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Authors: Meghan O'Rourke

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BOOK: The Long Goodbye
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I adored my mother, but I also thought, as a teenager, that I was closer in temperament to my father—an Egyptologist, who, in addition to teaching, worked part-time at the Brooklyn Museum and who, I sometimes like to joke when I'm mad, can speak every dead language and none of the living. When we were children, he was a conjurer and storyteller, the one who could tell you what card you were going to pull from the deck, the one who recounted extravagant five-minute jokes, his wild red hair standing out around his head. But beneath the bonhomie, he was anxious, too, beholden to routine—perhaps why he studies ancient cultures and painstakingly translates old texts. Whenever my brothers and I wanted to take a trip somewhere new, we would plead with my mother; she would turn to my father and he would say, “What's wrong with Vermont?” My mother was more even-keeled and, as my father later put it, always present.
And yet she could be demanding of us, and sometimes I thought she was hardest on me, since I was the oldest child and the only girl. She and I occasionally clashed subtly. One way to put it would be to say I was nervous and my mother wasn't, and sometimes my neuroses were difficult for her. I was a picky eater, yet she would insist that I eat what was on my plate. I would slip into my bedroom and sulk, hungry but unable to comply. Eventually, she would cave and come in with a sandwich. The standoff usually lasted an hour or more, during which period I hated her. (Or, as a motherless little girl writes to her grandmother in Tove Jansson's novel
The Summer Book
: “I hate you. With warm personal wishes, Sophia.”) There was nothing special about those fights except that I was so thin-skinned that they translated for me into the potent suspicion that my mother and I were profoundly different from each other.
I was a secretive child. I remember once looking up from an elaborate imaginative game in my notebook at my brother, who was playing with horses and trucks out loud as my mother and father walked through the room. This horrified me; when I played alone, I played in my head. And yet for years my mother was able to see into my head; she was the person who lightened its occasional darkness. (It makes a strange sense that whenever I got uptight or impatient, she would say, “Lighten up, Meg.”) When I was in first grade, my class put on a play about the myth of Finn M'Coul, the Irish hero who battles the warrior Cuchulain. I was excited until I got cast in the role of Cuchulain. For reasons now obscure to me, I was embarrassed by the idea of playing a boy in front of the class and our parents. I didn't know what to do. It seemed so awful that I couldn't even mention it. Instead, I nursed my shame in private, thinking that something would keep it from happening. The day before the play, I couldn't eat anything. I pushed the food around on my plate. My mother gave me a look. At bedtime, the panic worsened. I lay in the dark and wept quietly. Somehow—and how I don't know—my mother heard me. She came in the room in her bathrobe and pushed the hair away from my forehead and said, “Sweetie, what's wrong?” I wouldn't answer. She quietly said, “Whatever it is cannot be as bad as you think.” Somehow this sentence unlocked me and I confessed. She smiled. “Honey, no one is going to care. You're not really a boy. It's acting.” When my mother said it, in the dark, in her nubbly maroon bathrobe, I believed her fully, as I would have believed no one else, and I relaxed as she stroked my hair and shushed me to sleep.
Whenever I inwardly berated myself about some failing, my mother was the one who knew best how to pull me out of my self-assault. Often she was the only one who noticed. To this day, when I am struggling with a difficult task, I pace my apartment feeling off-kilter, thinking,
I need something; what is it?
And I realize: my mother. She had, as my father put it, a clear compass. Once, in the eighth grade, instead of going to a chaste slumber party at our classmate Carly's, my friends and I sneaked out with some boys to see
The Rocky Horror Picture Show
, and a couple of days later one of the boys I'd gone with told on me after getting kicked out of class, in the hope of distracting my mother from his antics. When I walked by her office, she crooked her finger at me. “You,” she said, from behind her desk. “Yes, you, Meghan, you're not going anywhere till I talk to you.” I went in, tears of guilt already springing to my eyes. But she just looked at me and said, “Meg, you need some better friends.” I stiffened. She said, “
The Rocky Horror Picture Show
, hmm? It's OK. But find some friends who don't rat you out afterward.” And then she said, “Now get out of my sight, sweetheart, and don't lie to me again.”
I thought of my mother as more natively relaxed and outgoing than I was. But every so often something would happen that would make me realize we were more similar than I'd thought—my mother would idly say how shy she'd been when she moved to New York, and met my father's friends. I remember how nervous she was when she had to speak in public for the first time, at a school meeting just after she'd become head of the middle school at Saint Ann's. (She must have been the same age I am now.) She fretted all that morning, dressing. I agonized with her, because I was deeply shy, and such a task seemed heart-freezingly frightening. Afterward I asked her how it went. She said, “You know, you just have to do it. You don't have a choice. And then once you've done it, you can do it again, and it isn't so bad.” She was a pragmatist at core: if you could be present, intensely present, the rest would work itself out. Later I realized that this was much harder than it looked.
Once when I was in college, my parents had a dinner party with some teachers. It was a festive midwinter affair and everyone got a little lit on red wine. As two young teachers were talking past us, my mother leaned over to me and said, “I just wrote my mother a letter about what she meant to me. We're bad at saying these things in my family, but she's getting older and I wanted her to know. And it made me think about you, and how there are so many things I don't say to you, but I want you to know.” What she said next was just that she loved me and was proud of me, but those words, prefaced by her sharing a piece of her experience of what it was like for her to be in the world, meant much more than the same words in any other context. I recall clearly the sensation I had—a squeezing, falling one, a silly, encompassing flush of love. And also this: In that moment I could see her as more than my mother; I could see her as a daughter, a person who'd had to make her own way, who'd had to learn to speak in public, to command authority—things she did now with such ease you'd never guess that once they struck her nearly mute with fear.
And so as I write this, I am hit by a feeling of error, a sense that during my twenties, when I thought my mother never quite understood me, it was I who saw her incompletely. I remember the times when she filled my Christmas stockings with the hand warmers sold in ski shops, so I could make it through the winter with warm fingers. (Who would do that for me today?) I took for granted so many of her seemingly casual qualities. The familiar old panic rises in my stomach. “Don't worry about that, Meg,” Isabel tells me, when I say as much to her one night before my birthday. “It wasn't your job to tell her she was a great mother. It was her job to be your mother.”
F MY MANY ANXIETIES, the one I was most secretive about was my fear of death. It seemed impossible to confess. One cool summer day, curled up in my sleeping bag on the couch, reading an Agatha Christie mystery, I listened as my brother Liam, fiddling with the radio dial while my mother dealt a hand of Go Fish, turned to her and said, “I don't want to die. Do you not want to die? What happens to us when we die?”
And my mother put the cards down and said, slowly, “No, I don't want to die. But I don't know what happens to us when we die.”
“It's scary,” he said.
“Yes, it is,” our mother said, calmly. “But it's not going to happen to you for a long time.”
I was nauseated and riveted: these were the words I wanted to say, and could not say—the comfort I wanted to seek in her, only her, and could not seek. Perhaps that is because I already felt that any comfort she could offer would be false. Dismayingly, this problem was one that she could not solve.
So much of dealing with a disease is waiting. Waiting for appointments, for tests, for “procedures.” And waiting, more broadly, for
—for the thing itself, for the other shoe to drop. Except in the waiting you keep forgetting that “it” will really happen—it's more like a threat, an anxiety:
Will my love love me forever?
My mother couldn't have her radiation surgery (called CyberKnife) on the nodules in her brain until after Thanksgiving. So we waited. Her confusion was getting worse. She couldn't go to school and she couldn't be alone.
One day, my father drove to upstate New York to pick up Eamon from college. My brother had appealed his suspension, but the school had rejected it, which meant he had to come home. Our friend Diana was with my mother, and I came up to relieve her. Diana, one of my mother's closest friends, had been my father's student at Saint Ann's many years earlier. She babysat Liam and me back when my parents used to go on “date night” every Tuesday. We liked these nights, because Diana was the funniest of all our babysitters; with her mellow and bemused approach to chaos, she reminded me a bit of our mom. After college, she became my mother's assistant, when my mom was appointed head of the middle school; later, my mother promoted her to assistant head. They were a Laurel & Hardyish pair, always teasing and playing and joking. Now Diana regularly visited, to see my mom and to help out when my dad couldn't be there.
Diana was trying to make breakfast, but my mother couldn't focus long enough to decide what she wanted. Then she would get frustrated and insist, “Don't worry about me. . . .”
She had the choosiness of a fussy toddler, complicated by the pride of an adult. Finally Diana just made her eggs, and my mother pushed them away and said, “No, you eat them, I'll make some for myself.”
“But these are for
,” Diana finally said, slight frustration entering her voice.
My mother heard it, pulled herself up, and put on the jokey face she had developed for these moments, to make things she'd done in confusion seem like little pranks. It was her way of having a modicum of control. “Of course they are!” she said brightly, and began to eat.
Later she turned to Diana and said, deliberately, as if she could find words that would burn through the fog in her mind, “You know, sometimes I have this feeling that I just want to . . .
Do you know that feeling? I just want to pop.”
Diana had to turn away to hide her face.
A week later my father, my mother, and I were sitting in the living room, discussing how my mother would get to a doctor's appointment. She kept insisting she could drive herself. “I'll be fine,” she declared.
“You can't drive, Mom. I'll drive you,” I said. My father and I began squabbling about the particulars. I was annoyed that he wasn't doing it. He seemed to have trouble going to the hospital, and his resistance infuriated me. Why wouldn't he just take the day off from work? He told me to stop being so bossy.
“Stop it, you two,” my mother said, using the look she gave her misbehaving students, a look Eamon called “the Skeleton Face.”
My dad left the room. He came back a few minutes later with his fist closed. “Time to take your medicine,” he said to my mother. She tapped his fist and he opened it: there lay five pieces of candy corn, left over from Halloween.
“Well, thank you!” she said, a smile flickering.
“Mom,” I said.
“Mmm?” she said. She was staring into space, as if seeing something that was not there.
“Are you hungry?”
She turned her eyes toward me. “Mmm,” she said. Silence. Minutes went by.
“Mom!” I said again.
“Are you hungry?”
She hunched herself up a bit. She was tangled in an afghan and in the nodes of the TENS machine I had bought her a few weeks earlier from a dismal medical supplies store in Norwalk; it provides electrostimulation to the nerves and helps diminish local pain (in this case, from the tumor in her iliac bone). “I guess I should be,” she said.
“What do you want?”
A blank stare. Her stomach was showing; her pants were too big. When I had come downstairs that morning, she was in the kitchen, putting cups away into odd places with one hand, and with the other she was holding a tape measure around her waist, as if it were a belt.
“I don't know,” she said blankly. “Maybe . . . some yogurt?
“OK,” I said. “You need to drink something. Water? Juice? Limonata?”
“Limonata,” she said.
She looked at me puzzled where I stood in the doorway. “Shouldn't you be standing over there?” she said, pointing to a chair in the corner. “I look at you and I think you should be standing there.”
I realize now as I write that my memories are blurring. Which trip was which? How did I get there the second time? I had been sleeping poorly, and I was exhausted. Trying to teach two college writing seminars and work on the website and have a relationship and help with my mother: none of it was working. I was spending a lot of time in Connecticut, and I was moody and terrified, and inevitably matters had frayed in my romantic life. At one point the man I was dating said, You're choosing your mother over me. I hadn't seen it as a choice. A few days before Thanksgiving, I found out that my divorce had been finalized; holding the official certificate, which had arrived in the mail, I went heavy with loneliness. I quickly filed it in a manila folder, so I didn't have to look at it. I was counting the days until my mother would have the radiation surgery on her brain. I already missed her. I was irrevocably aware that the Person Who Loved Me Most in the World was about to be dead.
BOOK: The Long Goodbye
5.28Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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