“Speak into the mic, love,” my mom said.
My father passed me the small microphone that linked directly into my mom’s hearing aids. I held my breath a moment, it stopped the spin of the vertigo, then rubbed the back of my head in the hopes of quieting the pain. What a pair we are, I thought as my heart, in this new manifestation of myself, fired too quickly. Both of us disinherited from the world we had once known. Both of us, I imagined, scared and lonely. I certainly was. But my parents were English, and we didn’t talk about difficult or unpleasant emotions unless forced to – and we could withstand a lot of force.
I furrowed my concentration towards the menu.
“Pesto with penne,” I began.
My mom tilted her head, focused on something in the distance, the way cats follow light amongst the shadows.
In her younger years, my mom had been fierce – digging gardens, camping in the mountains, spending nights at her church to help with the homeless who took shelter there. Growing up in London during the war had given her that you-can-bomb-us-but-we’ll-still-go-out-dancing mentality. But now, amongst other things, she was going deaf and blind simultaneously and I had moved back to Michigan to be her eyes and ears. Or so I hoped.
Having inherited my mother’s spirit, I had travelled the world, boxed, gone out dancing ‘til four in the morning, mentored prisoners, married and then divorced a minor rock star, lived on the Lower East Side for 25 years, taught in some tough neighbourhoods, stood up for those in need. But now back in Michigan an old head injury that hadn’t healed properly unexpectedly tanked my life. I was in crushing pain, with vertigo, stupefying memory loss, awake-for-days-on-end insomnia, and more. Suddenly, rather than coming home to mother, I desperately needed mothering myself.
But my mom wasn’t able to help me any more than I could help her.
Only 41 miles lay between us – and yet we were unable to get to one another unless my dad drove. We phoned daily, each trying to buoy the other, but I think also letting the other down. Terrified by what was happening in my body, I wanted a mother to research the latest findings on head injuries and talk to doctors on my behalf. Likewise, she wanted a daughter who could care for her in her dotage – who could pop by for a cuppa and long chats, who could take her shopping and join her for manicures, bring food since cooking was now a challenge.
“I’m a bad daughter,” I wept to friends on the phone, stretched out on my brown velvet couch, my thoughts dampened by the brume that shrouded my brain. “My mother needs me.”
This was an undeniable truth: She did.
I intuited this, but I knew also because she told me so often.
“The church is having a rummage sale,” she’d say. “I need to sort through all the clothing that doesn’t fit any more. I wish you could come over and help me.”
Or: “My nails are a mess and your father can’t take me to Lisa’s this week. I wish you could drive me.”
Or: “We’re going out with Uncle David and Aunt Zena tonight. It would be so nice if you could join us.” Her voice heavy with longing and love.
I listened, my chest tight, my stomach tighter, and fought to keep at bay my own disappointment at the injustice of my life. There was my mom, waiting for me to get well so I could help her. And here I was, waiting for my cousin to drive me to the store so I could stockpile toilet paper since it was impossible for me to drive, or for my neighbour to take me to my doctor’s for help with the jangled neural pathways of my brain.
“I’m so sorry,” I said to my mom countless times. “I wish I could do all these things for you. And more.”
“Oh, my darling,” she said, the perceived disappointment lifted. “Of course you do.”
And in those moments, I knew my mother loved me with a bone-deep wildness. A love I questioned I deserved.
Then one day when she and my dad were over, and I had apologised yet again for being unable to get to their house, my mom said, so gently, so lovingly, squeezing my hand: “Don’t worry, love. I let my mom down, as well.”
When my mom and dad emigrated from London, they had left behind her beloved mum. Within months of settling in America, after a handful of letters and a few phone calls, her mum had died of a dodgy heart.
“I shouldn’t have abandoned her,” she often lamented as I was growing up, haunted by her mother’s death.
“You think your leaving England killed your mum?” This sort of reasoning felt darkly magical in my young mind. The potentially fatal power of a daughter’s neglect.
“She needed me,” she said, blowing smoke circles over my head, her nails always a perfect swish of red. “She needed me, and I failed her.”
And here, at last, proof of my own primal truth: I was the daughter my mother loved but not the one she needed.
I redoubled my efforts to heal, put staggering amounts of pressure on my body, sending my anxiety skyrocketing trying to speed up what my doctors could only seem to nudge me towards: health. And I did improve. Eventually the pain cleared, the vertigo abated, and I began sleeping more than three hours a night. But the neurological skew to my perception of the world and the way damp weather thickened my brain remained full-throttle and so driving remained hard.
During tough times I sent daily cards each with a special wish for my mother. On good days, I prioritised getting to my parents. Once there, through the thick, heavy haze of my brain, I sorted through Chanel No. 5-infused clothing for stains, ensured her makeup matched her skin tone, organised her jewellery box so she could find things by touch, did my best to invent interesting stories from my beleaguered life, and listened to her stories – both the ones she embroidered to mask her sorrow and the ones that held the truth of it.
When it was time to leave, my mom stood uncomfortably close so that she could see a part of my face. Her hearing aids hummed. Her eyes brimmed gratitude.
“I had the most marvellous time,” she said, the way a mother would to a healthy daughter. “Thank you, my darling.”
“Come back anytime,” my dad enthused, the way a father would to a daughter who can hop in a car on a whim.
I was relieved to have helped, but already felt the pressure racing through my heart to do it all again. And could I? The inability to consistently put into action the love I felt gutted me.
When my mom’s death neared years later, my health had improved further, but driving was still a struggle. In those final weeks, we set up her bed in my parents’ dining room and my family and I rotated through 24-hour shifts. Friends volunteered to drive me when I couldn’t. I knew then that I could let my guilt separate me from my mother’s pressing needs, or I could wrap it up in twigs and twine and nest it away until it was time to become a haunting of its own. I chose the latter. Once at the house I bathed my mom, cooked her eggs, massaged her feet, read her stories, danced with her while she was seated in her favourite cushy chair, and listened to her thoughts on her encroaching death.
One day before I headed home, I kissed her goodbye and said, “I’m leaving now. But I will carry you in my heart.”
Her eyes grew wide.
“I will carry you in my heart, as well,” she said with great delight. Then she paused. Then: “Are you my daughter?”
This was the drugs speaking, of course. But it stung as I tucked the blanket around her shoulders, then closed the curtains.
And yet, on a different day, here is another thing my mom said to me, brushing hair from my face, her nails a perfect French manicure: “I’m so glad you’re my daughter. I wouldn’t change a thing about you.”
In the end, I was the one who found my mother. I woke my father, said prayers over her, then bathed her body, anointing her with oils while my dad called friends and family. Alone with her, in that hazy morning light, as I washed her pale, shrunken arms and scooted up her floral nightie – the one I’d helped her pick on a rare shopping expedition a few months prior – to bathe her legs, I felt the twine around the nest unravel and braced myself for the crush of my postponed penance.
But it didn’t come.
Instead, a flood of love washed over me – for myself and my mom: both of us trying so hard. I had not failed my mother. I may not have been able to provide all that she needed and longed for, but what mother is capable of being all things at all times? Had I been healthy, could I have met her every need? Oh my love, repeated the mother who now lives inside me – and at last the words became cellular: I’m so glad you’re my daughter.
Sometimes beneath the greatest despair lies unexpected absolution. An absolution so sweet and so fierce it wipes out all that came before and replaces it with grace. And as I combed my mother’s bedded hair one final time, I felt our shared lineage of failed daughters dissipate; I felt our hauntings lift.