When you called yesterday, you made such a reasonable request. It seemed, you said, that I was trying to “teach you moderation” when you just needed to vent. You pointed out that, of course, you knew there were two sides to every story, and that there was nothing to be gained by looking for slights. Who, after all, had taught me those things?!
I want you to know that I don’t mean to do it. I want to tell you that I talk to myself in calm moments, and I say: “there are people who have mothers who are actually ‘bad,’ and you don’t. You have a wonderful mother. You may lose her any day. Her health isn’t good. When you talk to her, when you’re with her, be patient, be a good listener, don’t withhold anything. You’ll be sorry if you keep doing that.” I always really mean it.
Your poor health and your age (yours and dad’s) have changed death from something distant and unknown to something that might possibly be in my kitchen making a sandwich right this minute. The congestive heart failure, the kidney failure, the dialysis, the transplant, the fall down the stairs, the months in the rehab facility, the days you feel too sick to make our lunch dates…these things accumulate in my mind and terrify me. I handled each one, calmly and helpfully in public, and with exhaustion and tears at home, but what will I do when you die?
What will I do without you?
And if I feel that way, and I most certainly do, what is that makes me shut you out and treat you as if you were a person of compromised intellect? You call to tell me something you are worried about, something about old friends, family members, people on the news, and I become instantly smug, patronizing, opaque. I tell you to stop watching the news coverage of Haiti, because you can’t do anything and it’s depressing. I tell you not to be so quick to assume that the vet isn’t telling you the whole story about the dog’s arthritis. I tell you not to assume the worst about the behavior of family members. You tell me that today’s music sounds like “baby, baby, wa, wa, wa,” and I get hot under the collar, defending it as if I were an executive at Sony. You say it might be smart to organize Sam’s binder every day, and I roll my eyes and tell you that I know that. Worst of all, you tell me stories about your history and your family that I should be taking in and holding close, and I hold back the questions, the sounds of interest and assent that every story-teller craves.
As if you are a child, and I am not only your mother but your not very compassionate or imaginative mother, I dispatch to you from my great heights the things you should know so that you can Calm Down. As I do it, I think “why are you doing that? Can’t you see she just needs to talk? You wouldn’t treat anybody else like this? What is the matter with you?” The thing is, I don’t know how to back out of it once I start.
Your best friend is dead. You don’t have the rich network of friends you had when you were working, and dad really doesn’t like to talk about “personal” stuff any more than most men his age. (Or any age). Plus, you don’t want to worry him, and if you tell him a family member has made you feel bad, he gets mad at them, and wants to Do Something long after you are past it. You need somebody to talk to. You need not to be rushed, managed, schooled, patronized or tolerated, you need a sympathetic ear. I am telling you now that I understand that, I really do. There is just some kind of curtain that closes when I start talking to you. Not always, but often.
You really are, and always have been a good mother, half of a set of good parents. I always felt loved, supported, and challenged in the best ways possible. You were a good teacher, a good administrator, a great friend, a wonderful cook, a good wife, and incredibly smart and articulate. Sometimes I felt that you had already been everywhere I was going, and done it better – it was your world, and I was just your daughter, a less confident, less vibrant shadow. That wasn’t your fault; it was just the way you were. Everybody loved you, and everybody loved dad, and our life was filled with dinner parties, books, generosity, music, trips to Europe, trips to Maine, and very few shadows. I know now, as a wife and a mother with bills and stress and perpetual busy-ness that you did a remarkable job, an enviable job. You were the best kind of example I could have had.
Why is it, then, that I can’t seem to give, graciously, the only think you really need from me now? I have no problem driving you to the doctor, running your laundry up and down the stairs, making meals for dad to put in the oven, or helping with your holiday decorating. What stops me from what should be the easiest thing of all, just sitting and talking to you without impatience, without judging what you think in ways that I would never judge anyone else in my life. I am fine when you need a little “managing,” when you need help getting down a steep set of steps, or when you need me to drive right up to the door and get you. I am not a good friend when you need to talk. The other day you said “genetic” instead of “generic,” and I corrected you. It was a mistake, you were exhausted and adjusting to new medications. You have an English degree from Wellesley College, and I found it necessary to set you straight. I am ashamed of myself.
It’s complicated, this thing between us, and I am trying to figure it out so that I can stop “managing” you and start just loving you and being your friend. There is a competitive thing that’s always been there, that I suspect is often there between a mother and a daughter. I need to establish that I know a thing or two, and that I am not just your daughter, but a worthy person in my own right. Even as I know that you want that for me, just as I want it for my own child, I erect straw men to fight with and declare my victory. Never, ever a sweet or satisfying one. I don’t know how to stop feeling this way. Did you ever felt this way about your own mother, with whom you were so close? I feel monstrous, selfish, ridiculous. If I asked you for help with it, I know that you would help me. I think, maybe, I’m asking.
Also, finally, I am terrified that you are leaving me. Maybe in some subterranean lump of cerebral flesh I am holding you at arm’s length so that the loss will not be so great. I was, after all, the child who cried when you and dad were out to dinner and I heard a siren, convinced that the call was coming to tell us that you had been killed. I have been fearing your death, and dad’s, my whole life, tied to the track with the train coming at me, unable to reach any kind of rapprochement with the reality that it is inevitable, that I will handle it, that I will go on knowing that I had wonderful parents who live on in every good thing about me. When you lose a word, when you forget what day we planned lunch, it is as if an unseen hand takes me firmly under the chin and turns my head so that I must look at what has changed, what is lost, what terrifies me. Like a child, like your child, I panic and fight back at the idea that my mother is taking back her love and protection.
So I am asking, will you help me with this? Can you see past the bitchiness, the smug superiority, the patronizing need to “handle” you, and understand that I am just frightened? Can you help me find some kind of balance between trying to make everything better, and accepting that we are in a new place for both of us, where it is not always clear what “better” might be?
Can you be my mother, for every minute we have left? Clearly, I need one.
Mary Cassatt Mother and Child: http://images.art.com/images/PRODUCTS/large/10032000/10032604.jpg