One of the Two
The question of self-pity, Joan Didion called it in The Year of Magical Thinking. It’s a question that runs through me, a question I want to avoid, when I tell you that I am motherless.
Of course, I had a mother. I was not motherless; I was motherfull. I was mothered until I was 15; then I was unmothered, unmoored.
Can there be a daughter without a mother? If you are not a daughter, and you do not have a mother, who are you?
In the 1980s and early 90s, I lived a relatively sheltered life with my small family. I spent summers with my grandparents on the eastern and western ends of North Carolina; my home in Charlotte was about halfway between my mom’s parents and my dad’s. My parents and I, an only child, spent a week each summer at the North Carolina coast. I went to camp in the mountains each summer. We went to the United Methodist church every Sunday; my mom sang in the choir. I danced in ballet recitals every May; I played show tunes on the piano. I rode my bike to piano lessons. We had a house in the suburbs. We had three cats.
The summer I was 13, during our week at the beach, my mother sat on the faded pastel floral sofa in our beachfront condo, clutching her left side, moaning in agony from abdominal pains. To see her show that kind of pain was unprecedented to me.
Upon our return to Charlotte, she visited our family doctor, who directed her to an oncologist, who performed a painful bone marrow biopsy, diagnosing her with myelofibrosis, a disease that scars the bone marrow, stopping it from producing blood cells. An enlarged spleen, trying to make the blood cells her marrow could not, had caused her first outward symptom: the abdominal pains. The disease is extremely rare, treatments guessed at, always fatal.
My parents told me about the disease and its prognosis. At 13, I was able to understand illness, and life, and death, in its most basic sense. I imagine now that they did not tell me everything, that they kept some of it from me to protect me. At the time, though, it felt as if I knew too much.
I had an active imagination, and I could pretend that nothing was wrong. It was easy to fake, much easier than preparing myself for the fact that she would, one day, sooner than I ever thought, die.
I prayed, every night in bed that she would get better via a miracle or a misdiagnosis. This nightly prayer was my only acknowledgement that she might not get better. The rest of the time, I forced myself to believe she would. My mother would not die because in what kind of world would I live if a teenage girl’s mother died?
The doctors confirmed that most of the time, the disease was slow moving, with a life expectancy from time of diagnosis of five to 10 years, maybe more. At least, I thought, she would be there when I graduated from high school, maybe when I graduated from college.
She died in two years, on September 11, 1994.
When her body started shutting down, it was the end of August. She stopped going to work. I was still going to school—I was in 10th grade and had just started high school. When I came home, I would go to her room, where she lay on the bed, and ask her if she needed anything. I would bring her a glass of water or some juice.
One day, she went to the hospital. Maybe she knew, but I did not, or did not want to think, that she would not come home again.
After school one day, my dad picked me up to take me to the hospital. Her oncologist wanted to meet with us, he said. She was dying, the doctor said. Her myelofibrosis had developed into acute leukemia, a common end for these patients. We had two options, he told us. Let the leukemia run its course, which would be swift, or do intensive radiation therapy, which would prolong her life for a while—six months, maybe.
Her parents and my father wanted to choose the former option: let the leukemia run its course, let her die. It was an option I understood logically, but emotionally, I could not abide it, could not be a willing accomplice to death. My mom, too, had told my dad that she did not want to have her life prolonged unnaturally. Yet even something that would prolong her life unnaturally seemed, to me, more natural than not having a mother.
Until I looked at a calendar from 1994, I would have sworn that the day she died was a school day.
In reality, September 11, 1994, fell on a Sunday.
Now that I know that, it sounds familiar: a story I’ve heard before.
The ICU where she lay was all white, starched, disinfected. I’m sure the air conditioning was on high, keeping everything cool; the many machines required for patients in the ICU would heat the small rooms up, feverish and sweating. I remember the ICU like a wheel, the nurses’ desk in the center of the room, the rooms surrounding it like spokes, a circle with no beginning.
I could see the nurses’ desk from where I sat on the edge of my mom’s bed. My mom herself was pale yet hot, swollen, attached to a ventilator, the only thing keeping her alive. She was sedated so that she would not feel anything, not even pain, would not know what was happening to her. She was not privy to the fact that she was dying.
They had been waiting to remove the respirator, until it was all that sustained her. We hadn’t been allowed to visit much, but here, now, so close to dying, I was allowed in, to see her in this whatever-in-between living state. The nurse switched off the machine and removed the mask from my mother’s face: it left a red mark around her mouth. It won’t be long, I think someone said, but maybe I just thought it.
I don’t remember how long it took for her to breathe her last breath. She couldn’t breathe on her own, so it must not have taken long. A shaky, gasping breath, something like strangling.
Because she had a do not resuscitate order, when the machines beeped, calling to the nurses to her side, there would be no urgency, no paddles or needles or chest compressions, no air passing from one person into her lungs, no code blue announced on the intercom. Just death. Silence when the machines were unplugged.
I think my dad said, “She’s gone.” But perhaps I’ve misremembered that. I remember taking her favorite pillow, which she’d taken with her every time she went to the hospital, a small throw pillow with horses, her favorite animal, on it, out from under her arm, clutching it to my chest. I think I held her hand while she was dying. It was swollen from edema. It was not my mother’s hand.
How do you tell someone about your mother’s death? You do not want to lead with it, when you are meeting someone new. And at what point is it too awkward in a friendship to bring it up? I had few reasons to say, “My mom died,” until I went to college. In high school, everyone already knew.
I was never sure how to approach the subject with my new college friends. I could hardly even form the words; I hated the way they sounded coming from my mouth. I spoke of my dad, but never my mom. My own discomfort led to friends’ discomfort in asking about my mom. Most of them, I would find out, assumed my parents were divorced. Hannah one of my best friends in college, didn’t know anything about her until an April weekend our freshman year, after we’d been friends for nine months, when we stayed at my dad’s house to attend a concert in Charlotte. Seeing a woman’s photo on the piano in the living room, Hannah asked, “Who’s that?”
“My mom,” I said. “She passed away when I was 15.”
“Oh,” Hannah said. “I never knew. I thought maybe your parents were divorced. I’m sorry.”
When, in high school, my friends were going to parties, drinking beer out of red plastic cups, I was at home, thinking that I needed to be there for my dad. Thinking, what if he left, too.
Perhaps we are for others what we need for ourselves, hoping, somehow, it will fill the void. It does not. It obscures the void temporarily, a tarp that will fade and disintegrate in the sun.
There are clichés and platitudes that help us talk about the dead. Before the death, we think: we need time. Can I have an extra day, week, six months? Elongate the passage of time, somehow. Draw it out, a slow exhale. Long time no see, we practice saying, to see how it will sound out loud.
After the death, we think: we need time to grieve. The thing is, no one tells us how to grieve. They will say everyone handles grief differently. What they should say is that there are many ways to grieve, but not all of them are good or safe or productive. No one will say that.
They will say instead, time is all we need. We need to cry, we need to pray, we need to talk. Those things take time. And then: time will heal our wounds. Despite the peaceful nature of such a sentiment, this time passes in sharp, shallow breaths, bruised ribs making too deep a breath painful.
They say there is no time like the present. Yet there is no present if you think only of the past and what you had or only of the future and what you will not have.
I did not cry in front of anyone. My family had not talked about feelings before my mother’s death; I didn’t talk to her about her fears and mine. We did not mention the time when she would not be there. She is dealing with it in her own way, they said about me. Really, what I needed was someone to show me how to deal with it.
My mother wrote about her fears and her illness in a column in the Charlotte Observer, where she had worked as a reporter and editor since 1970. She didn’t talk about her fears at home, or at least with me, but I read them in the newspaper, sitting at the kitchen table, after school when I was alone. Strange, to encounter your own mother’s deepest fears not from her mouth but from black ink on newsprint. Soy ink left my fingertips smudged; I washed my hands in the kitchen sink.
Time makes wounds hurt more, when I think about the 20 years I’ve lived without a mother and the many years more I will. On September 11, 2009, she had been dead 15 years, and every day after that meant that I’d lived longer without her than with her. It was a strange milestone to mark, uncomfortable and startling.
I no longer wait nine months to tell friends that I am motherless. Still, though, I wonder what goes through their heads when I tell them. I worry that it seems irrelevant to the conversation, stilted or forced in.
People tell me I look like her. People sometimes call me “Brooks,” her name. In some ways, it is soothing to hear that I look like her, and in some ways, more ways, maybe, it is a burden, to live as the parallel of a dead woman. I have her laugh; when genuine, it carries across the air, across parking lots, across crowded buildings. I treasure these connections, but still, they lead to a question: Will her fate be my fate?
We are the same in many ways, beyond our similarities in appearance or that we both require glasses to correct our vision.
My mother, the writer. When she died, the Charlotte Observer collected her columns in a booklet to sell. The proceeds from the sale of the booklet, along with the yard sale they hosted, went to a college fund for me.
When I went to college, the same she’d attended, I became an English major, like my mom. I became editor of the college newspaper, just as she had been.
The writer cannot be afraid to reveal something deeply personal, something that she does not like to admit even to her closest friends, on paper. Yet there is something primal in the writer that must share these personal things, share them in public even. Part of the writer’s creative urge is for that creativity to be witnessed somehow.
The things I could never talk about when I was 16 or 21 or 25—now, these are things I write about, in the same way my mother’s own feelings didn’t get discussed at home but in the newspaper.
You could say that I am still trying to recapture some part of my mother, that my desire to write is a way to hold onto her, to her memory. You could say that writing must be in my genes, that whatever was within her, pushing her to share, publicly, her disease, is within me, pushing me to share, publicly, that which I buried for so long.
I think, really, it is a combination of both of these things, and more, that pushes me to say what I couldn’t before.
Remove an ‘m,’ and mother becomes other. In Old English, other was oþer: literally, “one of the two.” A mother carries you in her womb. You are one. In nine months, you become two, and you are one of the two. In adolescence and beyond, you work to become a person separate from the one who bore you, to fully become two. Still, though, the mother is the identifier, the Polaris, the compass. Without a mother, there is no one to separate from. You are one, where there should be two.
When I was eight years old, I asked my mom if she would play with me—dolls, maybe, or Candy Land. She was lounging in her grandmother’s high-backed, wood-trimmed chair in our living room, sitting sideways, her legs draped over the chair’s right arm, reading whatever crime thriller was new in paperback. “Go ask Daddy,” she said.
My mother’s lack of interest in playing was not new, but that day I realized, even at eight years old: My mom doesn’t like kids. I knew she loved me. But she preferred that I entertain myself. It stung, this realization.
This realization now is even more difficult. If my mom tolerated me as a child and liked me as an adolescent, now she would love me as an adult.
It is not that without a mother, motherless daughters everywhere flounder to create life. Most motherless daughters figure out what to do: how to nurture, how to be a mother, how to be a woman. There is something innate in us that leads us there. There is also something in us that yearns for a mother.
After 20 years, it is not something I think about every day; I am not wallowing in my motherlessness. Yet when I see a sweater she would like or hear a song on the radio she would have loved, these are times I think, I wish she were here.
In graduate school, returning from a weekend trip to New York after catching the early morning bus back to D.C., I stop by a friend’s house, where I’ve parked my car, before heading to school. He asks if I’d like a sandwich, since I will need to eat lunch. I accept, and it occurs to me that with this small offering, some gap in me is breached, some void filled. This is what a mother would do. There is power in this act. As I watch my friend carefully spread peanut butter and raspberry jam in equal amounts on two slices of whole wheat bread, I remember sitting at our juice-sticky, wooden kitchen table, watching my mom spread peanut butter on toast, my breakfast, as the cats wound around her ankles. Whether this man knows it or not, he is temporarily patching a small part of the hole in me. He puts the bread together, peanut butter and jam now merged, and he wraps the sandwich tightly in aluminum foil. As I am walking out the door, he puts an orange in my hand.
 Names have been changed
About the author:
Leslie Maxwell lives in Durham, N.C., where she teaches writing to college students and community members. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Lockjaw Magazine, Juked, Blunderbuss Magazine, The Fourth River, and decomP magazinE, among other publications.