I didn’t care whether or not my mother approved. But when the wedding was being organized, my mother went to visit my brother at the other end of the country, and announced by telephone that she would not attend my wedding.
What’s it like when a parent says “no” to their child’s wedding? In a strange way, I’d half expected it. She hadn’t attend my bar mitzvah, either. I forgave her. I apologized for her. It is what I have been doing all my life. Thankfully my father and brother stood by my side. I may have had a migraine during the ceremony but I expected that, as well.
One of my happiest days was the birth of our first son. Everyone was healthy and I should have been ecstatic, but my head palpitated in pain. And that was the pattern. Any strong emotion, negative or positive, made me escape to a dark room. My wife said she was fed up with my damn headaches.
“See a therapist!” she demanded.
“No, I’m not. I need —the children need — an engaged husband and father.”
A therapist friend set me up with someone who was looking for patients willing to undergo analysis. It wouldn’t cost anything if he accepted me, but I had to commit to sessions three times a week for a minimum of two years. I met Dr. S. at his office at the Jewish General Hospital. I told him I had persistent migraines and would like them gone. When he asked me when they started, I said when I was young. I told him my mother claimed they had started as a baby when the bombs were dropped on Brighton.
“Does it disturb your everyday functioning?” he asked, holding his pen and pad.
“I have learned to deal with it.”
“So why bother going into analysis?”
I had to think about it. The answer took a while, but eventually I surprised myself by saying. “I think I deserve some happiness without paying the price of pain.”
I received a letter a month later from Dr. S. saying he would be pleased to take me as a patient, and if I was still interested, to call him.
It took a while to get used to the process. When I entered, his office was dark and I reclined into a couch with a small pillow. He sat behind me and his chair was placed where a crack of light came through the drawn curtains.
I often started the session by saying how my day was, but in the few comments Dr. S. made, he urged me to go back in time. The first year I spoke a lot about my father and my brother. At some point I mentioned that my father had been a club boxer in London, and when I was about nine or ten, he taught me to box.
“Why did he do that?” Dr. S. asked.
“I am short. I got picked on a lot. He is also short, but he was never intimidated by people more than a head taller than him. To be able to defend myself gave me confidence.”
But most of the time I complained about my dad. He always gave into his wife. He seemed to have no backbone when it came to her. I wanted him to stand up to her. When Mom got upset with the rest of us, he would say, “I’m taking the dog for a walk.” In those days we didn’t have a dog. When he left to cool off, our mother would tell my brother and me not to be pathetic like our father.
After many months of sessions of finding fault with my father, Dr. S. finally said, “You wanted your dad to confront your mother. Let’s pretend he did. Would it be fair to assume they would be screaming at each other?”
“Probably. But nothing is worse than being a coward. He wasn’t afraid of anyone —except, it seemed, my mother. That wasn’t a good role model for me.”
“I beg to differ. If these conflicts did occur, what do you think this would ultimately have led to?”
“I guess,” I began, “he would have left. Probably a divorce.”
“Would that have helped you and your brother? Could your mother support the two of you either emotionally or financially?”
I remained silent, trying to digest this.
“Maybe he was a great role model as a father. It sounds like he walked the dog to protect his sons. It defused the situation. He sacrificed his happiness for his family. He sounds more like a hero than a coward.”
I left that session dizzy, and that evening had one of the worst migraines ever. The foundation of my beliefs had received its first major crack.
When I spoke of my brother, I often used the word grateful. I was grateful he’d survived. I was grateful he didn’t hate me for all the trouble I’d caused him. I picked on him a lot and he would run away from home. Not for long but often enough that mom called him “the runaway”.
“What makes you feel he ran from you?” Dr. S. asked.
“I sometimes hit him.”
“Brothers always fight. Sibling rivalry is normal.”
“I shouldn’t have. I think I was jealous.”
“What were you jealous about?”
“He did better than me at school. Later he was a head taller and had more success with the ladies. When I got my Master’s degree, my mother reminded me I was only one degree behind my brother. I know she said it to push me, but it hurt.”
“Sibling rivalry would be very normal under these circumstances. Did you think your mother loved him more?”
“Probably. I was more rebellious. But I couldn’t be angry with my brother. He’d almost died from colitis.”
“Remind me again. Your mother refused to go to your wedding, but didn’t she go to his?”
“Yes, but it was years later. Dad was physically in poor condition. She went to take care of him.”
I heard a snicker in the dark room.
“No, really. He was weak and easily disoriented. He fell down some stairs in the middle of the night. He needed a wheelchair, but insisted on going to the ceremony.”
There was silence. Did I believe this? That my mother actually went to take care of Dad? She always called him her ball and chain. It was never said as an endearment. I heard the pen writing on Dr. S.’s pad.
“You prayed once in your life,” Dr. S. began. “Your prayer was answered. Any negative emotions have since that point been repressed. Where did they go? What price has had to be paid?”
Later I walked out of the session and went to see my dad in a different building of the same hospital. He had entered hospital just over a month before and had just suffered his third mini-stroke. He was in Geriatrics, the same department where he’d volunteered for the previous decade and a half. Some of the patients and staff still remembered him in that role.
His left side was now paralyzed. He couldn’t talk, but like always, he smiled. In his room, I found him in a wheelchair looking out the window. I sat beside him and squeezed his right hand, and he looked at me, grinned, and squeezed back. I wasn’t sure if he knew me anymore. He smiled at everyone, whether it was me, a nurse, a doctor, or an orderly. That’s what he did his whole life. I brought Mom to see him a few times initially, but after the first week she told me it was too hard on her emotionally to visit. I didn’t fight her on this, but was very disappointed. He was in hospital, but her needs always took precedence.
I found excuses for her actions, not just in life but during analysis.
“Did you say she left two weeks before your wedding?” Dr. S. asked.
“Yes, she went to visit my brother in Vancouver.”
“The other end of the country.”
I heard him writing furiously. It got quiet.
“And then you spoke to her a week before the wedding and she announced she wasn’t coming to it.”
“Yes. Both my fiancée and I pleaded with her to change her mind.”
“What excuse did she give?”
“She told us that her parents hadn’t attended her wedding.”
“And did that explanation make sense to you?”
The clock ticked. The nib scratched on paper.
“No,” I finally said.
“Well, something has shifted,” Dr. S. said. “You usually come to her defense. Is this excuse so lame that even you can’t defend her?”
With a couple of months left to go in my two-year commitment to Dr. S., I finally broached the incident with the family tree and the photos of the concentration camp.
There was a long silence. The room was dark, I was reclining on the couch, Dr. S. was sitting to one side behind me. I could hear the nib of his pen scratching on his pad. “Let me get this straight. You were six when this happened?”
“And when did these headaches start?”
It felt like the couch had tipped over and I was falling and flailing.
I left with my head palpitating. Why had the obvious connection so invisible to me? Am I blind? Am I stupid? It was hard to drive home in the snowstorm and I almost had a head-on collision. It was hard to focus. The memory at that kitchen table in Brighton returned with such clarity it felt like I was actually reliving that moment. The dark eyes of the half-dead in their striped uniforms burned into my skull.
A few days later I entered Dr. S.’s dark office. As I reclined, I could smell the perfume on the couch from the previous patient. She was a redhead, probably in her mid-thirties. About a decade younger than me. We’d made brief eye contact as she passed me in the waiting room.
As soon as I reclined, I began to speak. “I know I have to talk about that family tree incident. I have had a migraine all weekend. The photos and my mother’s anger have been replaying in my head.”
I went through it again. The actual words said. The beet-red face as my mother lost control. The horrific black-and-white photos. And then my father’s advice not to make her upset. And how I had tried to not upset her, and to make her happy. But she could never be happy. She felt guilty for surviving.
“What we have here is a case of child abuse,” Dr. S. finally said.
“Abuse?” I questioned. “No. It was my fault, I pushed her too far.”
Again, a long pause. Then he said, “You couldn’t defend her reasoning about why she couldn’t go to your wedding. This is much worse by far, and yet you automatically defend her. You defend her no matter what she does. She traumatized you with horrendous photos of the death camps, and said, ‘There are your grandparents.’ Yet you defend her. What does she have to do, for you to admit you are angry and upset?”
I was stunned that he saw it that way. I didn’t know what to say. I was floating on the couch. I remembered the photos of the emaciated bodies in their striped uniforms. I remember the black-and-white grainy people behind barbed wire. I remembered my mother’s words, “Go find them in that pile.” I was floating and the couch no longer held me. I was silent. I knew my mother had loved me. For all the problems my brother and I had experienced, I knew we were loved. Can one be loved and abused at the same time?
My mouth was dry, my head was pounding. I smelled the perfume. I wondered what that woman talked about in her analysis. Focus, focus. The perfume covered the stench of bodies getting incinerated, the bodies of my uncles and aunts. The couch was spinning.
“We are out of time. It is not uncommon with our sessions that the heart of a memory comes in the last ten minutes. Why do you think that happens? Something else to think about. You have two young sons and you don’t want to repeat the cycle. Your oldest is now only a year older than you were when this incident took place. Would you do this to him?”
He said we would have to continue this. It was the signal to me to get up from the couch and leave. But before I did, I uttered, “No. I would never do such a thing to him.”
Outside it was snowing. My head was throbbing. I couldn’t remember at first where I’d parked the car, but eventually I found it where I normally park it. In spite of my disorientation, I knew things would never be the same with my mother.
Over time the migraines gradually declined in intensity. My mother lived another ten years after my father passed away. I had to take care of her finances and she accused me a number of times of stealing her money. I was hurt but, to my surprise, the migraines did not return. Over time I had emotionally withdrawn from her and had taken on the role of her caretaker, rather than her son. Her caretakers told me what she needed and that’s what I did. I never argued with her. She wanted to see my children, but when she gave them money and the boys went only for the cash, I knew I couldn’t continue that. I told her, and she called me a fool, and still I had no headache.
At the age of ninety-one, she went to the hospital for a urinary tract infection. She said she wanted to die. She wanted to join her mother and sisters who’d perished in the 1940s.
One evening she said, “If you loved me, you would press this pillow against my face.”
I felt the blood rush to my face. I expected an extreme migraine. I half felt it coming on, but I responded quickly.
“If you loved me, you wouldn’t ask me to do such a thing. Your son could spend the rest of his life in jail.”
Instead, she starved herself to death and the ordeal lasted ten agonizing days. Towards the end she was delirious, laughing as she spoke to her long-dead family. She had never been so happy in all the years I’d witnessed.