The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Moving into my mother’s basement helped my kids — and helped save my life


If I’d had a big cape, I would have wrapped all of us up in it. If I could have blown a bubble and put us within its protective iridescence, I’d have kept us inside it forever. When my husband moved out, it had hit me: Two children were under my exclusive care.

In the spirit of putting on your own oxygen mask before helping another, first I had to take responsibility for my own wellness. I gave up drinking, though I wasn’t an alcoholic. In my mind, I didn’t have the luxury of a fizzy cocktail buzz. What I had was sole custody of a baby and a toddler. I became unequivocally good, returning library books on time, swearing off even white lying. In the divorce, I aimed to do the Michelle Obama thing, go high.

“Get out of that city,” my mother pleaded on the phone. “Come home.” In the background, I heard a running faucet and knew the scene on the other end of the line, my mother in Playtex gloves, scrubbing dishes at the yellowed kitchen sink. I thought of her house in New Jersey, the Formica everything, my father’s Harold Robbins paperbacks still in the bathroom bin, years after his passing. I didn’t want to leave Manhattan, but I knew my mother was right. Grandma’s help would simplify single motherhood.

The kids and I moved from our sun-dappled environmentally sustainable building just west of Tribeca to my hometown of Marlboro, N.J., south of Bon Jovi’s, north of Bruce Springsteen’s. It was the land of strip malls, tanning salons, McMansions and my parents’ 1970s split-level ranch. Enter my mother’s basement, a.k.a. my new bedroom, a wood paneled warren where orange, yellow and red shag carpet ran wall to wall and up the walls, to the ceiling. Oh, the massive humbling.

To build myself up from the ground — from, literally, underground — I kept my life basic, hewed to routine. I slept for eight hours a night, went to work, took care of the kids, jogged through the streets of my childhood. No boys, no booze, no bull. I was the example for two young souls and determined to rock the job. Plus, I had something to prove: I wasn’t a loser who ended up in her parents’ basement. I was the Rocky Balboa of mothers, in training to rise from divorce’s embers.

Mondays at 4 p.m., my mother’s mah-jongg friends clustered around the card table in the living room, kvelling over my kids and singing my praises.

“Two bam!” one of the women called.

“Three crack!” called another, tapping her long nails on the game tiles before brushing a finger along my daughter’s chin. “Did you know your mother is a lawyer?” she asked. “And you are so smart, too.”

Among these women and in this house, I felt located again in the original myth of myself — the meatpacker’s daughter destined for greatness.

If I closed my eyes, I could still smell my father in my parents’ bedroom. Was it the Barbasol shaving cream, the bar of Irish Spring soap, the Head & Shoulders shampoo, or some bouquet of them all? He was in the ether of our house on Whittier Drive, rooting for me. Dad was diagnosed with esophageal cancer at 60. He didn’t live to be a grandpa or to help me through my most difficult years.

My toddler is 11 now. He plays second base and acoustic guitar. His little sister spends mornings building forts from cardboard boxes. We can afford a place of our own, and though I perennially debate it, year after year I have chosen to share in the expenses, renovate and stay. It’s easier to live in this multigenerational manner than to raise my kids alone, so I do it. And research shows that kids raised in multigenerational homes by divorced single mothers do just as well as children of married parents. It is not a glamorous life, but it is a beautiful one.

Two months ago, I began to feel tired. Then I noticed my heart rate spiking on the monitor I wore at the gym. I went to my internist, who ordered bloodwork.

I was anemic, ostensibly from tiny stomach ulcers I’d developed from ibuprofen. It was probably heavy menstrual periods, too. But still I’d followed up, getting a colonoscopy, though I was only 43.

“We found a mass,” the doctor reported. “It’s in your ascending colon, and it has to come out.” I wept and wept, sitting in that stupid snap-in-the-back gown on the gurney. The cancer was caught before it metastasized, the tumor and affected lymph nodes removed. Next stop: chemo.

Implanted under my right clavicle, a hard button with a rubbery top mainlines the powerful concoction that can cure me.

“You’re a tank,” my father used to yell through a bullhorn on the sidelines of my soccer games by Robertsville Elementary School, the same school that my children now attend. “You’re a 95pound Jewish tank” — a variation on how Rocky’s trainer, Mickey, pumped up the fighter.

I will beat the bully that sucker-punched us both, Dad. You weighed 300 pounds and subsisted on red meat and Dr. Brown’s cream soda, whereas my body is primed for this challenge.

There’s no cape of comfort or protective bubble. But the secure, clockwork town where I was raised has made the uncertain less daunting. There is my best friend from 10th grade, organizing a months-long meal train for my family. There is Ivy League Day Camp where I was once a lifeguard, helping with a free summer for my kids. There is my mother, checking the area of a parallelogram on her grandson’s homework, while I infuse at the cancer center.

Even so, sometimes I spring awake in my basement bedroom, contemplating the dark. Will I be okay? If not, what will happen to my kids? I flip over the pillow to the cold side. Then I do my best to visualize knocking out cancer. I picture my children cheering in a crowd of love. She did it!

In my mind, I scan the crush of hometown faces, my party of positivity in New Jersey, pumping fists and whistling, celebrating our shared history and heralding my future.