Tell Her a Story

What happens when your 77-year-old infuriating, brilliant, estranged mother calls to say she has stage 4 terminal cancer and two months to live?

You drop everything and drive 500 miles to Ohio to see her because what kind of daughter doesn’t go see her dying mother? You tiptoe around one another because the last fight you had when she chose your ex over you in your divorce was so epic that you didn’t speak for two years. In spite of your still-raw feelings, you laugh because she has always made you laugh. Then, when one of you dares bring up the past, you fight when she denies she was cruel and unsupportive. Eventually, you cry because you both know there isn’t enough time to work out decades of unresolved issues. And even though the mere thought of repeating this visit feels akin to being prodded with a flaming hot stake, you do repeat it. You go back again. And again.

Strange things begin to happen. Her softening gaze begins to envelope you. You slip and call her Mommy. She starts calling you Dollie, a pet name she hasn’t used since you were 5. One day, you look down at her once strong, knuckly hands, the hands that did all those magical, powerful mother things—swaddling you, bathing you, occasionally slapping you, holding your hand when you were scared. You cuddle into the edge of her hospice bed and take her hands into your own. They are now weak as bird bones and so you hold them gently, just like she did when you were little, and you tell her a story.

You say, “You were born the fourth child of Elsie and Gilbert. Your ‘Daddy,’ you always called him ‘Daddy,’ adored you more than anything.” She smiles.

You skip over the traumatic parts of her early childhood, when she felt shunned by her mother; when her older sisters and brother were cruel to her. You skip over her daddy’s early death when she was just 20.

“In high school,” you continue, “you were on the honor roll and president of this and that club and homecoming queen.” You pause, since the details about whether she was on the court or the actual queen have always shifted. She smiles because you sense she knows you are embracing truthiness for the sake of storytelling, just like she taught you.

“You were the star of all the musicals and so popular you had more dates than you could keep up with. You and your sisters were the most beautiful and charming girls in all of Grand Rapids. All the most dateable men came to your house to court you. ” She smiles and winks her flirty, popular-girl wink that still charmed men into her 70s.

“At University of Michigan you met Alan on the steps of the library. He was so instantly smitten that he managed to find his way onto your already-full date card. A year later you were married in a big, glamorous double wedding with your sister Sally, and it was plastered all over the Grand Rapids newspapers.”

Again, you leave out the difficult parts, when your mom and your dad moved in with his parents, the summer after getting married and before he started law school. His mother, who obviously had zero boundaries, removed all the doors in the house. Instead, you skip to the rosy parts: “You gave birth to 4 children and always got your figure back.” She sucks in her cheeks like a Vogue model.

“Every morning, you woke early and made Dad poached eggs on toast and grapefruit, with each section cut out, and a cup of strong, percolated coffee. Every morning, he said, ‘These are the best poached eggs I’ve ever eaten.’ And you said, ‘I’m so glad you like them, Alan,’ and kissed him on the lips.” She makes a surprised ‘O’ with her lips and closes her eyes for what you imagine is a dreamy moment.

You know she wants you to say that she was a great mother and grandmother but the words get stuck.

You leave out the part when she and your dad split, their massively ugly divorce and how she manically cut his head out of all the family and wedding photos. Instead, you remind her that she wrote a brilliant and critically acclaimed play called The Myth of Sissie Foster, based on Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus, a play that almost went on to Broadway. You leave out the part where she was so involved with her play that she neglected her children. And leave out how, after it didn’t go to Broadway, she had a nervous breakdown, and your oldest brother moved in with your dad. You remember that this was also the time when, at 12, you were expected to “keep an eye” on and feed your younger siblings while your mother slept day and night on the couch. How you found her with her wrists slit in the bathroom and she screamed, “You drove me crazy.”

Your heart beats too fast, your face flushes. You swallow so hard you feel like you’ve bruised your throat permanently. Finally, you manage to say, “It really should have gone to Broadway.” She nods and turns away.

You feel the chokehold of your stolen childhood and young adulthood strangling you. You wonder if you can continue the story, then you take a long moment to breathe through it. You remember how astonished you were when your mother miraculously pulled herself together, and sputter, “You went back to school and graduated Phi Beta Kappa; you were the rock star of the department.” She stares long and deep and you feel that you are almost letting her touch that vulnerable part of yourself that she hasn’t touched in forever. She puts your hand to her cheek and mouths, “I’m so sorry, Dollie.”

You also leave out the part about your oldest brother Teddy’s psychotic break and eventual suicide. That’s a dismal dark hole of sadness and unanswered questions you have never discussed. You yearn to discuss it, almost more than anything, but you know this isn’t the right time. There will never be a right time. You swallow that longing and say, “You graduated and wrote more plays and earned another master’s in theater and then got a job as an arts therapist.”

You skip her subsequent short marriage to the millionaire that ended in an ugly court battle and his head getting cut out of all your wedding photos. But you can’t help thinking about how she fell madly in love and awe with your ex after you left him. Bitch, you think, for a second.

You pause. Then say, “You went back to school in your 50s, then started your own highly successful business in your 60s and worked full time until….”

Your voice trembles. You can’t finish the part about why she stopped working, when she got sick two months ago. So you lean over and move the soft wisps of white hair from her brow. You know she wants you to say that she was a great mother and grandmother but the words get stuck.

If only she had been your eccentric neighbor, you think. What you do say is: “You taught me the love of stories, how to write and think and live in a deep and complex way. To always ask questions. To not be afraid. To take risks. To take a stand. I wouldn’t be who I am if not for you.”

Tears pool in the corners of her slackening eyelids, and you are full-out crying now because you aren’t making this up just to be the kind of daughter who does the right thing. You are speaking a truth you only realize now—as the words form—and you say, “You are a badass Renaissance woman who lived with more passion and heart and soul and tenacity than any human being I have ever known.”

She beams, and whispers, “Thank you, thank you, thank you, and brings your hand up to her lips and kisses it over and over.

Gail Konop is the author of Cancer is a Bitch (Or, I’d Rather Be Having a Midlife Crisis) (DaCapo Press, 2008), freelance writer, yoga teacher, founder and director of the people’s yoga collective in Madison, Wisconsin and divorced mother of three. She is currently working on a novel-in-progress based on her experiences of re-bonding with her mother as she died.

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