Last night, I had a spat with a long-time friend over the phone. I lost my cool and yelled. I felt chewed out over a trivial issue: I was two minutes late in calling – perhaps a “disrespect” trigger I surmised afterward. Then I reacted to the tone of her several-minute criticism with emphatic volume – for sure my own “nobody talks to me like that” trigger.
We got off the call and several minutes later, I sent a “nobody talks to me like that” text message. Then, ten minutes later I sent an “I’m sorry I yelled, that wasn’t right” text.
I went to bed feeling awful. In the morning, I received an email of sincere apology and also concern that our friendship had been damaged. I started to write out a one-paragraph reply of apology accepted, then continued for several pages with an examination of why I can react so volatilely to chastisement.
The writing was cathartic, about events in the recent and distant past that I had not before put to paper. It became so much more than a letter to a friend, it became a jumpstart to my journaling, which I had abandoned for so many years. Here is the entire, unedited email message.
email message from Ned
Sent: October 29, 2023
Apology accepted, our friendship is not damaged. We have near twenty years of friendship with occasional upsets and miscommunications that we have always resolved quickly with kindness and understanding. I yelled at you and I am sorry. I will use this instance as an opportunity for even more understanding.
Today is October 29, 2023. It was three years ago, on October 29, 2020 that my mom was taken from my care. Two policemen kept me back while fireman carried my mom down the hallway in a sheet, vomiting blood, and placed her on a gurney in our living room. EMTs had determined that mom was “actively dying” and ambulances had been called to take her away.
The policemen released me, saying, “You can go say goodbye to your mom now.” Mom was delirious and her mouth was gurgling with blood. I kissed her on her forehead, the same way I, at age 13, kissed her father, my dearest grandfather on his forehead before they closed his coffin. I can never forget how Dida was as cold as stone.
I said to my mom, in Croatian, “Bog te blagoslovio i Bog te čuvao.” It was the same blessing I said to my mom every night, at her bedside, after we prayed together and after I tucked her in. It means, “May God bless you and may God watch over you.” Then the EMTs rolled her out the door and I knew I would never see her again.
So many times, I had followed mom’s ambulance to various hospitals after her medical incidents, handling all the paperwork, then remaining by her side to calm and comfort her as much as I was allowed. But this time, I was not allowed. It was the time of COVID, and family members were prohibited from being with their dying loved ones in the hospital.
I was utterly and completely depleted and defeated. I had failed at my sacred mission to protect and care for my mom until her last moments. For 34 months, without a single day off, I cared for her night and day. I bathed her, dressed her, fed her, lifted and carried her when she was unable to stand. I bandaged her and tended to her wounds. I cleaned her from her piss, pus, blood, shit, vomit, and tears.
Tracy, you gave me great recognition when, after caring for your own ailing brother 24/7 for three weeks, you understood how heroic it was for me to do that for three years. You worked as a care nurse, and you acknowledged how much more emotionally intense it was to care for a loved one.
My dear niece, Bea Jessica, gave me sustenance when she told me, “Dundo (uncle), you took care of Baba (grandmother) for 18 years after Dida (grandfather) died, so the rest of the family didn’t have that responsibility. You have our gratitude and deep respect.”
I mention all this because no one can doubt how devoted I was to my mom, how much I loved her and how tenderly I attended to her many needs. Yet…
There came a time, after years of caregiving, when mom was critical of me that I screamed, “Shut the fuck up. You don’t get to criticize me anymore. Those days are over, so just shut the fuck up,” And she did, even with her dementia and discomfort, she got quiet. My exasperation and exhaustion had got the best of me and I felt absolutely awful after my outburst.
My brother, Nick, and I both agree that we had two loving parents who were sincerely dedicated to our care and well-being. Growing up in our childhood home we had stability and structure and caring and comfort. Mom would often say (in Croatian), “I would pluck my eyes out for you kids.” And she would, there is absolutely no doubt how much she (and dad) sacrificed for us.
Mom would also say, more frequently (in Croatian), “I’ll give you two or three slaps across your jaw so hard that your teeth will fly down your throat.” Mom was a strict disciplinarian, so harshly intense that it was legendary amongst our extended family, cousins and so forth. When I was in my thirties, my aunt Stojka told me what she had witnessed when I was a toddler: I was crawling on the floor and playing with the edge of the rug, maybe folding it or something. Aunt Stojka said that my mom lit into me so intensely that my aunt was still stunned thirty years later. I have no memory of the incident.
Mom would call in dad when she needed extra help with punishment. The worst would be when dad would get angry and wail away with his army belt, leaving red welts on my backside and legs. That’s a story for another time. In my forties and fifties, I underwent intense therapy sessions to come to grips with my underlying rage.
In fairness, the physical discipline was infrequent and only in the first ten years of my life or so. It was in the verbal domain that mom’s strict lessoning was relentless. “Always be the best,” was what mom constantly drilled into us. If it wasn’t perfect, it wasn’t good enough, whatever it was: grades, chores, attitudes, behaviors.
I am forever grateful that mom taught us life-skills that served me and my brother well; we both excelled at school and in our careers. I am forever resentful towards the chastisement that accompanied so much of my upbringing. I felt humiliated by being scolded or reprimanded in front of family or, worse yet, strangers. I did not mind being corrected on so many occasions, that’s part of learning. I bristled, however, when the lecturing was delivered with judgment, anger, or shaming.
So, all my life, I’ve been overly sensitive to criticism. I’ve managed to avoid it in large part by always seeking to exceed everyone’s expectations. I put my whole being into not disappointing anyone. I accept the accolades when I excel and I accept the rectification when I go wrong, but when berated with an unwarranted attitude of testiness, I can react with the intensity of my unfairly chided child.
I apologize for yelling on the phone. I realize that I still have much work to do on my emotional resiliency and composure. I have so much grief yet to process, about the loss of my mom, about the loss of my health. My doctors have recently advised me that my spinal injury will never get better, even after my years of grueling physical therapy to regain my ability to stand, walk or even sit without pain.
Thank you for letting me share intimately with this long letter. I seek to understand my sensitivities and behavioral patterns, so putting this all down on paper helps me put them in the perspective of my past, especially on this anniversary of a heart wrenching day.
I hope it helps you with some understanding as well.