She was my first heart break. That sunny June Thursday afternoon, during a family communion of tears and clasped hands over Pho in Seattle’s International district, we heard the news - extensive mets throughout my lungs, liver and skeleton, in particular my backbone. That evening, watching my 14 year-old daughter at her 8th grade graduation awards ceremony, my heart broke into pieces and fell into sobs that extended to the bottom of my soul. My beautiful, powerful, formidable daughter, a brilliant bud of personal power on the edge of what would surely be a bold, brave, flowering adulthood. And I was going to miss it. I was going to miss her.
First I worried. I fretted. I needed to protect/arm/push/correct her… Save her from the pain of losing me, prepare her for a life where all of her personal family relationships would suddenly be redefined and turned upside down, push her to mature more quickly, correct my parenting mistakes, my flaws enacted upon her and through her….
She tried to reason with me.
“Mom?” she said that September, as she went off to high school. “I’m sad you have cancer and I feel sorry for you, but it’s really your thing. It doesn’t really affect me.”
It has taken me a full year to understand the wisdom of her words.
My first response was to push harder. I was more direct. Taking her to lunch so I could confront her with my cancer. Telling her that her dying mother’s request is that she seek therapy. Forcing her on a mother-daughter trip to Oregon and pushing into her face the “wisdom” I wish I had known before walking my own mother to her death last November.
“It doesn’t matter what you do, watching someone die is horrible. You will always think there was something you could have done differently or better, no matter how hard you try. You will always feel a conflicted collection of love, frustration, fear, grief, guilt and even disdain towards your loved one as they die. It’s just hard. I want you to know everyone feels that way.”
My 15-year old’s face was frozen, her eyes blinking back tears.
I need you to do therapy because I need you to grow up more quickly, I tell her. I need you to be ready to do your part to deal with how everyone’s needs are going to change. We all need to be ready to be a bit more for each other.
(I want her to grow up more quickly so I can feel connected to her again, I tell my therapist.)
She has a big robotics meet on her birthday. Parents are bringing food for the kids’ lunch. I bring a couple of huge sheet cakes that say Happy Birthday, Delphine. She’s so mortified she can’t stand to stay in the lunch line. She walks out.
I leave in tears so heavy I can barely see out the front windshield. A piece of my heart has been cut out.
(I wanted to love her and all I did was hurt her, I tell my therapist.)
What are you so anxious about? Why do you pick at her so much? Asks my therapist.
I had thought of myself as proactive, forward thinking …mothering – not anxious and picky.
I’m worried about her ability to be happy, to connect and nurture friendships at 15. Who is really connected to anyone else at 15?
I see her joy and laughter in the company of her new high school friends, her dedication to her goals, her conscious, successful strategy on finding and nurturing a new community around herself.
I wonder in amazement (and annoying motherly approval) at her ability to analyze our relationship and communicate to me what she finds disturbing.
This is not a young woman who will have difficulty nurturing and maintaining relationships as an adult.
I’m worried there won’t be anyone she’ll let hold her, to carry her when she sobs with grief.
I’m grieving that I am no longer the person she turns to to hold her when she is wracked with sadness or uncertainty.
I’m worried that she will not remember our good times. . I worry that what we had when she was little, Camp Fire trips, our cuddles, our big birthday party planning sessions, our bedtime stories – our connection, my ability to hold her and calm her when nobody else could – that these memories will be overwritten by these middle school and high school years when I grasped and grappled and struggled to hold on to her while she insisted on growing up and unfolding into her own person.
What if this happens? What if she can’t remember that earlier us? When I die, who will remember these precious memories I have of she and I together? Who will keep them alive?
And there it is.
Nobody will keep my own precious memories of my life with her alive. Nobody will keep *my* memories of any of the relationships I hold dear alive. Each person dear to me will hold their own memories of us.
And that’s just how it is, in life or in death. We each hold our own experiences and memories of connection, joy, sadness, grief and love.
Death doesn’t change this.
My memories, my experiences, are mine. They live with me and they die with me.
And so I mourn myself. For the first time, I actively mourn the loss of me.
My memories. My experiences. My joys.
I had been striving for this imaginary relationship with my daughter, an impossible relationship, where my needs and my losses where suddenly appeased and released by some imagined adult re-creation of that feeling I had when I cuddled her 2-year old head against my shoulder, a re-creation of the endearing connected love I felt for my mother as she passed on.
I move my mourning back to where it is centered, me. And there I work it and release it. I free her from my imagined needs.
And I see her.
This amazing 15 ½ year old whose ability to tap into her own honesty and insight allows her to now create writing pieces better than my own. This amazing tenacious gritty academic who hungers for challenge and walks determinedly through her tough classes and heavy list of outside commitments. This insightful and articulate observer of human relationships, this poised self-aware maker of her own future.
I mourn her. I mourn her because she is 15 and growing up.
I mourn for myself because I am 48 and losing one of my babies to adulthood.
And we are perfectly and authentically 15 and 48, daughter and mother, glorious, just as we are. I’m perfectly imperfect at mothering. She perfectly capable of being the whole, healthy person she is destined to be.
My issues with losing her are indeed my problem, not hers. And cancer is not the problem. Hers or mine.
Her memories are her memories. Her future is her future. Her path is her path. Her losses and her joys will be just that, hers.
Maybe we parents are wrong when we moan and groan about our teens. Maybe teenagers struggling for independence and identity formation are not “the problem.”
The problem is us, mothers. We are tangled in our love and we are terrible.
And that will just have to be OK.