Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Day . . . Break

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Four months and three weeks ago . . . I left my mother's house angry and flew back from Jacksonville to Pittsburgh angry. Angry at my mother for not taking better care of herself. Angry that she was putting all of her eggs in the chemo basket and not enough in the healthy lifestyle/stress-reduction basket. Angry at myself for being angry with someone with who'd had a mastectomy. Angry that I felt so guilty for feeling angry.

Three years ago . . . My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. A year or so before, my grandmother had been diagnosed with ovarian and colon cancer. Some light went off inside me then, and it lit a path to a whole bunch of things I have yet to find since. Things like the definition of "home," the precise coolness of my grandmother's hand in the middle of the night, and the exact lilt in my mother's voice when she said my name.

A lifetime ago . . . I got married in a little church in Bellevue, PA. When the minister (my soon-to-be father-in-law) asked, "Who gives this woman to be married?" My favorite uncle replied, "Her mother and I do." I was not yet 23 years old, but I thought I knew who I was.

Four months and two weeks ago . . . I got a call telling me my mother was in a hospital emergency room and not expected to live through the night. My mother hadn't told me everything. She hadn't told me the most important thing: six months before, the doctors said there was nothing more they could do for her, but she insisted they give her more and more aggressive chemo. The chemo only made her weaker. They prescribed enough Oxycontin and Lortab to medicate a horse, and still the pain broke through. At the emergency room, the frantic residents tried drug after drug after drug, to no avail.

"Come," I was told. "She says for you to come." I drove down the parkway, hearing this news on my cell phone. Fellow drivers saw only my mouth stretched wide and tears springing from my eyes. For all they knew, I was singing an aria or wailing to wake the dead.

After driving home, I was thankful my children were not there. They were at their father's house. Now there are such things as "his house" and "my house," now I regularly refer to Mike as "my children's father," because . . .

Eight months ago . . . Our marriage succumbed to his distance and my hurt, my selfishness and his hurt, old resentments and fresh disappointments.

Back when we still had hope, one marriage counselor summarized, "So . . . your marriage gets in the way of your friendship?"

"Yes!" we both agreed.

Several more screaming matches and a few gallons of tears later, Mike and I formed a holy alliance against our respective attorneys, committing to put the girls first and to keep things amicable.

Four months and two weeks ago . . . "You've been the best daughter she allowed you to be." Mike offered these comforting words. He knew better than anyone how fraught with tension and frustration and sadness my relationship with my mother was. My mother and I had grown closer in the wake of her diagnosis, but the easy way we both longed to be with each other still eluded us.

I am thankful for Mike, again. I remember when, a few years ago, my mother reached out to him about the distance in her relationship with me. He gave her great advice. He likened our relationship to her trying to hold on to a wet bar of soap; if you squeeze too hard, it will slip out of your hands. He shared this with her in an e-mail. She wrote back, simply: "Thank you."

Six months ago . . . I broke Taylor's heart, introducing her to awful new vocabulary: divorce, separation, grown-up problems with no fixes. When she finally had full sentences and not just wet cheeks to convey how she was feeling, she told me: "I'm sad, and I'm mad. So I guess the best word for it is 'smad.' "

It was then the realization dawned on me that I can never expect Taylor to agree that this was the right or best decision. Her feelings about the divorce belong to her. She will not absolve me. And Peyton. What if I can't make her understand that despite the divorce, adopting her was not a mistake? She is my child.

A lifetime of questions, answers that are meaningless, and anger. What if they are angry at me, like I've been angry with my mother? What if I never enjoy that easy way with them, either?

Four months and two weeks ago . . . My friend Esther came even though I told her not to. She walked the few blocks between our houses, and we sat and talked about my flight the next morning to Jacksonville, about how cancer is so inconvenient, about not knowing what's going to come next, about how I wanted to spend the summer exploring the backyard with the girls, maybe digging up the bricks some childless previous owner laid in the grass, sharp edges up for decorative purposes. I liked how Esther let me ramble on about mundane things; I liked how she didn't try to fill the silences in between the rambling.

Four years ago . . . I tossed and turned at night trying to figure out how to sneak a play date with Mommyfriend A and her child behind Mommyfriend B's back. You know Mommyfriend B, the one with the kid who makes everyone else's kid miserable but it's easier to gossip about her and avoid her than it is to address the issue?

Periodically, something restless and hungry stirred inside me, and I fed it with self-affirmations that mothering counted as real work.

Four years ago, these are the kinds of things I laid awake at night thinking about.

But four months and two weeks ago . . . I laid awake crying, not believing death could come so soon, not believing my mother might slip away before I could take the first flight out in the morning to see her.

On the plane, I slept from before take off until landing, straight through. I arrived in my mother's hospital room -- she was stable, coherent, and resting -- before 10 a.m. She was smiling and laughing. She told me that she was not afraid, she loved me, she was glad I came. My mother has always had the most beautiful smile in the world. It lights up a room, and that sterile, burdened place was no exception.


Deesha Philyaw is a Pittsburgh-based writer and the co-author, with her ex-husband, of Co-Parenting 101: Helping Your Kids Thrive in Two Households After Divorce. Her fiction and nonfiction writing on race, gender, sex and culture has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Family Circle, Brevity, The Cheat River Review, The Baltimore Review, dead housekeeping, Bitch, Apogee Journal, Slush Pile and other publications. She’s a Fellow at the Kimbilio Center for African American Fiction and a native Floridian.


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