My mother gave me up before either of us knew the value of a mother. After her death, I no longer confuse longing with love.

Published May 11, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

Mother, I still dream of you, and how beautiful you look. Thick dark hair that catches the sunlight, cheeks as pale and smooth as a funerary angel's, eyes that smolder with misery, lips painted with promises. Cosmetics can't achieve the kind of glamour you command. It's you in your 25th year, seen through my star-struck 7-year-old eyes, and even in sleep, I'm paralyzed by desire. How can I hold you? How can I keep you? I awake exhausted from the excitement of your presence.

Long ago, love made me a beggar, grateful for a glimpse, a touch, the hem of your dress brushing past. Because I've missed you all my life, your death feels, perhaps, less awful than another mother's might to another daughter. I tell myself it does. After all, I'm used to my longing.

When he was small, our son -- your grandson -- used to confuse the word "love" with the word "miss." At bedtime, he would take my face in his hands. "I miss you!" he'd say, his voice ragged with passion.

"But I'm right here," I'd answer. "I'm right here with you." I couldn't correct him. Hadn't he, after all, gotten it right?

When you died, this is what I said to myself: It's over. At 24, I was young enough to imagine that death would mark the end of our relationship. I'd looked forward to your dying; it seemed the one thing that might release us both -- you from cancer, me from a vigil that began with my birth.

"Hostage," you called me. The word you wanted was "surrogate," but you were in a hurry. We were driving through Coldwater Canyon, about to arrive at the end of the conversation. I was 12 and you were trying once again to explain how things were the way they were. What had happened was this: You'd given me to your mother; I was the price of your freedom. But at 18 you didn't know what a baby was worth, didn't know that you'd just rearranged the terms of your own captivity.

Hostage. I said the word silently to myself until the syllables collapsed into nonsense.

After your death, when I didn't know what a mother was worth, I determined that you would remain the only one to have brought me to my knees, to have made me beg. Not in front of you, never in front of you -- I had my pride -- but you knew that every star wished on, every prayer whispered, every candle lighted, was yours. A ransom's worth.

After your death, I tried to imagine what the circumstances might be that could tempt me back into a posture of supplication. As it has turned out, I bow my head eagerly. Each night, by my son's bed, knees mortified by Legos, elbows planted among stuffed animals, I'm being rehabilitated. Your grandson no longer mistakes miss for love. And as for your daughter, she is making progress.

By Kathryn Harrison

Kathryn Harrison's fourth novel "The Binding Chair," was published this month.

MORE FROM Kathryn Harrison

Related Topics ------------------------------------------