Published on March 13th, 2019 | by Cheryl Klein5
Everything I Wanted to Know About Parenting but Was Too Much of a Kid to Ask
Sometimes I let myself imagine what might have happened if my mom and I had been able to continue our arc. I discovered I was queer when I was in my early twenties, around the same time my mom discovered that her bloating and abdominal pain were ovarian cancer. We were both hopelessly, forgivably self-absorbed, each calling out to the other from our respective universes, trying to meet in the black cosmos and rekindle our closeness.
The last conversation I had with my mom, that did not take place in a hospital, was on July 26, 2003. We were in my childhood bedroom, sorting through the artifacts of my youth: yearbooks and journals, cheerleading uniforms and pompoms shedding metallic green strands like stray mermaid hair. My mom had a penchant for turning clutter into order. When Marie Kondo was still in middle school, my mom was bugging me to decide which relics sparked joy and which could be bagged for Goodwill.
I’d just gotten in a huge fight with my then-girlfriend, B. I’d been vacuuming our apartment one day when I’d glanced up and apparently given her a look that proved I didn’t love her. B claimed she’d seen it in my eyes—some deep proof of my coldness toward her. My claims to the contrary were unconvincing. She’d probably seen plenty—annoyance, exhaustion, frustration—but I’ve been married to someone else long enough to know those things can coexist with love.
My mom and I sat on the edge of my twin bed, on the periwinkle-and-white quilt she’d patched when my pet rat nibbled a hole in it. I listed the ways that I was a good girlfriend, and B was an unfair one. My mom listened. Her khaki-green eyes were mirrors.
Outside, my dad napped on a deck chair next to a week’s worth of comics saved from The Daily Breeze. The neighbor kids threw a ball that would probably end up in our backyard.
“I don’t know what she wants from me,” I sobbed.
My mom was quiet, studying my tear-streaked face. “Oh honey. Your relationship really is just like a heterosexual one.”
I drove across traffic-clogged Los Angeles, into the suburban sprawl, to my parents’ house every weekend when she was in treatment. My parents reimbursed me for gas. I mailed her postcards from the desk of my dot-com job during the week. She asked for hugs and I cringed at her neediness. But I always hugged her. I talked with false bravado about gay rights and Rent and she never missed a beat in accepting me, but she admitted, “This is going to take some getting used to.”
Her epiphany, that queer relationships were made from the same human building blocks as straight ones, was genuine—a necessary step on a path to a deeper and more comfortable acceptance. Even if she didn’t come close to meeting my needs in that moment.
My argumentative, oversized M.O.—I was always accusing her of lacking intellectual rigor—was a necessary and belated act of separation that I’d never quite gotten around to in my teen years. I hope I would have arrived somewhere more forgiving.
We loved each other through the tension, but we never got a chance to see what lay on the other side.
In August of 2003, she was hospitalized for a bowel obstruction. By that time, she’d gone into remission twice and relapsed twice. The cancer shrunk dramatically every time her team of oncologists unleashed a round of chemo, and so no one ever gave us a timeline; no one ever told her to get her things in order.
I wonder, now, if they told my parents. I don’t think so—my parents were relentlessly honest, and doctors tend to be reluctant to talk about death until it forces them into a corner. But there must have been limits to what my mom and dad shared with their barely grown children. Now, with my own cancer experience behind me (hopefully), I know that death was her noisy, inconsiderate roommate long before it became inevitable.
She had a feeding tube down her throat and couldn’t talk those last weeks. She wrote a few notes. I can hear her voice saying, in that reassuringly minimizing way of hers, “Oh honey, I’ll be fine.”
I don’t know if she said it, before the tube, or if it’s a manifestation of desire and nonlinear memory.
I still hear it. Oh honey, it’ll be fine. When I’m worried about my own health. My job. My marriage to a woman she would have loved, the only person besides her who can hold my attention when summarizing the plots of books.
Things were and weren’t fine. Are and aren’t. I’ve grieved in a thousand ways, most notably when I miscarried twins eight years after her death. The circle of mother-child-mother and life-death-life turned into a black hole. Its gravity nearly crushed me.
But I rarely let myself grieve What Might Have Been. In doing so, I’d have to face the questions of every time-travel narrative. If she hadn’t died, would I ever have met C.C.? If she’d lived, would she and I have been tested for the genetic cancer mutation she inevitably had? And if I’d known I had it, would I have gotten the fertility treatment that led to the miscarriage that led to the adoption of the grandson I know she’d adore?
But it’s not just that. If grief is a black hole, grandmother fantasies are the sun. Blinding in their brightness, impossible to look at directly. Better to let her light hit me at an angle, when I’m reading aloud to Dash, when I call him honey, when I catch myself telling him too much about my own emotional state.
When I ask my dad about my early childhood, he usually says, “You cried a lot” or “Your mom took care of those things.” Not unkindly. He remembers phone numbers from fifty years ago and, in his retirement, is reworking equations from his career as an optical engineer just to stay sharp. Just for fun. But he doesn’t remember movies he saw yesterday, and he doesn’t remember how I felt about preschool.
I hold on to snippets that my mom shared when she was alive, when I was half listening with a non-parent’s ear. I review them like a book I read too young, then rediscovered in an attic.
We wanted to learn as much from you as you learned from us.
I wish I hadn’t let you cry yourself to sleep. It was heartbreaking, but that’s what all the books said to do back then.
You were a wiry baby, not soft and squishy. You said hi to your pediatrician at nine months, and I felt so proud.
Some days, when the two of you were little, I just lay on the floor and let you girls climb over me.
The time between when you decide you want a baby, and when you actually have one, is the longest time in the world.
My mom got married at thirty in a generation of women who married right out of high school. She co-raised my cousins, who were tweens when I came along. She thought she’d be an old maid. She was already a librarian, so why not round out the stereotype? She did not take anything for granted. Even when she was exhausted, even when she was lying on the floor and we were stepping on her hair, she was grateful. She snapped and nagged and yelled with the best of them, but she had no doubts. In this, we are the same.
I was so happy to have you. I didn’t know if I could love another baby as much as I loved you.
C.C. and I are currently trudging through the paperwork that will, with luck, lead to the adoption of a second child. I turn this last statement over and over. I want to ask: Was your fear that you would sell the second baby short, and favor me? Or was your fear that you would hurt me by focusing your attention on the new baby? Both?
The Great Injustice of my childhood was that my mom always took my sister’s side when Cathy and I fought, which we did constantly. I mean, I know how memory works—I know this isn’t completely true. But what parent wouldn’t try to help the smaller child a little bit more? What parent who took the role of peacemaker in her own alcoholic family of origin wouldn’t intervene?
Once my sister suggested, “Maybe Mom took my side because she identified more with you. She was the older sister in her family and always trying to take care of Aunt Vanessa when things in her family got chaotic. She thought she could handle herself, even if that wasn’t totally true. So maybe she thought you could handle yourself, even if that wasn’t totally true.”
I like this theory because it puts me so close to my mom that I was in her blind spot.
Dash is a great kid, an “easy” kid (which is to say, not easy at all, but he has yet to present challenges that shake me to my core). He thinks getting bonked on the head is the funniest thing in the world, whether it’s the dog in Sam and Dave Dig a Hole or himself on the playground. He orients himself toward the broadly comic. Which is to say, he’s different from me, a person who can find the existential crisis in any situation.
What if our imaginary second child comes with colic, autism, night terrors—the things I imagine might shake me to my core? What if I resent Second Child for taking me away from my wondrous first? Or what if I lean into those needs and over-identify with Second Child’s hypothetical darkness? I.e. what if I don’t resent Second Child for taking me away from my wondrous first?
Or what if Second Child is even easier than Dash? What if they like to sit quietly and read? Will I curl up with them, too quick to let Dash and C.C. head to the park—and away from me—with a bat and a ball?
My mom was the only person who never got exhausted by my relentless need for reassurance. It’s embarrassing to crave praise and pats on the head as an adult, but here we are. My mom was the only person who could say Oh honey, it’s going to be fine and make me believe it, though I’ve filled my life with reasonably convincing substitutes. She betrayed me by having my sister. She was the only person who could heal the wound she created, which she did again and again, and also failed to do. I’m still lost in space.
I wrote the program-text for my mom’s memorial service. I sat at her desk, facing the bulletin board she’d covered with paintings of cabbage roses, and typed at her computer.
I waxed poetic about how, although she was gone, she was woven into me like a thread; I unraveled without her, but I also carried her with me.
I cringe thinking about how self-absorbed it was, how much a product of a 26-year-old who wanted her mom. My dad asked me to add some lines about her Breakfast Club friends and my aunt, which I did, but I secretly thought they detracted from the effect I was going for. I was the sun, shining my light on her blue-green Earth. All other planets were Pluto, which is to say: not really planets.
But oh, that sweet 26-year-old just wanted her mom. I was the Earth, and my sun had just gone dark.
I was probably a tween when she first commented, Your hands look like how I think of my hands, and when I look at my hands, I see my mom’s.
My son is only four, and adopted. I look at his hands and see his birthmom’s hands, large and elegant and strong, a half-shade darker than mine. Eventually his hands will be a man’s hands, the hands of no one’s mother.
I am not living my mom’s life. She wasn’t living her mother’s. As much as I believe our relationship would have smoothed and evolved, I also know she would have continued to say things I didn’t want to hear. How many times did I sob uncontrollably—because I hated drill team but didn’t want to quit, because I didn’t have a boyfriend but didn’t really want one—only to be met with my mom’s own desperation? I just wish I knew what to say. I wish I could wave a magic wand.
The other day, as Dash lay between his moms in our not-big-enough bed, fussy with flu, he curled his forearm around my wrist and I saw it. The slight depression between radius and ulna, where they met the bones of his hand. It was a child’s wrist, not a baby’s, and I was reminded of my own knobby wrists.
I have my mom’s big knuckles. I see hands that are utilitarian, made for drawing and washing dishes and braiding hair. We are thread and we are planets. We orbit each other as our universe expands.