At a small table in the middle of Sakura, I received rare permission to order whatever I liked. My mother and I were in Indianapolis’s best sushi restaurant to celebrate a most glorious newborn tradition: At the age of 14, I had finally surpassed my mother’s towering height of 5’4” and deserved a special I’m Taller Than Mom feast. Now standing at a glorious 5’5” (in a stretch), I asserted my new adulthood and ordered a la carte. With green tea ice cream for dessert.
In the crowded lunch crowd, I was her sole audience and she regaled me with dramatic stories of everyday life. A trained classical singer, even the most pedestrian tale took on a gleam of glamor in her telling. Mom was in full bloom, radiating energy from the roots of her big, bouncy hair to the feet she always thought too big.
Last night, five years since my mother’s death after a marathon battle against breast cancer, I took my oldest son for his Taller Than Mom sushi meal. He too looked at me incredulously as I told him to order whatever he wanted. As we dipped our rice packages in sauces and shared laughs, he claimed he would one day take his children to celebrate as well, in grandma’s honor.
My mother was a warrior, but her first anti-cancer campaign had an unfortunate sequel. After the initial mastectomy 13 years ago, she had been considered cured. A few short years later, there were tumors spread throughout her body. A few inches were shaved off her frame and she became bionic with new titanium vertebrae to replace her own. Aggressive treatment bought her a few years. When she did die in 2014, it was on her own terms. It was time, she said, and began to take leave of her close friends, husband, and children.
During our last conversation, me in Israel and she in the United States, the doctor explained what would happen after he gave her another dose of pain medication. She said she understood and it was what she wanted. Careful not to slur her words she looked into the phone my father held above her face and told me, “I’m very grateful for my life. I couldn’t have had a more perfect daughter.” It was a well-thought-out finale to our rich relationship.
As raw as the pain once was, remarkably the whiteboard of memory has slowly wiped away those last weeks of hospital and hospice. Almost erased now is the final year, in which the brain tumors changed her personality and sapped her good humor. Now, a truly horrific conversation — in which I felt obligated to tell her she must stop driving and was no longer competent on the road — is only a footnote.
Increasingly, in stolen seconds of my day, my brain offers glimpses of my “eternal mom,” the version of Mom that stays with me most. She is the pretty mom of my middle school and high school years, with whom I would chat until late at night.
When she begged me to finally go to bed, I would kiss her on her prominent nose and say, “Goodnight, little mommy.” And she’s always respond, “Goodnight, baby girl.”
That mom I carry in my mind is my chronological age today.
Back in the day, I was her trusty sidekick, tagging along as she tried on ball gowns for an upcoming concert. After sharing tight changing rooms, seeing her naked body was commonplace for me — and a sneak preview of future female developments of my own.
Once, as her few mustache and chin hairs were removed through electrolysis, with tears in her eyes, she explained to 10-year-old me that “Beauty is pain.” Even as she echoed generations of her ancestors, I decided mother nature’s version of humanity also had beauty.
Her body was a natural extension of our own. When we were a young litter of four kids, we’d pile into “her” bed (which my dad also coincidentally occupied at night) and rest our heads on her pillow of a derrière. Adjusting her soft arms to cradle our heads, we’d snuggle up to her cosy, musky warmth. But there was nothing more soothing on sick flushed faces than her chilly, veiny hands, softly stroking our sensitive skin.
Now those veiny hands are my own. As I brushed my teeth last night, following the sushi feast I shared with my oldest son, a glance into my bathroom mirror reflected my mom’s tired gaze. Through our shared light colored eyes imprinted with tiny brown flecks, we looked at each other and sized each other up. Me, an American Jew living in Judea, the ancient Land of Israel. She, a convert to Christianity who emigrated from her heritage to occupy a revised role in the New World.
Past and present intersect within that stripped-down stare and we are only two women, trying to make a taller future.