For the past two weeks I’ve been blaming the heat. And yes, it’s been a record-setting 100 degrees in inner-city Baltimore, with an unconscionable level of humidity. But yesterday I realized, that is not it – not my problem at all. Allow me to explain. My oldest brother is a professional man. He was the apple of my father’s eye. My next brother, the self-proclaimed “middle child,” tried harder. He took over the family business and cared for our aging father every day of his life.
I am the third child – the only daughter. My father cherished me without reserve throughout my childhood and worried about me every day thereafter. He fretted over my every deviation from his feminine ideal and expectation.
When our father died after a brief illness some years ago my brothers’ loss seemed inestimable. I grieved then, and I continue to cherish the memory of that honest and generous man. But what I’ve been living in these past weeks during this scorching Baltimore summer is something else entirely. My feelings now are far more complex.
My mother: inch by gradual inch I am losing my ninety-eight-year-old mother. It has not been the heat that has drained me. It has been the enervating emotion watching my familiar mother become much less familiar.
I am a woman. This is my mother. I stand in front of any mirror and I see her: in my curly hair, behind my smile. Sometimes it’s a struggle to see where she ends and where I begin.
I have an iconic teenage memory. We are locked in a department store dressing room, waging warfare over some obscure matter of taste. We enlist the hired help (a saleswoman who foolishly dares to offer an opinion) to intercede and defeat the other in a staged battle over hemline length, ruffles, glitz, color, or neckline. We define our relationship for many years by the clothes we refuse to wear – and those we do.
I have an iconic adult memory. I’d been a vegetarian for nine years. My mother makes a thick chicken soup for me when I arrive alone for dinner. She insists, “But poultry is not meat.” This is not an ignorant woman.
I remember, of course, my mother’s vehement objection to both men I married. The first: “He’s not Jewish.” The second: “You hardly know him.” I remember her caveat to my life as an author. “The only women writers who succeed have rich husbands who support them.” I could go on. I believe that almost every woman can – and does. The songs we sing with our mothers are seldom two-part harmony.
Regardless of the stories, the complaints, the engaging and the disengaging; regardless of the complexities of being the strong daughter of a strong mother – this is the parent who knew me then, who knows me now. This is the person who loved every bit of me (however much she objected). This is the woman who ultimately accepted (and found reason for pride) in my every choice – no matter how far I wandered, or how incomprehensible those choices were to her narrower life experience.
Today, I enter her apartment at the senior community (where she moved two years ago when we agreed that ninety-six might be a good age to stop driving) and her eyes laugh and dance. She tells me: “You have no idea how much I love having you here! You have no idea how much I love you.” Her entire petite body speaks that truth.
I am losing her. Not like my father after a three-month critical illness. My mother lives and breathes and walks, every day more slowly and with increasing fatigue. She remembers selectively and surprisingly. She forgets what she had for dinner, or whether she even had it. She no longer has a “yesterday” or even a “this morning.” Time has disappeared. My mother teaches me still. She instructs me in the absolute value of this breath, this moment – gone!
This is a woman who has lived life with enthusiasm and zest from the moment she took it on. Mollie with the million dollar smile accepts life. She has systematically accepted difficult women among her many friends. She explained them like this: “That’s just how she is.”
She accepts, too, the losses. What has been acutely painful for me to witness, has been far less terrible for my mother to live.
Return Voyage alights here for three hot summer weeks. ‘Iokepa and I are house-sitting our son’s cats and plants in a downtown Baltimore neighborhood. Our son and his wife vacation in Cape Town, South Africa at the World Cup. We’re here for my mother.
Mollie Speert Miller may live to be 105 – only God has that answer. Her health is perfect. But her body, her ninety-eight-year-old body – skin, bones, and brain – is simply wearing thin. I watch my adorable mother and I am helpless with grief. What she accepts, I continue to deny.
Mothers and daughters – there isn’t a more fraught and complicated relationship. I cannot imagine a life without it.