In the history of the world very few mother daughter relationships go without incident. It seems as daughters we’re trapped between desperately wanting this woman’s approval of us, and needing to be our own people. Breaking away invariably leaves both parties scarred, and it is those scars that shape the relationship just as much as c-section scars, stretch marks, post baby feeding breasts, the extra weight in hips and thighs, and your very own belly button are a reflection of all it took to bring you into the world.
I find myself wondering why society puts such pressure on women to become mothers. It was very clear early on that my own mother had merely succumbed to this pressure and didn’t really want to be a mother. Or perhaps she liked idea of motherhood and being one of the two youngest in her family never got to see the reality. Well reality hit hard. It often does. I don’t think anyone is truly ready for their first child. It just happens no matter how much you plan and read and think you know. Suddenly you’re a parent and forced to figure it out as you go.
My mother’s dragons were insidious and slow. I don’t think anyone dreamed in the beginning what it was going to be like. To this day some of her very dearest friends remain ignorant of a large portion of what went on. As an adult I find myself referencing some of things my sisters and I deal with for our mother and they had no idea. Outside looking in I suppose. I always believed they knew everything. As much as I love these women I’ve known all my life it is discordant to speak with them now about Mom.
This woman, who I remember making bratzli’s with (a special swiss cookie), and reading Caldecott and Newberry award winning books with, a woman who knitted the most beautiful designs while I sat at her feet and learned about color and pattern, was very ill. Slowly, creeping up like a thief in the night, bits of her sanity were eaten away, pulled into a hungry void of mental illness. We didn’t understand how we could love her so much while she abandoned us so completely by never leaving her chair.
I am the youngest of three. My oldest sister was enough older that she took over as mom. She took care of Mom’s needs, Mom’s errands. She made sure I didn’t touch a hot stove. She was the one yelling out my three names and sending me to my room. I thought this was normal. I was an adult before I realized how very much she did…how very much Mom held her responsible for. That’s crushing for a 7yr old girl. My first word was her name, which were not sounds easy for a baby to make. Mama or dada typically are because they are the first sounds their little mouths figure out how to say. Mine was my sister’s name. A Juh sound.
Our entire lives was built around Mom’s naps, or telling my father when I stayed home sick from school I would hear her get up more than once during a nap to take pain pills, or going to the grocery store to build up her stash of candy that molded her into one of the super-heavy people you hear about on TV. My mother wasn’t like everyone else’s. She was big and soft, easy to hug, and sad all the time.
I’m not just talking depression, though that would have been life changing enough. In my early teens, not very long after my parents were divorced and both my sisters grown and out of the house, Mom starting hearing voices and having delusions. We were lucky. She could have become violent. It was still scary enough. It got to the point where I was afraid to talk to her. She lived a few hours away at this time, intent on going back to school. I didn’t like to visit her. It would be hours in her apartment in a large city I didn’t know while she napped, sleeping nearly 20hrs a day. My mom was gone.
Gone were the beautiful designs woven by lightning quick fingers. Gone were the hours of discussion about book plots and cover designs (any wonder I became a publisher, artist, and writer?). Gone was her beautiful voice teaching me old songs. Gone was the intelligent light in her eyes that was there no matter how sad she became. Late onset non-differentiated schizophrenia stole what little was left behind by the depression. I was in the process of becoming an adult and wanting her near so badly she actually moved back to our tiny town, but scared of dealing with all that a relationship with her would entail.
I ran. She was not the only reason I ran. There were a great many difficult life changing things happening then. Most my parents never knew anything about. Outside the family. At home. At work. Mom. Things were a mess and she got relegated to the long list of why I would never come back to Wisconsin ever again. I had $300 to my name and a friend a distant 12hr drive away who was willing to put me up until I could land on my feet. I actually ended up, struggling, crumbling, covered in road rash, wrenching my body up the cliff with bloody fingers and toes. I’m still not sure I’m completely on my feet. Are any of us ever?
My oldest sister left the country. That left my second sister to do the dirty work. I have never completely gotten over my guilt at that. I didn’t call Mom. I didn’t write. I had virtually no contact with anyone on purpose. I would hear about most hospital stays, but I was not engaged. I didn’t want to be. My second sister spent her adulthood being caretaker for this woman who looked like our mother but wasn’t. There was a lot of anger dealing with the depression, but even then there were sparks of who she could have been. By this time, even those were gone as knitting was left piled in the closet, tangled and undone.
For decades, life went on. This was the new normal. I don’t know quite when things changed. A good visit or two from my father and step-mother. Maybe it was the trip home for Dad’s birthday when all of us were there, and we three made our first attempt at a united front for Mom. But things did change.
My second sister, who had devoted so much time to the bodysnatcher in Mom got an opportunity to spread her wings. We told her to go with no guilt. It was time she got to do this. It also became clear Mom needed one of us. I stepped up to the plate. My sisters had both done their time. It was time I was the sister and daughter I should have been and take over. So I did.
Now I watch her dragons from afar, hiding behind walls of medication and doctor visits. Death kept at bay by a surgically smaller stomach that caused more problems than it fixed taking this once large woman to a frail grandmother twenty years older than her birth certificate. I was strong. Not taking her crap, not letting her manipulate me. I was hard, drawing lines no one could jump over. I didn’t want to love this woman in front of me. I wanted to do my duty so others could live and so that I would know I was there when needed.
Then it happened.
A tiny insignificant cell decided it wanted to live forever.
Tumors. The true immortal vampires of lore. All cells have an automatic shut off sequence. They die on time so other cells can be born. Cancer is when one cell decides to live forever and just breed, more and more of them sucking the life right out of you.
Mom found the lump in her breast, a part of her body that was a true mother, having fed and nourished all three of us. My walls and lines were all useless. I wouldn’t say the chip on my shoulder is healing, but it’s been worn smooth by this fight. My sisters do what they can from where they are in the world. I am not alone in this fight with her, but there are days…
I watch her shake with fear, her resting tremor getting worse as we walk through the doors to the cancer center. I hold her tiny bony hand that looks nothing like my mother’s while we learn all about HER2+, and metastasizing. I kissed her head as they wheeled her away to take her breast. My vocabulary grows to include the lexicon of chemo nurses while they bustle about in the ‘infusion’ room. I sit in hard plastic chairs with my own knitting trying to take her mind off all the tubes and the poison dripping into her body. I talk to the staff where she lives about side effects and just how poisonous her bodily fluids are now we have set out to destroy some mutinous cells.
Now I must face the possibility that her dragons are only lying in wait for the cancer and treatments to do their job, tenderizing her emaciated frame, before they devour her whole. Sometimes I wonder, is the spark truly gone or am I just blind to it, my own issues robbing me of clear sight?
Each new diagnosis, each new test, each new treatment I worry if this is going to be the one that finally breaks her. I wonder daily if that’s a bad thing. Cancer treatment is torture. I’m not saying don’t treat it, but if someone opts out, I don’t blame them one bit. As her daughter, each new bump or lump I find on my own body becomes a three doctor circus to rule out the possibility of my own renegade cells. Through it all she has been lucid and on the ball in a way I haven’t seen since I was a child. It’s cruel to get a spark of her back just when she enters into the most grueling leg of her journey.
I want to know, how much longer until the sun sets? I don’t want to miss a minute of it. I’m terrified of every second.
Susan is a plural writer and artist by day, a child and pet wrangler by night, and occasional crazy person on the weekends.