In the epilogue of her book, Scattering Ashes: A Memoir of Letting Go, Charlottesville-based author Joan Z. Rough describes the process of writing about her aging alcoholic and emotionally abusive mother as “the day-by-day knitting together of a broken bone.” In this way, she says, “The writing of the book was probably the most healing thing I’ve ever done for myself.”
The memoir chronicles the six years Rough and her husband spent caring for her mother, Josephine, who was eventually diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer at age 82. And while Josephine abstains from alcohol for the duration of their time together, her prescription Vicodin has a similar effect of unleashing her rage, leaving Rough, most often, as the target. The renewed emotional abuse after so many years apart stirs Rough’s repressed childhood memories and she comes to recognize how much she blames her mother for not stopping the physical abuse she suffered at the hands of her father, a World War II veteran battling with PTSD. Rough was able to make peace with her father before he died and hoped to do the same with her mother.
Joan Z. Rough
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“I had invited her to live with us hoping that I could repair our relationship that had not been great all along,” Rough says. “So when she started getting more abusive, a lot of things I had completely and totally forgotten about came up for me and I began to resent her and dislike her a lot.”
Rough says that Josephine would yell at her in doctors’ offices and tell the doctor she was a horrible person and caregiver. “When I tried to help her she would tell me to get lost, that I didn’t know what I was doing,” says Rough. “She would criticize just about everything that I did.”
In Scattering Ashes, Rough acknowledges the abuse and dysfunction that her mother also lived through. Josephine’s parents married very young and had four children. Her mother was mentally unstable and her father eventually left. When her mother was declared unfit to raise the children, they were separated and placed in foster homes. Josephine lived with her mother again in her teens until she was kicked out at age 16. Instead of going to school she had to work as a maid.
Recognition of her mother’s own pain and the culture in which she was raised allowed Rough to tap into a well of compassion for her. “She really did the best she could,” she says. “She did not have the tools that I had when I became an adult. In my mother’s generation, going to a therapist would be the worst thing you could do because people would talk. Her drinking was self-medication. In those days nobody really examined their lives. My mother in particular just accepted what she had.”
Throughout the narrative, Rough acknowledges that alcohol and painkillers provided a release to Josephine, a channel through which she felt free to express her rage and then forget about it the next day. “It made her feel better and less fearful,” she writes. “The booze allowed her to speak her anger and hatred.”
Rough also recognizes the moment when her formerly fiercely independent mother is terrified at the loss of mobility and freedom that comes with aging, when she can no longer drive and needs help sorting her pills. Even when Josephine has nowhere to direct her rage when it’s time to bring in hospice, Rough writes, “I am the safest target for this woman who is suffering so terribly and is extremely frightened.”
“Particularly after the fact in the writing process,” Rough says, “I recognized more fully that she was so scared of dying and what was happening to her.”
In the midst of caring for her mother, Rough seeks help for her own medical concerns and three different medical professionals suggest she might have PTSD, caused by the prolonged stress of her childhood. As a result, Rough’s introspection leads her to discover the importance of self-care, especially for caregivers. “You need to have as much compassion for yourself as the person you’re taking care of,” she says, advocating for accepting help from others, talking about your experience and not allowing yourself to become weighed down with guilt.
Not only does Scattering Ashes lay bare Josephine’s flaws and shortcomings, but Rough’s as well, including her temper, which she terms “the dragon.” Even as she strives to be the perfect daughter, she acknowledges her missteps. “Occasionally it feels like, ‘Whoa, should I have let all that out?’” says Rough. “But, yes, I think for the book to have the impact I want it to, I should have.”
Her book ultimately offers a message of forgiveness and understanding, for ourselves and for those who raised us. “I am no longer a victim,” she says. “I take full responsibility for who I am and I think that’s what we all have to do. I don’t blame my parents for who I am. I don’t blame anybody.”