I watch my mother-in-law walk toward an elevator. Her back stoops slightly, the way her mother’s once did. A crescent of scalp shines through tufts of silver hair, though she ended treatment for breast cancer four years ago. She refuses to wear a wig. Her body is hard won, nothing to hide. I didn’t get to watch my own mother beat a life-threatening disease, or to see her grow old. So my most immediate image of aging is my 75 year old mother-in-law, in her wrinkle-free pants and Talbots blouse. Others may associate her body with frailty, but I see evidence of truths I used to doubt: A mother can be healthy. A mother can survive.
This summer, memories of my mother weigh on my mind as I await the results of a genetic test. While I vacation in New Orleans with my husband and mother-in-law, pre-conception concerns linger. Could I have a child as sick as the mother I lost? Am I selfish to want this child?
Despite how selfish or ill-advised I fear myself to be, my longing for a child has become a part of me, as unrelenting as my own heartbeat. Everywhere we go, I see my desire reflected back at me, and am reminded with a pang that wanting something badly is not enough to make it happen. Adoring the toddler smiling into a sugary beignet at Café Du Monde will not make him mine. Admiring a pack of mothers roaming Jackson Square will not make me one of them. Even so, when I see a sweet onesie hanging in a shop window display, I rush inside the store to touch the fabric. Cotton glides between my fingers, allures me.
My mother-in-law follows me inside. “Your time will come,” she says, then pats my shoulder. Her hands feel velvety against my skin, soothing, like my mother’s hands.
When I married her only son ten years ago, my mother-in-law welcomed me into the family. I had no living mother. She had no daughter. Each of us filled a long shadow in the other’s life. While cultural clichés say mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law cannot be allies, our relationship defies stereotypes.
Although we live in separate states, I hear from my mother-in-law as much as I expect I’d hear from my own mother. “How can anyone not like you?” My mother-in-law might text me one day, adding, “You’re a nice size,” or “I’m proud of you,” a few days later. She rarely signs off without a heart emoji or a smiley face blowing a kiss.
Until she died, my mother was the person who said these things to me. I used to dismiss her words with an eye roll, an irate teenager’s groan. I didn’t know how many women had mothers who didn’t believe in them, or how much I fed off a mother’s faith in me. I wouldn’t know until after she died, when my confidence plummeted.
In my early twenties, I floundered between jobs, and then careers. There was no one to tell me I could do anything I put my mind to, so I chose to believe I couldn’t, to believe I was stuck. The bravest thing I could do each morning was just climb out of bed.
Now, 15 years after losing my mother, I’m being brave in a different way. I’m making a leap toward motherhood without my own mother to guide me. Despite my anxieties about the illness that took her life, I’m stepping into the unknown. I’m choosing hope instead of fear.
Because I have a few minutes alone while my mother-in-law changes outfits in her hotel room, I check my e-mail. The word Counsyl appears at the top of my inbox—the name of the company that conducted my genetic testing. Before we left for vacation in New Orleans, my husband and I sat behind tiny desks in a storage closet at my gynecologist’s office. A phlebotomist drew a vial of blood from each of our arms, then handed me a barcode we’d need for our Counsyl results. I knew the results were coming, but I pushed them to the back of my mind when we landed in New Orleans. Here, in this city of lilting palm trees and street corner jazz, it’s easy to avoid thinking about deadly genetic diseases, or the real reasons why I had the test, which have more to do with the mother I lost then the child I long for.
Only recently, I learned that I carry a rare gene that can lead to a fatal metabolic disorder in offspring. Symptoms present as profound hypoglycemia, the second cause of death listed on my mother’s death certificate. The first cause is the disease that primarily killed her—Diabetes mellitus.
When I was young, I watched my mother’s body destroy itself. I watched her organs fail. I watched her undergo an experimental organ transplant, followed by her body’s rejection of the new organs seven years later. I watched her body fill with poison. Then I watched her die.
For years, I delayed motherhood because I feared passing her disease to my child. Sometimes I still wonder if my own genetic code reads like a landmine map. Maybe my dream of becoming a mother is too painful, too complicated. Would it be better for everyone if I just let it go?
The Counsyl report takes forever to load. I dig my fingernails into a tablecloth as I wait. My skin tingles when I see the first page, a seemingly endless list of genetic terms. Autosomal. Dominant. Recessive. Already, my palms have started to sweat. I wipe them on my lap. Why am I so nervous? Despite my family history, my chances of having a child with a serious metabolic disorder are low, especially if my husband does not carry the same genes as me. It’s unlikely we share similar genes, since he’s a Southern WASP and I’m an East Coast Jew. But a secret part of me still believes I have the worst luck, that disaster is always a step away from each good thing that happens. I have to work hard to believe I deserve happiness, to believe my body is not a landmine.
And then, there’s my mother-in-law, who’s texted me a heart emoji every day this week. She remembers the first and last day of each semester I teach. She knows when I have an important meeting or doctor’s appointment. She clips newspaper articles related to my profession and sends them to me with underlined passages and notes in the margins. All shorthand for You are worthy. You are loved.
When the test results appear on my iPhone screen, I exhale deeply: My husband does not carry a single metabolic disorder gene. For now, I believe we are safe from the disaster I feared, and I rush to tell him and my mother-in-law the news.
I find her in her hotel bathroom. She’s fixing her lipstick, a lustrous pink that makes her blue eyes shimmer. “You’re as ready as you’ll ever be,” she proclaims, barely looking up.
As she speaks, she presses a tissue between her lips, the same way my mother did each morning before she became too sick to work. My mother-in-law’s blotting ritual leaves the mark of a mouth closing in resolution, a confident O.
Sometimes I think that this is all I need to feel affirmed in my choice to become a mother, this other woman’s faith in me, a synecdoche for my mother’s faith. Other times, I think I’d trade this loving relationship I have with my mother-in-law for the relationship I once had with my mother, for her to be the person standing with me in the bathroom, saying the words my mother-in-law has spoken. We stand together studying our reflections, my mother-in-law and I. Neither of us says another word.
In the past, we’ve talked about my mother. My mother-in-law was the first person to tell me how hard it must have been for my mother to confront her own death. She was the first person to explain why it was easier for my mother to tell me everything would be okay, and not the truth that she was dying. She was the first person to listen to me cry and not say, “Everything happens for a reason.”
She was the first person to teach me that disaster is rarely personal.
When I miscarry my first pregnancy a month after our return from New Orleans, I call my mother-in-law first. I call her because I cannot call my own mother. I call her because I am also her daughter. Not the one she birthed or raised, but the one she claimed. A late in life surprise.
Blood and tears pour out of me. I can barely speak.
Unlike my doctor, my mother-in-law does not tell me my loss is part of God’s plan, or simply “meant to be.” She holds the dawning horror with me, tells me I can try again as soon as I am able, and only if I want to.
“I want to,” I say, astounded by the conviction rising in my voice. “I didn’t know how much.”
Across from me, a sunbeam dances along the wall. I watch it flicker. I press my hand against the plaster, coax light into my palm. Then I make a fist, as if I can contain this fragile spark. As if I can seal it up inside of me.