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Sunday, May 13, 2012

A certain kind of mother

Today is Mother's Day. This isn't my holiday, as my only children are comprised of words, rather than genes, and my own mother "changed addresses" long fact, I realized with a distant shock today that she has been gone more than half my life. But where these two intersect was a critical turning point for me.

My mother died of cancer at 51-- the precise age I am today. Though she was far from demonstrative, we were very close. She was diagnosed in late October four years after I graduated college.  Anyone who has lost someone to cancer knows the pain of witnessing the slow death that you can't stop, or often, even ease. I cried so much through the term of her short prognosis that when she passed away, I thought I had no more tears to shed. While I missed her dreadfully, mimicking her pragmatism, I boxed up my pain. I went back to work the day after her funeral and threw myself into practical matters like my then-career in advertising and marketing.I told myself I had done all my grieving; now it was time to get on with life.

Seven years later, when Chris and I moved to New York, I faced another type of grieving. I had moved far from everyone I knew, into a part of the country that had no work prospects for me. Without my familiar career, I didn't know who I was. I wrote long letters home to friends and family, and through this, I began to see my path. While I had journalled on and off since I was a teenager, until I made the paradigm shift of what our new life meant for my dreams, I'd never truly believed I might write seriously. Now I could. I took classes and signed onto the writer boards on AOL and began to work on A Butler's Life, the book I'd half joked I would write about Chris's life in service since we'd first met. I also wrote essays and a few articles, almost all unpublished, and began to rough out ideas for some novels. And I continued to write my long letters to those I viewed as my support team back home.

But where I wasn't writing...and hadn't since the day my mother had been diagnosed...was in my journal.

In September 1995, I sold A Butler's Life in hardcover. I delivered the manuscript the following March. While I waited for it to be published, I proposed Wedding Wonders to another publisher and sold that, too. As a small paperback, Wedding Wonders was published first, in 1996.

Writers often equate writing and, especially, the publishing of their works as akin to giving birth. (Many of us also admit to a form of post-partum depression following publishing.) I'm sure every writer remembers the feeling of opening that very first box from their publisher marked "Author's Copies." There, in full color (at least on the cover), is your baby. Your firstborn. Fruit of your heart, mind, soul. You crow. You coo. You show all your friends. And you employ all your marketing efforts to help that baby not only walk, but hopefully soar in the crowded world. Let's call it an extremely foreshortened parenthood.

I didn't cry fifteen months after my mother's death when my sister had no "mother of the bride" at her large traditional church ceremony. I shed a few tears two years later when, on my wedding eve, my father presented me with a figurine my mom had bought for that occasion on a European trip three years before she died. But when my only children -- my books -- were "born," a dam broke. The night that first box arrived,  I cried for the loss of my mom, for the accomplishment I longed to have her there to recognize and appreciate. For me, there would be no grandchildren in whom I might recognize her eyes, her mouth, her chin, or her sense of humor. But I had launched something into the world that would remain long after my death, if only in the Library of Congress archives. Something that would prove that I had existed. Something that would have made my mother proud of me. Something she wasn't there to see.

But when that dam broke, so, too, did another dam I hadn't recognized as being obstructive: I gained the ability to journal again. And truly, there was an ocean of unwritten words, uncried tears, unfinished grief of all kinds that poured out over that broken dam...and continue to do so, sometimes via journal, sometimes within my writing. It doesn't escape me that in the three novels I've penned so far, Blood Exposure being the first, all deal with mother-daughter issues. While none of the situations are autobiographical, there are commonalities and extrapolations that I just have to trust spring from a deep place. One that never goes away, and remains fascinating to me to plumb.

For those of us whose offspring receive their report cards on't it be appropriate if royalty checks arrived on Mother's Day, like Hallmark cards?