Sunday, July 26, 2015

Saving My Mother, Saving Myself

On the Friday morning before she suffered a stroke, a catastrophic one that would not kill her straight off but lead to nine months of agony, her own and our entire family's, before grace finally arrived to slow and then stop the beating of her heart -- on that Friday morning in September, my mother and I argued.

It was an argument ostensibly about my upcoming vacation. On the phone with me she'd wondered why I never invited her on my trips with my husband and children. "Well," I hesitated, wanting to be diplomatic, "it would be odd for my husband, no? To have his mother-in-law along on his vacation?"

"I don't know," she snapped. "Your grandmother always came with us on our vacations."

"Right, Mom," I sighed. "But that was different, wasn't it? That was you, Mum [my grandmother], Daniel [my brother], and I. There was no husband, no father."

"I guess," she sulked, and said nothing further, except, "I have to go now."



My mother, married for all of five minutes, never learned much about the accommodations husbands and wives must make for each other. She never learned much about marriage in general, and she certainly did not learn about the ways, often tricky, sometimes downright unpleasant, that a marriage is sustained over the long haul.

But my mother's and my disagreement hadn't been about marriage, or vacations, and I knew it. She was really telling me that she was lonely and depressed. I also knew that. But I had never been able to help her climb out of her sadness, much as I'd tried. She would come to visit me and end up angry about something insignificant, finally insisting that she needed to go home -- immediately and with no regard for anyone else's schedule. Or I would go to visit her and end up spending all my time alone, because she found it excruciating to socialize, even with me, her daughter. Or perhaps I should amend that: her depression found it excruciating to socialize.

She refused to consider therapy, psychosocial or even pharmacological. "Those pills will cloud my brain, Sarah," she'd say. Unspoken but understood was that my mother's brain, it was exceptional. I countered by asking her what good such an exceptional brain was doing her while she lay in bed sleeping seventeen hours out of every twenty-four.

No, I did not say that. But I thought it, and I did argue strenuously in support of antidepressants.

She never did take them.


For quite a few years after she died, I replayed our final pre-stroke conversation, willing it to end differently, better. Because sometime during the weekend after our argument, she had a stroke, and no one knew it until Monday morning when her housekeeper showed up. Had I not been so frustrated by our telephone conversation, I would have called her on Saturday, and again on Sunday, and not hearing an answer I might have grown concerned and asked my brother to check on her.

Instead, I remember feeling just so tired of fighting with her. I remember deciding to take the weekend off from her long-standing unhappiness and my futile cheerleading efforts.

It was the wrong weekend to take off, although only with hindsight could I know it.


Things happened as they happened. If I did feel sorrow about how everything unfolded, about my role in it, I do not now.

I spent my entire life - yes, even including my childhood - up until 2009 trying to keep my mother alive. Today I choose to believe that without me, she would not have lived nearly as long as she did.

It's a reframing that benefits me, as it should. Because it is the truth, and as it's wont to do, it has set me free. I have won a victory: I did not save my mother, but I have saved myself.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

This Man, My Son

"Mom," he rushes in, breathless, "Will you tear my problem set out of the notebook?" Puzzled, I look up from my reading. "And I need to do this for you why?" He grins, rueful. "You do it better than I do," he says. "When I tear it, it's never a straight edge."

"OK," I laugh, "But I won't be able to do this for you when you're in college."

"Got it," he returns. "That, and the laundry, and making sure I eat right..."

As I pull the pages - there are so many! - I see that he has already surpassed my level in chemistry. His handwriting is compact and neat. Each answer is circled. 

This isn't the way it used to be. His homework in elementary school was disastrously messy. Even the paper on which it was written was bent or curled, sometimes ripped, if in fact he had remembered to do the homework in the first place.

But then not much is the way it used to be.


In the car we are talking about clever ways to get away with things. I can't remember why. But in the course of chatting I yelp, remembering. "Hey! You know what you would love? There's a Roald Dahl story about a woman who --"

"The lamb," he interrupts.

"Yes!" I confirm. I am taken aback. How did he manage to pick up where I left off? "You read that story, about the woman who kills her husband, whacks the back of his head with a frozen leg of lamb, and then cooks and serves it to the police when they arrive to investigate?"

"Yep, one of my favorites," he says.

"Huh," I reply, and fall silent, thinking about how, of all the stories, he and I found this one, and responded to it in kind.


He has become so tender with our cats. Is this because he knows that he will miss them?


I keep making the mistake of suggesting colleges for him to explore. Invariably these are colleges I would like, or would have liked. He looks tolerantly at me, head cocked, answers my ideas with statements like, "But I don't much care how strong the writing program is," or "Yeah, I'm not sure that a close-knit community is what I'm after."

When did he become so wise, and so diplomatic?


I marvel at the person who stands before me - a nearly full-grown adult, a near man. I wonder how that happened, even as I know exactly how it happened. I ponder the chinks in his armor, so unrecognizable to me -- well, they are his chinks, not mine. I have to remind myself over and over of this, and even then I'm surprised. Often, maybe always, these days: surprised.

I finish extracting his latest problem set from the notebook. I tidy the stack of papers and staple it. I hand the packet to him. We roll eyes at each other, acknowledging how silly it is that I am doing this for him.

"Thanks, Mom," he smiles. "You're so good at it, you know." And then he winks at me and heads off to his class, and to his future.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

The Long View

We are meandering through the university's arboretum. He shares some work concerns; we discuss these for a time before falling silent. I watch a toddler running, her diaper widening her stance so that her gait is comically graceless. The sight of her persevering over her Pampers prompts me to revisit how much I miss raising little children, which subtly morphs into a discussion of ways we'd be better, or at least different, parents today, were a stork to drop an infant on our front stoop (and no doubt about it, it would have to be a stork). More tired, for sure, we agree, but also more flexible and relaxed. Less covetous of 'me time,' I muse. I credit my husband for refraining to remind me of just how often we've covered this same terrain, for after eighteen years of marriage, we both do our fair share of repeating ourselves. We've come to expect a certain amount of repetition. It's the least of our spousal gripes, of which there has accrued a lengthy if trivial list, surprising to no one.

We inspect the variety of annuals and perennials, make mental lists of those we might wish to plant in our garden. The Latin and Greek names are pleasing to voice: heliotrope and viburnum, lucifer and vinca, lobelia and calendula, coleus and globe amaranth, larkspur and lantana, salvia and alyssum. We walk past older couples and do not feel out of place. We are neither young nor old, which bestows an invisibility that is comfortable, and not even slightly sad. We pass a fountain. I hop up on its rim, and a cool spray mists my lower legs. Young children are running around the fountain. I make way for them to scoot by me. I'm in no hurry.

At one end of the arboretum is an atrium where students and alums marry. It gives way onto a spectacular vista of a lush farm-dotted valley backed by softly rounded hills. We would have liked this spot for our wedding, I say. He nods. We always did agree on things like views and flowers. The easy companionability, that was harder won.

I think, as I have before, that we will weather the shift out of active parenting. I require less and less to sustain me as I age. I expect this to be true for him as well: a partner with whom to walk a pretty path, to share the day's news, to plant seedlings and watch them grow. We do not mind relinquishing our claim on the things that quicken the heart, risk and passion among them, though we are still gladdened to stumble on them every so often. A little goes a long way, don't they say?

What we know is that what we have is enough, not the settling kind of enough but something expansive, even panoramic: that view of the valley, hills, and sky that frames the young couples marrying at the arboretum, the one that says, It's all here. Paradoxical, perhaps, but these days 'enough' seems more than enough.

written in 2013

Monday, July 13, 2015

Listen, Hear

Suddenly I have so much to say to you. But it's never the right time anymore. Maybe it's that the time that remains feels ill-suited to deep conversation. There's so much planning and scheduling to do, so many decisions to make, from trivialities like senior photos and yearbook ads to what really matters: Where will you be (happiest) for the four years after high school is over?

So I have taken to emphasizing what I do say. On the way out the door to bike to campus for your summer class, you tell me that you aced the first quiz. "I'm proud of you!" I exclaim. You nod, and continue zipping up your backpack. "No," I say. You glance up, puzzled. "I want you to hear me: I am proud of you." What I mean is not that I'm proud of you because you did well on a test. I mean that I am proud of who you are now and who you are becoming. I think you understand, because you give me a half-smile and answer, "I know."

Every moment that passes, every exchange between us, feels exponentially more important than the one that came before. Is that because I sense that increasingly you are here in body but elsewhere in spirit? You have looked ahead, and you are liking what you see. I'm pleased for you. Your father and I, we joke a lot lately, ask you, "Aren't you going to miss us?" whenever something happens - it's usually at dinner - that has happened often enough to become family lore. We are established as a foursome - your father and I, you and your brother - and we react individually, in pairs, and as a group in well-worn ways, ways we can all predict but somehow cannot change, which makes it funny, really.

Once this summer in the car I asked you the question not as a joke but because I needed to know the real answer, which of course is not the real answer but only the one you imagine to be real. I am not naïve - what you think now is not necessarily what you will think when you are living it. But it's the best we have, short of a crystal ball. You replied, "No. I don't think I'll miss you very much." And then, conscious of hurting my feelings, you hedged. "That doesn't mean I'll be glad to go, just that I'm ready, and excited about being independent." I loved you for adding that part, but I would have been fine if you hadn't. I haven't forgotten that our main job as parents is to raise you to leave us, to raise you to be fully prepared to leave us. I'd much rather you not miss us at all than that you miss us too much.

They say that by the time you go off to college I will be ready to see you go, that you will behave so as to make our separating easier. So far I have not seen any evidence of that - you have not tested us much, but I suppose there's still time for that. Your father and I, we will miss you very much. When we ask about your missing us, we are really telling you that we will miss you, that we are already missing you. I think you understand that. You understand more than you let on.

There seems all the distance in the world between now and the day college acceptances will arrive in the mail, but in reality there are eight or nine months before things are settled one way or another. This is not an easy time for any of us. Even your brother is coming to terms with losing you. The other day when you were on campus, he asked when you'd be back, and when I told him that it would be hours yet he was disappointed. He wanted to hang out with you. I am not making this up.

I hadn't counted on how much I want to shout out to these schools who will be judging you how wonderful you are. How curious, how motivated, how interested in life, in history, in politics, in culture, in all of it. This makes you unsure about what you'll want to major in, and you think that's a negative. I disagree. Any college worth going to will respect that you want to take courses in so many disciplines. College was always supposed to be about figuring out which passion of yours separates itself from the others, wheat from chaff. If that's changed since I was at university, I don't want to hear about it.

A few years ago I expected to be more relaxed about your future than I've become. I figured that whatever school ended up wanting you would be by definition the right school. So many wonderful schools out there. But as decision time draws nearer, I find myself crazily protective of you and your spirit. I want to snap my fingers and have the world see how terrific you are, except that your personality, your uniqueness, is now more and more your job to convey - not mine. I am learning so much from you.

And I am proud of you. Did I mention that?

I love you.

Monday, June 29, 2015


There is a grown-up party downstairs. I am little. These adults — their tinkling laughs, their clinking glasses, their swells of convivial sound — tell me just how small I am. I need my mother right now, but she is one of Them, these party-goers. She doesn’t smell like herself. She doesn’t look like herself. Her face is different somehow: brighter, more colorful. But need her I do, so I sit in a small tight ball on the top stair as I try to work up the nerve to wade into a sea of painted, raucous tall people. I need my mother because I can’t breathe. No, that’s not right. I can breathe, but my breath is coming ragged and short. Breathing is automatic until it isn’t, and at the divide there is a moment when it seems to be wholly dependent on one’s own self, and how is one to breathe in, breathe out over and over and over again, a hundred times in a minute or two? I am frantic. It all seems overwhelming, even impossible. And I tip over into a state of anguish: I will simply forget to breathe, and that will be the end of me, crumpled up on the top stair with my thumb in my mouth, still wearing my cotton candy pink blanket sleeper with its rubber feet.

I determine that I can’t stand this for one more second. Fear begets nerve. I run down the stairs and rush headlong into my mother’s legs. I am sobbing, my face surely red, surely wet with snot and tears. My mother looks surprised, but to her credit crouches down and runs her hand through my tangled hair. “What’s wrong?,” she croons, in a full-throated, lush vodka voice.

I realize that I should have broken into this party long ago. I love my mother’s voice like this.
I stammer out the story of my fear, and she explains to me that people’s breath comes fast and funny when they’ve been running, or when they’re excited, or nervous, and that it means nothing, nothing at all.
I am relieved.
When I am in the hospital after birthing my first child, I will suffer a hormone-induced panic attack, and I will flash back to being five or six years old and waiting, afraid, on the stairs, while the grown-ups partied, carefree and loose.
Lately my breath is coming fast and funny. I am worried all the time. This feels sensible, actually. The upcoming election, the girl shot by the Taliban, the nanny stabbing her young charges in the bathtub, the storm that’s supposed to hit this week and leave us without power, the trial on Monday for which I will serve as juror and sit in judgment of another human being, the polar bears that have to swim longer and longer to find a bit of ice on which to rest, the garbage spilling out the tops of our landfills, the pesticides and carcinogens… Well. It’s a toxic world, but it’s also the only world we’ve got.
I will celebrate a birthday on Friday. When people ask me how old I will be on my birthday, I answer with a joke: “Forty-five, still alive.” Like most jokes, it’s not really a joke at all.
I’m trying. I am, but it’s hard. I’m trying to forget how to breathe so that I can remember how to breathe.
written in 2012

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The College Circuit

She was seventy-seven years old when she insisted on taking me to visit a college. I don't remember whether I thought I might be embarrassed by having my grandmother accompany me instead of the usual father-and-mother, or in my case, the less traditional but still within-bounds single parent. I'd guess not, because my socially awkward mother was often embarrassing, as on the day I started college and she drove onto the main quad, no cars allowed, and parked in front of a handful of my future dormmates, gawking, pointing.

My grandmother was elegant and couth and marvelous, but seventy-seven years old is not young. I feared the walk up the hill to Swarthmore's admissions office might do her in, but she was as stubborn as they come, and at my concern she waved me off. "I'm fine," she gasped, not fine at all.

I had a good interview at Swarthmore, so good in fact that the admissions director wrote me a personal note afterwards. Or maybe that's just the way of small colleges, however the interview proceeds. I ended up at a far bigger school than Swarthmore. Still, my grandmother was pleased that she'd taken me on that tour, even if I had not ended up attending, or even applying. The place had struck me as too quiet, too serious, even for me, and that's saying something.

On the train ride back to New York from Pennsylvania, she put a hand on my knee and told me how much she loved me. I bit my lip against sudden tears before returning the sentiment. I'd only that day become aware of her as an elderly person, fragile, mortal.


Last night Seventeen gave me and his father a list of tentative college choices that he'd culled from a book. On the list were eight schools, among which was... Swarthmore. Seventeen was unaware that I had included Swarthmore in my own lists, written thirty-one years ago and long since tossed away.

On Friday he'll visit Swarthmore and Haverford with his father. When they climb that steep slope to the admissions office at Swarthmore, I will imagine my grandmother smiling, winking, and reassuring me, "Full circle, Sarah, full circle." That vision, in a time of vast change, is comforting, and I note with surprise that seventeen years absent (yes, she died when my firstborn was just starting to walk), my grandmother is somehow very, very present.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

To the High School Graduates I Know and Love, and Maybe Also to Those I Don't

I have known some of you since you were one and two years old. You I played with and read to when your mother threw out her back; you were one of my son's best friends, although neither one of you remembers that now. You used to take my kid's pencils and throw them in the little well formed in the center of four individual desks clustered together. My son seemed upset by this, so I asked your teacher for guidance. "Oh," she smiled knowingly, "she likes him, that's all. And he likes her."

When you see a child through to adulthood, you can't help but flash on these moments that add up to a person. Impishness, solemnity, athleticism, grace, curiosity, wittiness: the germs of these are in the young child. And then when you look at the eighteen-year-old with such a grown-up face who stands before you in cap and gown, you startle, because that face is a mask of a truth:

We none of us - at forty, sixty, or eighty - feel like the grown-ups we resemble.

And that is good. Because if we still feel like children, we are more likely to take risks, to wonder, to leap, to try new cuisines, to stretch and grow and learn.

That's another truth: we do not stop learning. This graduation may feel like closure to some of you, an end point towards which you've been directing your course. I prefer the word "commencement." This is a beginning, not an end. It is the beginning of a time when the responsibility for learning lies with you. You will seek out what to learn, and how to learn it. That notion, I hope, is empowering. Don't be frightened of the responsibility. You will discover that self-directed learning is the most satisfying kind of learning, and the deepest kind, too.

Other kinds of decisions will lie with you, too: social and emotional ones. No one is promised happiness in a life. It takes some work to get to happiness. If you are in a bad relationship - whether platonic or romantic - don't waste too much time trying to repair what can't be repaired. Make the lonelier but braver decision to leave and find something better. Yes, there will be times in your twenties when the pain of cleaving a bond you thought unbreakable feels like it will destroy you.

It won't. And each time you separate and find yourself again and anew, you will grow stronger, and know better who you are and what you want and need. Until one day you will come upon a person who loves you for exactly who you are, instead of who you once were, or who you might be if you were to be a little quieter or a little louder or a little more graceful or a little less predictable ...

No. The person who loves even your flaws, your scars and stubborn spots, that's the person you want.

Go now, and remember the joy that is written on each and every one of your faces. This is what life can be at its finest, but you will experience joy in small moments, too, if you take time to look for it: the elegant arc of a tree branch over the sidewalk as you pass underneath, the winking of fireflies in the summer, the bleeding together of lake and sky at dusk, the smell of the air after rain has washed the streets, the elderly couple holding gnarled hands after fifty years of marriage.

Now go, and in the words of Andy Dufresne, Shawshank prisoner no more, get busy living.