I should know by now that when my sister posts on my Facebook wall, it’s a bad sign, because my sister – bless her – believes that Facebook is the best way to reach me when there’s something urgent to communicate. That she could also reach me by phone or email – I’ll grant that I do not always answer my phone, but I do check my email regularly, and in fact only get Facebook messages through email, because I ALMOST NEVER GO ON FACEBOOK – is a detail of modern telecommunications that she has chosen to ignore. She alerted me through Facebook that I needed to call her when my grandfather died, and then again when my dad died, and – here we get to the thing that I really want to talk about – again last night when I needed to be informed that our mom has an aneurysm that is growing at an alarming rate and needs to be surgically removed at the earliest opportunity but, oh god, the doctors aren’t sure her heart can handle it and all of this was signaled to me by a public Facebook posting of CATHY YOU NEED TO CALL ME OR MOM. And then: LIKE, TONIGHT.
So, yeah. This is why I don’t like getting Facebook messages from my sister, who I otherwise adore. When those messages landed in my inbox, my heart dropped, and it dropped hard.
Last Friday morning I was sitting in a conference room at the Ritz Carlton in New Orleans, listening to Abigail Disney speak about her documentary films and about her belief in the importance of telling women’s stories. She made a film about women and war, she said, because women have historically been written out of that story. And why have they been written out the story? she asked.
Ooh, I thought. Excellent question. I pulled out my notebook and started scribbling. We could ask that about the story of the family, I wrote, thinking of all the times that I’ve argued that mothers have historically not been the tellers of stories about the family. Why have women been written out of that story?
And then I scrawled a big inky question mark beside those notes. Wrong question, I wrote, and drew a fat black arrow back to Abigail Disney’s original remark.
The other week, my mom wrote about something that I’d been unable to write about: my sister’s struggle to cope as the single mom of a dying and disabled child, and the dark, difficult space of that struggle, and the breakdown that came when that space became too difficult to occupy. I’d been unable to write about it – even though my sister had given her full blessing for the telling of the story – because it was stuff that just seemed too hard to articulate adequately; it was the stuff, I said the other week, ‘about guilt and shame and anger and mental and emotional breakdowns and how when you have a suffering child the suffering extends beyond what you can imagine and how that’s hard to talk about because shouldn’t you contain your suffering on your child’s behalf?’ The hard stuff. The stuff that raises questions – and few answers – about the tension between selfishness and selfishness in parenting and where the line is between doing the very best for your child and acknowledging that that best comes, often, at costs that are sometimes hard to bear. The stuff that complicates the whole idea of the long-suffering mother of a dying and disabled child as a hero.
For all my talk of the world-changing power of sharing our stories, there are some stories that I have trouble sharing, because they’re too hard to write about, or because I worry about the impact of sharing them, or because they’re not my stories, and even if I have permission to share someone else’s story – like, say, Tanner’s – sharing someone else’s story is always an enterprise that pitches me into a state of anxiety. What if I tell it wrong? What if I don’t do it justice? What if it provokes the kind of ugly reaction that I’m comfortable receiving on my own behalf but which sends me into emotional turmoil when it involves others, and especially those whom I love?
Motherhood can be scary, you know? Even when you’re not grappling with complicated demons, even when motherhood presents itself to you more or less straightforwardly, it’s scary, because it’s just so loaded, because children are so small and they get sick and they seem so fragile and you always think that you don’t know what you’re doing – what if you don’t breastfeed for the full recommended 6 months? what if you don’t breastfeed at all? what if you don’t hand-blend organic baby food? what if your kid doesn’t get into the ‘good’ preschool? what if she falls out of her crib? what if she falls off her bicycle? what if she falls in front of a moving vehicle? WHAT IF? – because the stakes are so freaking high. But it’s important to remember that it’s scary for everybody, that everybody is at least somewhat scared, some of the time, because that’s motherhood. Fear and love and joy and fear, people. Fear and love and joy and fear, and also hefty doses of snot and fecal matter.