I’ve been okay all day, in that way that one is okay because it’s necessary. The illness and death of a parent are so banal, really – it happens to everyone, sooner or later. My mother has been sick for years, and I have been ready for her death more times than I can count. I have expected the phone call, rehearsed farewells, and tried to harden myself against the waves of grief and loss and confusion. She’s always been there, my whole life. She has been nurturer, antagonist, and, lately, friend. She’s been a good mother, part of an enviable set of parents. I have no complaints except for the fact that she seems to be leaving me when I’m not really quite ready.
So, as I said, I was okay until I moved the pile of books on the dining room table because the cat threw up. On the top of the pile was a Viking Portable Faulkner that belonged to my mother in college. I’ve been on a Faulkner kick this summer, and although I am actually reading The Sound and the Fury, I borrowed the book from her because it had a great map in the inside cover that showed where all of the stories took place. I bumped the book with my bottle of spray cleaner and it fell over, open to the inside front cover with her name written in her Palmer-perfect writing. “Leah Louis, ’57, Wellesley College.” I was lost.
I see her, with her shiny black hair, her Talbot’s skirt and her cardigan, sitting in the library reading Faulkner and taking the notes that fill the margins. She was pretty, feisty, sure of herself, dating Harvard boys on the weekend and having long conversations with her roommates. She had met her first, “starter” husband, but not my father, the love of her life. She went to hear the Boston Symphony when she could get rush tickets, and she had a crush on the poet Robert Lowell.
She is struggling with Faulkner’s stream of consciousness; I know this because we talked about it when I read him for the first time in high school. (My notes appear alongside hers in several places). At seventeen, struggling to separate myself from her bright, quick charisma I was horrible. It wasn’t hard to read, I said. I got it. She held her tongue because I needed, in that moment, to be my own bad self. It was hard to be the lumpy, insecure daughter of a woman who was good at her job, a fabulous cook, and a person capable of making things happen. It was hard to be me, and it seemed so easy to be her before I knew about the losses, the failures, and the humanity invisible to the children of conscientious parents.
I was ridiculously careful not to cry on the ink because it might smear. That smart, Midwestern Jewish girl reading Faulkner in the Wellesley library was someone I desperately wanted back, even for a minute. Well, not that girl, but the woman she had become. I needed to know that my last conversation with her, during which I talked and she didn’t seem to hear me, was not really the last one. I tried to remember what we talked about – was it about Sam’s scooter being fixed, or about meat for a Fourth of July dinner? Had I been short with her because she forgot that I don’t eat meat anymore and asked if my father should pick up a chicken breast for me?
I wept for her, and me, and because I was embarrassed that I couldn’t just buck up and understand that all of this happens to everyone. I’m ashamed that I considered sleeping with the book under my pillow tonight. Because that old, blue book belonged to that promising girl who became my mother, and who raised me to be another reader of Faulkner, another good cook, and another force to be reckoned with.
I’ll see her in the morning, and if she isn’t up to talking, I can read her a little Faulkner. Maybe it will turn some key in the parts of her mind that are closed to the rest of us these days. Maybe she’ll be doing better, and we’ll talk; I’ll have another chance at a memorable conversation, one I can look back on and say “I was a good daughter, I was kind and loving, and I said the right things.” Probably I’ll just sit in a plastic chair and listen to machines beep.
Whatever comes, I think I can handle it. I am, after all, my mother’s daughter.