Can You Ever Really Know Someone?

The only mother figure in Christan Marashio’s life for nearly 40 years was her stepmother, but when she wrote Christan out of her will, Christan was left wondering if the love she always felt from her stepmother was all an act.

In June 2012, my father passed away unexpectedly. A valve in his 86-year-old heart needed to be replaced. Without it, doctors gave him at most another two years to live. With it he was given an extra three to five. Since my step-mother’s health was slowly declining, my father underwent the surgery so that he could be there to care for her. He never recovered and eventually had to be taken off life support. 

While trusts were set up for my sisters and me, the majority of his estate rightfully went to my step-mother. They were married for almost 35 years. I knew her longer than I knew my own mom, who passed when I was 7. Because I didn’t have many memories of my birth mother, I took to my stepmother quite effortlessly. I can still remember not wanting to go to school that first Monday after she and her boys moved into our house just before she and my dad got married. I didn’t want to leave her, elated with this new presence in my rather lonely childhood. She wasn’t just my father’s wife. She wasn’t “just” anybody.

About a month after my dad died, my stepmom was encouraged to draft her will. Six weeks later, after suffering through several weeks of bad back pain, she went to the doctor. She was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer and given two months to live. She died about two months later. Soon after she passed, we learned that she made the decision to leave everything my father had bequeathed to her to her three sons. Nothing was left to us, his daughters.

In the wake of my stepmother’s death and the revelation of those final wishes, I experienced a range of emotions. The loss of money that, I believe, my father would have intended for my sisters and me was certainly not easy to take. Her sons graciously stepped back from having ownership in some properties that my father left behind, turning them over to us. Unfortunately, that’s not the same as if she chose to do that for us. The money was far less important to me than the gesture. Wasn’t I one of her children, too?

I’ve spent a great deal of time crawling around in the head of a woman who, for the first time in her life, not only had enough money to live comfortably for many years to come, but had the freedom to finally do with it what she wished. Combine that with having to cope with the loss of her husband and worries about her own health and mortality, and I realized this wasn’t a decision borne just of resentment. Choices like this are rarely that simple.

Did being so reliant on my father make her feel owned in some way? Did she resent him because of all that he had done for his daughters? And did that anger spill over into how she felt about my sisters and me? There’s no doubt that she suffered in silence for many years as she watched my father cater to our whims and put our needs ahead of his own. I never wondered about any of this while she was alive. Now it’s something I frequently toss around in my brain.

I have moments of feeling so angry at her for what she did. Then I imagine her, sitting there alone on their balcony where she and my dad used to sit watching the sunset, and my heart breaks for her. She was completely lost without him. Instead of seeing this as a possible Second Act for herself, I think she chose to draw the curtain entirely and give up. I even suspect that she was angry at him for leaving her so suddenly, without any kind of direction about how to get on without him. After a lifetime of being taken care of, she was left to fend for herself.

I wonder if she felt paralyzed, unsure of what to do next. Or maybe I’m just rationalizing because the alternative—that everything I thought I understood about her and how she felt about me was a lie—is just too painful to consider. What I do not question is that she loved my father deeply and made him happy. For that alone, considering all that my father went through in his life, she deserved everything he left to her. The real tragedy isn’t the loss of money, as money doesn’t last. It’s that two people loved each other so much that one—quite literally—couldn’t appear to live without the other. The rest is all just a messy turn of events.

In the six months since her death I’ve thought very little about my stepmother. I don’t mourn her the way I know my father would want me to. Worse, I don’t feel guilty for not feeling guilty about that.

When I went to her funeral I brought with me a small plaque she had bought for me many years ago. It read:

To My Daughter,

There are three things you should know;

The sun will always rise,

The stars will always shine,

And I will always care

I placed the trinket in her casket at her viewing, knelt on the bench and said my goodbye. People suggested that I hold onto the keepsake, thinking I’d like to have something to preserve her memory. At the time, I considered their recommendation. But now I’m glad I buried it with her. I don’t think I could stand to look at it now. The only reminder it would serve would be to make me question whether if it was all an act. She was the only person I recognized as a mother for nearly 40 years, I thought I knew her.

And now I will spend the rest of my life wondering if I ever did.

Christan is an NYC based writer and columnist. Her work and advice has been featured in media outlets such as, YourTango, MSN’s GLO Network and The New York Post. You can find more of her work at And That’s Why You’re Single. As a 40-something dating in Manhattan she can teach you that sometimes the love of your life is the love of your life. Follow her on Twitter at @ATWYSingle

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