Five years after it came out, the Sufjan Stevens album, “Carrie & Lowell,” is still the most beautifully melancholy album I’ve ever heard. I’m biased since it deals with Stevens coming to terms with his feelings about his mother after her death. I don’t know the full story, but she had some sort of mental issues and she left him at some point in childhood. His story isn’t just like mine by any means, but there are strong echoes of similar feelings in his experience, so I can really identify with it. I hadn’t listened to the album lately, but I just played it all the way through and it had the same effect on me that it always does. It’s beautiful and it’s sweet, but it’s also heartbreaking — and it leaves me with images and powerful feelings about my own late mother. If you have bittersweet feelings about a dysfunctional parent you’ve lost, you might identify with it, too.
The conversation was making me uncomfortable. I knew what it felt like to be in her position — and I hurt for her, because I knew what she must be going through.
“I’ll give you the moon,” she had said earnestly. “Just give me another chance. Give me time to improve myself. I can be whatever you want.”
This was Sunday evening at dinner. She’s a young woman who I dated for a few months several years ago. Things had ended badly when I broke up with her. She had gotten angry and said some ugly things — and then she called a couple of days later to apologize.
We hadn’t spoken since then, but she recently reached out to ask if we could talk. Just talk, she had said. It didn’t have to be anything more.
Sunday was the third time I’d seen her. I’m not entirely sure why I agreed to it. Part of it was empathy, but part of it was self-interest born of fear. I’ve felt so alone lately that part of me wondered whether I had made a mistake to reject her.
Maybe it would be better to have a partner who really wanted me, even if I didn’t want her. Maybe that would be better than being alone. I agreed to see her.
My mother didn’t appreciate being compared to a ghost.
I was about 21 years old. I had sent a letter to my estranged mother, maybe the first letter I had ever written to her. I didn’t really know what I was trying to accomplish.
I was living in Tuscaloosa, Ala., where I was a student at the University of Alabama. I was troubled and unhappy, but I felt confused about the reasons. I had gone to a psychiatrist for help. He said there was nothing wrong with me but suggested a therapist to help me talk things through.
For a couple of months, I had interesting conversations with a therapist. He had me take the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), which is a common psychological instrument for discovering hidden psychological problems. The results showed that I was perfectly normal.
He eventually told me he enjoyed our sessions, because he said I was a pleasure to talk with each week, but that he had no idea how he could help me. So I gave up on therapy.
In desperation, I wrote a long letter to my mother.