Of course, I had my father, too. But fathers love in different ways than mothers do.
N THANKSGIVING DAY, I drove to my parents', where we were all going to have dinner with Diana and her husband, Josh, and their three boys. I had my mother's car, which I'd borrowed a week earlier, to help me get to and from Connecticut. I was happy to be driving home, but I was wrung out. My relationship had come to a crashing halt. The night before, the man I was dating had called one final time, and we had fought, and he had enumerated my failings, and I had been up all night examining my motives. And because I had indeed told lies, and had kept secrets, I found truth in many of his accusations. I was losing my grip. My mother was dying, and the only person I wanted to talk to about my despair over it was
After a long trip, I opened the door to the smell of turkey and pie and thought:
I still have a home.
“Hello!” I cried out. Inside, Diana and my mother were chopping vegetables. For a moment everything seemed comfortingly familiar.
But my mother's hair was messy and tangled and she waved hello absently. She was shuffling oddly, perhaps because of the pain from the tumors in her spine, and her pants drooped around her hips. When I gave her a kiss she only half responded, as if some part of her maternal brain were simply no longer present. My father, meanwhile, was stretched out on the couch, looking bleary-eyed and feverish. He didn't even say hello. (The next day, we would discover that he had pneumonia and shingles, as if the universe wished to add insult to injury.)
I busied myself unpacking groceries when I heard my mother shuffle toward me. “Meg,” she said, bitterly. “There's bird shit on the car.” Diana shot me a glanceâa sympathetic, oh-no glance.
“Oh,” I said. “I'm sorry.”
bad for the car,” she said.
“OK,” I said. “I'll get it washed.”
“It eats away at the veneer, it's very bad.”
“Mom!” I snapped, wheeling around. “I know. There is nothing I can do about it nowâI'll take it to be cleaned tomorrow.”
She rolled her eyes and walked away. I joined Diana and, pretending nothing happened, began washing the apples for the pie; as we talked, my mother shuffled over to the kitchen sink. She picked up a sponge, dumped dish soap on it.
toward the garage door. Diana raised an eyebrow.
Exit cancer-riddled mother to wash car with sponge.
It might have seemed amusing if it hadn't been so damn awful.
“Mom!” I shouted. “What are you doing?”
“I am cleaning the bird shit off the car,” she said acerbically. She meant clearly:
You are favored no more, my daughter
I felt I was losing my mind.
“Don't do that,” I said.
I followed her into the garage; she was bent over the car, fruitlessly swiping at the encrusted bird shit with the fucking sponge.
“Mom, don't do that,” I snapped. “I'll have it cleaned tomorrow.”
Bending down, she muttered about the wax and the bird shit eating away at the wax; in confusion, I retreated to the kitchen. She came back in the house. “Are you upset with me?” she said. “Are you upset about something?”
When I got angry as a kid I would hide in my bedroom and get under my quilt and cry till I was too hot and sweaty to stay under it anymore. The quilt was yellow, patterned with dark yellow butterflies. The light around me would be golden and gorgeous and redolent of my grief and wronged status. Finally, when I had wept myself out, I would emerge. Now I wanted to do the same. Instead I said, “Yes, I'm upset. I haven't seen you, I had a horrible, hard week, it's Thanksgiving, and the first thing you do is scold me about the bird shit. It doesn't seem that important.”
We were standing in the kitchen regarding each other with dismay, everyone around us trying not to watch.
, Meg.” She had never been able to take it when I criticized her. “But the bird shit is
not good for the car.” Inside me, some last plank of steadiness broke. There was nothing motherly about her. The mother in her would have noticed my desperation; she would have put her hands on my shoulders and said
I'm sorry you feel this way, honey, I'm sorry
. This was not my mother. This was a shuffling alien with scary hair.
“Mom, I'm having a hard time.”
“I understand that,” she said. “Butâ”
It was too much for me. I erupted. “Mom, you have never supported my divorce, you don't know what this is likeâ”
“You need to calm down, Meg,” she said.
need to calm down,” I said. “You are always telling me to calm down. You are always telling me how things are. This is how
feel.” I dug my fingernails into my arm so deeply they tore the skin open. I pushed up my sleeve and saw blood on my arm. “Do you see what I've done to myself?” I said, in shock. (I was not exactly doing a good job of demonstrating that I didn't need to calm down.) My father on the couch opened his eyes and then closed them, as if he were just too sick to deal with whatever was happening now.
“I'm sorry you feel this way, but it's not true,” she continued. “You need to relax.”
“Look what I've done!” I cried.
Fumbling through tears, I ran upstairs, no longer able to keep up the pretense of being the helpful daughter. I was furious at her confusion, furious at her helplessness. Why was she letting this disease attack her brain? Why was she betraying us? Why was she so mad at
I went to the bathroom to wash my face and the face that looked back was not my own. I slid down the side of the sink, the cabinet knobs digging into my back, and wept convulsively, clutching my right arm with my left, digging my nails further into the skin of the inner arm, nearer the veins. I felt unsafe, unloved, in pain that could not be borne. I eyed the window. It was too small to escape through.
Desperate, I called my ex-husband, who was at his parents' home, forty minutes away, and, listening to me sobâI couldn't get a word outâhe said, “I'm coming to get you.” I said, finally, “No, just call me a taxi. I want to leave now.”
Liam and Eamon knocked on the door. They told me to stay. “We'll take you to Brooklyn later,” Liam said. “You're really upset, and it's not a good idea for you to be alone.” They were clearly worried I might hurt myself. But I was not going to hurt myself. I just wanted to flee the pain that lay like a fog in the house; getting away would be like turning a blank page, to a new story, a different one.
Eamon, who has always had a precocious calm in the face of confrontation, hugged me and said, “Of course Mom loves you, she only says wonderful things about you.”
“OK,” I wailed.
Then our mother was hanging shyly at the door. She seemed uncertain of her role. “Meg,” she said, urgency in her voice. “Come in,” Eamon said, reaching his arm out to her. Her face crumpled. Suddenly I could see itâthe trace hieroglyphics that say
“I don't want anyone to be sad,” she said, running her hands through her hair.
“But we are sad, Mom,” I said.
“But I don't want you to be.”
“It's OK, it's OK for us to be sad, it's natural.”
“You're amazing. You are my children. I love you,” she said haltingly. “I know you've had a hard time and maybe I have been judgmental. And you're right, it's your feelings, you are the ones who have them. . . . I just don't like to fail you.”
Liam said, slowly, “It's OK, Mom. We are going to be sad. It would be weird if we weren't. You have to let us be sad.”
“I know,” she said at last, crying, nodding. His words always calmed her. “It's just so hard. I just want everyone to be OK. Tell me you'll be OK.”
We were in a circle now, hugging. Eamon was slouched over, wiping tears away and looking away, and I was, at once, in ruinous joy and pain, and somehow it was all mixed together like paint, like old stains and water cracks and new color.
Later, Diana told me that when I ran upstairs after my mother and I fought in the kitchen, her ten-year-old son came over and tugged on her sleeve and said, “
did Meghan get on the car?” As if learning it could help him understand, as if he could file the information away for safekeeping. Note to self: Do not do
HORTLY BEFORE THE HOLIDAY, Jim and I had started talking again. For months we'd been largely estranged, but he was close to my mother and wanted to see her and to help us, and there was something comforting about his familiar presence. That night he came for Thanksgiving dinner, just as he had for the past five years. Perhaps my mother's death would be not unlike a divorce, I found myself thinking, wishfully: I would see her less, but now and then be granted a reprieve like this. It would be a reunion like those in
, when the heroes go down to the Underworld to see their dead parents and embrace them three times, waking to their disappearance.
I half avoided him on Thanksgiving, but I was glad he was there.
The day after Thanksgiving, I took my mother to the mall. We'd all been milling around reading the
, and I turned to her and said, “Why don't we go shopping? You need some new clothes. You need some pants that you're not holding up with a tape measure.”
“Well, I don't want to inconvenience you,” she said, then thought for a second. “I
like to get some clothes. I could just come with you, as you drop the kids off at the train station. Unless that's an inconvenience,” she said again.
“No, it's not.” And I realized she was confusedâanother crack in the foundationâand in her confusion she didn't want to impose on us. She hated being confused. (During this time she would get a look in her eyes that Liam described as “a look of fear, but fear of something she can't name.”)
She got us lost on the way to the mall. She thought she knew how to get there from Westport, instead of from the house, but when we were on the highway she blanked on the exit. “I don't know,” she said. “I'm sorry, I don't know.”
She hit her seat with the flat of her palm. “I am just so damn out of it all the time. I know something is wrong with my brain because I can't remember things.”
“It's OK,” I said. “You're going to have the radiation in a few days; it's going to help. They said it would help reduce the confusion, and you'll be just like normal.”
“I know,” she said, “it's just frustrating.”
Of course it was. I was stunned by the way my mother's body was being taken to pieces, how each new week brought a new failure, how surreal the disintegration of a body was.
Then she said, without any trace of irony, “I am worried about your father. He's so sick. I just have to get better so I can help him. If I weren't so confused, I could help him feel better. He needs to rest.”
Inside the department store, I fingered a blue silk shirt. “This is nice,” I said.
“Yeah,” she said. “But I think I have to go to the plus sizes section.”
I looked at her.
“Mom, I do not think you have to go to the plus sizes section.”
“But that's usually where I shop.”
“I know, but it's not now. Trust me.”
“Well, OK.” And she brightened up.
And I realized: We hadn't shopped together for clothes for fifteen years or so. She felt self-conscious about her weight and so she never bought clothes with anyone; instead, she usually ordered them online, minimizing having to try things on. We started picking pants out for her; she told me to pull out the largest size.
“I don't think so,” I said. “I think you are going to be a size twelve.”
“No, get me the biggest size.”
“OK,” I said.
I picked up a soft purple cowl-necked cashmere sweater from the sale table and found some more shirts. When I came back, I heard my mother fumbling.
“Meg? I think these are too big.”
I went in. The pants were baggy around her. “Yes, they are. We need to find you a size twelve.”
I fingered a pink dress with a paisley print hanging by the dressing room, and my mother, sounding like her usual self, called out, “That's pretty, try that on!”
“I don't need any more dresses.”
“Come on, try it on,” she said. “It's on sale. You can just come in the dressing room with me,” she said, and I did, and we took off our clothes and dressed, and I helped her buckle and snap shirts and pants. She had folds of skin around her stomach but her legs looked tiny, emaciated, like an old person's. She put on the purple cowl-neck sweater with a pair of black dress slacks and looked beautiful, her hair dark, her cheeks flushed.