Motherhood Moments: Now, You Don't, a Mother's Day Tribute

Filed under: Holidays, Opinions

Debra Darvick and her daughter. Credit: Martin Darvick

My daughter sometimes worries about the relationship she will have with her daughter. She doesn't have a daughter, mind you. She's not even pregnant. Or married. But she nevertheless worries because, as she put it recently, "The standard is so high."

She and I have a pretty good -- no, Nancy Friday be damned -- we have a spectacular mother-daughter relationship. It is filled with love and longing. And phone conversations lasting late into the night. We've dreamed the same dreams, right down to identical thoughts within said dreams. Yet, still she worries that her one-day, well-into-the-future mother-daughter relationship might turn out to be a not-so-good relationship.

Is it coincidence that these worries have surfaced at a time when my relationship with my own mother is at an all-time low? After receiving a cancer diagnosis last summer and enduring some pretty major surgery, Mom has refused radiation and chemo. She also refuses to have anything to do with me. Or, as she put it when we were down for a pre-Thanksgiving visit, "I refuse to break bread with you." She received my husband and the kids; I stayed behind.

She blames me for "putting her" in an independent-living apartment. Would it matter if I told you the apartment is beautiful? And affordable? Or that she signed the papers with full cognizance and that my sisters and I made the best of a terrible situation?

Estranged from a mother who forever pulsed between butterfly and raptor, I sometimes forget that just nine months ago she gave me what I now realize was her final gift of mothering. Tucked away at a three-week writing residency, I was in my own world. Every few days, I'd walk down the lane to the main house and there would be a letter waiting for me.

Wherever I wandered, her handwriting's loops, risers and descenders have long woven a safety net against loneliness, editorial rejection and personal uncertainty. A lifetime of those words scrawled in blue ink might as well have been veins connecting us across the miles and years. Preoccupied with the glory of three weeks of solitary writing, I didn't even notice the brevity of her notes, nearly as short as text messages. I tucked them away to save, oblivious that I was seeing my name written in her familiar hand for the last time.

She called the morning after my return, reaching me before I could call and wish her a happy 74th birthday. "It's cancer, Debra," she said. "At least I won't die young."

Gallows humor notwithstanding, I wasn't surprised at the news. She had been long complaining of abdominal discomfort. I had urged her to see a doctor, but didn't press it, having learned long ago not to do or say anything that could be taken as an attempt to run her life.

I called my sisters after. "Finally," said one. "I couldn't call you the whole time you were gone. Mom wouldn't let us breathe a word. 'Leave. Debra. Alone. I absolutely forbid you from disturbing her.' We've been holding on to this for two weeks, already," she continued. "It's time you knew, too."

That's when it hit me. My mother's life had been turned into a Mobius strip of CAT scans and doctors' visits, yet she wouldn't let anything upend my writing time. I wept in gratitude and momentarily, shame.

But that was then and this is now. The butterfly is once again a raptor. The last time she spoke to me her voice was like an eraser, deleting me from the feet up. Our relationship has died so many times, it calls to mind the tubercular heroine of a campy operetta. I have hung on for the butterfly times, hanging on because what I treasure most about myself, she planted and nurtured. Bottom line, I hung on because she is my mother.

I've reached acceptance, the final stage of Kubler-Ross mourning, without garment-rending or shiva-sitting. A single thread connects me to my mother now: A prayer for healing of body and spirit. Each week in synagogue I recite it with fading sorrow and leave the heavy lifting to God. She is never far from my thoughts.

During a January blizzard that blanketed Manhattan, my daughter went to the roof of her building to dance in the snow. "It was so magical, Mom," she said. "I twirled and twirled and caught snowflakes on my tongue. I felt like you." Then she paused. "No, I felt like us."

What makes for a mother-daughter relationship such as ours? Luck? That I worked hard to clean up a stableful of baggage, loathe for it to sully what I so dearly wanted to have with her?

There was a third joyous woman up on the roof with my daughter that morning, there and barely there, like a strand of silk unraveled from a long-spent cocoon.

My daughter recognized her, too. While she danced in the morning's sun-flecked snowfall, this gossamer thread played a game of, "Now you see me, now you don't. Now you see me, now you don't. You don't. You don't. You don't."

Debra Darvick is the author of "This Jewish Life: Stories of Discovery, Connection, and Joy" and "I Love Jewish Faces." Debra has contributed to several anthologies about Jewish life and is at work on a novel, tentatively titled "Denial." Read her blog on Red Room.

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.