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A mother's love in trauma's clothing.
Do you know how traumatizing that was, my youngest daughter asked me, bug-eyed.
I’m having one of those cozy nostalgia-wrapped moments in which I recall something especially inspired I did as a parent. Something that distinguished me in a good and brilliant light. Singular. Trademark. In fact, I recall doing this particular thing with one of the other kids as well and maybe I did it with all four. I remember thinking of it at the time, each time, as one of my crowning glories, stroke of genius stuff, one for the ages. Clearly, this daughter saw it otherwise.
Whenever possible we’d walk to school, a distance of two kilometers, and then I’d continue on to work. That wasn’t the genius part. Some mornings were pleasant, others not, morning and walking and school being what they were: obligatory. For better and for worse, through thick and through thin, we had thirty minutes of togetherness, our walk consisting of eighty percent greenspace, alongside or through city and national parks: the Common, Citadel Hill, the Bengal Junior Lancers stable. Horses in the morning. What could be better? At its best, when we were at our best, the walk was a joy. We laughed and speculated about the signal flag mast poking up out of the top of the citadel and how a ship had got itself stuck up there. We could goof around. Observe. Reflect. And, leaving those wide open manicured expanses, descend on a downtown newly awake, still drowsy from its night time slumber, morning breath of delivery truck exhaust and dumpsters brewing.
Some walks were destined to be a chore: cold, long, and boring; wordless but for a Hurry up or a Hold on to my hand from me and a Why didn’t we drive, from her, the promise of a treat from Pete’s Frootique or display windows full of prom gowns in late winter all that kept us going. On such days we’d arrive at school beleaguered, sullen, fed up, and in danger of parting badly.
I wouldn’t have it. This was a reliably crucial juncture in the morning for me, an important let-go-of-the-irritation moment. Could I do it? I refused to part on bad terms. It wasn’t enough that we’d gotten ourselves to our destination, we now had to make up or at least pretend long enough to squeak out a civil goodbye; pretending permissible under the circumstances. The reason? One of us might die today, I’d say to her, We have to make sure that the last time we saw one another was good. Or at least not awful. This was mother and child detente.
That was, I’m led to believe, the thing of which she is now critical, the mention of death, hers or mine, first thing in the morning.
Do you know how traumatizing it was to be told that either you or I might die before school got out, she asks, Before recess maybe? Those days were awful. I sat in class. I couldn’t concentrate. I wondered which of us it would be or whether it had already happened. It was HORRIBLE.
I hadn’t thought of that. I’d never thought of that. I never meant to ruin her day.
I had it on authority, mine and others, that death came without warning. By the time I was twelve four of my five siblings were dead. It happens. I suppose I’d become blase about the possibility. Accepting. It was just the way things were. I certainly wasn’t making it up but neither did I mean to alarm her. What I was trying to say, the reason I mentioned it, was that we needed to let go of our funk; funk being potentially problematic. I’d seen it with my own eyes. If shit went south, one of us died, the funk would be our undoing. We’d have a lifetime of regret. That was all I was trying to say. Making up was insurance. This was me thinking of everything, like remembering to take out the garbage. We needed to confirm our love for one another regardless of how we felt, in case something happened. We’d be covered. We’d have had the foresight, the determination, the will to anticipate the worst and make it a bit better. We would be glad of that forever. What a good mother I was, I’d thought of everything, even needs as yet unimagined. I was outdoing myself.
I’d had a lifetime of normalizing the unusual, dead siblings; finding places for them, sticking them in where I could, accepting their deaths. It ended up materializing in odd ways, I suppose. Like in loaded goodbyes at the end of difficult walks. Goodbye, cruel world, my mother used to say Mata Hari-style, back of wrist to forehead, as she left the living room to attend to a pile of dirty dishes in the kitchen. It was normal. As an adult I found a community of folks who felt similarly; I wasn’t alone. Death came without warning, not a problem. But my daughter didn’t want to hear about it at 8:30 in the morning as we were about to part. She didn’t want to hear that death was imminent. Really mom, she says, It didn’t occur to you that I might find that upsetting?
She loves me, we’re good, and we laugh about it, but as luck would have it, out of the blue, one of my sons mentioned the same thing a month later. Remember our walks to school, he said, and the way you used to insist on making up if we’d been fighting? You’d do this thing, he said and before he got a chance to continue I rushed in. Wait, I said and I supplied the answer. Yah, he said, That’s it. Was it traumatizing, I asked, an apology at the ready. Traumatizing? No, It was just you being you, I might’ve rolled my eyes, but you made good sense, It was worth saying. I do it myself now, he said.
You frequently don’t know as a parent whether what you do is the right thing, many things just best guesses. But if you wait long enough one or another of your kids may let you know and maybe then you’ll stop patting yourself on the back quite so vigorously or, if you’re lucky, hear a competing view that at least posits the opposite, the jury allowed to remain out, never knowing for sure whether you were right or wrong, but having the satisfaction of knowing absolutely for sure that you loved them with everything you had and that in the end that might possibly make and make up the difference.
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