Mother inferior

My relationship with my mother was always cloaked in barbed wire. When my young son became gravely ill, I had to cut her off. Then she began to die, and we were forced together for the last time -- and the first.

Published May 14, 2006 12:55PM (EDT)

One day, when I was nearly thirty, I became aware of the details of my own conception. My mother had come to visit me in graduate school, and I had just introduced her to my friend Rachel.

"And where are you from, Rachel?" my mother politely asked.

"Philadelphia," Rachel responded.

"Oh, really," said my mother. "My daughter was conceived in Philadelphia."

This bit of salient information slipped sideways into my life, the way so many bits of information did in my family: bombshells delivered breezily, casually, seemingly unimportant enough to share with a perfect stranger. You were conceived in Philadelphia. Please pass the salt.

"I was?" I asked. I had never really wondered about where I was conceived. That would have meant imagining my parents having sex. But now I was curious.

My mother nodded, as Rachel looked on.

"Where?" I asked. "How can you even be sure?"

"Oh, you don't want to know," said my mother. "It's not a pretty story."

It took a couple of hours to pry it out of my mother, once we were alone. As I drove her back to New York City late that night, I finally convinced her that she couldn't just tell me that the story of my conception wasn't pretty. She couldn't leave it at that.

"You were conceived by artificial insemination," she said, with a sigh. I focused on the road, both hands on the steering wheel.

"What? You mean, like, in a test tube?"

"Dixie cup, actually."

"They did that, then?"

"In Philadelphia," my mother said. "I used to call your father on the floor of The New York Stock Exchange --"

Inwardly, I rolled my eyes. My mother loved that phrase: on the floor of The New York Stock Exchange. Even though it was just the two of us in the car, even though my father, who had been dead for several years, had worked on the floor of The New York Stock Exchange for my whole life, she said it grandly, as if to impress.

"...and I used to say, 'Paul, it's time. Get on the next train down here. And your father would drop everything and make a mad dash for the train."

I could tell that my mother was now enjoying telling the story. She had forgotten that it was a story she had kept from me for nearly thirty years, and was now milking it for the drama.

"Why?" I interrupted. I knew my mother had had miscarriages, more than one, but the problem hadn't been fertility.

"Slow sperm," she replied.

"So he -- I mean, Dad --"

"They gave him a magazine and sent him into the bathroom with a Dixie cup," my mother said. "This doctor in Philadelphia -- this was 1961 -- he was the first in the country. I did my research." She paused. "I told you it wasn't a pretty story."

I dropped my mother off at her building on Riverside Drive and drove for a while around Manhattan. It was late at night; there weren't a lot of cars on the streets. I could still feel the cool ledge of my mother's cheekbone, the almost bloodless feel of her skin touching mine as we kissed goodbye. I had always wondered if she was really my mother -- not just in that hateful-childhood-fantasy way, but as a real, ongoing question. There were no photographs of her obviously pregnant with me, but that could be explained by the bed rest that she was confined to for most of her pregnancy. I knew that I had been born by cesarean section, and I had seen her scar, but still, I had never been entirely convinced. She and I were nothing alike. She was tall, dark, angular, dramatic. I was small-boned, soft-featured, fair. But our differences, as I saw them, ran far deeper than our surfaces. On a soul level, it seemed impossible to me that this woman was my mother. All my life, I had had trouble looking her in the eye. Her presence brought me no comfort. In my longing for some sort of pillowy, maternal warmth, I came up emptier than empty. For years, I had collected other, older women. Mother figures who bestowed hugs, asked questions about my life, gave me compliments that weren't wrapped in barbed wire.

As I drove the empty streets, I tried to adjust to this new information. In a way, it made perfect sense. I was conceived via artificial insemination, then my mother spent nine months flat on her back, then I was cut and lifted out of her, my first touch in this world that of a surgical glove. I was raised as a delicate, hothouse flower -- or perhaps another way of thinking of it: I was a scientific experiment. Observed carefully, kept apart, under wraps. Even though I was a perfectly healthy child, I was scrutinized. Poked, prodded, put under the magnifying glass. Every fever was a life-threatening event. Every lump or bump was ominous -- a sign, perhaps, that I wasn't meant to be, after all. Was it the Philadelphia doctor's office, the Dixie cup, the bed rest -- we wanted you so much, my mother used to tell me -- or a force darker and more complicated, that made my mother shiver over me so? She wanted me, yes. But she hardly knew what to do with me, once she had me. I grew up feeling like there was something, the thinnest, most transparent membrane, but a membrane nonetheless, separating me from the rest of the world.

I never thought I could have children of my own. Though there was, in fact, absolutely nothing wrong with my reproductive system, childbirth seemed somehow impossibly out-of-reach. Motherhood was the province of other women -- stronger women, more substantial women. My breasts weren't meant for breast-feeding. My hips weren't made for pushing a baby out. I could not imagine myself carrying a child to term, giving birth. I had an eerie certainty that becoming a mother would kill me. In my twenties and early thirties, I didn't feel I had a right to be a mother. That whole part of life -- the mother-daughter part -- had eluded me as a daughter, and it seemed only natural that it would also elude me as a mother. But really, that was fine with me. There was more to life than motherhood. Or daughterhood.

By the time I reached the age when many of my friends had started their own families (this age being a relatively late one, given that I lived in New York City) the idea that childbearing was lethal became tangled up with the idea that I didn't desire children. I was thirty-three, thirty-four, thirty-five. If my biological clock was ticking, I didn't hear it. I watched my good girlfriends as their bellies grew; I threw them baby showers, and visited them at home with their children, and listened carefully inside myself as I left for any hint of envy or regret -- and found none.

But then, something happened to me, something I had wanted very much to happen, but amazed me nonetheless. I met a man -- the man -- that I knew I would spend the rest of my life with. I was thirty-five when we married, and still, no tick of the clock. We discussed children, but it was all very abstract. He seemed okay with the idea of not having any. I figured we would probably be one of those interesting, literary childless couples who had disposable income and went on adventures, living the life of the mind. The life of the mind was, of course, where I felt most comfortable. None of that messy, bloody, corporeal stuff. I collected happy (or at least literary) childless couples in my mind, shuffling through them like playing cards. Sartre and de Beauvoir! Lillian Hellman and Dashiel Hammett!

All well and good. But then, one early spring evening, we visited good friends in our Upper West Side neighborhood for a Chinese take-out dinner. These were friends for whom I had thrown a baby shower three years earlier when their daughter was born. I hadn't paid much attention to their daughter as she morphed from an infant into a sunny, precocious child -- a child, who, as it happened, adored my husband. Would you read me a bedtime story? she asked. As she led him to her room, they were framed by an archway, and here is the moment that did me in: she reached up a tiny hand to grab my husband's hand, and then -- out of nowhere -- my eyes were flooded with tears, and I turned away, embarrassed by the suddenness and intensity of my desire.

He needs to have children, I thought to myself. It was a thought with neon lights around it, so shockingly clear that it cut through layer upon layer of doubt. Was it, in fact, my own desire that I was feeling? Perhaps -- but I couldn't have allowed myself that. Once I had the thought, it continued to play around the edges of my mind, and no matter how I tried to tuck it away, it always kept coming back and announcing itself. A baby. No. A baby. No. It was the rhythm of my inner life -- almost, but not exactly, like the ticking of a clock.

Which explains the summer afternoon after we'd been married just over a year. My husband and I were making love, and I knew, suddenly and with absolute clarity, that we were making a baby, right then and there. It was the first time we had ever had unprotected sex. Hubris, is it not, at the age of thirty-six, to be so sure? To know so absolutely? And yet, I did know. I did nothing to stop it. Quite the contrary. I forged ahead, blindly and out of sheer love for my husband, figuring that I might not have any idea how to be a mother, but no matter what, he'd be a great father. As we lay there, the late afternoon light filtering in through the rickety blinds of our beach cottage, I silently cheered on the ... what? Sperm? Zygote? Life forming inside of me? Come on, I encouraged it. It's okay. Come on.

Throughout my entire healthy pregnancy, my mother kept looking at me strangely, as if I was some kind of alien creature best observed from a distance. There was no patting of my belly, or listening to the heartbeat, or shared mother-daughter information. Never once did I ask her a question. Did you ever...? Because I could see that my morning sickness in the first trimester puzzled her, as did my exhaustion later on. Pregnancy seemed, for my mother, like a food she had never tasted, or a country she had seen pictures of, but never visited. When I try to recall her face during those months, I see her head slightly tilted to the side, a strained little smile -- but mostly what I remember are her eyes: they were wild, at sea. She looked completely and incontrovertibly lost, befuddled, as if I had broken a pact I hadn't even known existed.

I avoided my mother as much as I could during my pregnancy. I was riding a peaceful, worry-free hormonal wave when I wasn't around her, and she was the one person -- the only person in the world -- who could disrupt it. Here's how the thinking went, though these words didn't exactly form inside my head -- they simply knotted up into a ball of panic: she's not really my mother -- or maybe she is, but I was brought into this world by every possible scientific intervention. I shouldn't be here. And I (who shouldn't be here) am bringing another life into this world who shouldn't be here. I didn't have a mother, and therefore I shouldn't be a mother. I have no right.

My son was born by emergency cesarean section after thirty hours of labor, and he was, if I may say, magnificent. My c-section didn't surprise me. At least some repetition felt inevitable (and statistically likely, in any event). A short while after my husband, newborn son and I were settled into a recovery room, I asked my husband to call my mother. It was about ten o'clock on a beautiful spring morning. We were in the same hospital where I had been born almost exactly thirty-seven years earlier. She lived a ten minute cab ride away.

Three hours later, my mother arrived at the hospital. She was wearing her best suit -- one she might have worn to a charity luncheon or a matinee -- and, even through my Percodan haze, I realized what had taken her so long: she'd gone to have her hair done. I have a photograph of the moment she bent over and peered into the bassinet where my baby lay sleeping. That helpless, lost look is on her face, and as she bends over, her arms are crossed, as if she's shivering, holding herself.

"He's beautiful," she cooed, but her tone of voice was ever-so-slightly off. "He's perfect," she said. But it sounded to my ears like a lie.

For the first time in my life, I let my guard down. From the moment I discovered that I was pregnant until my son was six months old, I lived in a world unfamiliar to me: a world in which catastrophic things didn't happen. I went from being sure that pregnancy would kill me, to a blissed-out certainty that everything was -- and would continue to be -- all right. I was not worried about all those bad pregnancy conditions like gestational diabetes, preeclampsia. Even during my emergency c-section, I was largely unafraid. I continued to float along even after Jacob's birth. I did not check his breathing every five minutes. I did not freak out when he coughed, or spit up, or cried. I was not going to treat him like a fragile creature. I was not, under any circumstances, going to be anything like my mother.

And here was another first for me: I stopped speaking to my mother for weeks at a time. It was as if my own new motherhood had created a cocoon around me, offering me protection from her. One day, as I sat in my rocking chair nursing him, my mother called, angry about something. I don't remember what. But I remember this:

"I can't talk to you like this when I'm feeding the baby, Mom," I said. "It's important to be relaxed while breastfeeding."

"I'm drying up your milk!" she shrieked. "Is that what you're telling me? That I'm drying up your milk?"

And it was true. First one breast, then the other, dribbled to a complete stop.

It's hard to write about what happened next. When my son was six months old, he was diagnosed with a rare, rare disease -- a disease so rare that the pediatrician had never even heard of it. A disease relegated to one paragraph in a medical student's textbook.

Seven in a million. That was the statistic. As my husband and I sat in the specialist's office, on the wrong side of that statistic, I held my son in my arms and felt something ice-cold and new, and yet bizarrely familiar, crash over me. You see, an evil voice whispered, you don't get to be a mother after all. You over-reached. What did you expect? That it was your God-given right to have a healthy child? To have a happy family life? That's for other people. You're going to lose every single thing that matters to you. You have no right.

"You both look so gloomy," my mother said to my husband and me within days of our receiving the news. We were medicating our baby around the clock, watching him for any sign that things were getting worse.

"I always put on a happy face," she went on. "No matter what's going on. What's the point in wallowing in it? I don't know where you learned this kind of behavior."

"What are you talking about?" I asked her, as Jacob lay listlessly on the floor of her apartment. "You've never been through anything like this."

"Oh, please. I remember when I took you to the doctor for your eyes -- you were ... what ... eight years old? And your left eye was weaker than your right? It was a terrible time."

"My eye?"

"And here you both are," she continued. "You're walking around with your long faces, dragging each other down. It worries me."

"About what?" I snapped, taking the bait.

"It's not good for your marriage, darling."

Those were the last words my mother said to me for a year. I cut her off with surgical precision, telling myself that I would deal with her again, when and if my son was well. I had no choice, the way I saw it. I could either put all of my energy into saving my child, thereby saving myself, or I could allow my mother to remain in our lives, so that she could destroy us all.

Would it be cruel to say that I barely gave her another thought? I was a mother lion, getting a crash course in two of life's most important lessons: how to be a good mother, and how to live with the unbearable anxiety of not being able to protect my own child. I operated under an entirely unreasonable set of assumptions, holding onto them with tight fists and a clenched jaw: he had to be okay. That was all there was to it. My beautiful, fair-haired, blue-eyed boy, my sweet heart, love-of-my-life child. The alternative was unacceptable. Saving Jacob became my full-time job, as if, if I applied every bit of intelligence, will, determination and financial resource available to me, I could change the course of what was, after all, fate.

One image stays with me from that year. The experimental medication that we had pinned our hopes on, the one narrow road out of that seven-in-a-million statistic, was a non-F.D.A.-approved drug which we had Fed Exed to us each month from Canada. This drug came in the form of packets of white powder, which we had to divide into Jacob's five daily doses. We did this, my husband and I, by dumping the white powder onto a glass plate, and painstakingly cutting lines of the white powder with a razor blade.

I guess it's obvious where I'm going with this. For the better part of a year, that plate with the lines of white powder and razor blade was featured prominently on our kitchen table. Sometimes people would come over who we didn't know well, people who were unaware of what we were going through, and I'd see them eyeing the plate. And I'd remember another time in my life -- a time when such a set-up would have meant something completely different. Now, I held a tiny blue plastic spoon filled with strained plums and the miracle medicine, trembling, trying to get every last drop into my baby's mouth.

I will never know what saved my child. A talented doctor, the right medication, my own hyper-vigilance, my dead father watching over us, the prayers I whispered into the top of his head every night as I rocked him to sleep. Fate. Plain dumb luck. I will never know what saved him any more than I will know what stray dark cloud passed over him to begin with, threatening to engulf my little family -- this family I hadn't even known I had wanted, but now could not possibly live without.

Then, once it was all over, once the doctor sent us home for the very last time, once I began to believe that we were all in one piece -- my mother drifted back into my line of vision. She had been there all along, of course, hovering in the peripheral darkness. But now she was back. I remembered the promise I had made to myself, that I would contact her once Jacob was well again. I felt superstitious about it -- like I had to keep all bargains I had made. It was one of the Ten Commandments, after all. Honor thy Father and Mother. And to top things off, it was September. Time for the Jewish High Holidays. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur had always scared the shit out of me. The Book of Life was being opened in the heavens, and God was determining the fate of every human being -- though this was unclear: did this apply to non-Jewish human beings as well? In any event, fates were sealed. Who was going to die, and by what method -- all this was being decided by the big guy in the sky.

And so I picked up the phone.

"Hi, Mom."

A cold, stony silence.


"Hello, Dani."

She only used my name when she was incredibly pissed. As if calling me by my own name was the worst possible insult. And I felt it as an insult, a stone in a slingshot, released, hurling toward me. Her very tone of voice was frightening. I felt myself split in two, dividing: the part of me that had been strong for my husband and child, the part that had handled a hard situation with a fair amount of dignity -- that part was still there. But it was shrinking rapidly, and in its place was a terrified, empty-headed, frozen little girl.

"I'm calling with some good news," I said, keeping my voice calm and even. "It looks like Jacob's going to be fine."

"Oh, thank god," she said. "You don't know how I've worried."

Why did it sound so false? Why did everything she said sound like she had rehearsed it in front of a mirror, trying her best to approximate maternal concern?

"I'm sorry you've been worried," I said.

"Right," her voice went back to its reedy coolness. "Like hell you are."

Time passed. The bullet we had dodged with Jacob gave me a strange, new freedom -- the freedom to have as little to do with my mother as possible. Was she behaving even more horribly than she had for my entire life? I wasn't sure. But it didn't matter. I had lost my ability to tolerate her.

Occasionally, my husband and I would gather up all our defenses, and bring Jacob to her Manhattan apartment for a visit. On our way over, I would feel something stir inside of me -- a tiny ray of hope that this time it might be different -- and I would try to kill the hope, squash it before it could squash me. I can still see her, swinging the door open with a flourish, her arms held out wide -- not for a hug, but in a gesture a diva might make during a curtain call. Look at me! She screamed from every pore. She wore tee-shirts with big bold letters, or sweaters knitted with fuzzy, angora animals. Anything to get Jacob to focus on her.

"It's Grandma!" She would get right in his face, blocking his path into her apartment. I would stand behind him, resisting the urge to scoop him up in my arms and flee. I squeezed my husband's hand tight. It was so painful to watch my mother try to interact with my son -- I felt it as a physical sensation. I shrank, making myself as small as possible until I was a child again myself: lonely, afraid, and confused.

The more I withdrew from my mother, the more she attacked. I began to think of her as one of those unmanned drones the military uses in war zones. She was heartless, unstoppable. She didn't care what she was doing to us. It was all about having an impact -- positive or negative, it didn't much matter. It would not be an exaggeration to say that she called a dozen times a day. When she was unable to reach me, she sent faxes, letters, Fed-Ex packages. I walked around feeling cloudy and unhinged. Like I must be a dreadful person to cut off my own mother. Who could do such a thing? You're destroying me, she said into my answering machine. I have no reason to live. And one of her favorites, said so often over the years that it had almost lost its power: Some day I'm going to die, and I feel sorry for you, because you are going to be very, very guilty.

Understand this: I never stopped caring about her. I hesitate to use the word love, but it's true. In a way, I did love her. She was my mother. She was inside me, a constant voice in my head. Sometimes, I thought her thoughts, and was unable to distinguish them from my own. I'd be driving, or taking a bath, or on the edge of sleep, and I would suddenly think, I'm a terrible daughter. My mother is wonderful and misunderstood.

In the meantime, every day I was learning how to be a mother myself, my feelings intensified by how close I had come to losing my son. The rest of my life -- the part that had nothing to do with her -- had gotten very good. My marriage had grown even stronger through the fire storm of Jacob's illness. Jacob was becoming an active, joyful toddler. Work was fine. And we had decided to leave the city and buy a house in the country. At least once a day, while pushing Jacob on the swing, or watching him ride on my husband's shoulders, I had this thought: I could have missed out on this. I hadn't even known that I wanted motherhood. If not for that spontaneous, enormously lucky afternoon at the beach cottage when the veil of my fear lifted for just long enough, I might never have known. The pull away from motherhood had always been too powerful, a strong undertow drawing me out to sea.

The winter before Jacob turned four, my mother called me. I'm not sure exactly how long we had been out of touch, but it had been a while.

"I have these little things in my brain," she said. Was it my imagination, or did her voice sound weaker?

"What kind of little things?"

"Little things. Nodules." She paused. "Tumors."

It seemed impossible to me that my mother could die. I mean this in all seriousness. She was too tough, too huge a presence. I had long believed that she would outlive me. I was softer, more porous, vulnerable. She and I had been in a battle to the death for many years, and it was a battle I assumed she would win. I had pictured her, at my own funeral, crying in the front row.

My mother had six months, on the outside. And so I became her daughter once more. Of course I did all the obvious things: doctors' appointments, nursing care, whatever she needed. The harder part was that we needed to be around her. After a lifetime of avoiding my mother, I was all she had left in the world. She let me take care of her. What choice did she have? If we had each swallowed a potent truth serum, our conversation would have gone like this: You've killed me, she would have said. After all, she had said as much in the past. Better you than me, I would have responded. And I would have meant it. I was younger. I had a small child. I had a right to live. Didn't I?

But we never had such a conversation. When well-meaning friends tried to tell me that my mother's illness was a blessing, because now we might have time to make peace with each other, I smiled and nodded -- they were only trying to help -- but I knew that we had long since past the point where any sort of peace might be possible.

"Jacob, it's grandma!" She still opened the door with a flourish, but the fight had gone out of her. She was bald from radiation, and leaning on a cane. Gone were the jaunty sweaters. She grew smaller and weaker, until, for a very brief period of time -- a week, maybe two -- she became a person it was easy to be around. The anger had vanished. She drank in the world that she was leaving. A day stands out in my mind: a sunny, gorgeous early spring day, the last time she was able to be driven to our house in the country for a visit. We somehow managed to get her outside and into a chair, and I sat next to her as we watched Jacob play on his jungle gym. We just sat there, my mother and I, both of us enjoying the moment. We had never, in our forty years of knowing one another, been able to have such a moment. I had hated being her daughter and -- this struck me with all the force of a physical blow: she had hated being my mother.

She sat on the green expanse of lawn behind our house, the view sweeping miles into the distance. Jacob shrieked and laughed, kicking a ball down hill. My mother simply watched him with pleasure. Her eyes were not flickering all around, looking for ways to disapprove, to judge, or to make herself important. She was not maniacally working to place herself at the center of the universe. She was simply existing, and I was existing alongside her. It was the saddest I have ever been.

By Dani Shapiro

Dani Shapiro's most recent book, "Still Writing: The Pleasure and Perils of a Creative Life" was just published by Grove Atlantic.

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