Dear Mom

A pre-blog note to make some things clear: my mother is entirely healthy, apart from her brain, which has been shrinking for some time now. She’s been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and her scans show atrophy in the parts of her brain that process language. In some ways, it’s not showing much yet: she can hold an entirely normal conversation, although now and then she can’t bring to mind the word she wants to use. But she’ll have the same conversation with you a few minutes later, just as interested, just as animated. She’ll remember significant things—she’ll remember having lunch with my daughter, although she won’t be able to tell you when it happened, or too many significant details. And she still laughs at my jokes. But the small things in her day—chores, reading, remembering a TV show she likes—those are leaving her.

She will never read this.

I was 11 years old when I realized you wouldn’t be able to fix everything anymore.

I don’t remember what the incident was, or what I was asking of you. But before then, I’d cry, you’d comfort me, and the whole world would be realigned to its most basic rightness. No trauma was too deep, no sin was unforgivable. As long as I could talk to you, I could leave the pain behind.

Which wasn’t quite true, was it? Because I never told you everything. I thought I did at the time, but I didn’t. I didn’t always have the words.

I always knew you loved me. I was the easy child. Not that I didn’t have a temper, but it was triggered by more or less ordinary things. It was predictable. And I learned manners and said please and thank you and was apparently your basic cute kid.

How much of that was because I was a girl? How much did I internalize of the world that revolved around men?

I learned so much from you. I learned practicality. (Well, I tried to. I still struggle with that. You’re one of the most pragmatic people I know, although less so these days, but these days it’s harder for you to look at the world with clear eyes.) I learned that I shouldn’t see failure as something to fear, that there were realities of the world that weren’t going to bend and we were all happier if we recognized what those were.

You didn’t understand me, I don’t think. You loved me, but I was my father’s daughter. You always told me that. I heard I was stubborn a lot. It wasn’t until I was an adult that you told me that was a compliment, that you admired how I didn’t give up. I never heard it that way as a child; all I ever heard was that the wrong things mattered to me. You weren’t wrong, but it wasn’t something I could help. It still isn’t.

You always wanted to put me in dresses. I had so many of them—I think you made most of them, didn’t you? You’d loved dolls as a child, had always dreamed of having a little girl you could dress up. But I loathed dresses. I always felt stared at, out of place. When I was in the second grade, the billowy skirt on a red plaid dress I was wearing led another girl to ask if I was pregnant. When I said “I’m seven,” she just shrugged.

I refused to wear dresses after that. You never said anything. I kind of wish you had. I don’t know if I’d have worn them anyway, but I might have looked at them a bit differently. They were a gift, but maybe the wrong gift at the wrong time for the wrong child.

When I grew up and loved buying dresses, you always told me they were impractical, because they were only one outfit. Separates were the way to go. I tell my own daughter that now, and do you know? She rolls her eyes at me, and I always think of you.

She’s lovely. And I’m making mistakes. A lot of them. Some of them are familiar. But she’s loved, and I hope she knows that, at least.

You know what else happened when I was 11, and that wasn’t your fault, and it’s quite possible that’s what realigned the world for me, made me realize you couldn’t save me anymore. We can’t save each other, you know. We can only try to catch each other, and help each other heal.

I can’t heal you now. I’ve been avoiding that thought. I remember when you read the first draft of my first book—2011? 2012? You had so much to say, so many suggestions and observations, and yet even with all that you made me feel brilliant, like what I’d written was perfect even as you told me all the things you thought I should change.

You’ve asked me many times over the last few years for a copy of the book I’m writing now. I’ve given it to you each time. You always forget. When I remind you, you’re delighted. You start reading. You get distracted, or you lose track. You never get past the first page.

You’re still delighted to have it. I hang on to that. But fundamentally? I’m selfish, and I miss you.

I remember when you went to law school. You were conflicted about leaving my brother and I at home when you were taking classes, likely more conflicted than I remember. He and I, though—we loved it. We learned to let ourselves into the house, to make our own afternoon snacks, to watch all the TV we weren’t supposed to watch. We had fun.

I don’t think you did, or not that much. I remember being downstairs, and hearing you crying while you were studying for tests. Years later, I found a diary you’d kept during law school: you’d predict what grade you’d get on a test, and your real grade would always be higher. Always. You never thought you were accomplished, even when you did brilliantly.

I know why you went to law school. I know it wasn’t entirely love of the subject. But it gave you something, I think; some freedom, some control over your life. Options. There are things that wouldn’t have happened in your life—in all our lives—if you hadn’t gone to law school. But I don’t think it brought you exactly what you’d thought.

I wish I’d let you into the delivery room with me. I made you cry when I told you no. I felt so strongly about it: it was a strange thing, being pregnant, having a baby, and I wanted my husband to be the only one to see me vulnerable. I didn’t want to have to worry about you. In retrospect, I was too busy to worry about anybody at all. I wouldn’t have noticed you there. I could have given you that, and it wouldn’t have made a difference to me at all.

I’m sorry.

It was never my job to fix your life. It still isn’t. My brother and I have given you what we can: a safe place for you and your cat. We’ve tried, now and then, to see if you wanted to live on your own, without Dad, but it’s a funny thing. As aggravating as he is, as hard as he’s always been to look after—never mind now, when he’s more and more ill in a way very different from you—you don’t want to leave him. I love him, you know, but that’s a hard one for me. I think of all the things I could do for you if you’d let someone else look after him. I think of things that could make you happy.

I can’t make you happy. I’ve never been able to make you happy.

I remember when your mother got sick, and how hard it was for you being on the other side of the country from her. I remember your frustration with her stubbornness, her refusal to let herself be looked after in a way you and your sister and your brothers thought would be best. Aggravated, you said to me, “When my time comes, just stick me in a home.” Now that we’re trying to look after you, and trying to balance your desires with what you need for safety—I’m sure you meant it, when you said it to me. And you’ve adjusted to your new abode better than Dad has. You’re the pragmatic one, always. But I don’t think you view it with quite the aplomb you did 20 years ago.

It bothers you—still, I think—that people often find you cold when they meet you. Some of that, of course, is in contrast to Dad, who is the gregarious Host of Hosts, even today, when much of his banter is nonsensical. I don’t know if it’s shyness; you’ve never struck me as especially shy. But I think you’re quiet by nature, more inclined to watch and listen than to speak. Working as an attorney gave you a whole litany of professional scripts you could use when meeting new people, which didn’t entirely eliminate the perception of coldness, but it gave you a way to be heard in the midst of Dad’s insistent volume. But I think it tired you, often, and sometimes you’d just give up, and sometimes that meant ceding social ground you didn’t want to cede.

I know you. There’s a way that parents and children understand each other, and I’m not entirely sure a parent can understand a child with quite the same precision as a child can understand a parent. For a child, there’s love, and disappointment, and forgiveness, if they’re lucky. Because parents always mess up, or so I tell myself when I see in my child’s eyes another mistake I’ve made.

I know you. You are kind, but never falsely so; a compliment from you is never trivial or faked. You are practical like nobody else I know on this planet, and sometimes that interferes with kindness. You are curious and inquisitive; you love to learn, even now, when there’s nothing beyond the pleasure of having something new before you. You love cats—animals, perhaps, but cats in particular. You’ve had many cats in my lifetime, and more before that. I’ve watched you with kittens, with standoffish adults, with sleepy, over-indulged elders. I’ve watched you say goodbye to them, and cried with you, every time.

I am my father’s child. That’s always been true. I have his OCD and his black-and-white thinking and probably his undiagnosed ADHD. I have, in some settings, his gift for gab, although I’m rarely as confident with it. I have his impatience and his disorganized thinking, and his ability to spend days on something that’s utterly irrelevant.

But I’m your child, too. I have your practicality, although more often in my head than in my actions. I think I have your kindness, and your ability to observe. Your quiet has taught me that sometimes I learn more when I shut up, and I can do that, as long as I’m not too nervous. I am curious about the world, about how I fit in it, about how it works with and without me. And I find it beautiful, all the time, and I want to capture it somehow.

You never expected much return on your love, not for me, not for Dad, not for the world around you. You should have, you know. You still should. It’s still here, the world, and just because you can only process it in small bites doesn’t make it less beautiful.

See how you make me cast all this? With everything that’s happening to you, I still picture you by the window, in the sunshine, curled up contentedly with a sleeping cat on your lap.

Does it make you happy? Is it enough?

Was it ever?

I love you, Mom. Happy Mothers’ Day.

My parents' wedding picture, taken June 1, 1961.
June 3, 1961

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