02 June 2013

Mothers and Daughters

Six years.

Six years is both a lifetime and a fleeting moment.

Nothing is the same and everything is the same.

My life is different. I am different, changed by the ups and downs of six years, by the ebb and flow of mortal life.

The ache, the longing, the sense of loss, and the constant wish to pick up the phone and talk to her is the same; the never-changing constant in my up and down, ebb and flow mortal life.

Around the time we found out my mom was dying, I discovered a book by Joan Didion called The Year of Magical Thinking. It is a memoir of the year following her husband's unexpected death, an explanation and written exercise in grief. A year that also coincided with the repeated hospitalization of her only child, a daughter, because of complications due to an illness.

I read The Year of Magical Thinking at least twice the fall before my mother's death and again, at least once, after it. Not only am I fascinated, as a wannabe writer, by Ms. Didion's writing, her structure and syntax and ways of stringing words and sentences into coherent thought, I was drawn to the subject matter. Ms. Didion's way of explaining the experience of grief, of sorrow, of loss, and of the pain of being the one left behind brilliantly captured and put into words what I was feeling and experiencing. Despite our circumstances being different in all respects, Ms. Didion could say what I wanted and needed to say about my experience of my mother's death.

Shortly after The Year of Magical Thinking was published, Ms. Didion lost her daughter as well. Five years after her daughter's death, she wrote another memoir Blue Nights, about both the extended experience of that loss, of the one left behind, of aging, and of the relationship between mothers and daughters.

Again, despite our circumstances being different in all respects, Ms. Didion has said in writing what I have been needing and wanting, but unable, to say about the experience of being left behind, of being a part of a mother/daughter relationship that has been fundamentally altered by death. What Ms. Didion ultimately says is that it is a relationship central to our beings, complicated beyond measure, and haunting in its impact once the relationship is altered by death.

The same fall I was devouring The Year of Magical Thinking, my brother was being much more productive and forward-thinking and asked my mother to record her story of her life on video. For various reasons, none of us actually watched it until after her death. Shortly, maybe a day or two after her funeral, my brother suggested (or perhaps insisted, my memories from those days are hazy and incomplete) we watch the video. It was difficult to watch. Even in my numbed and shell-shocked state, there were moments that made me flinch. I don't remember why but I do remember that she had structured it so that the video seemed like an extended conversation with my brother, a private conversation in which things were phrased in a way that seemed to exclude me from the conversation. I was not the center of her universe.

I was far too old for that to have been a surprise to me. But it was. My mother was amazing at making people feel like they were the center of her universe.

I have not watched the video since.

Not long ago, my brother asked my father to make a photocopy of the few journals of my mom's that remained (my mother kept notebooks of writing, especially during difficult times, but they seemed to disappear, either lost or repurposed or destroyed). I haven't read it from front to back, but as I skimmed pages, I had the same reaction.

I have not looked at the journal since.

Exactly a week ago, an email notification from YouTube popped up in my inbox, informing me that my brother had uploaded the video to YouTube. An image of my mother, the first part of the video, was the only thing I could see. I closed my inbox immediately and have kept junk mail, offers from Land's End and ThinkGeek and a myriad of other online retailers, in my inbox on top of it so it is not the first thing I see every time I open my inbox.

I assumed it was because I was selfish, vestiges of sibling rivalry, of remaining displaced anger that I should have to live the rest of my life without my mother.

But, as I contemplated my reading Blue Nights, new and different reasonings for my reactions came into play. The whole book is a personal exploration of how perception in the moment and subsequent perception of the past in the leisure of the present can cast doubts on memories, on experiences, and definitely on the understanding of who you thought someone was. It is a secondary sort of loss, the realization that the person you have been mourning and grieving for might not have existed in the precise form for which you have been mourning and grieving. It is a reopening and an expansion of an old wound because the one person who could answer the questions and make sense of it for you is not there to respond. All that remains is a gnawing question to which the only answer available is that you have somehow misunderstood something. Something you can never put right.

I am not a crier. It is rare for books, movies, television shows, etc. to make me cry. Real life can occasionally make me cry. But, as I read the final passages of Blue Nights, I cried. Cried because I understood why I cannot revisit my mother's written words, cannot revisit the last images and spoken words I have from her.

I will quote a portion of that passage here. Hopefully no one sues me.
   "The familiar phrase 'need to know' surfaces.
     The phrase 'need to know' has been the problem all along.
     Only one person needs to know.
     She is of course the one person who needs to know. . . .
     I imagine telling her.
     I am able to imagine telling her because I still see her. . . .
     I know that I can no longer reach her.
     I know that, should I try to reach her -- should I take her hand as if she were again sitting next to me. . . -- she will fade from my touch.
    Vanish. . . .
    I know what it is I am now experiencing.
    I know what the frailty is, I know what the fear is.
    The fear is not for what is lost. What is lost is already in the wall.
    What is lost is already behind the locked doors.
    The fear is for what is still to be lost.
    You may see nothing still to be lost.
    Yet there is no day in her life on which I do not see her."
                 ~ Joan Didion, Blue Nights, New York: Vintage International, 2011, 186-88
There is no day in my life on which I do not see my mother.

1 comment:

Katie said...

Your mom was an amazing woman. Hugs.