In Praise of Surrogate Mothers

Losing my mother left a hole in my heart that can never be filled. But from a tragedy came so much love from a group of women whom I'll never forget.

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I lost my best friend a week before my 16th birthday: my mother. She was my greatest source of laughter, the person who soothed my heartache, my duet partner as we sang along to every song on the radio. Losing my mother to ovarian cancer was the hardest experience I’ve ever gone through—and that includes my own treatment for breast cancer 25 years later.

If there is a “right” way to face a loved one’s serious illness, I sure wasn’t in on it at the time she became sick, when I was 11. I alternately convinced myself that nothing would happen to her and broke down at the thought that it could, crying in my room with the door closed tight. I found out later that my mother also did her share of crying, but she made sure I couldn’t see her. When we were together, she acted like the worst would never come; but after her debilitating treatments and several years of remission, it did.

Her loss left a hole in my heart that can never be filled again. But in the wake of her death, women stepped forward, women who were not my mother and would never try to be, but who were warm and affectionate and very present. Some I had known from my past with my mother, and some I have met since losing her. These extraordinary women are still in my life and my heart today. For Mother’s Day, I’d like to pay homage to them for stepping in at just the right moments; for being there and for staying there.

There is Judy. My father, an internist, steered her my way—she was one of his patients. Judy took me shopping just before I went to college, to get me ready to move onto campus. Together, we bought a canvas suitcase that I still use all the time. It has been well used over the years, but it still looks brand new—is it magic? She knit me a sweater—it remains among my prized possessions. Judy, who is a writer and actress, has encouraged my work over the years and shared hers with me. We are dear friends, and right now, we’re in the midst of a beloved-movie exchange; she’s filling me in on some classics I’ve missed, and I’m turning her on to Catherine Keener’s work—she really needs to see Walking and Talking. I know she’ll love it.

Some of the women who came into my life were my mother’s friends: I will always be grateful to Nicole, Arlene, Marian, and the other “temple women,” and to all “the Mt. Vernon gals” who stepped in. Phyllis was my mother’s childhood friend and has since become my theater companion, museum partner, and lunch date. A few years ago, I read an essay in which the author joked about receiving constant newspaper clippings in the mail from her mother. Funny, sure, but not so much to me; the humor turned sour as I thought of how this would never happen in my life. I didn’t say a word about it; what was there to say? But days later, I received a piece of mail: a note from Phyllis—and a clipping of an article she thought I would enjoy. And Phyllis, unbidden, has given me the best compliment anyone could: She tells me I remind her of my mother.

There’s Peggy, a stellar high-school teacher, who served as a role model and provided me with tremendous comfort as I stumbled through the hallways and toward graduation without my mother. Deborah and Lore, both writers, went out of their way to encourage my work and have inspired me with their own. It was easy for me to assume these were mostly one-way—kindnesses extended and then forgotten. But years after studying with Deborah, a fiction writer, at my university, I met her partner after a reading Deborah gave. “Hi, I’m Pam Grossman,” I said, “I met Deborah when she taught at my college. She’s amazing.”

“Pammy Grossman,” he replied. “From school in St. Louis. I’ve heard a lot about you.”

I was thrilled, touched, and dumbfounded. He had?

Ruth and I dissect the news together, brainstorming our way toward solving the world’s problems. We share a love of vintage shopping, and I think of her whenever I wear something she found for me (which, it turns out, is all the time). Emile takes me aside in a crowd to ask how I am—and truly wants to know the answer (asking a recent cancer survivor how she’s feeling is an act of bravery, really). Toby and I go on walks in her garden and hikes in the hills; she understood me well enough to know that a beautiful, palm-size rock unearthed while gardening would be a gift I’d cherish.

I know I’ve been so fortunate in “official” family as well as found relations; perhaps legal relatives were more societally obligated to come forward when my mother passed away and to maintain bonds with me, but we’ve all seen cases where that didn’t happen.

As things have been, I lost my mom and then gained, to my astonishment and gratitude, a kind of village of motherly love. But with that comes further, inevitable, loss. I babysat for Sharon’s gorgeous children when I was in junior high. I remember so vividly her down-to-earth tenderness and lightheartedness. She came to my mother’s shivah and sat beside me as I sobbed on her shoulder. But Sharon was sick at the time. Now her children, and the grandchildren she didn’t meet, honor her memory. Sheila, whom I met when I was in my 20s and she in her 60s, wanted to make sure I understood how hard the feminist movement had worked so that my generation had fair opportunities. But she also had a deep, sentimental side. She asked me for photos of myself and then, to my shock, arranged them in a collage and displayed it on her shelf. At the end of her life, I did my best to give her every form of support. The nurses were limited in what they could tell me because I was not “family,” but I sat by her bedside, recounting her own stories, her bravery, and all the love she had, and I hope she heard me.

Annie knew me from the day I was born, having come to help my working mother raise three children. She joyfully called me her baby and taught me important lessons that ranged from “Don’t bother arguing with a fool,” to listening carefully to Stevie Wonder songs. I felt profoundly happy to spend Mother’s Day and Christmas with her for so many years, right up until her last Christmas. I only wish we could have continued forever.

I was at a benefit with Judy a few years ago. She introduced me to her friend. “This is Pam,” she said, “my daughter.” Of course that is not technically true; and yet, in other ways it is. From a tragedy came so much love, and I am grateful for it, on Mother’s Day and always.

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