The question comes easy and often. The answer, however, does not.
I’m her daughter, obviously. Her one and only. Or, as she likes to say often and proudly, her “first and last.” But in recent months I’ve been more than that. Or perhaps I’ve just been more of that.
I’ve made a ritual of avoiding asking myself the question. Every day before the elevator closes the doors on the worry-free existence foolishly squandered on five-minute phone calls, I distract myself. Scrolling past the well-meaning but maddening texts, drowning my hands with an ice cream scoop of foamy sanitizer, widening my eyes to tighten the leaky emotions before the elevator dings open and I step into the ICU.
Will I get to be her daughter today or will I have to be her mother?
Will I wear my “Whatever it is you like” cap as my mother, newly extubated and drunk on power, barks throaty orders to close those drapes and find a “nice fruit salad” somewhere. Or will I strap on my “Yep, I’m definitely the one in charge” helmet to sign consent forms and nod convincingly as her doctors explain the day’s setback?
The first time I had to explain something to her once, twice and then three times, I remember thinking, “So this is it, huh? This is what it’s like to be heartbroken, awed and exhausted by a powerless person’s determination to fight the man, i.e. you, by any means necessary?” Basically this is what it’s like to parent a small child.
It was 4:30 a.m. and my mother wanted a Styrofoam cup of water. But she couldn’t have said water because of a surgery scheduled the next morning (wait, make that later that morning). So my mother had her nurse call me to plead her case. Did I mention it was 4:30 a.m.?
“Lena, I really want a drink of water,” my mother croaked into the phone.
“I know, ma, but you can’t have it,” I said, trying to be as patient with the 64-year-old her as I know she’d been with the 6-year-old me. “Remember you have surgery?”
“But I’m so thirsty,” she answered back in a small voice. It sounded as if she was shouting through a faulty megaphone a million miles away.
“I know this really sucks,” I said. “Tomorrow we’ll have all the water! Just not tonight, okay?”
“Okay,” said my mother, and I sighed with the relief of a single mom trying to get her kid to bed before spending another long day on pins and needles. “But for right now,” she cut in, “I’ll just have a few sips.”
We went around and around like that until I gave up and blamed it all on the nurse, who I’m assuming didn’t mind.
That was a mom day — a really hard mom day.
Then there are the “nice fruit salad” days when she tells me to look for her AARP card in “the Afrocentric purse” and that I should paint the room we’re waiting for her to come home to a shade of mint that’s not “green green.” Because she made me, I understand her completely. Those are the days I (we) get to fall into our old rhythm despite the awkward buzzing of the vital sign machine that’s throwing everything off beat.
But too often those daughter days shrink down to mere hours, spilling into the mom days like the time she was “with it but fuzzy” and demanded that I eavesdrop on an “important conversation about alternative medicine” that, according to her, another patient was having with veteran news anchor Connie Chung. Right.
“I’m not going to do that, okay?” I told her in my practiced motherly daughter voice — it’s forceful without being snippy. “Go be a reporter!” mom shot back. “Yeah, no. That’s what I’m not going to do.” She rolled her eyes. I stared. And yes, we went around and around until I gave up and blamed it on the nurse.
Not too long after that she calmed down enough to let me brush her hair — a tangled afterthought after the trauma we’d been through. I parted her hair down the middle, and as I worked each thick section into a strong French braid running down either side of her head, my mother laughed, remembering a similar style her mother used to give her: “I called them my bullhorns.” That was a good mom day.
What’s funny (besides the Connie Chung thing) about the question of motherhood and daughterhood is how easily the once permanent-seeming titles get wiped away. As a child I thought the parts we played were chiseled in stone, now it’s as if they were scribbled hastily on a dry erase board. They get wiped clean, then overwritten and back again.
When I am my mother’s mother I get a glimpse of what she might have gone through raising me — the frustration, the unexpected well of patience, the devotion — which in turn reminds me of the woman I want her to get back to. When I am her daughter, the sharp fear of losing her springs me into frantic action. And then I’m her mother again.
You might also be interested in: