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December 10, 2018

Becoming Us

I am becoming my mother.

This is not the first time I have thought this, standing in the express line swaddling two too many food items, slipping, slipping out of my clutching fingers and strained indentedforearms. Always refusing to get a basket, making things harder on myself than need be.

Just came in for milk, again.

My mother, I have become.

Beyond the shape of our modest bodies, Slavic bridge of our noses, and fast-paced gait, beyond the surface of multiple layers of life’s scar tissue woven underneath our all-too-thick-skin, self-righteous pride and strong work ethic, I resemble her.

This metamorphosis from “her” and “me” to “us” started to take shape as I said what would become my last goodbye, my last look back over my shoulder, as she lay in the hospital bed. Her body rejecting life while her heart, her soul, her history still gripping to the jagged edge of her remaining years. Her soft eyes saying to me that everything was and will be fine. “Go home. Come back in the morning.”

That is, until the phone call later that night, 11:02pm to be exact, that startled me out of the “me” and into “us,” and onto the floor, to my knees, a reminiscent shriek echoing in my head from so many years ago. I have been here before. Time slowly passing like molasses in the cold winter air. Suspended. Dangling. Watching from above. No. No. No.

What happens to mothers when they die? Where do they go?

The history they created borne out of the lives they birthed. Dreams casted upon her slumbering eyes, never to reach dawn.The regrets of her life’s sliding doors, the what ifs, and the hell yes’s. The unearthed passions, words, creations. Do they die with a mother?

The lineage from her to me to us is not pristine or cloaked in white linen, for it is now muddied with my own history, my sliding doors of knowing exuberance and careless mistakes.

Or, do I carry within the calcium of my bones, the protein of my blood, the energy wrapped around the electrical dendritic currents in my brain, her unfinished business, sometimes busyness, and her greatest unknown masterpieces. Do they take up residence within the walls of my unfinished life, living like a perfect stranger, beside the life I have melded and imperfectly shaped, pieces of orphaned fabric sewn together in an unexpected tapestry. My life, the life from which I wanted to run far, far away, at times. Maybe to find her, to hold her once more. And feel her hold me up from the world I am falling beneath.

Is she lingering around the clothes that hang in her now deserted closet, or in the makeup strewn about the various bathroom drawers, amongst Jo Malone perfume samples; a new one, “Wood Sage and Sea Salt,” and travel size lotion bottles, for trips she will not take, or the determined and struggled ones she took these last few years.

Is she buried in the pages of her most recent journal that sits in the drawer beside the vacancy of her bedside, between the lines of future directives for when her daily hygiene and beauty maintenance become too burdensome for one’s independence: “Must always have lipstick on.” “Hair washed and blown dry, styled.” Because when you are in the advanced stages of ALS, its swift viciousness robs the body of voice and hand mobility in a long slow spree of daily life thefts.

Hope Edelman so eloquently captured the mother-daughter relationship dance, to the tune of a chronic aggressive medical illness, in her book Motherless Daughters: “Witnessing a mother’s slow physical decline can be the equivalent of experiencing a persistent trauma. The daughter’s feelings of helplessness, anger, and fear persist. And persist.” And it is in her next thought that lingers in my mind, “she may alternate between wanting to protect her mother and resenting her, an advance-and-retreat dance of identification and rejection that can span years.” Made more complicated by the life situation my mother and I shared, co-parenting my nephews, her grandsons, and feeling irrationally abandoned by her death, leaving me stranded, raising these boys on my own.

There is a moment on the night of her death, before we knew she would die, that I will never forget.

Sitting in the emergency department being assessed and queried by almost every department in the hospital: ENT, neurology, dermatology, internal medicine, due to the inconsistent and diffuse symptoms with which she presented that evening; one of which was swelling in her right hand. My mom had beautiful long slender fingers, the envy of concert pianists. Always painted a shade of red, crimson. ALS has cramped and stiffened my mom’s hands into to claws only to be kept open with prying from the other hand, and eventually finger braces. It became commonplace to have my mom use one hand to maneuver the other’s for grabbing a cup or writing, anything that required fine motor dexterity; and in the end her hugs were enclosed with the feel of her knuckles on my back because her hands remained in a constant state of a relaxed fist, like a boxer in-between rounds.

That night, the doctors placed her right hand under an x-ray and what I saw next made me gasp and hold back with effort, my tears. It was the perfectly outstretched skeletal ligaments of her long five fingers. As if someone had rewound the clock or with a flick of a fluorescent light, erased my mother’s illness and the time during which she struggled with it. For a moment, I saw my mom as who she was before her ALS. Those long musician’s fingers plucking the strings of her cello and holding with delicateness the bow, guiding it through a melodious forest filled with lightness, darkness, shadows, and unknowns. The strong courageous and tenacious woman who remained optimistic despite life’s unfortunate happenings. In that illuminated moment of her perfectly x-rayed hand, her strong hand that held my hand when I was a red-headed toddler playing with a hose, and the young girl through our European vacation, and the college girl in NYC, alone for the first time, and during  the joys of my wedding day wearing her dupioni silk dress, to the circus that became the birth of my son, to the trauma of my divorce. And her strong hand never left mine over the eleven years we raised our boys together, maneuvering as best we could despite the suffocating walls of unresolved and devastating grief from the death of my sister, her daughter, that encircled us.

Standing in the grocery line, I wonder where my mom is. There are many moments I hear her tone in my voice, mimicking phrases she has said, walking too fast for my strolling companion, the restlessness that turns to distracted busyness on a lazy Saturday afternoon. But, beyond our currents that sometimes clash with recklessness and pain or bind together with a dense force that moves our lives forward, she is the lighthouse that has taken post in my body. A deeper knowing, a wisdom as still as the ocean floor, the light in the dark, the messenger of caution, the journey’s end. Beyond her and me, is us.

“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” ~Aristotle

 

 

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