Inch by Inch – A Mother/Daughter Friendship
by Carol Brill
I turned twelve the January before my dad’s brain tumor was diagnosed. After his surgery that spring, and following a long hospital stay, my mother moved the dining room table and chairs to the basement to make room for his hospital bed so he could die at home.
Too young at twelve to be included in the adult circle of truth, too old not to know their assurances were a lie, each night in bed I’d make deals with God—if you just let him get better, I’ll never do this, I’ll always do that, I swear to become a nun. In my make-believe miracles, I’d skip through the streets to proclaim his miraculous recovery to the sisters who taught at my catholic school.
But there was no miracle for us. By mid-October, my mother was a 37 year old widow with five children between the ages of fourteen and three weeks old.
At twelve, the depth of my mother’s sorrow terrified me. With one of my parents gone, and the one left appearing so breakable, I craved a way to control my world and make it more secure.
My mother never actually attempted suicide, but in the early years of deep depression after my dad’s death, at times the fury and despair boiled over in her, and for hours she’d rage and weep about wanting to die.
I hated those breakdowns and promised myself to never be like her. For years, I mislabeled her unspeakable fury as anger. My own anger became an unmentionable to be shoved deep inside and never, ever let out.
Growing up, there were other unmentionables. The biggest: Do not dare risk upsetting Mom by talking about Dad. The merest reference could plunge her into a bottomless crying jag.
He had been dead many years when she started to talk about him more freely. I can still feel the clutch in my chest the first time she did, still see the panic on my siblings’ faces that surely reflected my own. This new language of feelings was as foreign as Russian to us—a language we had never learned.
All the unspoken rules and bottled-up words, all the swallowed-whole feelings put a bulls-eye on my forehead for the eating disorder that plagued me through my twenties.
In spite of her happily-ever-after marriage going so wrong, my mother drilled into her daughters the necessity to get married if we wanted to be accepted and fulfilled. Still single in my mid-twenties, I felt less-than whole—another eating disorder bulls-eye on my head.
I was so good at stuffing my feelings and pretending to go along, that you can count on one hand the outright arguments my mother and I had over the years. One of our most dramatic clashes was in my late twenties, about six months into my recovery from anorexia and bulimia. I had kept my therapy a secret and decided it was time to tell her. Still in the mother-blaming stage of recovery, my confession made both my eating disorder and therapy sound like all her fault. We screamed back and forth at each other. She accused me of abandoning her and my youngest sister and brother, leaving her to raise them on her own when I moved out of her house into an apartment in my early twenties.
I shrieked back at her. “I wasn’t the other parent. I. Was. One. Of. The. Kids!” Each word reverberated between us. Her whole body shook, her face looked like I’d slammed the side of her head with a board. It was hard earned, but when the dust settled, we seemed to have a new understanding of each other, the seeds of a dawning respect.
Inch by—sometimes grudging—inch, that respect grew during my thirties. In my early forties, I had been in recovery and happily married for over ten years, was accomplished in my career and pursuing a graduate degree part-time, achieving a 4.0. In spite of my successes, on the inside I still felt so not-fully-formed and unsure. It dawned on me that in spite of feeling so insecure, I was already a few years older than my mother had been when her whole world blew apart. Finally, I stopped seeing her as just a mom who wasn’t there for me the way I wanted her to be. Instead, I saw her as a terrified woman who never signed on to be a single parent and did the best she could. I started to grasp her indescribable heartbreak and fear of being widowed with five young children to bring up on her own. Seeing her though that new lens made room for a woman-to-woman friendship to grow.
My father died so young it denied me the opportunity to know him as anyone but Daddy—robbed him of the chance to know me as a woman and for me to see him as a fallible man. I’m grateful my mother lived long enough to know the woman I became and for me to grow up and look past her faults and admire her strengths and be someone she called her friend.
Now that she’s gone, I find I miss every phase of her— the “before” mommy who was afraid of monkey bars, and the ocean, and Ferris wheels, but let me have fun with them as long as Daddy was around—the mommy whose heart was full of music, who taught us the words to “Peg of My Heart” and “Moon River” and “When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain” while she sponged down the table and stove, and my sister and I washed and dried— the skinny, terrified mom of my “after” youth—the puzzled dating mom of my mid to late teens—the mother I butted heads with in my twenties and early thirties—the mom and woman I started to know and understand in my forties who found joy in me being her friend.
I miss her most in the early mornings when I used to read her newsy email about her previous day and I’d fill her in about mine.
She sneaks up on me everywhere, in the graham cracker aisle in the grocery store, sitting at my computer to open email, on my long commutes in my car when I used to reach for my cell phone to call her.
I know I can count on her sneaking up again each spring when the ground thaws and the warm springtime breeze carries the scent of lilacs, a scent from my youth, and the huge lilac tree she loved too much to ever cut back even after it’s heavy blooms drooped and blocked the path in and out of her yard.
I planted a garden in the corner of my backyard in my mom’s memory. It’s the view I see every day through the window in front of my desk. Each spring, when the forsythia blooms like bright yellow sunshine with its promise of summer, I remember how friendship grew from the seeds of anger and grief and recovery and empathy. And, I’m grateful all over again.