Friday, August 21, 2009

Empty Nest

The day before yesterday I went to visit an elderly relative who is dying. She is my husband's cousin by marriage. When I married into this family there was a bit of tension seeing as I was not Jewish and not White. Other than that they liked me fine. Several of the older women in the family welcomed me and made me feel as if this was going to be fine. Shirley was one of them. She herself was something of an interloper having been married before and not being Jewish. Even though she was accepting of me, Shirley was never easy to be friends with. She has always been very guarded and sometimes a little paranoid. I told my husband a while back that trying to be her friend is like hugging a porcupine. But I like her just the same. I tend to like difficult people. That's a good thing since my daughter is also extremely difficult in a different way. She is the poster child for oppositional behavior. Said daughter left for college in DC last weekend. She is four hours away. The separation was as full of drama as every transition HRH has ever endured or made us endure. It was not pleasant.

So yesterday I was in Whole Foods and suddenly was overcome by this terrible feeling of loss. I realized that it had to do with Shirley and my daughter. I teared up and this very nice lady asked me if I was OK. I do not do public displays of emotion so I was very embarrassed. When I got to the car, though, I started to laugh. Here I was tearing up over the loss of two of the most exasperating people in my life. I should be happy that my daughter is on her own. I mean raising her has been like riding a wild bull. And Shirley is 84 and having the end of life experience she has always said she wanted -- no fanfare, no heroic efforts. She looked peaceful when my husband and I went to say goodbye. I understand being upset about Shirley -- no one is ever really ready to lose someone they are fond of. But I could not at first understand why I got so emotional about my daughter. Then I realized that I am mourning the fact that I have exhausted all possibility of having that fantasy mothering experience we all want. You know the one where your every move is perfect and you have this magical, mystical bond with your sweet compliant daughter. Ah well.

I remember a boy from Northern Ireland who was my friend in graduate school at Vanderbilt. Mike used to say "You can't pick who you fall for." He was talking about romantic relationships. But I think it goes for parenthood too. We don't pick our children. They come to us and we love them. As soon as someone puts a child in your arms or in your life and says "This one is yours" a switch goes off and you are lost. My daughter is adopted and when they brought her out and we looked at each other, we came to an agreement. She promised to be my child, and in return for the privilege of being a mom, she reached in my chest and took out my heart. And then she proceeded to stomp on it. She didn't mean to. It's just what children do. When they get hurt you bleed, when they get sick you nearly die. When they turn into teenagers and say the things that teenagers say you are devastated. There is a casual cruelty of which only a well loved child is capable. They are so supremely sure of their parents' love that they don't feel the need to guard their words. I realized this the first time I reprimanded my daughter for saying something hurtful to me. She looked confused. Mommies' feelings don't get hurt.

I have never loved another human being with the intensity I feel for my daughter. It is the same love I felt coming from my own mother to me. It is the only way I know to be with a child, and it is the most painful experience I have ever had. I had my daughter out in public when she was about five. We were in an ice cream shop and Chloe was being her usual self. I was constantly having to correct and corral her. This required a delicate balance of firmness and cajoling in order to avoid a scene. There was an older Black couple sitting there and the husband kept looking at me with that smile that made me know he wanted to say something. Finally he said "You need to have another one so you don't love this one so much." I think he might have been right, although at the time I barely had the energy to deal with the one I had.

So she's in DC holding the better part of my heart in her hand. I have a picture of her walking away with her roommate. They walk away from us without any idea that we are frightened and worried and sad. If had known what my mother was really feeling when I left home I would never have been able to go. I think mothers are the strongest people on earth, and the best actresses. We let the most precious thing we have walk away from us to a place where we can't protect them and we smile while we do it. My mother did it more than once. That makes her a super hero. If she were still alive I would call her up and apologize (again) for all the times I must have stomped on her heart. But being Mama she probably wouldn't even acknowledge that it hurt.


Joy said...

Jackie, this made me teary. What a post! I was going to call and ask about Shirley and noticed you'd written this. Stay in touch.

Tina said...

Boy, did this hit a nerve. I'm taking Marc to school on Thursday, and I've been trying so hard to not deal with it. He's been particularly difficult this summer, and I kept hoping that the frustration would hold the panic at bay. It doesn't. Even when they reject us and our desire and anxiety for parenting, it doesn't matter. We love, we hope, we scream, we cry, and still we clutch them close. It's the nature of the beast. I'm thinking of you. All I can suggest is chocolate and old movies--indulge and cry. Tomorrow breath deeply and keep going!

Jacqueline said...


I hope Mark's transition goes as well as it can. This is the kind of good wishes we mothers of interesting children give each other. I'm well past chocolate and on to ice cream at this point. Meanwhile HRH is calling home and asking for advice, telling me that she is homesick and will never be happy there while simultaneously planning which sorority she will pledge next year and what classes she can transfer from community college.

Sheria said...

My mother died almost one year ago. Your post made me reflect on my relationship with her. I remember my teens when I thought that she could do nothing right, but I also remember that she got smarter as I grew older. Funny how that happens. I came to appreciate that she loved me more than anyone else ever would. She still annoyed me with unsolicited advice but instead of making me angry, it amused me because I knew that the reason that she insisted that I would catch my death if I didn't put on a hat in the winter was because she cared. I am so grateful for all the good years that we had when I finally grew up enough to appreciate her love for me. I loved her dearly and miss her greatly. Thank you for such a beautiful post about the a mother's love.