“I know,” I say. This is all I ever say, because there is nothing else. And because this is all that my mother wants to hear. Until recently, my mother wouldn’t have shared her sorrow at all. Traditionally, she has suffered losses in virtual silence. In this I am not my mother’s daughter. I am a chest thumper and a copious weeper who can’t get through the opening credits of ET without wailing.
I remember my mother’s characteristic restraint two years ago when she called to tell me that her sister had taken to her bed and that her daughter, my cousin Rachel, had said she believed Muriel would die very soon.
“How quickly can you get down to see her?” I asked my mother then. Muriel was in Kentucky.
There was a pause on the line before my mother replied. “I don’t think I’ll be going,” she said.
“Of course you have to go,” I said. “You’ll regret it if you don’t see her.”
“Brett, I can’t go. She wouldn’t . . . ” My mother took a longer pause. “She wouldn’t want me to see her like that.”
That was it. I knew the Lundquist women. My mother would be immovable in her belief that Muriel wouldn’t want her baby sister to see her so vulnerable. Any appeals from me would meet with the conviction that I simply didn’t understand.
But I did understand. As soon as we hung up, I called Rachel.
“I want you to invite my mother down to see Muriel,” I said. “She won’t go unless you ask her.”
And so, unbeknownst to her own mother, Rachel crafted an e-mail to mine, inviting her to see her dying sister. Because the Lundquist code had always been clear: Refusing a request was worse than making one.
“Were you glad you went?” I asked my mother upon her return from Kentucky.
“Oh, yes,” she said, as if the answer were obvious. “Oh, yes.”
Muriel didn’t die then, and in the months that followed, my mother’s habit of restraint diminished slightly.
The emotional landscape in the kitchen with my mother is a topography of stinted impulses—mine to reach for her hand and weep with her, my mother’s to harden her face into a smile of acceptance, get up from the chair and apply herself to a domestic task.
I wait, and she pushes her calendar to the middle of the table.
“Will you give me some pictures of the boys with their new haircuts?” she asks.
“Of course,” I say. My mother sends Muriel a package every week: pictures, cookies, books for Rachel to read to her.
“Good,” my mother says with a wistful smile. “I’ll send them to her on Monday.” She stands up, walks over to the sink and looks out the high window there. Her back tells me nothing.
“Was there something you wanted to talk to me about?” she asks. “Do you need something?”
I fight every synaptic urge to deflect. Instead, I hold myself to the chair. She has asked if I need something, and I do. She cannot help Muriel, but she can help me. And isn’t it possible that being able to help is what she really needs right now?
“Yes, Mom,” I say, my throat catching. “As a matter of fact, I do.”
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