"I hope you have a good life"

A mother and daughter reunite only to face permanent separation.

Published November 13, 2000 8:24PM (EST)

In the summer of 1997, my first wife was diagnosed with lung cancer. Eileen and I had been divorced for 14 years by that time and I had remarried and gone to live in Ireland. We'd remained good friends, though less communicative than we should have been.

We had three grown-up sons we loved, and when we did talk our conversations tended to center around their lives. I knew that Eileen was happy, that she enjoyed her work with handicapped children. As for her private life, I didn't know and I didn't feel I had any right to ask. When I heard from our middle son, Stephen, that Eileen was seriously ill and had to undergo laser surgery to burn a tumor from her windpipe, I flew from Dublin to Phoenix.

My wife, Rebecca, insisted I go. We found nothing awkward in the idea of my flying off to be with Eileen -- although some of our friends were unable to grasp the idea that there could still be friendship after divorce and that a second wife might be sympathetic to the needs of a first. I loved my ex-wife, although not in the same way as I had once. There were no old longings, just a kind of serene bond. Rebecca understood this.

In the implausible heat of Phoenix, I met my sons -- Iain, Stephen and Keiron -- and we went at once to the hospital where Eileen had her operation. The kids were apprehensive, caught in an unmapped zone between optimism and despair.

Eileen was in ICU, doped on morphine. She was only 5 feet tall to begin with, but in her illness she seemed smaller, shrunken. The sight of her so diminished shocked me: I felt unbearable sorrow that a woman normally so vibrant should be sapped of life, reduced. She recognized me, but couldn't speak because her throat hurt too much after surgery. Sometimes she'd scribble illegibly with a felt-tipped pen on a pad, but most of the time she was lost to us inside the dark room of narcotics and dreams.

I met with her surgeon, who told me that Eileen's cancer was inoperable and spreading. She had about six months, maybe. This was the prognosis the boys and I had expected, but it was a chillingly immutable prediction just the same. Eileen was leaving us: It was the truth we didn't want to face.

My sons and I took turns sitting with her. Sometimes when she looked at me, Eileen smiled in a slightly baffled way, as if she thought my presence was part of a dream. Other times, she smiled sadly and held my hand, and I spoke words of comfort, verbal placebos for me and for her.

Often when I watched Eileen in her morphine-induced sleep, I had flashbacks to when we'd first met -- Glasgow, 1962 -- in the basement of a music store. She was the assistant manager and I was a part-time clerk with ambitions to write poetry. I enjoyed her free-spirited style, the way her life seemed like a series of scattered events, dates kept, dates broken, trains missed. She lived outside of time. Often we went for drinks after work, we talked, I shared my sorry amateur poems with her, and she read them with great sympathy -- a quality she never lacked. We found ourselves drifting, without thinking, into love.

Early in our relationship she showed me a small cesarean scar and told me that she'd had a baby daughter, Barbara, whom she'd been forced to give up for adoption. Eileen was 16 when she became pregnant, and the father, whose name she never mentioned, had faded out of her life.

Eileen had been anxious to keep the child, but her parents, Orthodox Jews who perceived Eileen's pregnancy as an affront to the family name, opposed this wish so strongly there was absolutely no question of Eileen raising the baby on her own. Besides, the times were against Eileen: In 1955 single mothers were stigmatized. There was simply no chance of a public or private reprieve. Eileen would give the child away and get on with her life. From the point of view of her adamant parents, this was the only solution, and Eileen -- barely more than a child herself -- yielded reluctantly in the end.

When she handed the child to social workers the last words Eileen said to her baby were heartachingly simple: "I hope you have a good life." She told me this and not much more, and she never mentioned Barbara again. If she thought about her lost child down the years, she never told me. It was as if the baby had died and she'd buried it. But she had the scar and I knew she had too much heart to forget.

Barbara was adopted by a childless couple in Yorkshire, in the north of England. She was told from the beginning she was adopted. She was a happy kid, her home life comfortable. In her teens she decided she'd find her biological mother. She wanted, as she put it, "a sense of knowing" about her blood ties.

For almost 20 years she searched, encountering the frustrations of most adopted kids seeking their origins -- obstructive social workers, legal barriers, misfiled documents, concealment. But Barbara had enormous tenacity, and eventually, in the fall of 1997, she located Eileen's address.

By that time, I'd returned to my life in Ireland and Eileen had been released from the hospital after her surgery. Although she knew her prognosis, Eileen refused to give in to the forecast of her surgeon. She had days when she fought against cancer -- through prayer or the ministrations of faith healers or the ingestion of potions -- and she had other days, deep dark ones, when she was depressed and weak and needed oxygen. Despite the attentions of the boys, she was also lonely.

In Yorkshire, Barbara wondered what to do with the information she'd sought for so long. She deliberated for days before she finally wrote a circumspect letter. "I'll respect your decision if you do not want to contact me," she wrote, "although my deepest hope is that you will. All the love I have, I send to you now, your daughter, Barbara."

When Eileen received the letter she wept for a very long time, because, as she told me later, she'd prayed only a few days earlier for news of her daughter, and now, when she'd expected nothing to come from it, the prayer had been answered. Excited, suffused with sudden bright energy, Eileen immediately phoned Barbara in Yorkshire.

Eileen's first question was: "Is this my daughter?"

Barbara answered with her own question: "Is this my mother?"

They talked then at top speed, there was so much to relate: the fact that Barbara had three brothers she'd known nothing about, the fact that Eileen had three grandkids whose lives were a mystery to her. Forty-two years had to be covered; it was too much, too draining, too many tears.

And there was one other piece of information Barbara had to impart, a tragic counterpoint to Eileen's own condition: Barbara had also been diagnosed with lung cancer, and she didn't know how long she had to live.

Eileen was too stimulated by Barbara's reentry into her world to be dismayed by this wretched coincidence. And besides, she'd already glimpsed a hidden meaning of hope in the timing of this reconciliation. She wrote me: "Campbell, I see this reunion as the door that opens true healing for both of us." And she added, "I feel no more need for this disease."

Phone calls and e-mails went back and forth for a couple of weeks, photographs were exchanged; but they were never going to be enough. Barbara flew to Phoenix to be with her mother. It was the first of three visits she was to make over a period of four months. She couldn't leave her own family for too long, because she knew that her time with them might be scarce. But the discovery of her mother was an event of such joy that she believed, like her mother, in its power. "Something deep inside of me has been awakened," she wrote in her journal. "It's a love I haven't known before. This is the most powerful feeling I have ever experienced."

For Eileen, the reappearance of Barbara in her life was an omen, and she believed that she and Barbara could pool their strength and defeat the disease they shared. Barbara believed this, too: Between them, she felt, they had the power to conquer. But sickness wasn't a topic during their first reunion. There were too many mother-daughter connections to be made, simple things of which they'd been deprived during the long years apart -- Barbara brushing her mother's hair for hours, or cooking a meal together, or visiting the supermarket, even if Eileen was confined to a wheelchair.

Barbara's capacity for setting aside the burden of her own considerable pain to nurse her mother was astonishing. When I returned to Phoenix in January 1998 and saw Barbara tend to Eileen, I realized I'd never seen such love in action. When it became obvious that Eileen was fading out of our lives, Barbara was always at her side, cradling her head, smoothing her brow, singing phrases of songs to her, lines from "The Rose," or "Hush Little Baby."

In total, Barbara and Eileen had only six weeks together, six weeks of making up for long-lost time, before Eileen died on Feb. 4, 1998.

A couple of days before her death, Eileen asked me to sit with her. She took my hand. "Write this story," she whispered. "Write this story of Barbara and me, and how we found each other."

I promised I would.

It wasn't until after Eileen's memorial service that I thought about what this promise meant. I'd made my living for more than 20 years writing fiction, hiding behind characters I'd invented. I made up dialogue, I could move a whole army of characters if I needed to -- how in God's name was I supposed to deal with the true story of these two women?

My first impulse was to delegate the task. I asked a friend, Tom Congdon, to write it. Tom had authored a good book called "Having Babies," and I felt Eileen and Barbara's story would appeal to him, since he'd already written a nonfiction work about women and children. Tom didn't mind helping out, but he felt that I was the only person close enough to the situation to write the book. Our agent shared this opinion.

So, with deep reluctance, I started to write the story of Eileen and Barbara. Barbara had supplied me with her journals, and Eileen had left behind a jumbled assortment of papers, diaries, notebooks. I had all the material I needed -- so I thought.

I began in the third person. I'd stay out of the narrative. I'd treat this just like fiction. In other words, I wouldn't be involved as a character. I wrote three chapters. Then, truly appalled, I quit. The work was just plain bloody bad. It read like Catherine Cookson on quaaludes. Meat and potatoes prose, unpalatable. I was adrift in this new world of memoir.

And then I realized that if I was to write about Eileen's life, there was no escape from writing about mine. How could I tell her story and leave myself -- husband, father of her children -- out? And how could I have even imagined that I could tell this story in the third person? Was I that afraid of the past, of what it might reveal?

As soon as I started writing in the first person, I knew -- with a tremor of shock -- there was no place to hide. I had no fictional escape hatches, no plot devices. Start telling the truth and it becomes a hard taskmaster. I found myself trawling memories I'd chosen to forget, and with each revelation came the understanding that this story couldn't be restricted to cancer, nor to adoption and reconciliation. It had to be the story of marriage, family and divorce as well, and an examination of love. It also had to be a story of the human failings, in particular my own, that contributed to the death of our marriage.

Painfully, I resuscitated scenes I'd done away with long ago: how I'd dragged Eileen and our small children from London to upstate New York in the early 1970s because I thought that if I escaped the haunts of Soho, where I worked as a book editor in a world of long boozy lunches, I'd find release from the alcohol that was beginning to play too large a role in my life; how I'd uprooted Eileen and the kids again and driven them across the United States to Arizona, where I imagined -- for no logical reason -- that booze might be better combated under a desert sun, only to discover cocaine in Phoenix. I brought back to mind the searing pain when Eileen and I finally separated, and her despair, all the energy and bravery she'd invested in trying to save the marriage -- and me -- blown away, because I'd been careless, selfish and ultimately incapable of finding the salvation she wanted.

Details came back with the energy of genies liberated from imprisonment. I had no way of stemming them. I wrote and wrote, unconscious of time, reliving harrowing episodes, and good ones, too, funny ones; and all of these I wove into the story of Eileen and Barbara's reconciliation. It was writing of a kind I'd never known before. It was as brutally honest as I could make it, and I didn't give a damn if I came across as a demented coke fiend or sorry boozer, or if I'd revealed too many of my character flaws.

I'd thought I could be detached and calm. But that was never to be. The truth was on paper. I felt grief such as I'd never known when I wrote scenes involving Eileen in the prime of her life, and I was liberated from the way I'd suppressed so much of our mutual history.

When the book appeared in Britain last January -- five months after Barbara died -- and the media kicked in, I was often asked why I'd been hard on myself. I always answered that I'd made a promise to Eileen to tell her story, and the least she deserved was for me to be truthful about the role I played in her life. I've always felt privileged to have been a part of her world. And of Barbara's. I wanted the book to convey that too, and I believe it does.

Going back to fiction now doesn't feel the same. I'm changed. It remains for me to see exactly how.

By Campbell Armstrong

Campbell Armstrong, a Glaswegian by birth, has lived in Ireland since 1991. He has written several novels, including "Jig," "Agents of Darkness," and "Concert of Ghosts." "I Hope You Have A Good Life" (Crown Books) is his first nonfiction book.

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