I spent my last year of high school thinking about boys, shopping at Claire’s and Forever 21, and hating my mother.
I had a good reason to hate her. She was leaving me.
An hour after I had finished taking the SATs on the first Saturday of November, my parents sat me down for a family meeting.
Now, I’ll be real with you: Family meetings usually didn’t bode well for me. That one time they found out I had snuck out of my bedroom in the middle of the night to meet some guy at the 7-11 on Sepulveda and Palms? Family meeting. That other time I brought home a B- on my geograpy midterm? Family meeting.
(And after having sat through four hours of my life that I knew I would never get back, clutching a Number 2 pencil and bubbling letters that would determine my fate, I had a fleeting thought that my mother had figured out that I had, like, totally guessed on numbers 18-21 in the quantitative reasoning section.)
Family meeting: I sat there, my palms twitching beneath my skin while I tallied my myriad of sins, both major and minor, and wondered which one my parents had discovered this time…
My mom sat to my right a blue cloud of smoke, she was wearing her “Howard Berman for Congress” shirt. She had a scarf tied around her head, like always… even before I was born, she always wore that blue scarf.
(“Sarah, when I was in high school, I had such long black hair, and I ruined it with Aquanet…Don’t make the same mistake, dear one.”)
My mom was known for the blue scarf — And thank God it was blue because the Shoreline Crips were riding high in blue, too on the Westside of LA, just like my mom, beautiful in blue as she would bend over her roses in the garden…
Her scarf was part of my vocabulary early on — I remember once, in the throes of preschool, I broke a red crayon and I hissed to my mother “I hate you and I hate your scarf” when she told me it was time to get my things and go.
I didn’t really mean it then — I didn’t hate her, and I didn’t hate her scarf… but I sure would mean it during that long last year I lived at home.
And on that first Saturday in November, my parents looked at each other — and in that moment, when their eyes met, I realized that they were more nervous than I was… “Sarah, we have some news.”
(Ok, so it wasn’t about me this time.)
“Dr. Bernstein called yesterday, and I have cancer.”
Type 3. Ovarian, if you’re keeping score.
She’d have surgery in a week – the Thursday after my essay on Heart of Darkness was due.
She’d start chemo the week after, just before Christmas vacation.
They’d stick a portacath in her stomach — I’d never see it, but I would feel it when she’d hug me.
She bought clip-on bangs to tuck under her scarf – espresso black — the first time she wore it was on Hanukkah at her parents house because she didn’t want them to see the signs of what they already knew was happening to their first born baby.
She bought a wig and hated it. (“I look like Ronald Reagan.”) She only wore it once — to my high school graduation.
(“Well, at least no one will notice when my hair falls out since I always wear a scarf anyway.”)
And I hated her.
We were already locked in a power struggle, my mother and I before that first Saturday in November. We were already caught in the tug of war between being her daughter and breaking away. And this, oh this, this motherfucking cancer was like a dark music score in a movie — cellos moaning, a harbinger of doom — unsettling us further from one another. My mother, small and mighty, fierce and sometimes ferocious, whose word would make it so… my mother… shaken. And maybe broken.
And I hated her. With every pound she lost, I hated her. With every apologetic smile, I hated her. With every treatment, every scan, every doctor’s visit, I hated her. Because in her frail body, in her pleading eyes that lost their lashes, I saw only the years stretching by one after the other, endlessly without her.
This was my mother, but she was leaving me.
How dare she leave me! I should leave her!
And I would cry at night like a small child locked in a tiny space with no light and no sense of the coming dawn.
And I hated her for her modesty – for trying to hide the disease from me, for covering her head every time as though her hair grew as always beneath those blue bandanas, for hiding the scars on her stomach, for covering her bones with three layers of clothes in the middle of July.
And if she had showed me the signs that she was leaving? I would have hated her, still.
The last day in that house, in that house where my mother and I would lay head to toe on the green couch in an LA winter watching flames dance in the fireplace and listening to recordings of old broadcasts from the 40’s, in that house where my mother and I had planted purple roses outside my window because they were my favorite, in that house where we baked meringue cookies, and watched Mystery Theatre, and played Heart and Soul on the piano, I broke my mother.
We were packing the last of the boxes and we had a tug-of-war over Howard Zinn’s A People’s History. And here’s the fucked up thing: I don’t remember why we were fighting over it – Maybe she wanted me to take it and I didn’t want it, or maybe she didn’t want me to have it, but I wanted it with me… But in that struggle over paper and words, I could smell underneath the cigarettes and the patchouli oil, underneath the Bounty fabric softener, and Irish Spring soap, I could smell my mother — so like me, only leaving… and I hated her more than I hated her all year…
And with a scream I would only recognize years and years later when I heard my daughter for the first time, I reached down over my mother and ripped her scarf off.
And she stood there in the soft light of dusk, her eyes shocked and shining, like a baby sparrow she stood there, her skull covered in soft tufts of grey feathers, the light shining through like spun silver.
My stomach clenched.
The scarf floated to the ground.
She lunged as though to pick it up, and instead, with a roar that came from somewhere infinite and endless inside her, she sprang on me, and bit me on my left arm.
Her teeth sank into my skin. I yelped.
She pulled back, there was blood on her lips, and her eyes were fierce.
She stood there, a single exquisite spark of kinetic energy trembling in the fading light. “You’re leaving me,” she growled. “You’re leaving me. And this is what a mother lion has to do when her cub leaves the pride. And you will forgive me for this, dear one… for all of this. And you will forgive yourself, too.”
And, as always, her word made it so:
And I forgave her.
(And myself, too.)
And the scar she made will never leave me.