Growing up, I would often come upon my mother sitting alone, talking. As I stood on the far side of the green French doors leading to the room where she sat, I would hear the low, reflective flow of her voice. There would be a pause, as if awaiting a response, and then I would hear my mother’s voice again. I strained then to make sense of the words, as I strain now to remember them. But I cannot remember the words; I remember only the sound of her crying.
I know now she was talking to the dead, her dead — to her grandfather in the person of the framed pencil drawing that hung before her as she spoke. His stern rabbinic figure, with covered head and wide accusatory eyes, hangs now in my den, and when I look at it, I, too, speak to the dead. I address an ancestor I cannot recall meeting, although I have found black-and-white snapshots in which he awkwardly dandles me on his elderly, frail knees. I speak to him because my mother spoke to him. And I know at last what she said to him.
She revealed to him, I think, the story of a life which she could allow no one else to hear in its entirety. Hovering nearby, yet so elusively distant, only he could give her a perspective on what she saw at such close range — the sorrows of a blighted marriage, the anguish of watching her parents grow old and her mentally ill sister grow still more distant from reality. She begged for his guidance; she had lost him years ago, and still she was lost without him. She yearned for his presence then, the way I still find myself yearning for her now, though this June marked the eleventh anniversary of her death.
I will never hear her voice again, except in my dreams, and yet I still hear it often in those dreams. In particularly trying times, I will find myself absentmindedly addressing her photograph — an old black-and-white photo in a blue leather frame. It captures her before I knew her, at an age between thirty and thirty-five — about the same age I am now. I’m always flattered when a friend or stranger comments on the family resemblance: the oval face, rounded nose, wide-open eyes, and half-smiling lips.
Alone in the afternoons, sometimes, even after all these years, I will gaze into that face and attempt to say all that remained unsaid. There is still so much left. When I learned Mom was dying, I was twenty-two, rebellious, rebelling against the most convenient target — my mother. We had depended on each other so entirely through all the years of my growing up that I had needed to rebel. By the time I was ready to grow close again, she had already begun to edge away forever.
Dying is a complicated matter for the ones left behind. From about the age of seven on I had harbored a fantasy: that murderous intruders dressed in black would burst upon us, prepare to shoot — and then I would save us, with I don’t know what childlike magic. I would save my mother; she would live forever.
As it turned out, no one could save her, not even those who make it their profession to save lives. My father and oldest brother, both of them doctors, held the x-rays before them and knew the worst, and, knowing, could do nothing. By the time it was diagnosed, the cancer had spread to Mom’s lungs and liver. Where was my magic now? I could only hold her, hold on until I must let go forever.
I have tried myself in the court of memory many times — why, why could I not save her? Children feel as responsible for the fate of their parents, I think, as parents do for their children.
And feeling responsible that year of her dying led me to remain silent. There was a reason. Peter, whom I had been dating since I was eighteen, was not welcome in my family. Earlier that year, at the age of twenty-three, he had undergone radical surgery to remove a malignant tumor; when news of my mother’s illness struck, Peter was still recovering from a long, painful season of radiation treatments.
He was recovering slowly, but my parents worried nonetheless that, should I marry Peter, instead of being a wife, I would play the nurse. How could I possibly expect them to bless our union?
I was prepared to fight, but my mother’s illness took all fight from me. One night early in the siege of her cancer, she drew me to her, clasped my hand, and begged me to promise I would never marry Peter. She liked him, she had nothing against him personally, I should understand, but. . . . There was a long pause, a silence between us that will last forever. For the nine months of her illness, neither of us mentioned Peter’s name again.
I was enrolled in graduate school that year, and so I could arrange my schedule to accommodate my double life. Every morning at 10, I learned to expect my mother’s phone call; lunchtime would find me at my mother’s house to drop off groceries, share a bite to eat, plan a shopping expedition; then, glancing at my watch, I would scurry off to class. By late in the afternoon, Peter would have finished his day of teaching at a local private school, and we would spend some time together. At least two evenings each week and weekend afternoons were reserved for Mom; the rest of my free time (what free time?) I spent with Peter, still weak from his own illness. When I could manage it, an hour each day went for solitude and tears. Somehow, working in the early mornings and late at night, I also managed to earn a master’s degree that year.
I can count on my fingers the days that year I didn’t speak to Mom, but when I try to remember our conversations I remember the tone, not the words. I recall the humor, closeness, love — and the silence. She asked me no questions about Peter, I volunteered no answers. We conspired in our silence, I realize now; neither of us wished to hurt the other, even though nothing could have pained either of us more.
What would I say to her — about Peter, about myself — if I could speak to her now? I would say I was wrong to try to protect her from the truth. I would say that, really, I was trying to protect myself from the pain of denying her something I knew I must deny her. And in fact, as I learned from a confidante some months after Mom’s death, she had known all along that my romance with Peter had continued. I could not save her from that truth any more than I could save her from illness.
And so I would ask her, why didn’t you tell me? Why did we leave so much, so many words, unsaid? What were we afraid of? A deadline loomed over us; we should have feared nothing. Was it simply easier to gossip, make small talk, discuss the daily headlines, criticize a concert or a television show?
Words alone had not knitted us together; neither could silence tear the fabric. I remember a crisp fall afternoon when I started to tell my mother that I loved her, that seeing her suffer was more pain than I could bear, that — she held out her arms to stop me. “Don’t speak,” she said, “or we’ll both cry.” She withdrew from words, I see now, even as I had withdrawn. Not speaking, not crying, was her last defense for getting through the year. A “normal” year of smiles and chitchat. A year of life, not death.
But if I could rewrite history, I would have realized all of this and still risked speech. Now, on lonely afternoons, I speak to her as she once spoke to her grandfather. I only hope that she can hear me, hear the words that were left unspoken then, that I have finally learned to say. In imagination, I hear her respond. Faintly, at first, she calls my name. And though I know all too well that my words can never bring her back to life, I cherish this final illusion, that our conversation will never end.