NDJ:4 Cynthia Young, PsyD

I Never Told My Mother that . . .

. . .   my father knew my sister was dead before he and my mother boarded the plane to Hawaii. My sister Tina, my brother-in-law Eric and their two year old daughter Lael lived in Hawaii. The doctors told my sister she had breast cancer when she was pregnant with Lael. Two years later she died. When Eric told my father, my father booked two flights to Hawaii and told my mother that Tina had taken a turn for the worse. He had spent his life trying to sidestep the intensity of my mother’s emotions. I don’t think he could bear the thought of six hours on a plane unshielded from her grief. When they arrived in Hawaii, and Eric told my mother my sister was dead, my mother says she sat on the baggage carousel weeping while it went around and around. I can’t imagine my father on that flight. Sometimes I think he didn’t tell her out of cowardice, and sometimes I think his nobility must have almost destroyed him in his loneliness. I understood my father. My mother overwhelmed me. She spent her life swinging between helplessness and rage. My shyness and hypersensitivity made her feel like a monster, which made her even angrier with me. Both my sisters resisted her anger better than I. Tina, the oldest, rose to the challenge and told her to stop yelling like a fishwife. My little sister, Liz, who was 13 when Tina died, went through her teenage years with shattered parents, no guidance, and guts. I was in college when Tina died. I had bought Liz a copy of Alice’s Annotated Adventures in Wonderland which I never could bring myself to mail to her. I think it made me too sad to think that I needed to send it soon. I still have it, and feel enflamed with guilt whenever I see it. My niece, Lael, spent a month with my parents every summer while I pursued higher education and my own life. Liz knew Lael then. I didn’t. Lael says now that she thought my sister Liz was the coolest person on the planet. So I felt guilty and estranged and moved to DC and started my life. I had a daughter of my own, who I possibly overindulge, in counterpoint to my mother’s rage. Lael graduated from high school, then college, and became able to determine her own life. She got old enough to come visit me and my family as an adult, and that is how we’ve come to know each other. But we first began talking at my parents fiftieth wedding anniversary, and at a “girls vacation” that my mother arranged for her extended female descendants. At that visit, Lael and I went for a walk on the beach. I was bemoaning, as every other therapist, how my mother (Known as Tutu, the Hawaiian word for grandmother) had been mean to me. Lael looked at me, astonished, and said “But Tutu saved my life. When my stepmother was going to use my trust money for herself, Tutu called and gave her hell. Gave my father hell too. (Lael’s father had followed tradition and married a wicked stepmother.) Tutu always protected me. She was my guardian angel. She was like a tiger.” And I think of all my mother’s rage, almost burying me, transformed to protect her orphaned granddaughter. It makes me feel wonderful, that it had such a holy purpose.

Lael, this week, had her own first child. She’s in her late thirties, had talked with her father and much nicer more recent stepmother, and with me and her Aunt Liz, about having a baby even if she couldn’t find a partner. We all said “Sure. Absolutely. Great idea.” Lael’s announcement that the baby, a son, had arrived came with a blow by blow description of the birth, Lael’s bravery and beauty, and the baby’s perfection, written by the baby’s father. We can’t quite figure this relationship out. We don’t ask. She sent me pictures of the baby on mail, a slide show. There’s a picture of her father, Eric, holding his only grandchild, that is achingly like a picture that we have of Eric holding Lael when she was a newborn. He’s full of joy in the picture from Lael’s infancy. In the picture with his grandson, he looks like he’ll melt with it.