The acclaimed author of "Heather Has Two Mommies" reflects on her relationship with her late mother, whose no-crying-allowed policy was enforced until the very end.
I’ve never seen my mother cry
I never hope to see her,
But all the same I’d rather see
My mother cry than be her.
“Stop crying or I’ll give you something to really cry about,” my mother said to me again and again all throughout my childhood. Whether I was blinking back tears because she wouldn’t let me have a second piece of birthday cake, sniffling over a scraped knee, or all-out wailing because my older brother had changed the TV channel from Lassie to the Giants football game, it didn’t matter. Crying was forbidden. My mother never actually followed through with her threat. She never hit me. She didn’t have to. A raised hand, a stern voice, or even a sharp look was enough to make me become her accomplice and forbid my tears to fall.
Over the years, not-crying grew easier. I didn’t cry when I said good-bye to my best friend for the whole summer before being shipped off to sleepaway camp. I didn’t cry when the boy I had a crush on gave someone else his clunky silver ID bracelet to wear. I didn’t cry when the Midwestern college with the nationally known poetry program I was dying to attend put me on their wait list. I didn’t let my mother hear me cry until I was 24 years old, and living on my own. One day she called to tell me that Angus, the beloved Cairn terrier who had joined our family when I was 12, had to be put to sleep. Was that a tremor in my mother’s voice? To this day, I can’t be sure because a sob escaped my throat and before more could follow, I quickly hung up the phone.
My mother didn’t even allow crying at her own mother’s funeral. After the service, all mourners were invited back to my parents’ house to break bread together. I had been very close to my grandmother and was too upset to even look at the mammoth amount of food splayed across our dining room table. “Have something,” my mother urged. “Grandma would want you to eat.” I tried to force a bite of noodle kugel—my favorite comfort food—down my throat but choked on my own sobs. “Don’t cry,” my mother said. “You’ll only make everybody sad.”
Aren’t we sad already? I wanted to ask. But I swallowed my words with my tears.
Years later when my mother collapsed on a cruise and had to be put on life support, I flew 3,000 miles to be with her. My father met me outside her ICU cubicle and I fell into his arms. When I began to weep he pushed me away. “Get yourself together,” he said, his voice tinged with disgust. “Stop crying. I mean it. You can’t see your mother if you’re going to cry. You know how much it upsets her.” Too stunned to do anything else, I dried my eyes and then marched inside to face my mother.
My mother survived her near-death experience and lived for another decade while fighting two fatal illnesses: Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) and bladder cancer. There were many hospital visits. Every time I arrived at her bedside, she greeted me with the red painted nail of her right index finger pointing at my face. I knew what that meant: No. Crying. Allowed.
It grew harder and harder to follow this rule. Especially as my mother’s diseases progressed. My mother had always been robust; now she tipped the scales at 118 pounds. Often her face clenched like a fist as she moaned in pain. She gasped for breath merely from crossing the room, despite the oxygen tube thrust up her nose. But every time I asked her how she was, she always said, “Fine.”
One day, I challenged her. “Mom,” I said, “you’re not fine. How can I help you if you don’t tell me how you really are?”
“First of all, I don’t need your help. And second of all— ”
“Mom,” I interrupted her. “Please.”
“Fine,” said my mother. “All right, I’ll make a deal with you. I promise to tell you how I really am if you promise not to cry.”
“But why?” I asked. “What’s wrong with crying?”
“Darling,” my mother patted my hand in an uncharacteristic gesture of affection. “Don’t you understand? If you start crying, I’ll start crying. And then I’ll never stop.”
When my mother went from her last hospital visit into a hospice facility, it was undeniably clear that she was no longer fine and never would be again. Clear to me, but still not clear to my father, who now stepped into my mother’s role of crying-forbidder.
“Your mother will come out of this, you’ll see,” he said as we drove to the hospice for the first time. “You don’t know your mother. She’s tough as nails. Always has been. She can get through anything. She’ll make it to the Bar Mitzvah.”
“The” Bar Mitzvah was two years away. Both my parents were very much looking forward to celebrating their youngest grandchild’s great event. But at least one of them was not going to be there. My mother didn’t have two years. She didn’t have two months. I doubted she had two weeks. “Dad,” I said as gently as I could. “People who have two years don’t go into hospice. Mom—”
“Enough,” my father said. “And don’t you dare cry.”
When we walked into the hospice room, I was shocked to see my mother sitting up. She’d been so ill in the hospital, she’d spent most of the time sleeping. She hadn’t eaten anything for ten days and she hadn’t taken even a sip of water for a week. But there she was in bed, propped up on two pillows with a tray of food across her lap. My father shot me an “I told you so” look as we both watched my mother eat—of all things—a hearty lunch of pork lo mein. I pushed back tears of joy and sat with my mother for several hours, chatting, listening to her tell stories, even finishing the New York Times crossword puzzle. Toward evening, my father and I left her to rest. We were giddy that night as we slurped matzo ball soup at the local diner and discussed my mother’s vastly improved condition. “Did you see how much she ate?” my father asked, his voice triumphant. “She’s going to be fine.”
This reprieve was not to last.
The next morning, I was woken up by a phone call. The hospice doctor was on the line. “I want you to know,” he said, “and I especially want your father to know that you won’t find your mother in the same condition she was in yesterday.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Your mother is unresponsive,” he said. “And she probably won’t be responsive again.”
I let my father finish his breakfast before I gave him the news. He did not believe me. “You’ll see,” he said as we drove back to the hospice.
How I wish my father had been right. How I wish we both weren’t shocked at the sight of my mother lying in her hospice bed, looking as if she had already died. Somehow she had shrunken overnight. She looked withered, and her complexion was a sickly grayish-purple as if her face was bruised. “Mom?” I said, though I knew she wouldn’t answer. My father stood beside me, too stunned to speak. Luckily a hospice worker entered the room. She led us into her office, told us her name was Martha, and explained that the previous day my mother had “rallied” which was very common, but probably wouldn’t happen again. She explained what was going on inside my mother’s body, what we could expect from this point on, and how we would know when my mother began to actively die. Martha explained all this very carefully and then said to my father in a gentle voice, “Sir, I’m sure none of this is what you want to hear. I’m sure all you want to do right now is go inside and hold your wife’s hand.”
My father took Martha at her word and held my mother’s hand for six solid hours without a break. Finally he let go of it to use the bathroom, but not before he gave it to me. “Hold your mother’s hand,” he instructed, as if he thought that as long as one of us was grasping her hand, she would remain tethered to this Earth. When he returned, I gave my mother’s hand back to him and he grabbed onto it like a lifeline.
When I wandered into the hallway, I ran into Martha and told her what was happening in my mother’s room. She frowned. “She won’t let go until he lets go,” she said. I sighed deeply. There was no way my father was going to let go of his wife of sixty-three years. Not without a fight.
That night, my father and I slept on cots in my mother’s room. First thing in the morning, my father took up his vigil by my mother’s bedside, clutching her hand firmly in his own. The only time he would let go was when a nurse came in to turn my mother over. Reluctantly he stood guard outside the door while the nurse did what had to be done. Then as soon as she gave the signal, my father strode back into the room, sat on the folding chair by my mother’s bedside and gently took her hand.
This went on for three days.
On the fourth day, a nurse we hadn’t seen before came into my mother’s room and asked us to leave so she could turn my mother. When she finished and came to get us, my father and I filed back inside. Before my father even sat down, he reached for my mother’s hand. But he couldn’t find it. Whether Martha had instructed her to do so or not, I’ll never know, but the nurse had tucked both my mother’s arms tightly inside the sheets like a swaddled newborn child.
My father looked at me, his face so worn with sorrow, it was as though he had aged ten years in the last five days. “Dad,” I said, “why don’t you talk to Mom? She can still hear you.” I didn’t know whether or not this was true, but I had been told somewhere along the way that hearing was the last to go.
My dad stood beside the bed and spoke to my mother. He told her what a good person she was, he told her how much he loved her, he told her how much she meant to him, he told her how he didn’t know how to let her go. And then my strong, stoic father started to cry.
And to my amazement, my mother, who hadn’t spoken, moved, or responded to anything in three days, started quivering. And then she began to shake. And then slowly her arms began to move. As I stared in disbelief, my mother struggled and then managed to untuck her trembling arms from the sheets, and raise them in the air. My father bent down to meet her half way and she hugged him around the neck and clasped his head to her chest until, exhausted from her Herculean effort, her arms dropped to her sides and she was still once more.
She died the next morning and my father and I wept openly in each other’s arms.
Lesléa Newman is the author of 65 books for readers of all ages including the short story collection, A LETTER TO HARVEY MILK, the novel-in-verse, OCTOBER MOURNING: A SONG FOR MATTHEW SHEPARD, and the children’s classic, HEATHER HAS TWO MOMMIES. Her literary awards include creative writing fellowhships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Massachusetts Artists Foundation. From 2008 to 2010, she served as the poet laureate of Northampton, MA. Currently she teaches at Spalding University’s low-residency MFA in Writing program. Her newest book, I CARRY MY MOTHER (Click for book trailer), a poetry collection that explores a daughter’s journey through her mother’s illness and death and her own grief, was recently published by Headmistress Press.
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