“Speak into the microphone, honey,” my mother said.
My dad gave me the little microphone that plugged directly into my mom’s hearing aids. I held my breath for a moment, it stopped the twist of the vertigo and then rubbed the back of my head in hopes of silencing the pain. What a couple we are, I thought as my heart, in this new manifestation of myself, fired too fast. Both of us have inherited from the world we once knew. Both of us, I imagined, scared and lonely. I definitely was. But my parents were English, and we did not talk about difficult or unpleasant emotions unless they were forced to – and we could withstand a lot of violence.
I drew my concentration to the menu.
“Pesto with pens,” I began.
My mom tilted her head, focusing on something in the distance, the way cats follow light between the shadows.
In her younger years, my mother was wild – digging gardens, camping in the mountains, spending nights at her church to help the homeless who hid there. Growing up in London during the war gave her that you-can-we-bomb-but-we-will-still-be-out-of-dance mentality. But now, among other things, she became deaf and blind at the same time and I moved back to Michigan to be her eyes and ears. Or so I had hoped.
After inheriting my mother’s spirit, I traveled the world, boxing, dancing until four in the morning, mentoring prisoners, getting married and then divorced from a minor rock star, living on the Lower East Side for 25 years, in ‘ given some difficult instruction. neighborhoods, rose up for the needy. But now back in Michigan, an old head injury that did not heal properly made my life think unexpectedly. I was in excruciating pain, with vertigo, numb memory loss, wake-for-days-to-end insomnia, and more. Suddenly, rather than coming home to mom, I desperately needed mom myself.
But my mother could not help me more than I could help her.
Only 41 miles lay between us – and yet we could not get to each other unless my father drove. We called daily, each trying to captivate the other, but I also think we let the other down. Terrified of what was happening in my body, I wanted a mother to research the latest findings on head injuries and talk to doctors on my behalf. Similarly, she wanted a daughter who could take care of her in her dotage – who could drop in for a cup and long conversations, who could take her shopping and join her for manicures, bring food, because cooking was now a challenge.
“I’m a bad girl,” I cried for friends over the phone, stretched out on my brown velvet couch, my mind muffled by the brown that enveloped my brain. “My mother needs me.”
It was an unmistakable truth: She did.
I accepted it, but I also knew because she told me so often.
“The church is holding a sale,” she would say. “I have to sort all the clothes that no longer fit. I wish you could come over and help me. ”
Or: “My nails are a mess and your father can not take me to Lisa this week. I wish you could drive me. ”
Or: “We are going out with Uncle David and Aunt Zena tonight. It will be so nice if you can join us. ” Her voice heavy with longing and love.
I listened, my chest tight, my stomach tighter, and fought to keep my own disappointment over the injustice of my life in check. There was my mother waiting for me to get well so I could help her. And here I was waiting for my cousin to drive to my store so I could stock up on toilet paper because it was impossible for me to drive, or for my neighbor to take me to my doctor for help with the messy neural pathways of my brain.
“I’m so sorry,” I told my mother countless times. “I wish I could do all these things for you. And more. ”
“Oh, my darling,” she said, lifting the perceived disappointment. “Of course you can.”
And in those moments, I knew my mom loved me with a bone-deep wildness. A love I questioned that I deserved.
Then one day when she and my father were over, and I apologized again for not being able to come to their house, my mother said so softly, so lovingly as she shook my hand: “Do not worry, darling . I also let my mother down. ”
When my mom and dad emigrated from London, they left behind her beloved mother. Within months of settling in America, after a handful of letters and a few phone calls, her mother died of a dull heart.
“I should not have let her down,” she often mourned as I grew up, plagued by her mother’s death.
“Do you think you killed your mother for leaving England?” This kind of reasoning felt darkly magical in my young mind. The potentially fatal force of a daughter’s neglect.
“She needed me,” she said, blowing smoke circles over my head, her nails always a perfect hint of red. “She needed me, and I let her down.”
And here, finally, proof of my own primordial truth: I was the daughter who loved my mother, but not the one she needed.
I doubled my efforts to heal, put astonishing amounts of pressure on my body, skyrocketed my anxiety, and tried to speed up what my doctors might seem to be only offending me: health. And I have improved. Eventually the pain cleared, the vertigo subsided and I started sleeping for more than three hours a night. But the neurological distortion to my perception of the world and the way moisture thickened my brain again remained intact and so did driving hard.
During difficult times, I sent cards every day with a special wish for my mother. On good days, I prioritized getting out to my parents. When I was there, through the thick, heavy haze of my brain, I went through Chanel no. 5-fitted clothes sorted for stains, made sure her makeup matched her skin color, organized her jewelry box so she could get things in touch, did my best to come up with interesting stories from my beleaguered life, and listened to her stories – both those she embroidered to mask her grief and those who contain the truth of it.
When it was time to leave, my mother stood uncomfortably close so she could see a part of my face. Her hearing aids hum. Her eyes are full of gratitude.
“I had the most wonderful time,” she said, as a mother would for a healthy daughter. “Thank you my darling.”
“Come back anytime,” my father said enthusiastically, like a father would for a daughter who could get in a car on a whim.
I was relieved that I had helped, but already felt the pressure through my heart to do it all over again. And could I? The inability to consistently put into action the love I felt broke me.
As my mother’s death approached years later, my health improved further, but driving was still a struggle. In those last weeks, we pitched her bed in my parents’ dining room and my family and I rotated through 24-hour shifts. Friends volunteered to drive me when I could not. I knew then that I could let my guilt separate from my mother’s urgent needs, or I could wrap it in twigs and rope and nest it away until it was time to become a ghost of his own. I chose the latter. Once at home, I bathed my mother, boiled her eggs, massaged her feet, read her stories, danced with her as she sat in her favorite cushy chair, and listened to her thoughts about her impending death.
One day before I went home, I kissed her goodbye and said, “I’m leaving now. But I will carry you in my heart. ”
Her eyes widened.
“I will carry you in my heart too,” she said with great joy. Then she remained silent. Then, “Are you my daughter?”
It was, of course, the drugs that spoke. But it stung when I tucked the blanket around her shoulders and then closed the curtains.
And yet, on another day, here’s another thing my mother told me, while removing hair from my face, her nails a perfect French manicure: “I’m so glad you’re my daughter. I will not change anything about you. “
In the end, I was the one who found my mother. I woke up my dad, said prayers about her, then bathed her body and anointed her with oil while my dad called friends and family. Alone with her, in that hazy morning light, while I washed her pale, shrunken arms and her floral nightgown – the one I had helped her on a rare shopping spree a few months before – to pick her up – to cover her legs bath, take off, I felt the rope unravel around the nest and get ready for the pressure of my delayed penance.
But it did not come.
Instead, a flood of love washed over me – for myself and my mother: we were both trying so hard. I did not fail my mother. I may not have been able to provide everything she needed and longed for, but what mother is capable of being everything at all times? If I were healthy, could I have provided for all her needs? Oh my love, repeated the mother who now lives in me – and finally the words became cellular: I’m so glad you’re my daughter.
Sometimes, beneath the greatest despair lurks unexpected forgiveness. An absolution so sweet and so fierce it erases everything that has occurred and replaces it with grace. And when I combed my mother’s hair for the last time, I felt our shared generation of failed daughters disappear; I felt our ghostly lift.