Something We Can’t Mend
In half an hour, my birthday will be over.
There is no moonlight but not because of cloud cover; it’s a New Moon, a reminder of New Beginnings. And a new year just beginning in my life: my fifty-first. I am now only two years younger than my mother was when she was widowed. I am a mother too, and I imagine a cord, silver as a moonbeam, threading its way through the darkness, connecting me to my daughter, and my heart tugs at that cord so that, wherever she is and whatever she’s doing, she might feel—even for a split second—my love reaching out to her.
A slight breeze rustles the leaves of the old maple whose gnarled branches spread over the deck and brush the edges of the metal roof. Sometimes there’s magic in a night like this. I consider going back inside, upstairs to my special room to light a candle, to meditate or visualize or send out positive thoughts… something to convince whatever energies make things happen to favor me on this night. There is still time; it’s not yet midnight. But no, no one can force a thing to happen that is not meant to happen. And even if it were possible, a forced show of love would be empty and meaningless.
I reach into my bathrobe pocket for the cordless phone and very quickly check for a dial tone even though I already know that its signal easily reaches this far and beyond. It could still ring, I try to reassure myself; it wouldn’t be the first time she has called this late. Exactly one minute before midnight one year on—my birthday? Mother’s Day?—I had all but given up hope and had gone to bed when the phone finally rang, my daughter’s cheerful greeting on the other end oblivious to the relief I tried to keep out of my voice. Right now, however, the only voice I hear is the fearful doubting voice in my head, whispering that there will be no call tonight, nor tomorrow, nor…but my heart refuses to listen.
Surely, it cannot go this far. Surely, all the “good,” for there was so much and is so much good between us, must outweigh any “bad.” We’d had disagreements, even arguments, okay, so what? Mothers and daughters clash all the time, and there is (or should be) security in knowing that whatever words are exchanged in anger are ultimately diminished by the strength of the mother-daughter bond.
My own mother and I had frequently disagreed, the arguments sometimes passionate and hurtful. At times, I resented what I interpreted as her interference. I was nothing like her; how could she relate to how I was feeling or what I was going through? I was my own person, not an extension of her! “This is not about you!” I would scream in a frustration that would turn to incredulity at her calm response: “Everything about you is about me.” Yet whatever was said between us, whatever differences lay unresolved, I could not imagine my life without her. When she was dying and I was in the middle of a divorce, I was terrified of losing what (only through maturity) I had come to realize was her support, her protection, her unconditional love, the only unconditional love that I had truly ever received, would ever receive, for the only unconditional love that exists in this world is that of a mother for her child. How would I walk the road ahead without the reassurance that, when needed, that emotional support I’d too often taken for granted would be there? Who else would take my side no matter what the circumstances, vicariously empathize with both my anger and joy, and patiently listen to my stories as she had throughout the first thirty six years of my life?
Only twenty-one and in an unhappy marriage with a four year old son when her own mother had unexpectedly died, my mother had never gotten over the loss. As a child, I would hear her grief and see it in her eyes whenever she spoke of my grandmother, and even though I had never met this woman, revered nearly to sainthood by her daughter, a woman whose death had occurred nearly twenty years before my birth, I recognized the sometimes terrible bond that exists between mother and daughter and knew that someday I too would feel that same kind of grief.
Now after fourteen years, barely a day goes by when I don’t think of my mother and miss her. I’ve woken with a start, imagining for a split second that I had forgotten to call her when I’d promised to. Sometimes when I’ve achieved some sort of triumph in my personal or professional life, and I’m bubbling with the news, a momentary urge to call her comes out of nowhere, so strong it’s almost as if I could make it happen if I willed it. But then I remember that no familiar voice will answer if I dial her number, and the joy I felt a minute or so earlier diminishes just a bit with the remembering.
The night sighs as I slowly rock in the porch swing and try to remember when it went wrong with my own daughter, Chloe.
As always, my mother was the first to hear my news. I ran into the guest room to wake her, the test stick in my hand, and together we cried. A child at last (a grandchild at last), after I’d already been told by fertility experts that there would be none! My tiny baby daughter was born with disproportionately long fingers and toes and a full head of hair. “She will be an artist,” the attending nurse prophesized, correctly so as it turned out.
Chloe faced life dead-on, never looking back but always eagerly to what lay ahead, just as she had when, after those long and difficult nine months, she decided she was ready to meet the world—face first, tearing me wide open as she pushed her way out. Easy going but with a quick Irish temper and fire in her blue eyes, Chloe would often declare, “I don’t want to, and I’m not going to!” looking me or her father dead in the eye, daring us to exert our authority.
The pretty child with dimples, chubby cheeks and laughing eyes became a beautiful teenage girl with delicate features and those eyes, no longer blue but more greenish with flecks of gold, were such expressive eyes that could warm a heart but could just as easily shoot sparks or be cold as stones. Teenage boys gravitated to her and, at times, broke her heart, or she broke theirs. So sure of everything she knew and believed but so easily hurt—by trusted friends who betrayed, by a step-father who had become emotionally abusive, by a mother she had decided was weak and naïve, by a father who had lied about his past—until a protective shell began to form and harden with each blow.
And death frequently intruded into her adolescent world where it didn’t belong, taking her grandmother, her great-aunt, an adult cousin—all within just a couple of years—and, the worst, the greatest abomination of all, the beloved cousin just two years older than she, who had been more of a surrogate brother. Chloe was out with a friend the day Rob’s car was hit by an oncoming speeding truck that was passing in a no-passing zone. After hearing the news, I hung up the phone, praying for a cruel joke by the bitter, recent ex-boyfriend who had just called.
Minutes later, having been unable to reach anyone in the family, I sat at Chloe’s computer, logged on as her. I knew that if the report were true, her network of friends would be trying to reach her. Immediately, the instant messages of support and shared grief appeared faster than I could answer them. When I met my daughter in the driveway, I reached out as she approached, gently grasping both of her arms the way I used to when she was very young and I had needed her full attention. “Chloe, Rob was in a car accident today. He was killed.” I had wanted to be the one to tell her, to hold her and cry with her, but my words fell around her like stones, like the cell phone that slipped from her hand and smashed on the asphalt. Her face slack, her eyes empty, she wordlessly turned from me and walked away. Somewhere along the way, the hard shell she had formed against life’s cruelties had made her hard too.
The night breeze has picked up, flicking the hair off my forehead and cooling my palms, damp with the sweat of apprehension. I can smell an oncoming rain. Images now flit through my mind with increasing speed, random and disorganized. Chloe, asleep in her cradle, being rocked by my adoring Cocker Spaniel, a perfect-picture moment that I unfortunately never captured. Three year old Chloe, who, having been repeatedly referred to as a little princess by her father, deciding that he must then be addressed as “Daddy-King” and I as “Mommy-Queen,” even in public, much to people’s amusement and, at times, our embarrassment. Chloe, flowers in her hair and wearing a royal blue Maid of Honor gown at my wedding to a man she would grow to hate and resent me for marrying.
Chloe, at five, at eight, at twelve, at sixteen, absorbed in drawing or painting or perhaps writing a song or a poem or designing one of my many tattoos, engrossed in her work and oblivious to everything else around her. Chloe onstage, performing a song she wrote, a tribute to her dead cousin, a Gemini like herself, a young man who was more than her cousin, more than her friend, more than even her surrogate brother, more like the twin to her twin, and as I videotaped her performance, my hands shaking, my heart aching for her loss, I admired the strength she somehow found as her clear strong voice sang out her rage and sorrow.
Perhaps it was death, too much death for someone so young, which changed her. Perhaps it was divorce and having to adjust to a new “family” imposed upon her by a mother who had proven herself to be less than perfect, who, having just lost her own mother, was vulnerable to the charm of a man who had become expert at hiding his emotional instability. Perhaps it was the boy who “cheated;” another who broke her heart for no apparent reason. Was it my leaving Massachusetts, having lost my childhood home to a poor economy and moving to a different, warmer state to start over, leaving my now adult daughter behind? All of this? None of this? My fault, my fault. Don’t mothers always blame themselves?
When did my daughter and I become unable to talk to each other without it being awkward or turning into an argument? Was it after that night, not long after death had again struck and right after her heart had again been broken, when I rushed her to the Emergency Room because her “good night” to me had sounded slurred? She swore to me, between swallows of activated charcoal, that the pills she had taken were only to help her sleep, and I believed her because I could not handle the possibility that her life could ever cease to be worth living. Did the resolve to harden herself to life, to me, begin then?
The arguments, the never-ending contests of wills, became more frequent, broken by tenuous, precarious periods of truce rather than real closeness. Harsh words slipped easily from her lips, more easily now than loving words. Criticism became her right and refusal by others to accept it would generate resentment and anger. I worried for her that her negativity would lose friends and ultimately lead to unhappiness. But most of all, I worried at what seemed to me to be a widening rift between me and my only child. Bit by bit, I saw slipping away any hope of the mother-daughter relationship that I’d fantasized we would someday share.
One night, as I tried to explain these feelings, she blurted “What do you want us to do, bake cookies or something?” and rolled her eyes. How could I explain that when she was small, I had looked forward to her maturity, envisioning a bond similar to that of mine with my mother?
To that of my mother with her mother? But this young adult daughter of mine, so determined to be independent, seemed to bristle at any hint of common ground with me.
I tried to pick my battles, sensing the precariousness of our relationship and not wanting to risk losing what we had. Sometimes I would bite my tongue rather than argue; sometimes I would simply say “enough” or “Chloe, stop.” At other times, I would feel the need to defend myself or counter-attack because I would resent the criticism in her tone. “You’re an ASS,” she once yelled at me during a particularly vehement argument. “And you’re a BITCH,” I shot back, furious at her lack of respect yet hating myself as I said the words and appalled that we had actually resorted to name calling. What had happened to the daughter who used to snuggle into my lap, who treasured our playtime, our amusement park trips, shopping trips, museum trips, walks and bicycle rides—all the countless hours of “girl-time” we had spent together while she was growing up?
My Chloe, so like me yet so unlike me. There was a time when I thought she had come back to me: the day she called after having been inspired by The Secret, and we talked for almost two hours about karma and the power of a positive attitude, and my heart rejoiced at her conscious decision to be happy. When we discussed a weeklong trip to Massachusetts this summer, I was optimistic. My previous brief visits had been positive ones as had her overnight visits to me the past couple of Christmases. No trepidations entered my mind as I headed north. I brought Chloe a home-made Vegan cake along with presents for her birthday and treated her to lunch in a Mexican restaurant midway through a day of browsing the bookstores and funky consignment shops of downtown Northampton. I surprised her with a copy of Jack Kerouac, an impulsive add-on birthday gift. Chloe introduced me to her friends and to her new boyfriend. She bought me dinner: Thai food, a first for me, so she guided me through the menu.
I slept in the spare room, and my daughter made me breakfast: tofu French toast. The highlight of the trip was my Mother’s Day / birthday present: a quarter sleeve tattoo that Chloe designed just for me.
My original idea for the tattoo was simply a quill pen dripping ink and a bit of our forefathers’ blood onto what, for me, are some of the most inspirational words ever written that assert the cherished freedoms so many of us take for granted and for which people fought and died: “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” However, Chloe explained that such a design would be impractical for my upper arm because the print would either be too small to read or too large for the space. Instead she created a holistic design that would reflect the philosophy as well as represent my work as a teacher and my passion as a writer. A single fat candle stub sheds its light on an open scroll over which a quill is poised, its ink droplets turning to blood as they hit the parchment. A cast iron ink pot and smoky swirls of grays and deep reds give the tattoo the appearance of an antique still life watercolor.
I’m not sure what I expected from eight hours in the chair of pain while living art was being created on my arm. Perhaps soul-searching dialogue that delved into the recesses of our ever-changing relationship. Or a reemergence of my being her “cool mom” who trusted her talent and steady hand enough to sit through another permanent visible skin alteration. At one point, I sentimentally reflected on how the very first time, years earlier when I’d been the guinea pig during her apprenticeship, she’d pulled back after only the briefest touch of the needle, her eyes wide with concern, so afraid she had hurt me and looking for reassurance that she hadn’t. I have tried to forget all of the times she has hurt me since then.
Whatever it was that I had hoped to happen between us during those eight hours didn’t.
Chloe was matter-of-fact and professional and because I feared rejection or being thought silly I kept the conversation light and impersonal. Even when her friends and co-workers occasionally drifted through her booth, admiring her work and my fortitude, people who still think it’s cool that a daughter wants to tattoo her mother and that a mother will allow herself to be tattooed by her daughter, Chloe remained impassive, unfazed, and ultimately unmoved. I left the next day to visit an old friend in New Hampshire, planning to return only for an overnight pit stop on my way home to North Carolina.
The axe fell upon my return: conflict over a bag of three dozen or so of my favorite CDs Chloe had insisted on borrowing from me the previous Christmas. I wanted them back; they were in storage, and she’d been too busy to get them. I reminded her that she’d had all week; in fact, she’d had six months. She promised to send them. I knew she wouldn’t. She accused me of being petty; hadn’t she just given me a beautiful permanent piece of original artwork? I acknowledged her gift and, in fact, her overall hospitality, but one has nothing to do with the other. Chloe stalked away in silence. I was angry; she was resentful. We went to bed not speaking.
The next morning, the silence continued as I prepared to leave. Chloe disappeared without a word, taking her car. When she returned, she carried the bag of CDs. I hugged her and thanked her. Why couldn’t it just end there?? If only it had ended there! But she asked if I’d like her to walk with me to my car. Of course I would—one last hug. Her posture was stiff, her hug in the street halfhearted. Let it go! I warned myself, but, no, I had to ask: “Are you angry, Chloe?” I so much didn’t want to leave on a sour note. Then:
Explanations became recriminations and accusations; emotions poured out, hurtful words from both sides as anger mounted, and the argument spun out of control as our arguments always do and I couldn’t make you understand (just CDs!) that it wasn’t about CDs (fifty cents apiece at a yard sale!), it was about respect (a thousand dollar tattoo!) and how I raised you and I kept trying but the words weren’t reaching you but I couldn’t stop how do I reach you and you walked away but I followed you because I couldn’t leave like this not like this somehow I had to make you understand (“Mommy-Queen”) that I wanted it back the love and the respect (“pennies are copper…”) that you once had for me (“nickels are smooth…”) and if I left now like this it might all be lost forever (“dimes are the smallest…”) and I was angry yes but more hurt than angry because my feelings no longer matter to you and you don’t need me anymore (“and quarters have eagles”).
My words, Chloe’s words tortured me during the long drive south. I text messaged her in Virginia: “I could have handled things differently. I’m sorry. I love you.” There has been no response; sadly, I didn’t really expect one.
The first sprinkles of a chilly rain patter on the metal roof. I don’t need a clock to tell me that it’s well after midnight. I have no more tears. All I want, all I’ve ever wanted, is for my daughter to be happy, even if her happiness means that I’m no longer allowed in her life. I have fantasized about reliving that last goodbye in the street in front of her apartment, but there are no do-overs. “Be happy, my ‘bunny,’” I whisper into the night as I rise out of the porch swing. I head into the house feeling very old.
“Something We Can’t Mend” is featured in Issue Two of Embodied Effigies.
Donna Girouard is an Instructor of English at Livingstone College in Salisbury, NC, and faculty adviser of the college’s literary-arts magazine, The Bear’s Tale. Her essays can be found in the current issue of Storm Cellar and in the next issue of Writer’s Bloc. She has just completed her first book-length work, The Other Side: A Memoir, for which she hopes to find a publisher.