That’s the phrase I heard from my mother in cross-country phone greeting throughout my adulthood, ad nauseam. I don’t know why it annoyed me so much, except that my mother annoyed me. Maybe I never felt free to say, “I am not feeling smiley today. I AM NOT SMILING TODAY!” It’s who she wanted—needed—me to be.
She has often told me the story of my babyhood. My crib was in my parent’s bedroom. When I awoke—early, as young children do—I stood silently in my crib until one of them moved a muscle. Then I jumped up and down, rattling the crib, laughing. She decided my identity back then and she was sticking to it. I didn’t have permission to be in a funk.
She greeted me, I rolled my eyes, or seethed in irritation, until one day, some years ago, I had had enough. I asked her to stop calling me that. And she did.
One early morning last week, at my desk as the day dawned, I opened my writing prompt book to the prompt of the day: “The time between dusk and dawn.” I scoffed, as I usually do when I read the assignment. Then, per protocol, I just put the pen to the paper and followed where it went. (I’m getting better at not thinking or editing, just keeping the pen moving.) Somehow the pen came around to my mother, as happens more often than not.
Yawning of boredom, I wrote the universal story about waking from a childhood nightmare I couldn’t shake and going to my parents’ bedroom. (I’m not responsible, it’s where the pen went.) Standing silently at my mother’s side of their bed, I willed her to sense my presence and wake up. And she always did. “These days,” I wrote in my notebook, “she usually senses I have come into her room [at the assisted living residence], at least if she’s not asleep in her chair, but she doesn’t know who has come in. ‘Who’s there?’ she says, if I don’t announce myself quickly enough.”
Suddenly, as my pen moved across the page, I realized: she doesn’t know what I look like! Me, her smiling daughter! Her eyes see light and dark against the opposite background. That’s pretty much all. I’ve heard her say countless times to visitors: “I can see your shape, but not your face.” But I never thought about the fact that she can’t see my face. She doesn’t know if I’m smiling (I’m usually not, until I leave); she doesn’t know I got a shorter haircut, or that it used to be longer, for that matter; she doesn’t see that my face is aging. Whatever picture of me she has in her head, is all she has. I don’t know what that picture is. Am I smiling?
“Is that Gretchen?” she says when I speak, unsure of her accuracy even in distinguishing my voice. I wish she would ask if it’s her smiling daughter.
Last week I quoted a book I’m listening to in the car, “Marrow,” by Elizabeth Lesser (“Trusting the Mystery”). I finished it this week, and I recommend it to anyone who is caring for someone with chronic or terminal illness. The author and her sister have embarked on a discovery tour of the marrow of their souls and their relationship to one another, even as they experience the harvesting and transplant of bone marrow and stem cells from one to the other. The donor author wants to know how to help her sister when she is so weak, afraid, discouraged, sad, helpless to influence her fate. Their therapist tells Elizabeth to reach from the inside of herself to the inside of Maggie.
“Don’t be the strong one helping the weak one. Don’t be the fortunate one helping the victim. Give from your strength to her strength. Strength to strength.”
For five years now I have seen myself as the strong one, she the weak one; me the fortunate young one, she the spent victim. In some ways, she seems to be asking to be victimized, wanting everyone to know her limitations. But the control she exerts over those of us trying to help her, though often inappropriate and challenging for everyone—and increasingly frequently born out of incorrect memory—might be a determination not to be a victim. I see that now.
That she doesn’t know how to do it, doesn’t change that it is what she wants. In my ongoing quest and failure to understand my mother, and to be empathetic, kind, and loving even if I don’t understand, I have not been looking from my inside to her inside. She isn’t trying to control me (though she may think that’s her goal), she’s trying to stay in control of her Self. She is in a desperate struggle to hold on to her strength, even when she doesn’t seem to remember what it is.
“Is that my smiling daughter?” The truth is she did see me. Of course she knew I had bad days. But I am generally a happy person, an optimistic person, an “I can do it,” person. That is my identity. She has known me from the womb, watched my ebb and flow, and seen me return to my Self again and again. “Is that my smiling daughter?” was her way of reminding me of who I am. It was her way of telling me she had faith that no matter what was going on in my life that I probably wasn’t telling her, I would reach into my core and find my strength.
Can I use that strength to reach to her inside and respond to what I have known to be her strength, even though she no longer can access it? Can I give from my best self, rather than from my worst self? Even if she can’t embrace the mystery that is old age, can I do it for her and be truly with her, strength to strength, as she navigates this journey she did not choose (except unwittingly, by the strength of commitment to her own physical care)? Can I allow her to navigate instead of doing it for her, letting missteps be made? For that is her strength. She has been piloting her life through far more hardship than I will ever see.
I continue my quest; which, interestingly, is the root of the word question.