Thursday, June 11
Caroline is in her pajamas on her bed, crawling at me with a lovely little grin on her face. She’s cupped her right hand and attached it to the side of her mouth, and she’s coming in towards my left ear for the whisper, “Tomorrow, Mommy…we can go to the pool. If you’re a good girl. And then we can get ice cream.” She is so sincere. Her warm breath puffs and tickles my ear, but my whole body reacts, like she’s blessing me, curing me. I close my eyes—this is the first time Caroline has whispered in my ear. Afterwards, I sit on the rocking chair, telling her the story she wants to hear; then I wait, as I do sometimes, watching her fall asleep.
I can’t get out of the rocking chair; I’m tired. Mr. Potato head’s arm lies under Caroline’s hamper unattached to his body—he’s a casualty in her colorfully cluttered room, like Oz’s wicked witch beneath the fallen house. Nobody’s safe when my little munchkins are running around, but they’re both asleep now, and it’s quiet. I’ve noticed that toddlers are noisy. While I’d like to say that their noise is like music, there’s actually a lot of whining, crying, and shrieking going on in and around my head these days, and it can be tiresome and loud. Carol Gilligan writes about girls in the school years needing to find their voices. I’ll have to cross that bridge, but for now my girls have theirs intact, often at high volume. So I sit and think about the day: what made me laugh, what didn’t, what I got around to doing, what I didn’t, what I probably won’t get around to doing tomorrow.
Then there’s Krista. She learned she had a slow growing tumor in her brain, just after delivering her first child, Anna Mae. I see Krista in the neighborhood. In fact, our kitchen window looks out at her front door. I think of her in the morning when I drink my coffee; I think of her at night when I close the curtains on the day, heading to sleep with the bold assumption that I’ll be waking up, doing it all over again the next day. And I’m thinking of her now as I sit in the rocker.
She’s going in tomorrow for brain surgery. She could die, or she could live, and there’s much that could happen in between. I picture her tonight in her house—the same as mine—in her child’s bedroom, sitting on a rocking chair, watching her baby fall asleep. Would this be the last time? How does she allow herself to think that way? How does she avoid it? And how do I as a bystander, a passerby, do more than pray and wish deeply that Krista will be here for Anna Mae when Anna Mae first learns to whisper in an ear?
Wednesday, June 17
Krista has survived surgery and grueling post-surgery complications. 70% of her tumor is now gone. She will learn in some time what that means for the long term, but she’ll be home with her daughter by the end of the week. Anna Mae, bring on the noise!
Krista, welcome home. May that first whisper be yours.
Mother’s Day. This isn’t my first as a mom, but it is the first when my oldest daughter can actually say, “Mommy.” She can also say “Oh My God Kingee, do you need a haircut!” and she can tell her dad that she’s not “digging” the song he’s singing. It is what I say and not necessarily what I do, these days, as Caroline makes our language her own. She grabs words and phrases like candy—with parental perseverance, she’ll accept table manners just as voraciously—and most of the time, I love it. I love hearing myself interpreted in a musical little lilting voice. She rolls the “r” (something I could never do) in “Caroline,” Italian flair. “Baracuda” (Dave taught her that one) rings from her mouth like it’s a kind of perfume, not a toothy fish.
There are car rides, however. There are missteps and moments when I forget that her eyes are on me, and when I say eyes, I mean globally big and blue, and when I imagine all that those eyes see, I envision raptors atop mountains scouting prey. This girl is watching … and listening. Will some future Caroline wistfully reminisce: “My mother used to say, ‘Get off the road, you Jackass!’”?
What will Caroline and Lexi remember about me? Will I envelop them in catch-phrases; will I sit them down for lectures? Will stuff just come out and stick? Should I be developing some teaching strategy, as the little magnets form minds? What am I doing?
My own mother was not a motto-mom. She may have doubted her ability as sage, but I like to think that she knew her style and her audience. I probably wasn’t going to listen. Though I do remember, when I was in junior high and convinced that everyone was better, brighter, and prettier than I, Mom did assure me that Susie Slatkin put her pants on just like everybody else. My mother also had this tip for relieving tension: shape out the alphabet with your head when you’re showering. I attempted the ABC’s of stress relief just the other day, wrenching my neck in the process. Water cooled and decreased in pressure down my back as I stood rigidly, waiting for the pain to pass. Of all that my mom and I had shared through the years, why on earth had I remembered that little nugget? Had she ever walked me through exactly how she raised four kids, lost weight after pregnancy, managed to be the smartest woman I’d ever met? I wish I’d listened.
Without my prompting the other day Caroline jumped on the footstool in her bedroom, screaming “Rockstar!” then jumped down with a “Ta Da!” She once put smiley stickers on top of her Little People’s heads, saying they all had to wear hats because it was too sunny. Recently she held out dripping fingers as she was bathing: “Here’s a rain forest, Mommy,” she said, pouring the water into my hand. I figure, if at age two she’s already interested in music, sun protection, and the environment, then I’m doing okay.
When my mom was sick with cancer, I had this aching desire to ask her for final advice, wisdom that would stay with me forever, guiding me towards a not-yet-materialized loving husband, aptly-nurtured future kids, and a good life. I had this brief but powerful feeling that maybe she would say something to me that I’d be able to keep, to mark down on delicate paper with a thin-tipped caligraphy pen—those go-to words that would get me through. I knew then that I was being silly because that had never been her way. She had been showing me her way for 34 years. By then, I had sense and I had love. I had strength enough, even, to say good bye to her.
I know that (post-language acquisition stage!) Caroline and Lex will hear what I do so much louder than what I say. They will see what I do with color and clarity, and they will remember, not all, but pieces of me, just as I remember my mother—the pink of her pedicure; our shared penchant for the scent of a flowering gardenia; the sound of her stifled laughter when my brothers’ misbehaved.
I imagine I’ll not impose words to live by—I hope my daughters just spend their time living. And I hope that what I give is so soaked and saturated into them, that when I’m gone, they won’t be able to separate themselves from the memories of me. I hope they remember the feel of their mother’s hug, the sound of her singing voice, and the wave of her fingers as she stands on her porch watching them leave after a visit. Just as I remember my mom, I hope my girls will remember me: not all that we say (because how could that be possible?), but the familiar way we sit across from each other at the kitchen table, dipping spoons into our coffees, content in the talking.