I posted this last week on The Sisterwives and have been pretending like it didn’t happen ever since.  I don’t know what it is about this story that made me hide from it.  Is it true?  Certainly.  Is it the whole truth?

Is anything?

After I finished, I felt like I had to post a defense of my mother, even though I was the only one doing any attacking.

I take my mother out to lunch about once or twice a week, and the weekend after this post ran, we had one of the best outings we’ve had in years.  I don’t know why.  We didn’t fix all the things that are broken, or solve the deeper issues that had been set aside for the day.  We had lunch.  We talked about my son being sick.  We talked about my father.  We laughed, more than we had in a long time.  Maybe that IS the best that we can do.

Here is the post, as it originally appeared at The Sisterwives.


Last night before we went to sleep, after a screaming tickle fight, a heated debate over whether we really had to brush our teeth every day and twenty minutes of snuggling, I looked at my seven year-old daughter and said, in that dorky sentimental mommy way, “I hope we are still friends when you are a cranky ol’ teenager.”

And she said “We will always be friends, momma.”

I hope so.  And I doubt it – but after that inevitable time when a daughter has to find her own way, I hope that she will come back to me.

My mother and I are not friends.  We have never been friends.

Today, we are sitting silently in a hospital waiting room, my mother and I, listening for her name.

“What does CAT scan mean?” she asks suddenly, and since I’m staring at my phone anyway, I look it up and show her.

“It’s like a cross-section x-ray.”

“What are they looking for?”

“It means they are looking for anything that a regular x-ray might not show.  Like a gallstone.  A kidney stone.  A reason for the problems you’ve been having.”

“Or a tumor.”

Pause. “Yes.”

“Well that’s perfect.  We took your dad for a CAT scan and then I lost him.  It would just be the icing on the cake if I have cancer too.” and she laughs in that mirthless, bitter way.

“Mom, you don’t know that.  It’s probably something very simple, they just need to know so they can treat it.  Don’t worry.”

“You don’t know that.  You don’t know anything.”

And I don’t.  But I can feel something suddenly coil in on itself in my gut, something poisonous and angry and I have to close my eyes and breathe to make it go to sleep again.

I do not know how to be her friend.

I am my father’s daughter.  When I was a girl he used to dance with me, to songs with made-up lyrics in pretend languages that didn’t make sense to anyone but us.  He called me ridiculous, embarrassing nicknames like Hockey Puck and Dinglefratz until I grew older and full of disdain and refused to dance or even acknowledge him, choosing instead to wear cutoffs and cowboy boots, to smoke with the dramatic flair of someone much tougher than I was and come home after curfew on the back of a motorcycle.

He called my mother “Corinna, Corinna” and phoned her every day from work to sing “I Just Called to Say I Love You.”

They held hands every time they walked together.

I could fill this page, and more, with stories about him.

In those stories, she is always in the background.  She was the straight man to his stooge and his most devoted fan.  He wasn’t just her best friend – he was her only friend.  I believe he was the only person she ever trusted with who she was.

When he died, he took all the joy and the light with him, and my mother took in all the grief and the darkness and tucked it away inside of herself; no one was allowed to touch it.  She never let it go.

Her world contracted to three rooms and a television.  She scours the news stories every day for evidence to support what she already believes: there is no good in the world.

I know enough about her childhood to understand why she is who she is: her own mother was indifferent and petty, competitive and subtly undermining.  Her sister is judgmental and cloying, her brother was violent and manipulative.  If I could go back and save her I would – stand up for her and tell her that she is worth the love that she was never able to count on.

I am jealous of women who have managed to form adult friendships with their mothers.  I watch them and wonder what it’s like to have a conversation about life with the woman who raised you without wanting to pull your own eyes out.  What it’s like to talk about your marriage without being reminded that you are lucky to have a husband at all.  To talk about following your dreams without being cautioned that they never come true.

I do not know how to be her daughter. 

“You’ve never lost someone you loved.” she told me once.

“I lost my father,” I replied, “How can you say that?”

“It’s not the same.  You don’t know.  I don’t expect you to understand.”

Grief is a lumbering, vindictive beast, it knocks the legs out from under you and breaks them and still insists that you carry its weight.  I know that her grief was nearly the end of her.  She railed against God and anyone who survived and dared to be happy.  My marriage nearly collapsed under the burden – I could not manage her grief, and my own.

In the years that followed, we have adapted: I have learned that I simply cannot count on her for any kind of support.  She wants to feel included, but she doesn’t want to participate.  This truth was irreversibly driven home when my son was born – I was alone in a hospital with a newborn, unable to walk due to the C-section, hormonal and defensive of my own potential failures.  So I called my mother, crying because of an ill-mannered nurse; I just wanted someone to be there with me.

She couldn’t, she said, because she didn’t feel right about cancelling a hair appointment.  Wasn’t there someone else I could call?

I laughed so hard at this that I tore a staple, bringing the same nurse back to help me.  Of course I was being ridiculous.  Of course I could – and did – manage on my own.

She fears life and death in equal measure; her fear that the best version of my father will not be waiting for her on a fluffy white cloud is perfectly balanced with her fear of actually letting go, and living again.

My resentment over the last fifteen years has ebbed and flowed, cresting once when I hurled a cordless phone into the wall in frustration, shattering it and her voice in my ear and my head so I could just have a moment of peace.  (“What just happened?” she said when she called back. “Did you hang up on me?”)

I do not know how to fix this.

Declining health and mobility have turned what was once her stubborn unwillingness to help herself into an imperative.   The time for us to turn this around has passed; for me to harbor resentment for what we both have lost is pointless and destructive.

I have my own family now, and my relationship with my daughter is a giddy, fun house mirror-opposite of what I knew with my mother as a child.  I wake her with tummy farts and do her hair and play board games and we snuggle and watch movies and talk about boys and princesses and zombie apocalypses.  I call her ridiculous, embarrassing nicknames like Bean-o-saurus and Dingle.  It is my reaction to a childhood where my mother loved me, certainly – but she did so from arm’s length, which is something a child does not understand.

She deserves forgiveness for that, and she has it. She did the best she could for me, just as I do the best I can for my children. We sometimes parent from our own unmet needs, and I am no different.  If I overcompensate, it’s because I want something better for my daughter.  Something besides this cold, anxious distance in a hospital waiting room, that it’s far too late for either of us to change.

9 thoughts on “The Best That We Can Do

  1. I enjoyed reading your post again. 🙂 Maybe you had a good outing with her because you let go of a lot with this piece. Sometimes, just the plain acceptance of someone’s limitations can be completely liberating. I hope the good stuff keeps happening. 🙂

  2. Your willingness to overcome possible resentment and bitterness with a form of loyalty (if out of duty rather than devotion) laden with ambivalence is transforming. Into what I can’t say, but it appears embracing, not isolating. Your gentle way in spite of her narcissism and your compassion despite her distance is a great encouragement to me who is dealing with both parents the same. I think it’s a nice offset that you experienced that closeness with your Dad when you did…I’d have liked those memories myself. Healing words from a healing heart, well written.

      1. You evoke such emotion in me at times with your story being entirely too familiar…I am as traumatised in revisiting this stuff as I am hopeful. Thanks…I think.

  3. You may feel like running from this post for your own reasons . Personally, I run toward it because it offers a truth that I think is more common than most people want to — or care to — admit. It’s beautifully written with an insight reflecting a mix of contemplation, regret and hope that you can understand, regardless of you relationship with a parent.


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