my mother, my self

DSC_0476

“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”    ~Anne Lamott

When I was 10 or 11 years old, my mom took me out to lunch, just the two of us, at a crunchy food court place downtown. We went often; I got beef teriyaki with green onions over rice and she got vegetable tempura or something with tofu from the Japanese place. Then we’d find a table and eat our meal.

That day, as we waited for our food, I saw another mother out with her grown son. He was probably about 20 and he had no hair. His eyes looked sad, maybe tired, and they stared off into the middle distance. I didn’t know why he had no hair, or why his mom, who was smaller than him, held his arm and helped him walk. But I wanted to know, I sensed that there was a story there and so I watched them as they ate their lunch near us. I didn’t say anything to my own mother about it until we had left the building and were waiting to cross the street. I remember exactly where we were when I did – in front of the Woolworth’s that for a while became a Long’s and which is now long gone.

“Did you see that man with no hair who was eating with his mom? Something about him felt so sad. What do you think was wrong with him? Do you think he was sick?”

My mom became noticeably tense from my words. Her face got very serious and she grasped my hand tightly. Then she looked at me and said, “Be careful. You need to keep your energy separate from others’. Don’t take in their pain, their feelings. That energy can hurt you.” There was a very real fear in her words and in the way she spoke them. I don’t remember responding.

This is one of those moments from my childhood that I remember with such clarity that it could have been just last week that I was the age my own daughter is now. I don’t remember having a longer conversation with my mom about this, but I do remember thinking deeply about what she’d said, not just that day but for years to come. As her own story as a mother unfolded, her words began to make sense in a way I hadn’t truly understood them before.

****

I’ve often thought that the story of my mother’s departure from our family just a few years later would make a great work of true-to-life fiction, but I have hesitated to write it. I remember a conversation with my husband when he was just beginning his studies to become a rabbi. We talked about how the Torah doesn’t command us to love our parents, but it does instruct us to honor and respect them. Even in the years when contact with my mother was elusive, I always had a desire to respect her need for privacy, to respect the parts of her story that were solely her own to tell (or not to tell). I still do.

But her story is also my own story. Her choices, her actions, her needs and her mistakes – they have formed me. In ways I’m not sure she really knows, my mother has shaped me – during her years of presence and her years of absence. While I am no longer the daughter whose mother left her who became such a central part of my identity during my teens and twenties – the years when I was either burying my anger and sorrow in Ben & Jerry’s or working through them in therapy – I am still and forever my mother’s daughter. So, in the words of Anne Lamott, perhaps if my mother had wanted me to write warmly about her (or not write about her at all), she should have behaved better (and not encouraged my writing since I was a child). This is probably a good time in my life to look at that story because all these years later my anger has mostly dissolved. I don’t know if warmly is the word I would use, but there is love there. Forgiveness even. A loosening of the entanglement that binds me to my mother.

****

I understand now that the words my mother spoke to me that day in front of Woolworth’s were a reflection of her own fears. Even then, several years before her need for independence pulled her from our lives, I think she may have been consciously separating herself from the heaviness she felt in the world around her. The thing is, I didn’t understand then how what she was telling me to do was even possible. Not feel the sadness around me? Not feel compassion for those in pain? Not feel incredible joy when those around me felt joy? How do you do that – not feel empathy – and why would I want to?

My mother, I also understand now, is a lot like me – highly sensitive to everything around her. But we are different, too: What I feel, what I take in because I am sensitive, doesn’t scare me. I feel like it is why I am here in this life this time around. If I’m not here to connect deeply to those around me, to everything around me, then what’s the point? Is there anything more important than connection? Is there anything more juicy, more fun, more thrilling, more real?

We are permeable, emotional and connected beings, even the most reclusive, the most aloof, the most removed among us. We can’t help it and sometimes we fight like hell against it because it can be scary to connect, terrifying to truly feel each other. We might hurt each other and we might be hurt. We might also be cracked open in the most magnificent ways.

During the years just before my mother left when I was 15, she was already beginning to withdraw, to hide out. After she left, there were many years when I allowed myself to disappear into the loss of her. Who was I without her guidance, without this woman who had so often been my best friend? Was I still her daughter? Was she still my mother? Food quickly became a comfort and I ate a lot after she left; and while I got bigger as a result, in many ways I felt smaller, more invisible inside my new larger skin. (That’s another post, though, about the ways in which we see each other differently – or don’t notice each other at all – because of size, color, age.) I hid in that new body for several years, hid from the loss of my mother, from the pain she had unleashed in me, from my anger towards her. I was absent without her presence, and so I became the daughter whose mother left her. This became my new identity.

I imagine that it wasn’t always easy for my mother to be a parent, even during the years when she was a really good mom. I know it couldn’t have been easy for her to leave, to dismantle her life and build a new one, to miss all those years in the lives of her children. But something made the separation necessary. I think she needed the space to figure out who she was. And while as a mother myself it’s hard to imagine how anyone could leave her children, because I am a mother there are days when I get it. Mothering is hard work and requires both the deepest connections and the clearest boundaries. I have yet to meet a mother who has mastered this. (If you are out there and have advice to share, please let the rest of us know.)

Maybe, though, it’s less about mastery than about compassion and gentleness – mostly towards ourselves as the nurturers, and also towards our children when our very last button – you know, the REALLY BIG RED one that reads, DO NOT PUSH THIS BUTTON OR ELSE! – is about to be pushed. We’re never going to be perfect, I’m not sure there is such a thing as the perfect mother.

I am deeply entangled with my children – in good ways, in ways that stretch me, in ways that trigger me (my daughter still has to get through middle school), in ways that create space for our relationship. There are days when it’s easy to feel like I am disappearing, as if without my children I’m not entirely sure who’s left. A few weeks ago at dinner, asserting my motherly right to sit at my usual place at the table next to my toddler son on a night when my daughter wanted to sit there instead, I heard myself saying, “I exist too! I have needs too!” My husband and children held the befuddled looks on their faces for about one tenth of a second before bursting into laughter, and about two tenths of a second later I joined them. I am at my best as a mother – as a human – when I can remember not to take myself too seriously.

****

While it has loosened over the years, my mother and I are still deeply entangled. It’s been more than two decades that my voice has sounded like hers. My cheeks are hers, especially when I smile. I have her big eyes that smile along with my mouth. My hands look like her hands, especially as they age. We have had the same laugh for a very long time. I am a good mother like she was during those early years, and since some of the pain of her abandonment has dissolved, I can let myself connect with those times. I am sometimes prone to worrying like I remember her worrying, like I am sure she still does. But I am conscious that her fears are not my own, and I know how to assuage my own fears when they show up. I am no longer the daughter whose mother left her, but her leaving is forever a part of my story.

And what I became afterwards… well, that is the real story.

 

 

Advertisements

honoring the healers and the helpers

 

A few days ago on February 1, UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital moved from its original home on Parnassus Avenue to its new standalone children’s hospital in Mission Bay. The intensive care nursery, labor and delivery, and the fetal treatment center are no longer on the fifteenth floor of Parnassus, nestled so often in the thickest fog and boasting spectacular views of the city, the Golden Gate Bridge and the eucalyptus trees that are home to so many red tail hawks.

On February first, one of my second daughter Tikva’s two primary neonatologists during the 58 days of her life posted a picture on his Facebook page that gave me chills. In it, an endless row of ambulances was lined up in front of the hospital on Parnassus, departing every five minutes with a child who was moving from the old hospital to the new. Once they arrived at Mission Bay and the child had been moved to their new space, the ambulances returned to Parnassus to continue. Can you imagine what went into coordinating that effort? I hope you’ve never had a baby in the NICU, but if you have, you know how complex a baby’s space in the hospital can be, how many machines, wires, tubes, IV bags of medications and other wonders of science and medicine are necessary. Picturing those babies, each in their own ambulance for the ride across town, accompanied by nurses and EMTs and I imagine in some cases doctors, is what gave me those chills.

UCSF Sunset

It’s been six and a half years since Tikva died. 40 times as long as she was alive. During the year after she died, when we still lived in San Francisco, that 15-story hospital on Parnassus was a haunting presence – the place where she lived, the place where she fought to breathe, the place where we loved her unconditionally, not knowing how much time we had, the place where we said goodbye and sent her spirit on its way. Sometimes I would drive by, from near or far, and the hospital would be buried in fog so thick you couldn’t see the top floors. Other times, as if honoring its namesake neighborhood, it would be showered in the glow of the sunset. Now when I visit the city of my heart, I feel a sense of peace and awe at this place that was the setting for a chapter in my story that changed me forever into who I am.
UCSF Close
In Tikva’s nurses and doctors and social workers, I saw angels walking on earth. Something about people who choose to care for our tiniest and most fragile beings… I’ve never met anyone like them before or since. They loved my daughter as if she were their own. They celebrated good days with us and cried with us during the hard days. They ran to her bedside en masse during a code pink and did everything to help her. They held our hands, helped us hold her even when she was so fragile that leaving her little bed was dangerous. They took pictures of her, prints of her tiny hands and feet. They gave her sponge baths and changed her diapers and blankets, reinserted her feeding tube when she would pull it out, monitored her numbers, her x-rays. And on her last night, they helped us bring her outside to breathe fresh air for the first time.
UCSF Lincoln
For me Parnassus will always be a place where magic happened. Not just for the families of the babies who make it home, but for parents like me whose babies lived their entire lives there. I can’t say every parent feels like this, but I do. I am forever grateful to you, Tikva’s caregivers – Allyson, Elaine, Robin, Sue, Chrissy, Roberta, Tom, Stephanie and everyone else who loved our daughter and who held us through. Thank you for your wisdom and your big, big hearts. Thank you for all you are and for all you do each day. I know your work continues across town.

essence

I’ve been listening to podcasts a lot lately, mostly about the mind and our thoughts and how we work, and about science. The thinker in me, the cells in my brain love the stimulation. This morning as I made my tea and started my day, I listened to this one from Radiolab called Fetal Consequences. I can’t really stay away from a title like that, even if I know it might stir something up. And it did, but not in a bad way. More in an, “Okay, whoa!” kind of way.

The science, according to the show, is this: Fetal cells and maternal cells do not stay separate during gestation. In fact, fetal cells intermingle with maternal cells, and they remain in the mother’s body for decades, possibly an entire lifetime, after a baby is no longer in a mother’s womb. Even fetal cells from miscarriages, stillbirths, abortions. Even fetal cells from babies who are no longer here. Scientists studying what the role of these cells is in a mother’s body believe they can both help and hurt. Help in that they have been found in areas of women’s bodies who have an illness, say in the liver of someone with hepatitis. Hurt in that they may also contribute to auto immune conditions like arthritis.

I’ve been pregnant five times and I have one living biological child, my daughter, and my son grew in another womb. So my heart leaped at the thought that my babies’ cells remain inside me. I love that I carry a piece of those I’ve lost inside me and always will. It’s like when I learned years ago that all of our eggs are already in our tiny ovaries when we are growing inside our mothers’ wombs, so that for nine months of pregnancy we get to carry not only our children but also our grandchildren inside us.

For the part about how these cells might do harm? I’m not sure what to think, and the science is not conclusive about any of this. But I do have an auto immune condition, and I’ve always been intrigued to think that, in me, it happens to be located in that second chakra place close to my womb. It’s an emotional place for me, still marked by the faint vertical line that appeared on my lower belly during my last pregnancy, the line I was happy to see never quite faded completely after that pregnancy ended. A reminder that I carried them all, even if they are not all still here.

I wonder about my son’s birth mother, and what she carries of him, literally and emotionally, almost two years since his birth. What she may carry for the rest of her life. How he will remain in her.

How he has so quickly made his beautiful way into my heart, if not my cells.

I know there is still healing that remains. And I know that there is a way in which we never completely heal from the loss of a child. And that’s okay. In six and a half years since losing my daughter, and the losses before and since, I’ve learned not to force myself to be anywhere but where I am. I’ve learned that grief is cyclical and not linear, that it can be repetitive while it propels us forward even when it can feel like we are moving backwards. I’ve learned that I carry each of them inside me always, their essence, their spirit.

And now their cells.