Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Hope Against Hope, Part One

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The soul knows for certain only that it is hungry.
-- Simone Weil

My daughter is 12 weeks old when she tries to starve herself. Or perhaps I should say when she begins to try to starve herself, for her efforts will continue at full strength for another three months, and she will not give up the fight altogether until her first birthday.

It's possible it isn't her intention to starve herself. It's possible -- some would say more than possible -- that a three-month-old doesn't have intentions in the usual sense of the word. So let me be clear: I'm not suggesting that my infant daughter makes an active, conscious decision to begin a hunger strike. What I am suggesting is that the infant in question has something to say and has no way to "say" it -- that there is something she is feeling (she is all feelings now; there is nothing else for her yet) that demands to be expressed, as all feelings do, and that refusing the nourishment I offer is her only recourse to expression.

I should mention that I do not understand this at the time.

I do not understand not because I am dog-tired and stupid (although no doubt this doesn't help) but because of something more basic: I don't want to. Of course, I don't know that, either. It will be six years before I know anything at all, and then it will be only because I have no choice, because I will find myself and my daughter lost -- hopelessly lost, it seems for a while -- and I will have to go back over every turn I took that got us to the lonely stretch of road on which we're stranded. Not just lost, but broken down.

And it is the old-fashioned word, breakdown, that describes what happens when at the age of six and a half, midway through first grade, Grace falls apart and everything comes to a halt. When there is nothing to be done except to retrace the path upon which I had set out, set us, with the best intentions, and rethink every indicator light I'd missed along the way, so busy concentrating on the route I'd mapped out for us I hadn't noticed all the warning signs.

I knew what not to do, so I thought I knew everything. The opposite of wrong, I foolishly assumed -- though foolish doesn't scratch the surface of this -- would have to be right.

Wrong. It turns out, in fact -- and I, much more than foolish, had no idea -- that there are a lot more ways to go wrong than to go right.

* * *

While pregnant, I had thought quite consciously about how wonderful it was to be able to take care of someone so completely without having to do anything, that all my daughter's needs were being met as I breathed and ate and slept and walked and read and wrote. If only it were going to be so easy in real life! I remember thinking. I remember that I used those words: real life. I meant: it will never again be so easy to take care of her, to protect her and feed her and comfort her and keep her safe, once she is outside of me.

And then it was. At least at first, it was.

My child was hungry: I had milk for her. She was tired: she could close her eyes and sleep for 10 or 15 minutes right where she was -- across my lap or on my chest or draped over my shoulder. I changed her diapers; stroked her sparse, copper-colored hair; sang her lullabies (Sleep, baby, sleep/Thy father guards the sheep) and standards and songs made famous by Patsy Cline (There's a somebody I'm longing to see, and Crazy, I'm crazy for feeling so lonely) and songs I made up on the spot (Welcome to your life, Grace Jane/We've been waiting for you since before we both were born), nursed her again, rocked her back to sleep; bathed her -- with a washcloth for the first two weeks, and then in my lap as I took my own bath each night; dressed her in the tiny undershirts I'd tie-dyed or just dyed black (because in Columbus one could not find hipster clothes for babies. Later, friends in New York would send me black tee shirts and leggings, gauzy lime green and turquoise peasant blouses, Indian print skirts, and a little black dress that gave the phrase "little black dress" new meaning).

I "wore" my baby in a sling so she could catnap or nurse while I took walks or shopped or dropped into my office to collect my mail. I never used a hand-held plastic "baby carrier" -- I didn't even buy one -- and I had to restrain myself from asking other women why they didn't have their babies pressed close to them wrapped in fabric while they pushed their shopping carts through the Big Bear. I'd shiver as I heard, watched, other mothers' babies crying in molded plastic baskets swinging from their mothers' hands, or set into the shopping cart along with all the cans and jars. Besides the sling, which she could recline in, I had a Snugli, so that she could hang upright, face to my chest for comfort. And I had a front-facing pack, which allowed her to be upright and look out at the world when she was of a mind to. That was the way I carried her to the state fair in late summer -- seven weeks old, strapped upright against my chest, facing out, in a floppy sunhat and sunglasses, bare feet dangling. In the many photos Glen took of the baby and me on that day, posed in front of one or another gaudy Midway ride or rigged game with its display of giant stuffed animal prizes, the Ferris wheel towering far behind us, Grace looks content; I look blissed-out and done in, both.

* * *

The brand-new mother of a newborn, lying in the porch swing for hours with the baby across my chest, a giant thermal cup of ice water by my side, I am struck by how simple, how straightforward, how obvious the recipe for perfection -- the roadmap to perfection -- is. It is so obvious I cannot imagine why everyone doesn't follow it. It is only this: meet every need.

Meet every need. It is my mantra, a formula that covers any situation that arises, slamming the lid down on the kinds of anxious self-doubt that new mothers experience, the questions that plague them all day, every day. Do I let the child cry herself back to sleep when she wakes in the night, as the books suggest, or do I go to her room and take her from her crib, nurse and rock and sing her back to sleep, no matter how recently she last cried? Using my formula, there's no crisis. She needs me; I go to her.

The formula expands to what I come to think of as the commandments, fewer than ten, of motherly perfection. Be available. Be attentive. Watch and listen unceasingly. Keep your child from hunger, want, grief, loneliness, frustration. Who could argue with this? Or, I ask myself, this? -- the logical exponentiation of my formula: Do this from the instant the child enters the world; cease only when she lets you know she doesn't require it anymore. And I am certain there will come a time when she won't require this -- require me -- anymore, not in the way she does now. I am certain, as it happens, without a sense of what I mean by certainty, for the time that I expect to come is so indistinct and distant I cannot even imagine it. What I do imagine is that when this time comes, my daughter will be carrying inside her the deposit I have made -- of my unceasing attention, devotion, company -- because she will have absorbed it fully in every cell of her being. She will have absorbed it the way some of us absorbed our early days -- months, years -- of needs unmet, of loneliness and longing. She will never be lonely because she experienced an absolute lack of loneliness early on that she will take with her out into her life, out into the world, that will protect her from all the grief the world will have to offer.

I remember explaining this to a friend, talking on the phone one day as Grace naps in my lap. "It's quite the experiment," my friend says carefully. I agree, uncarefully. I am "experimenting," sure, I say, allowing just a little bit of sarcasm to color the word. There's no proof that such steady devotion is what a child needs. But it's self-evident, is it not? "And what's the worst that can happen?" I ask her, laughing. "She'll be loved too much? Poor thing!" I look down at the sleeping baby, lying exactly where she wants to be. As soon as she wakes, she'll see me -- she won't even have to cry out for me: I am always there.

* * *

My own mother was seriously depressed during my infancy and childhood, and I have always imagined that this depression had to do with me. No one in my family has ever endorsed this explanation, but then the only person who has ever been willing to talk at all about what our family was like in the years just after my birth was my grandmother. She favored "explanations" that either blamed my father or relied on an image of my mother as "too good to live" -- that is, as the embodiment of perfection itself, and as such unable to cope with an imperfect, ugly world. She would no more have allowed me to hold myself responsible than she could take any of the blame herself.

I know very little of substance about how my mother was raised, but it seems plain enough that at 22 she barely knew how to look after herself. She had been simultaneously over- and under-tended all her life. Overprotected and fussed at, kept clear of ordinary everyday activities (so that she never learned to cook, for example, and didn't know how to use a broom or mop), and suppressed -- forbidden to be angry, or to show any other unseemly emotions, to express her own personality (and perhaps she had no idea what that might be in any case). Certainly she never felt unabashedly loved, supported, treasured by her mother -- who of course had her own difficulties, tending to three older (and by all accounts rowdy, sometimes unmanageable) boys in a tiny apartment; her husband, my grandfather, left early every morning for work in the hat factory and returned home late -- sometimes stopping to play cards, or going to the opera, where he'd get a standing room ticket. He had a life of his own, which aggrieved her -- and he left her to take care of everything difficult, which made her angry and must have also (though she never admitted this) frightened her.

My mother had been treated by her mother as if she were a doll not meant to be played with -- the kind made of china, beautifully painted and dressed, with fragile china fingers that could too easily be broken off. One took good care of such a doll, kept her on a high shelf out of harm's way, and didn't handle her too much. My grandmother fussed at my mother. But she had no tenderness for her.

Was she already depressed when she married my father? No one says; perhaps no one -- not even she -- knew. My father, whom she met at 14 he was 17 and "tough," to all appearances), when he gathered up the nerve to speak to her in the neighborhood candy store in Brighton Beach, must have been both an antidote to her childhood -- he was loud, brash, nervy, confident and restless, sometimes even explosive, ever present -- and a familiar sort of harbor: he was as willing (eager, even) to treasure and protect my shy, unworldly mother as her own mother had been. And his bluster must have been familiar too to a girl who had much older, rougher brothers. He was nothing like her father -- whom she adored and longed for, that never-enough present sweetness that came and went with him. In the wedding pictures neither of my grandparents look happy: my grandmother looks grim, resigned; my grandfather looks anxious and downright suspicious.

My mother -- smart and a beauty, both -- married my father at 19. He had no prospects then (just out of the army, 22 years old, a high school dropout working in his father's hardware store) but he had ideas. He talked big. His personality was as overpowering as my grandmother's, and although in those years he and my grandmother were enemies, they were in cahoots where my mother was concerned. Between the two of them, they kept her on the shelf, out of harm's way.

She had started at Brooklyn College after she graduated from Lincoln High -- the same high school my father had given up on three years earlier -- but she quit "to get married," she explained when I was a child, and it was presented as something unassailable, though I remember wondering (but thinking I could not ask) why she couldn't she have been married and a college student. After she left school, she had an office job for a little while, but she quit that, too. Briefly, she gave piano lessons. But then I was born, and there was no question what she should be doing with her time.

I imagine that being faced suddenly with the job of taking care of me -- the first serious, demanding task of her life, and one from which there was no rest -- must have been overwhelming. It's easy to imagine that the responsibility for a baby might have been enough to send a fragile person over the edge. Over one edge or another.

So I suppose it's not unreasonable to believe that this -- that I, in need of constant care, constant attention -- was responsible for her tumbling into the dark place that swallowed up my life as well as hers for years. I will never know the truth; I know only what I remember. And what I remember best is feeling all alone, neglected, yearning -- desperate for the company and conversation, the attention, of the person lying down behind a closed door, in the dark.

I know that there were periods in my childhood when the darkness lifted for a while, that we would count the days, then weeks, perhaps months, that Mommy was feeling all right, before it descended again. When it did -- and it was like a heavy curtain falling once again, signaled by the morning that she wouldn't rise to get me ready for school -- we wouldn't talk about it, only exchange glances, mine sorrowful and scared, my father's grim and angry.

I was marked for life by this, just as we are all marked by our early troubles -- troubles of one kind of another, many of them much worse, more crippling, than mine. Still we are all marked, in ways we can see and ways we can't.

* * *

Grace is 12 weeks old, and we are at war.

At first it isn't war, or I don't know it is. At first it is only a series of discrete skirmishes. The first day, she turns away after nursing for three or four minutes -- nowhere near long enough, I know -- and even as I try and fail to persuade her to nurse a little longer, I tell myself that she's just "not very hungry today"; I am anxious but I don't yet panic.

I panic the next day, when instead of merely "turning," she begins to wrench herself away, pulling back as forcefully as she can after nursing for no more than a minute, and then cries -- wails -- pitifully, and refuses to return to my breast even though I know she must be desperately hungry.

One more day, and the war has begun in earnest.

She will not nurse. I will not let her starve. All day long I try to nurse her, and all day long she refuses to nurse. She refuses loudly, furiously, red-faced. I try to take advantage of the open mouth she's howling with, but as soon as I do she clamps it shut again, and for good measure tries to bury her face under my breast. She will do anything to get away from me, and I don't know how to fight her.

The pediatrician is no help. I take Grace to see her -- I'm crying, Grace is crying -- and just as I'd feared my daughter isn't gaining weight; she's stalled at 11 pounds. "She may have lost a few ounces in the last few days," the pediatrician says. "In any case she certainly isn't growing the way we like to see. Fourteen ounces overall since I last saw her? That was" -- she frowns at Grace's chart -- "six weeks ago. That's terrible." Terrible. The word is a knife. There is nothing I have ever heard that is more terrible than this word terrible. I ask her what to do. "Just give her a bottle of formula, for godsakes," she says, and adds, "I hope you're not one of those breastfeeding fanatics."

But I have already tried -- it was the first thing I tried, when it became clear that Grace wouldn't nurse -- to give her a bottle (not of formula, but of my own painfully, tediously, at-long-length hand-expressed milk, because apparently, having read so much -- as I prepped for the Big Test -- about the benefits of breast milk versus substitutes available in cans, I am one of those "breastfeeding fanatics"). Grace refused the bottle, as I had expected she would; I tell this to the pediatrician. "It's my own fault," I tell her, because I had never offered a bottle before and had thus missed the "window for introducing the bottle" noted in every single one of those books. I had intentionally missed the window. I wasn't planning on using bottles. I thought it was ridiculous for me to pump and fill bottles with my milk when I would be available myself, when I had no intention of being farther than arm's length from her until she was six months old; I had arranged my teaching schedule around that plan. And when I returned to teaching, I had my classes set up so that I would never be away from her for more than three hours at a stretch, and by that time, I had read, her nursing sessions would be at least four hours apart. Besides, she'd be eating solid food by then; she wouldn't starve while waiting for me to get back from campus.

The best-laid plans. I tell this story at the local La Leche League chapter meeting I force myself to attend even though I have never liked clubs or groups of any kind -- I am not a joiner -- and I hate the structure and artificial social setting of meetings. But this is an emergency, and I am desperate enough to take my place in the circle of women sitting on metal folding chairs in our neighborhood branch library's meeting room. Most of the women gathered have babies on their laps or crawling on the carpet, and there are half a dozen toddlers playing in the corners and periodically waddling up to their mothers and pulling up on their untucked shirts to nurse. Jesus, I think, and tell myself something else that I will end up being wrong about: I'll never let my daughter do that. A year of breastfeeding, that's it, I quit. That is, if I ever get to start again.

Grace is asleep -- asleep and starving -- in my lap. I speak calmly about missing the "window of opportunity" to "introduce the bottle" and everyone nods empathetically. This is heartening: no one here thinks I'm out of my mind. I explain about the flexibility built into my job, but every other woman in the room -- it's 10 a.m. on a Wednesday morning, after all -- is at home full-time with her child; they're not that impressed. One of them mentions how lucky she feels not to "have to work." Another says, "It's hard on a baby, you know, to lose her mother at six months." I say, doing my best to keep my cool, "She's not losing anything. I'm going to be teaching, not dying," and I take a deep breath and tell the part of the story I came here to tell, and ask if anyone has any ideas that might help me. As soon as I ask this question I burst into tears, and the woman sitting next to me puts her arms around me (as she can; she is seven months pregnant) and I realize that she's crying too, in sympathy. The mixture of sympathy and antipathy from a group of other mothers is something I will get used to, later on. But it's new to me that day, and what with my anxiety about Grace, and my exhaustion, I can't cope with the conflicting emotions -- theirs or mine -- and I don't stop crying for a long time. The woman crying with me won't stop until I do, and for most of what's left of the meeting she rubs and pats my back, the two of us weeping into each other's hair.

* * *

I will never know if Grace would have been willing to take a bottle during this period if she had been accustomed to one from the beginning. The lactation consultant the La Leche group leader sends me to wastes no time in conjecture. She tells me briskly that there are mysteries about our babies that we'll never solve, that we're not supposed to solve. "We just have to deal with them, that's all." She arranges for me to rent an electric breast pump so that my milk production won't stop while I continue to try to get Grace to nurse, and she rattles off a list of suggestions to help me do that. I try everything she mentions. Changing position, surprising Grace into nursing because she doesn't see it coming, helps for a while -- until she learns to recognize that my looming over her on all fours ("That's it, all the mystery is gone," says Glen sadly the first time he sees me on my hands and knees on the bed, the baby beneath me) means that food is coming; as soon as she makes the connection, she stops nursing this way, too.

Soon I discover, even more usefully, that Grace will nurse in her sleep. I bring her back into our bed, between Glen and me, where she had been during her first month. Now, even though she continues to refuse to nurse all day long, I can get her to nurse at night, some nights virtually all night. She nurses, asleep, for hours at a time, less effectively than she would if she were awake, but effectively enough, it seems, for she begins to steadily gain weight again. At 16 and a half weeks, she weighs 11 pounds, thirteen ounces; at 18 weeks, 12 pounds, three ounces; at 20 weeks, 12 pounds, nine ounces. It could be better, the new pediatrician admits, but at least the baby isn't losing any more ground. "You're getting there," she says. "Just keep doing what you're doing." She pats my arm. "You're doing great."

But I am not doing great. For one thing, I am getting almost no sleep. I nap, on and off, all night long, but mostly what I do is anxiously watch her nurse, stroke her head, and occasionally shift my weight so that she can nurse on the other side. I have learned to nurse while lying on my side -- I have learned to offer both breasts from one side. She wakes up calm and happy each morning, and I feel I have outsmarted her. She seems to have no memory of what's happened in the night and I feel a little guilty about tricking her this way. I am tricking her for own sake, I remind myself. Still, it's the kind of thing I'd sworn I'd never do.

I am more tired than I have ever been in my life, even during Grace's first weeks -- at least then I'd sometimes sleep for two hours between nighttime feedings -- and I am more anxious, tense, and tearful than I ever imagined I could be. I am still trying to get Grace to nurse in daylight, to persuade her to behave as she did on days one through 84 of her life (or perhaps not exactly as she did then, for one thing has changed for the better: the nightly three-hour crying bouts have stopped).

With the help of the lactation consultant -- a profession I would have mocked at any previous time in my life -- and her bottomless store of tips for getting reluctant babies to nurse, I learn that that Grace will nurse during the day if I follow a complicated, rigid, grueling routine: I must be alone with her, in a room that is completely dark -- lights off, windows curtained -- and silent (even a passing car, or a bird chattering on the windowsill outside, will stop her). I can't nurse her sitting up, as I did for the first three months; I must be lying down. I must take my shirt off, too, and not merely lift it.

This means I can't go anywhere, or I can only go places from which I can quickly return home no more than three hours from the start of her last closed-door, shuttered, silent nursing session. (I do try, several times, to nurse her this way in other people's bedrooms, but it is very awkward -- removing half my clothes in someone else's house, shuttering somebody else's windows, lying on an unfamiliar bed -- and because I find it more stressful than the rush home, I give up.)

Months pass. I am a recluse. I store the milk I've pumped (I'm still pumping several times a day, because Grace's nursing isn't regular or forceful enough to keep up my milk supply) in baby food jars in the freezer, and every day I try to give Grace some defrosted breast milk in a "sippy cup" that she mostly pours over her head. She is still too young to manage a cup, but I am assured by the lactation consultant that if I keep trying, she will learn, sooner than promised by the books. We are concentrating now on getting my milk into her any way we can. I make breast milk popsicles -- my sister-in-law Donna's suggestion -- and these are a big hit: Grace sucks on them rapturously, sitting in her high chair; in between sucks she raps them on the tray and laughs uproariously. When she is old enough to digest solid food, but still young enough so that her main source of nutrition continues to be breast milk, I will mix defrosted breast milk into cereal, into rice, into pastina, into everything I can mix it with. Muffin batter. Scrambled eggs. Meat loaf. If she eats even a few bites, I am ecstatic.

She is six months old, then eight months old. She becomes interested in avocadoes, in skinned whole plums, in quartered grapes, in certain sour fruits she discovers that she loves -- fat, barely ripe blackberries; star fruit; even lemon halves, which she licks and sucks on merrily. She drinks her breast milk, ice cold, from a cup.

And so she doesn't starve, after all. I call the lactation consultant, one more time, to thank her. "It's over," I tell her. "Thank God."

And so the crisis ends. Or so I think, then.

In fact it just goes underground.

* * *

Grace is just over a year old when she begins to nurse again willingly. Now that she doesn't have to; now that she has to ask me for it. She will nurse, as it turns out, until she is four years old. One of the legacies of my La Leche League days, and the whole new group of books I read then, is a decision to let her wean herself when she is ready -- a natural extension, it seems to me, of my determination to meet her needs rather than do things "for my own convenience," as I am wont to put it.

She nurses less and less frequently with each passing year, and for shorter and shorter periods; in the end, except for when she's ill (when nursing is a blessing, since breast milk is a "clear fluid" and no matter how awful she feels she will lie beside me and nurse on and off, so I don't have to worry about dehydration), she's down to once a week or so for no more than a minute or two -- a quick hit; keeping her hand in, I figure. Sometimes she forgets for as long as ten days, and I feel obliged to tell her that the milk supply is dwindling, that it's a supply-and-demand system, so that one day she will try to nurse and there won't be any milk, that she should be prepared for this. And then one day it happens. She says, "That's it, Mama. Nothing, not a drop," and adds, "I guess you'll have to find another way to comfort me now, huh?"

* * *

She is such a cheerful, articulate, sensible, smart child. How can there be anything wrong?

But there is something wrong. I just don't see it -- not until halfway through first grade.

In kindergarten, she refused to throw away what was left of a piece of construction paper after she had cut shapes out of it, but neither her teacher nor I found this worrisome ("Kids," Mrs. Brant said, and shrugged. I didn't think to ask if other children in the class were secreting away their paper scraps; perhaps they were). By the end of the school year she had begun to keep and hide any piece of paper she had written or drawn on, even "mistakes": if there was a single mark on any paper, she would save it. This didn't seem so odd to me; in fact I was impressed that she so honored her own efforts. I thought it was the word or two that she had written, the half-finished drawing, the "rough draft" of a poem that she wanted to save; it didn't occur to me that what she was saving was anything she had touched -- that she couldn't bear to part with anything with which she had come into contact.

Not even when she moved on to candy wrappers, empty juice boxes, the packaging her toys came in, discarded wrapping paper, no matter how crumpled and torn, at birthday parties (so that she left her friends' parties with a goody bag of candy and cheap plastic toys and a shopping bag of wadded up gift wrap; the mothers didn't mind, though some of they gave me strange looks). Sometimes she picked things up in the street and begged, weeping, to keep them. Just seeing something was enough to make her feel sentimentally attached to it. She even explained that to me. "It's too hard to let it go, it makes me too sad."

But she was unlike other children her age in all kinds of ways, and I chalked up this latest eccentricity -- that's what I called it -- to her sensitivity and her intelligence and her depth, which were considerable. That she could articulate what she was doing I was both blind and vain enough to be proud of. She was, I reasoned, after all, the only child of older parents, and of parents who themselves were vastly different from the parents of the other children she knew. I was right about all of this -- that is, all of these things were true: that she was extremely sensitive and smart and "deep" and an only child of older and somewhat eccentric parents who were artists and "not from here" in a dull, conservative Midwestern town in which people seemed to pride themselves above all on fitting in. But that didn't mean there weren't other factors to consider; it didn't mean there wasn't something wrong.

There was something wrong even before this, when she was three and a half, when my childhood friend Vicki was first diagnosed with cancer. I knew this would be terrifying, terrible, to any child. But I misunderstood how frightening it was to Grace, and why. I didn't see the gap -- huge and growing huger daily -- between what Grace, smart as a whip, knew, and what she could understand. I didn't see that for her, as close to me at three, at four, as she was as a newborn -- so close we might as well have been one person -- the thought of a mother vanishing forever was the thought of herself vanishing forever.

We were 550 miles away from where Vicki was sick, so we didn't see her very often. And each time we did I prepared Grace as well as I could. She knew Vicki would be bald, that she would have no eyebrows. She knew that Vicki might have to throw up sometimes, and that this, like the baldness, wasn't because of the cancer but because of the "strong medicine" we hoped would cure the cancer.

When we visited, she knew that she and Silas, Vicki's son, would have to play quietly, and probably indoors, and that Vicki would be resting while they played. Sometimes I'd look up, while we were there, and see Grace in the doorway of the playroom in the Brooklyn Heights apartment, watching Vicki and me as we sat on her couch, holding hands and talking.

When my second book came out, just before Grace and Silas turned five -- their birthdays are two days apart -- Vicki and her family came to the reading I gave at the Jefferson Market Library, my old branch library in the Village. She brought me flowers and took photos and introduced herself to everyone as the "for Vicki" to whom the book was dedicated. But by the next evening, she was too sick to join us at the book party uptown. Grace asked a lot of questions -- more questions than anyone else asked -- about how sick Vicki was that day: in exactly what way, and did she have a fever, and was she in pain, and was it the cancer making her so sick or the medicine she was taking for it?

Back in Columbus, I called Vicki every day, and Grace would watch me, waiting for the moment when I made the call. She watched me take the phone out of earshot, out of her view. Even after I hung up, I'd have to stay out of her sight for a little while. When Vicki had first called with the news that cancer was suspected -- that there was "something" on an X-ray that was suspect enough to require immediate exploratory surgery -- Grace had been beside me, at the kitchen table, and she had watched me fall apart. I was sure that was part of the trouble -- that she had seen me so frightened.

She never said she was frightened. But from the beginning, the first months after that phone call, she became preoccupied with what she called "scary thoughts." She tried to fall asleep at night and couldn't: her mind was flooded with pictures that frightened her so badly she would scream and I'd come running. "Mama, take a fork and pluck those pictures out of my brain!" she would shriek, and smack her forehead, grab her own hair and tug on it, trying to pull the thoughts out of her head.

Some of these images were concocted out of the air, and some had to do with Vicki, or with Silas. Others were from books. One that appeared again and again was from Dr. Seuss' Hop on Pop, which by then we hadn't even looked at in months. It was the picture, Grace explained when she could catch her breath and speak, that was captioned, "Jim is after him," the one that showed Jim biting on the tail of a sharp-toothed creature that had just been trying to bite Jim.

I understood that the "scary thoughts" had to do with death -- with Vicki's, with the possibility of mine. She mocked herself for the assurances she'd asked for when she was two, that I wouldn't die until I was "very, very old" ("I'll do my best," I'd say). "I was so stupid then, I didn't know anything," she told me. She wasn't even four years old. I tried to meet her on her own ground intellectually. What else could I do? I admitted that sometimes people do die earlier than they should, that the strong medicine Vicki was taking might not work, that this was a worse sickness than any normal sickness, that Vicki might die. But I told her that no one in my family, on either side, had ever had cancer, and that "scientists believe that this is part of the story" ("Did anyone in Vicki's family?" Grace demanded, and I told her yes, both of Vicki's parents died of cancer. "I hate cancer," she declared, a four-year-old again). I told her about Ruchel, "your great-great-great grandmother," and my father's Aunt Betty, "your great-great aunt," and reminded her that my own grandmother was close to 100 when she died, that the odds were in our favor.

But wasn't dealing with anything but the surface -- the complicated surface. I didn't know what was below the surface because I was below it with her. Neither one of us could see a thing.

* * *

We start out such soft, small, urgent selves, and from the first we're etched, scraped, engraved, impressed upon. It isn't very long before there's almost nowhere left to make a mark, a scattering of tiny almost-hidden bare spots here and there, for the last bits to be written on -- the addenda, all the later troubles, the ones that are sharp enough to find and penetrate the few still unmarked places.

By three, my daughter, like anyone, was marked for life. I think of her now, newborn and delivered into my arms unsealed, unstamped -- that soft bundle of living company, the essence of Grace -- impressed daily (hourly, minutely) with my presence, my attention, my interest, my devotion. She didn't know what it felt like to be ignored; she didn't know what lonely felt like, or what in need felt like, or what without-me felt like. And why should she? I would have said if anyone had spoken of it. Perhaps someone did. Glen's grandmother, his father's mother, bluntly said once as she watched Grace nursing, during one of our visits down South, "What will happen to her if you ever get sick, end up in the hospital? It will be the end of the world for that child." I was appalled; I wanted to say, "What do you suggest? That I let her practice for my illness, my death, just in case?" but what I did say -- cheerfully and at top volume, the way I say everything to Grandma Holland (who can't hear a single word my soft-spoken husband says) -- was, "Oh, I'd rather not concentrate on possibilities of that kind. I figure I'm lucky to be so available to her. Don't you think I'm lucky, and that she is too?" Grandma Holland clicked her tongue. "Oh, lucky," she said, as if talking about some foolish luxury -- a too-big house, or jewelry. A meal in a restaurant.

I'm thinking we both missed the point -- Grandma Holland in her way, which is too chilly to suit me, and me in mine, too damp and overheated for her taste. I know what kind of mother she was: I've seen the evidence, lived with the long-range results. It's the middle ground of motherhood I've had so much trouble locating. It's the middle ground that almost everyone seems to have trouble locating.

An excerpt from The Middle of Everything: Memoirs of Motherhood published in March 2005 by the University of Nebraska Press.


Michelle Herman writes both fiction and nonfiction, and teaches in the MFA program at the Ohio State University. She is the author of the collection A New and Glorious Life; the novel Missing (which was awarded the Harold U. Ribalow Prize for “best Jewish fiction” and selected as one of the 25 Best Books of the Year by VLS, the literary supplement of The Village Voice); the novella Dog (due out in 2005 from MacAdam/Cage); and the forthcoming memoir, The Middle of Everything (also due in March 2005, from the University of Nebraska Press), from which this piece has been excerpted. Her stories, novellas, and essays have appeared in such journals as the North American Review, Story Quarterly, and American Scholar, and have been anthologized in such collections as Twenty Under Thirty: Best Stories by America’s New Young Writers and Jewish-American Fiction: A Century of Stories.


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