”You should call her,” says the technician at the eye doctor, as she drops numbing solution into my eyes.
For a second, it had seemed okay to mention my 21-year old daughter to this stranger: ”Oh, my daughter has a dog just like that.” But then I had to say I’ve never actually met the dog, because my daughter doesn’t speak to me. Perhaps the phrase ”my daughter” is not even accurate. My eyes sting as she continues with dilating drops and advice.”You should reach out. Tell her you’re sorry, that you love her, and that you’ve been thinking about her,” she says. ”She’s your daughter.”
For a minute, two, or ten, I consider it. Maybe she’s right. Maybe I could call my daughter. Maybe loving someone means never giving up.
The first time I lost her, I was seventeen years old, feverish and bloody, my feet in stirrups, a doctor’s face, half-covered by a bloody mask, staring up at me from between my legs. He pulled her from me. I heard her gurgle just once. Then a hand was over my eyes, and she was gone.
While I went to college, worked various jobs, and lived my twenties, I held tightly to the idea of her, to the face in the pictures her parents sent me every year, to the tiny details of her life and personality they wrote in the accompanying letters. She loved parties, Hannah Montana, Cheetah Girls, and sometimes, on special occasions, she applied her own pink lipstick, which I could vaguely detect when I pulled her photos close, as if there were a way to climb inside of her world. Her lips—they were mine. And she had my eyes, my dimples, and my curls, but I could now give her nothing more.
Sometimes, randomly, I’d insert into conversations with friends or strangers that I had a daughter.
When they smiled in recognition and asked ”Oh? How old?” I felt dishonest, knowing I’d misled them in a way, that she wasn’t really mine. But still, I loved to speak those words of ownership, which seemed to tie her to me, distilling our separate lives back to the singularity of pregnancy, a shared body, when her every movement was a flutter in me, seeming every bit mine as the racing of my heart or the inflation of my lungs. I have a daughter, I said, the words a kind of credit I was taking. She was me, I thought, took life and shape from me, grew into a self in me, pushed herself into the world with me, from me, and bore the pieces of me she used to do it—those eyes, that smile, the landscape of her shoulders, the loose roll of her curls. She’s fourteen months, I’d tell people. Two years. Five years, seven, nine.
For all the years we spent apart, her picture stayed on my bedside stand, an act of hope. I wanted to believe that it was possible to hang on somehow, to never have to relinquish the belief that she was mine.
I didn’t yet know that for many of those years, she had kept a picture of me close, and every night, when she said her prayers, she’d ask God to watch over me.
Later we realized that both of us had imagined a kind of ideal reunion one day. Her imagination wasn’t much different than mine. We’d do a slow motion run toward one another, hug, and spend the rest of our lives in a kind of collage of joy—shopping, watching movies, cuddling under the thick blankets of a big old bed, taking road trips, staying up all night talking, and making up for lost time.
We didn’t yet understand that lost time is just that—time you never get back.
Ten years after her birth, her adoptive parents let her meet me. It seemed like a dream come true. After all the years of letters and photos, now perhaps I could have more of her. I could watch her grow, listen to her talk, cheer for her at her soccer games, hear her voice, and hug her. We all, her family and mine, thought it would be a good thing, for her to know me, to see where she came from, to extend her family.
But slowly, as our first meeting turned into a dozen, and that first year turned into ten, our pain opened up, layer after layer. After a long weekend at my house, she would always have to be returned to her family. I’d have to put her in my car, drive her to a meeting place—a Walmart parking lot between their house in New York and mine in Pennsylvania—help her move her bags from my cars to theirs, and hug her without holding too tightly. As she was driven away from me, I stood and waved with burning eyes from between the straight white lines of an empty parking spot, her face on the other side of the glass like a photo.
I couldn’t be her mother. I was still an observer, standing on the boundaries of her life and looking in. Meeting her was supposed to be an antidote to the pain of losing her. But instead, it only deepened the ache.
Sometimes, in the quiet of my living room or over the phone, she cried, asked why I didn’t act like her mother. ”It doesn’t feel natural between us,” she said.
I didn’t understand what I wasn’t doing right. Maybe she didn’t either. But I was attentive to every detail after that, to my posture when I sat next to her, to the way I spoke to her, to how many times I called, to the gifts I gave her, to the meals I prepared for her, to even how I dressed. I wanted to believe that I could succeed at the role of mother. But the harder I tried, the less authentic our relationship seemed to her and the angrier she became.
Her anger grew and grew until it was all that was left between us. ”I don’t want to be disappointed by you anymore,” she said. ”Maybe it’s too late for us. Maybe it’ll always hurt like this between us. Maybe none of this is worth it.”
I didn’t agree. It was worth it. I’d try harder. I could be whatever it was she needed me to be. I’d hang on. I wouldn’t give up. She was my daughter. I didn’t want to lose her. I’d already lost too much.
When I was nine years old, I lay next to my mother and traced my fingers over her chest, feeling the hardness of her catheter under her skin. ”When will this be gone?” I asked, still totally convinced that she, the strongest woman in the world, could do anything, including beat the invisible thing called cancer that had been inexplicably inside of her since I was six years old. The surgically-implanted catheter had come later, for chemotherapy, but it seemed ominous, a permanent hardness inside of her, like regret.
”It takes time,” she whispered. From the large window to our left, the late morning sun poured in through her open blinds, reaching like fingers over the shape we made together under the blanket. She turned on her side and pulled me tightly to her. ”I’m trying, Stephie. You know that, right?” she said. ”And mostly for you. I know how much you still need me. But,” she said, ”The truth is that I might never get this thing out.”
”What do you mean?” I asked, my voice trembling.
”I mean that I might not survive,” she said.
”No,” I said. ”Please don’t say that.”
She sighed again, ran her hand along the side of my cheek. ”They say that when you die, you see a long tunnel, at the end of which is a really bright light. And it is so beautiful and wonderful that you want to go toward it. But sometimes you don’t, not right away.” She paused. ”A person needs her loved ones to tell her to go, to let her move towards the light.” A tear ran down my face. I moved even closer, wishing I could dissolve into her in a way that would keep us together always. Then I pushed my fingers between hers and memorized the way they looked together.
”There’s so much we can’t control,” she said. ”We can’t control time. We can’t control death. But letting go might be one of those things we can control. If the time comes, I want you to promise something for me, okay?”
”What?” I asked.
”Letting go doesn’t mean losing. In fact, sometimes, it can save us. It can keep us from holding on to something so hard we don’t know we’ve lost it.” She looked down at her hands, holding them in tight fists and then, slowly, opening them up to show me they were empty. ”When the time comes, I want you to let go,” she said. My eyes stung with tears, blurring the world.
”Okay, Mom. I promise.”
I was almost 12 when I stood over her lifeless body on an April Friday, remembering what she’d said about the tunnel and the light. I’d never again weave my fingers into hers. A voice from inside of me cried out: No. You can’t leave me here. I need you. I can’t do this without you.
I closed my eyes and, despite my promise, held tightly to my belief that I needed her. Needing her, I thought, would somehow keep her alive. I couldn’t untether either of us from my longing. For too long, it stayed inside of me, hardening me.
Keeping my promise happened a little at a time over the years. Sometimes I’d be in a grocery store or waking in the dark after a dream or in the soft refuge of music, or in the blur of warm tears. I’d look down at my own hands, empty as they were, aging, so far from what they were when they were intertwined in hers. And I’d realize that in most ways, and to my surprise, I was okay, that I was doing it—life without her, that this moment was as empty of her as my hands were, and yet there was still beauty in it. It was in the realization of such beauty that I was able, sometimes, to say the words I promised to say, some of the hardest words there have ever been to speak. Even almost 30 years later. ”Okay, Mom,” I whispered. ”Go. Go toward your light.” And when I said it, I understood: Letting go isn’t just for the dying. She knew it would help me live.
In the eye exam room light, the world blurs.
”Do you think you’ll call her?” asks the technician.
I smile, knowing that her insistence is her way of reminding me to love my daughter despite my own pain. And it isn’t that I don’t want to. It’s just that I know how hanging on tightly can change us, can keep us from living. ”Don’t contact me again,” my daughter texted me after a long exchange last winter. ”Just leave me alone.”
Sitting in my car in an empty laundromat parking lot, I stared down at the words, my hand trembling. Low hanging clouds had darkened the day into an oppressive grayness. I wanted to tell her ”No.” But then, in the haze of my tears, I thought of Mom and the promise I had made to her.
Maybe both my daughter and I had spent all these years clinging desperately to something that was already lost. I wasn’t sure. But I did know that pain and disappointment had eclipsed any hope of the kind of relationship she and I had dreamed of. And the simple truth of the matter is that I didn’t want her to hurt anymore. She was letting go. And there was only one thing left for me to do. I set the phone down in my empty passenger seat and let the tears come hard, my head against my steering wheel, the realization of a life without her opening itself up like an empty hand. Minutes passed before I finally lifted my head, wiped the blurry lens of tears from my eyes, and saw an unexpected streak of sunlight from behind the clouds. It had taken me 21 years to begin the process of letting my daughter go.
It seems impossible that she is just three hours north, so close and impossibly far away at the same time. Her absence from my life can overwhelm me with such grief. I think, ”No. You can’t do this. You can’t leave me.” But other times, if I try hard enough, I can imagine her living her life well. I can almost see her hugging that dog she loves so much. I can almost hear her laugh, smell her perfume, the flash of her eyes, and see her long fingers that remind me of my own. Sometimes I can’t help it, and I long for her fingers between mine. But I realize that when her hands are free of me, they’re free to reach for and hold the parts of the world that bring her joy. Over and over, I cultivate the courage to whisper the words she can’t hear, that are only for me now. ”It’s okay,” I say, imagining the light of the world around her. ”I love you.”