Clumps of hair fell to the floor. I was razoring my mother's head, making her bald and vulnerable. This was not an act I had prepared for, but neither was cancer, and we met my mother's diagnosis six years ago with as much equanimity as possible. I took the phone call—the news—from the couch, one week before I delivered my twins, conspicuously lacking energy for tears and rage. In her year-long treatment to follow—chemotherapy, surgery—there is little I remember. When I comb through memory and look for the file marked "Cancer," the only one I find and retrieve is "Children."
We were separated by two states at the time, my mother and I, and I couldn't—didn't—care for her. The babies, the distance—they removed me from the everyday of her suffering and what should have been my diligent concern and phone calls. Between treatments, she visited us and rallied. She held the babies and it felt like business as usual. She also took naps in the afternoon, and that signaled change.
At the end of last year, I wrote to my mother requesting that she neither call nor email. I told her that I was covering the ground of forgiveness but it would require both space and time. I needed to be left alone, I said. However wrong-headed I was, I insisted upon distance for figuring out just what was going wrong with us, just what was going wrong with me.
And this may be her most unexpected grace, painful though it felt at the time, because I know I am a difficult daughter, skilled in pride's martial arts and gifted in the rhetoric of snide. For the little we saw each other (now separated by an international border), every time we were together, I tirelessly upbraided her for what she, in my estimation, failed to do right. As we had prepared Thanksgiving together, I insisted on a better way to set the table and knead the bread. Making the smallest of talk, I announced my better ideas for spending one's retirement. And if these and other condescensions lacked bite, I looked to expose a tender family matter and batter what I expected would be her typical silences with incessant, "Why? Why do you do this? Why do you act this way?" (These questions should have been hers.)
"I don't know, Jen. I don't know that I even understand myself."
Standing in the kitchen, she made a lifetime's self-revelation.
To understand a woman who doesn't understand herself, to love a woman I don't understand: This is my calling as a daughter, and I confess to thrashing against how impossible it felt—and to how impossible I had been.