When ‘Keep Your Distance’ Has Been a Way of Life


The Diary Project

Quarantine life puts a son’s relationship with his mother into a new light.

Long before the pandemic, I’d been distancing myself from one person in particular: my mother. Our relationship has always been distant. She was in prison for most of my childhood. Every graduation, most birthdays and holidays — she is not in the photos. Even when she was not locked up, she was struggling with addiction and mental health, and she kept her distance. My brother and I were fortunate to have a grandmother who was our caregiver and our foundation.

As an adult, I struggle with what kind of relationship to have with her. I’ve chosen distance as a way to survive and to cope. My entire family has made many attempts to support her, but we’ve learned that it’s difficult to give someone something that they are unwilling or unable to receive.

The last I heard, my mother was living on Skid Row in Los Angeles. The forced slowdown of quarantine has given me time to reflect, and has allowed me to recognize that I don’t have the tools to give my mother the kind of help she needs. I’ll never completely close the door on our relationship. However, I know I can’t allow her in without a clear commitment from her to respect the boundaries that I’ve set. Until then, for my own mental health, I know I need to keep my distance.

Growing up, I loved my mother profoundly despite her absence. When I was 8 years old, she had just gotten out of prison, and was in the process of trying to get herself together. She told me that she wanted to spend the day with me, and we could do anything I wanted to do.

I chose to go see “The Lion King,” which had just been released, at the iconic El Capitan theater. Kids were always talking about the movie at school, and I’d been pretending to know the plot in order to fit in.

It was the most magical afternoon. The theater was beautiful. There was a gorgeous Wurlitzer organ that played before the show. After the film, there was an exhibit featuring the art of animation, showing who created these films: the animators, the directors, the concept artists. In that moment, the 8-year-old me first made the connection that the films I loved were made by people who draw, and that maybe one day I could be someone who grows up to draw and tell stories for a living as well.

The forced slowdown of quarantine has given me the time to pause, to reflect, to take inventory, to appreciate where I am and how I got here. I realize that I had been stuck focusing on the pain of what my mother was not able to provide.

Mothers are people, too. People are not perfect. They do the best they know how.

Whenever I notice feelings of anger or judgment toward my mother, I try to imagine her as a child. A child, like myself, that experienced pain and was at the mercy of the world around her. I know now that distance exists not just between people, but within people. My mother has spent a lifetime distancing herself from her own pain.

I thank my mother for being the best mother she knew how to be. I will honor her by giving myself the love, care and attention I wish she was able to provide. In loving myself, being good to myself, honoring myself, I am also honoring a part of her that exists within me. It isn’t forgetting or justifying the hurt and pain she’s caused, but it is freeing myself from allowing that pain to hold me prisoner.

This is the part where I am supposed to tell you to forgive and never forget, perhaps use gratitude as a tool for blah blah blah. I’m not going to do that. Instead, I ask you to cut out this flower. Imagine it holds an experience that has caused you pain.

Place it somewhere. Perhaps a wallet, a pocket or a purse. This flower will fade, deteriorate, fall apart. May that pain, or memory, that has held you captive, disappear, fade and fall apart along with it. May it help you on the path to freedom.

Christian Robinson is an author and illustrator of books for children. His books include “Last Stop on Market Street,” written by Matt de la Peña, “Another” and “You Matter.”

The Diary Project is a weekly visual assignment series produced by Alicia DeSantis, Jennifer Ledbury, Lorne Manly, Jolie Ruben and Josephine Sedgwick.

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