Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Telling Stories

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I'm a good mom. People tell me so, and I think it's true. I'm not perfect, but I love my girls. As I pile them into the car in their pajamas for evening story time at the library, or walk with them through the early morning rain, three umbrellas in a row, to see the neighbor's flooded creek, each moment feels crisp and poignant, infused with meaning and direction.

But I have other moments when I turn away and a shadow falls across me. Heavy and slow, I fill with the dull thud of futility: so what, so what, we're all just going to die.

This dreary refrain began last October when Ma died. Since then, it seems that the moderate me has been excised, leaving an aching, puckered scar. Now I toggle between two extreme attitudes: One, life is short and so intensely beautiful I can barely stand to blink, and the other, life is very short and then we die, so to hell with it. But "to hell with it" is just a lie I tell myself when I am paralyzed by fear.

In September, seven-year-old Zoë had plastic surgery. Pat and I waited in the almost-empty cafeteria of Children's Hospital while she lay unconscious two floors above, undergoing what the surgeons called "a minor outpatient procedure" under general anesthesia, to remove a large mole from her right shoulder. It wasn't cancerous -- yet -- but the dermatologist had said it looked "a little suspicious" and we should have it off before it grew bigger, while her skin was still elastic. I knew I would miss this sweet furry birthmark, because it was a part of Zoë. I had discreetly bent and kissed it goodbye two hours earlier as she changed into her blue hospital gown.

The nurses gave us a beeper which would sound when the surgery was complete, and although that wouldn't be for another 45 minutes, I kept picking it up and turning it over in my hand until Pat gently took it. "She'll be fine," he said, and returned to his magazine.

Then, across the cafeteria a woman shrieked. "MY BABY! MY BABY, MY BABY!!" she cried, and then let out a long, wretched wail. Nothing could have expressed my fears so succinctly. I exchanged a look of sheer terror with the woman at the next table, who picked up her beeper and turned it over in her hand.

Zoë survived, of course, but the impact of the surgery surprised us. To get enough working room to stretch her skin across a one-inch gap, the surgeon had to make an incision shaped like a question mark with double stitches running from her armpit up over her shoulder blade. My lively little sprite wasn't allowed to run or dance for eight weeks. She couldn't roll around on the floor tickling her little sister. Whenever someone bumped her in line or patted her on the shoulder, she winced in pain.

I tried not to fuss, and Zoë was stoic, but in the first two weeks after the surgery, she wet her bed three times. This, more than anything she could have said, confirmed that outpatient surgery or not, Zoë had suffered a trauma. I realized I wasn't the only one facing my fears.

A friend suggested that story-telling might help Zoë process her feelings. At first this seemed awkward, contrived. Then I remembered my father's story about J.P. Gopher, who parachuted out of the sky to help two little girls out of all sorts of sticky situations. J.P. Gopher embodied Daddy's humor, his good will, his sweetest wishes for my sister and me, and I could never get enough of him.

Not knowing exactly where I was going, I just tried to keep in mind the feelings I imagined Zoë was struggling with: pain, isolation, maybe fear; and the tools that might help: courage, family, acceptance, love, humor.

"Long ago," I began, "there lived a girl named Zara who belonged to a tribe native to a rocky forest, just below the tree line of a great mountain. "

I felt Zoë adjust her angle in the bed next to me, fidgety and irritated. She wasn't used to sleeping on her tummy.

"The girl was eight years old, and soon it would be time for her Walk. In that land, a child's Walk was a special journey out onto the cliffs alone, to find her calling."

As the story went on, Zoë became very still. When Zara fell, alone, cutting herself badly on a rock, and lay crying in the darkness, I heard Zoë take a breath, and her hand came snaking under the covers to find mine. Even before I had resolved Zara's predicament, Zoë was using one of the tools I had wanted to offer her.

In the end Zara accepted her solitude, sought help from family, laughed, used common sense, and made a new friend. Zoë breathed a sigh, and said, "Mama, can you tell me another story about that same girl tomorrow?"

That night, with Zoë peacefully asleep, I lay gripped with fear. Patrick was on a return flight from a business trip in Maryland, and I lay wondering how I would tell the kids when Daddy's plane crashed. As tears trickled into my ears, it occurred to me that I should try telling myself a different story.

I turned on the lamp and wrote into my journal.

"Once there was a woman named Syuji. She was kind and able, but her life had been darkened by loss and she was filled with fear.

"Syuji's strength lay in her love for the ponies that were native to her village, and her skill training them. When she rode, she felt herself slip back into her own skin, moving confidently and happily, eager to smell the grass in the breeze and feel the pony respond to her gentle teachings. She loved to watch the animals and guide them as they began to turn carefully and move expertly through the world. Everyone praised her work in the pastures."

I stopped. Dread had crept back in, blocking the words. How could I step back far enough to find a metaphor while living inside the real story? But remembering Zoë's reaction to Zara's adventure, I reread what I had so far. My mind ran out to meet the woman in the field, and it occurred to me that such a person must have other pleasures, secret moments that delight her, like mine: my walk in the early morning darkness before the kids are up. Stepping barefoot into the wet garden to pick a bay leaf for soup. The act of putting one word after another until a picture unfolds.

"One morning Syuji's neighbor asked her to help him choose a pony for his son. 'You choose, Syuji,' he said, 'you have a special way of seeing them.' She saw that this was true: her vision was unique. She wanted to share it. When others came for advice, she offered to instruct them. Slowly, Teacher Syuji emerged from her darkness."

I smiled at this resolution, and at the connecting power of this most solitary and yet sociable pastime. The writer cuts a path, the reader walks down it, and before writer can finish the scene, reader has found a solution, had an emotion, resolved a dim memory, or simply discovered something within herself -- a strength or creative force that rushes out to meet the writer, extending the path in collaboration. The story connects me to Zoë, as her hand pushes through covers to take mine. It connects me to myself. And it reattaches me to the world I live in.

Sybil Lockhart is the author of Mother in the Middle: A Biologist’s Story of Caring for Parent and Child, a memoir developed from her archived Literary Mama column. She has a Ph.D. in cell and molecular biology and a defunct secondary teaching credential, both of which somehow heighten the pleasure of staying at home with the kids. She has taught French and English to high school students, done research in developmental neurobiology, and lectured at U.C. Berkeley. Her writing has appeared in Brandeis University’s Artemis Magazine, The Journal of Neuroscience, The Journal of Neurobiology, the Bay Area’s Neighborhood Parents Network Newsletter, and Books and Babies: Writing About Motherhood. One of her children’s stories is forthcoming in Ladybug. Sybil lives in Berkeley, California with her two daughters.

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