“Mom, cheer up. You’re still here. Cancer is just a word, a scary word, but just a word.”
On her plane ride from California, Miriam had started reading the library books she had brought for me. Neither of us had ever heard of Dr. Bernie Siegel, but we quickly found out that he specializes in helping people who face imminent death from illness to live fully and to die in peace.
As Miriam and I hugged tightly, I took a deep breath and tried to stanch my sobs. A week earlier I had received the definitive cancer diagnosis. Only hours after that phone call we had begun the first Passover Seder. Instead of being in California, as planned, with Miriam and her children, my husband and I were home in Rochester with understanding friends. Throughout, one thought hounded me: this, and tomorrow night’s, could be my last Seders. I hadn’t yet had all the diagnostic tests that would show where the cancer was, how much it had spread, where exactly I was affected. But I was frightened and shaky throughout the supposedly festive meals.
Miriam flew in for the final days of the holiday, both for her peace of mind and my own. A mother with cancer wasn’t in her life plan anymore than it was in mine. When she was young, I had often helped her deal with the difficult issues in her life by reading appropriate books to her: Richard Scarry’s Nicky Goes to the Doctor or When a Pet Dies by Fred Rogers. I remember bringing her library books about grieving for a sibling’s death after her sister Ruth died when Miriam was ten.
So often, in those first years after Ruth was struck and killed by a drinking driver, parts of the Sabbath service had reduced me to tears. Miriam would lean over, place her arms around me, and offer what little solace she could. That was the first time she reversed roles on me, assuming the task of mothering and consoling me. I had hated that switch in our relationship, but there it was. This time, some thirty years later, it felt less painful. After all, she, too, was an adult now, and I welcomed whatever comfort she could offer.
In the two years since my cancer diagnosis, Miriam and I have become even closer than we had been—and we had already enjoyed an unusually warm and trusting relationship. Like most mothers and daughters, it wasn’t always that way. There was, for instance, the case of the yellow dress. I hadn’t meant to put it in the dryer. I knew that the care label said to hang to dry. It might as well have read, DO NOT MACHINE DRY IF YOU VALUE YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH THIS DRESS’S TEN-YEAR-OLD OWNER. Any amateur laundress, much less one with my twenty years’ experience, could see that the nylon accordion pleats could not withstand a dryer’s heat.
The dress had been Miriam’s favorite, the one she had begged for from the Sears Catalog, even when I was willing to buy one that was finer and more expensive. But this is what she had wanted for her sister’s bat mitzvah, and she had looked beautiful in it. As my trembling hands removed the dress from the machine, I saw that the soft, lemony yellow, nylon-masquerading-as-organza hung limply. Not a pleat remained. Not even the hint of one. Though still the right size, the dress had lost its shape, its panache.
As I smoothed and folded the rest of the load, only one thought pounded at me: how can I tell Miriam? At first I didn’t. I tucked the dress out of sight while I called Sears: out of season, out of stock. I presented it to a dry cleaning establishment where I was informed that it would be impossible to recreate the pleats. Finally, in a conversation so painful that neither of us recalls the details, I confessed. I’m sure that I did my best to console my distraught daughter, but nothing I said could compensate for the loss of her favorite dress, a dress that had made her feel beautiful and grown up.
In an attempt to buy Miriam’s forgiveness, I dragged her to Sue Handlin’s girls’ shop. There I bought her an outrageously expensive Gunne Sax dress. I had always told my girls that what made them pretty was not the clothes on their backs but the smiles on their faces. I was right, as no dress, no matter how lovely its style, no matter how attractive its tiny pink rosebuds set against a navy blue background, could compensate for Miriam’s sour look. Despite the new dress, she did not forgive me, not then and not for years or even decades after.
Interestingly, it was not long after that I discovered that Miriam could be good company. She, her father Julian, and I drove to Wisconsin for Julian to attend a conference at the university in Madison. First we visited friends in Milwaukee, where we had lived for five years and where both girls had been born. We cried and grieved with friends who remembered Ruth as a baby and toddler. Miriam, who had been only a year old when we moved from Milwaukee to Cleveland, felt no connection. Her big excitement was for our planned trip to Chicago while Julian was at his conference. At Chicago’s Art Institute, we would visit the Thorne Miniature Rooms, sixty-eight dioramas of European and American furnishings. We would go to the Museum of Science and Industry especially to see the Colleen Moore Fairy Castle.
My concern was not for our Chicago activities, planned to appeal to my doll-house lover’s interests, but for the time in the car. What would we talk about for two hours each way? Could a depressed, recently bereaved mother and her young surviving daughter entertain each other? All I could think about—tearfully, of course—was that Ruth had turned the corner from little girl to budding teen who could talk about reasonably adult matters. She and I could converse easily on a variety of topics. But Miriam? Still too young, I thought.
By the time we arrived in Chicago, I had learned otherwise. Instead of the awkward silences I anticipated, we filled the car with animated chat. While I enjoyed the Thorne Rooms and Fairy Castle along with Miriam, my standout experience of our two-day jaunt was the discovery that my “baby” could be a delightful conversationalist.
That’s how our communication continued throughout Miriam’s middle school and high school years. Despite the yellow dress hanging quietly in the background, we found we could talk about anything. On our weekly walks to and from Sabbath services, she chattered about school, friends, and the stuff of teens. I became a trusted listener. Her usual good cheer helped pull me out of my depression into the sunlight.
When our easy relationship failed, it was not because of the Yellow Dress but the Boyfriend. Even so, even despite the wedge he succeeded in driving between my daughter and me, even despite our suspicion that this marriage would never measure up, her father and I eventually gave Miriam the wedding of her dreams. And then, when she had to admit that she had made a mistake, that her husband was abusive (which we had been too naïve to suspect), Julian and I supported her in every way we knew how. That included biting back all the “I told you so’s.” We proved to be less self-centered and more understanding than her husband had insisted during their six-year friendship and three-year marriage.
Looking back, I wonder if Miriam and I had learned something from the yellow dress episode that helped us with this crisis. I had discovered back then that there are two narratives: the child’s and the parent’s. In her view, I hadn’t paid enough attention to hang rather than machine-dry her dress. Wherever my head was in that crucial moment it hadn’t been on my laundry or my ten-year-old daughter’s favorite dress. Now I tried my hardest to be with her in the moment, in the terrible, horrible moments she described of my son-in-law shouting at her, throwing a TV remote at her, giving her a black eye and missing my baby granddaughter’s head by millimeters.
She was honest. I was receptive. Little by little, she exposed the truth of what she had been through. I waited patiently for her to reveal the details at her own pace. I never pushed. Rather, I listened. I understood that she had tried her best to make the unworkable work. I have heard of parents who blame their children for the break-up of a marriage, even when, as in Miriam’s case, it posed a threat to their children’s and grandchildren’s safety. What could I do for her? Buying a Gunne Sax dress would have been easy, but it wouldn’t have solved any more problems than it had ten years before. But what I could do was pay her the honor of listening, of believing her, of not countering her narrative with my own, of accepting hers as truth. Of being with her in the moment.
And later, when she was trying to make it as a graduate student and single mother, I could buy clothing for the baby—not expensive, fancy, buy-your-love-and-forgiveness clothes but a practical wardrobe that helped Miriam and Leah survive their difficult life.
That was the turning point. Little by little, as she healed from her abusive marriage, she discovered that I was less selfish and more trustworthy than her former husband had convinced her I was. I was willing to let go of the past—by now she had let go of the yellow dress—and rebuild our earlier patterns of communication.
Miriam married again and followed her man to Los Angeles. On one visit, I was appalled at the way he communicated with her. Or failed to. I watched him give her the silent treatment and refuse to speak to her for almost my entire five-day visit. When she asked why—what she had said or done—he refused to answer. There was no way for her to fix it because she didn’t know what needed repairing. Worst of all, her children watched and undoubtedly absorbed that this is how we treat people we purport to love.
But at least this time around she knew she could confide in me. If her husband tried to drive a wedge between us as the first had done, he was unsuccessful. I had proven that I would be there for her, no matter what.
And now she had proved the same for me. By the time she left, after this first visit following my cancer diagnosis, I was deep into Siegel, Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen (“Blessing life is about filling yourself up so that your blessings overflow onto others”) and others who emphasized the importance of attitude in dealing with cancer. The authors informed me that I had two choices: I could be a bitter, down-in-the-mouth person whose bristles brushed everyone away, or I could be the cheerful, upbeat person I preferred to live with every day. I could admit that, while I didn’t like the diagnosis, my best choice was to find top-notch doctors and follow their advice. Or I could waste my days, however many remained, grumbling and bitching and making me and the people around me miserable. After Miriam’s visit, the choice was obvious, and she became, and remains, my biggest fan and cheerleader. She is realistic about my prognosis, and whatever tears she may shed on my behalf are hidden from me. In short, without trying to reverse our relationship and displace me as the mother, she cares for me as daughter, best friend, and adult.
A few years ago, after Miriam was divorced for the second time, I visited her in her Los Angeles condominium. The girls—now four in total—split their time between the two households. They had been raised on the story of the yellow dress, the way some children are raised on Uncle Remus’ Br’er Rabbit and the Briar Patch and others on Abraham smashing the idols or George Washington chopping down the cherry tree. In the basement with their mother, I noted girls’ clothing hanging on the drying rack. While the whirling dryer sucked moisture from a full load of clothes, the ones that were supposed to hang dry were doing just that. With a twinkle, I complimented Miriam for paying attention to the labels on the school uniform skirts and Sabbath dresses. Laughingly, she plucked a pink camisole from the dryer and told me it used to be white.
She had learned there was no such thing as perfect, always-in-the-moment motherhood.
In those same years, we have both learned to listen, really listen, and to trust each other. That seems to be the formula for mother-daughter communication that we both value and that brings us both comfort as we continue to face the challenges presented by my cancer. How grateful I am to be her mother.