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Haake: A post-Roe Mother’s Day wish

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Editor’s note: A slightly different version of this column ran on Mother’s Day 2023.

My mom died from COVID four years ago, just after Mother’s Day.  I couldn’t write about it until I could be honest about who she was, a feat complicated by my then-pending Congressional race, which I lost in spectacular fashion. Apparently, climate change isn’t at the top of voters’ concerns. Yet.

The worst part of my mom’s death was that she — like most COVID patients — died alone in a sterile hospital room with no family allowed to visit. Every time I tried to write this Mother’s Day column, my simmering anger at how Trump mismanaged and lied to the country about the coronavirus percolated into a full boil that scalded my best intentions. Instead of honoring my mother’s truth without deflection or self-pity, I kept churning out bitter screeds about how elections have consequences, and our democracy wouldn’t be on the brink if only — if only — everyone who cares actually bothered to vote.

My mother was extraordinary in many ways, including her oft-repeated 1960s disdain for a woman’s ‘fate’ to be stuck in the house, raising children, while men got to ‘see the world.’ The man whose ticket out of Southern Indiana she co-opted — my father — would buy her passage to the West coast, where he served in the Navy in Oahu, Hawaii. It was also where he brutalized her, us, and anything that moved, repeatedly, with impunity, and without regard to audience.

Because of my father’s predilection for extreme violence, I became my mother’s caretaker from a very early age. After the final episode, complete with burst capillaries from her near-complete asphyxiation, we went into foster care. When my mom eventually got out of the hospital and rehab, we moved back to southern Indiana.

My mother was so afraid my father would return from the Vietnam War and finish the job, that she never sought child support — which meant years of dire poverty on top of whatever brain damage she sustained from the burst capillaries incident. Even in her compromised state, my mother knew that when a man promises to finish you off, he will keep his promise if given half the chance.

So we moved to Huntingburg, Indiana, to live with my mom’s equally poor sister, Aunt Maggie. My mom and her sister Margaret were apparent small-town lookers whose beauty and ambition attracted the same kind of husband — one who needs to capture, then own and cage, a beautiful thing. Aunt Maggie was making her way as a newly single mother as well, and for the same reason.

Shortly after we all moved in together, Aunt Maggie’s escape — and her life — ended abruptly.  Her story and violent ending would upstage even my mother’s.

Maggie’s death was a continuation of an unending rotation, a locked cycle of poverty and trauma.  It was the same story played out across the country in the nightly news, only the names have been changed. In case anyone is unschooled in the ways of poverty, poverty causes trauma causes poverty causes trauma. After some years stuck on this decidedly American treadmill with one tragedy following the next, my mom eventually remarried a wonderful man, my stepfather Bob Hyde, who would stop to help a struggling beetle.

While we were fortunate to have a kind benefactor in our lives, neither of my siblings overcame their early origins. You hear that formative childhood years — one through five — pretty much set the tone, and I guess that’s true enough in our case. I’m pretty sure the only reason I became “successful” (whatever that means; here, I mean financially) while my siblings floundered, was because my mom tapped me to take care of her, which meant early financial responsibility and an unusual work ethic. I started earning at 11, never stopped, and financially supported my mom and sister all my adult life.

My mother’s situation left her entirely dependent on me, and over the years, her dependence developed into raging neediness over all things, large and small. I’ll never know whether my mother’s mental health challenges were organic, or caused by extreme domestic violence. On the campaign trail when I spoke about growing up with the effects of untreated substance abuse and domestic violence, I was talking about my father.  When I spoke about growing up with untreated mental illness, I was talking about my mother. For sure, all three things in our household were interrelated, as they are in most every tragic, sad headline running in the evening news.

The only Mother’s Day gift I can offer up now is full honesty and ownership of a story all too common in America. It’s a reality of extreme domestic violence, substance abuse, and untreated mental illness. It’s the American struggle of single moms so afraid of their abusers they live in poverty instead of seeking child support. It’s an American story that plays across racial lines, geography, and culture, one that state-forced births will only exacerbate, trapping more vulnerable women with their murderous abusers.

My tribute to my mother is a siren of agency and honesty, so kids and mothers in the same situation know they are not alone. Stigma and societal judgment only make tragedies worse, which is why we should spare no time for them. Instead, we should salute the women and children who survive.

I miss my mother. She was a stone around my neck, but she was my heavy necklace.

It took me a minute to write this because the real tragedy wasn’t in how the country failed her at her death. The real tragedy is how our laws and our system failed to protect her — and hundreds of thousands of women like her — in life.

So I guess my screed survives, after all. Stripped of angst, anger, regret and sorrow, it boils down to one simple word: vote.

Sabrina Haake is a Chicago attorney and Gary resident. She writes the Substack newsletter The Haake Take.

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Sabrina Haake , 2024-05-12 17:00:40

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