A river flows through this book. The river is not a mythical river. Neither is it a metaphor for the ebb and flow of life. It is the woman who stands in the rising waters, holding a child in her arms, forced to make a choice between saving herself or her child who represents the crux of this mother-daughter story.
The story of the woman in the river is narrated by the author’s mother, an accomplished psychiatrist, in the prologue of What We Carry, a memoir by Maya Shanbhag Lang. When Maya first hears it, a few days after giving birth to her daughter, she finds the tale—part-fable, part-parable—incomprehensible. As a new mother, she wonders about its relevance and significance and keeps going back to it at various times in the following years. It is only later when we grasp the story of Maya’s life as daughter, and then as caregiver to her mother that we are able to appreciate the relevance of this tale.
The book begins with Maya’s move to Seattle with her husband, a decision that puts three thousand miles between her mother and her. Using a vignette-themed narrative style that flits back and forth in time, the backstory of a fairly typical immigrant family from India takes shape.
Growing up with an engineer father, a physician mother who works long hours to build a nest egg, and a much older brother, Maya’s family seems to be living the American dream. However, through vivid anecdotes Maya provides a deeper view of what is actually a dysfunctional home, with a verbally abusive father and a perennially busy working mother. Despite her mother’s meek acceptance of a submissive role for the sake of family peace, a situation not uncommon in many Indian homes, Maya adores her mother, both for her professional brilliance and for her unwavering devotion to her children. Even her mother’s decision to delay filing for a divorce until Maya leaves home for college is seen as a sacrifice made in the best interest of her children.
Throughout her childhood and teenage years, Maya’s mother is her primary champion. With her brother away at college, Maya faces the brunt of her father’s anger and displeasure. Her mother listens and takes action as needed to support Maya, even if the decision involves something as drastic as sending her away to a boarding school. From driving for hours to bring over a chair to ease Maya’s sore back, to knowing exactly what to say when Maya mourns the untimely death of a friend, the bond between mother and daughter feels unbreakable.
The surprising plot twist appears with the news of Maya’s pregnancy. At a time when mothers and daughters usually grow closer, particularly in the context of their Indian heritage, an odd rift appears in their relationship. Although her mother visits for a week immediately after the birth of her grandchild, she displays an unusual reticence and reluctance to provide longer term support.
When Maya’s postpartum depression sends her to a local psychiatrist whose treatment approach does not match her mother’s professional views, her mother haughtily declares, “Depression is a broken bone no one can see. Therapy is an icepack for the swelling. It might offer some relief, but it does nothing for the underlying fracture.”
But when Maya calls and begs her mother to fly to Seattle, her mother’s blunt refusal stuns her, especially in view of her steadfast support over the years. Although crushed by her mother’s cold, unfeeling and definitely strange behavior, the fact of her mother’s deception becomes apparent only much later.
While dealing with a young child and a writing career, Maya asks her mom about how she managed to complete her residency as a young mother in the US. “I don’t know. I just did,” is her enigmatic response. Having witnessed her mother’s competence at managing home and career, the myth of her perfect mother haunts Maya, who feels grossly inadequate in comparison.
A few years later when Maya’s husband’s job brings them back to New York, Maya begins to witness firsthand the mysterious shifts in her mother’s moods and behavior—”Mom roulette” as she names it. Tired Mom, Vaguely Pleasant Mom, Sullen Mom, Paranoid Mom. Eventually, when Maya’s brother takes her to a doctor to understand the reason for her continuing weight loss, her mother preempts the doctor’s diagnosis by revealing her secret—early onset dementia, possibly attributable to Alzheimer’s disease.
Giving in to their strong-willed mother’s insistence on living alone, Maya and her brother watch her deterioration with concern. When her mother’s weight plummets to dangerous levels, Maya offers to bring her home. Much of the book deals with this period of role reversal.
Caring for her mother compels Maya to walk the talk.
“My mother forces me to practice what I have always claimed to value. Compassion, empathy, patience, kindness.”
Being a caregiver, as expected, is exhausting. In order to survive, one needs some distance. On a short visit to New York City, a simple meal by herself at a restaurant shows Maya the rejuvenating value of space even in close relationships.
“A necessary part of life is casting it aside on occasion. Books, movies, food, sex: All offer not merely entertainment but existential exit.”
Seeking some space from the demands of her days, Maya signs up with Louis, a trainer at a gym who supports her quest for fitness while spouting aphorisms like “Don’t spend your time doubting, spend your time doing; strength is a result of effort and time, too much strength can be its own weakness,” among others.
In addition to Louis, Maya’s husband, Noah, her brother, Manish, her father and daughter make brief appearances in the story. But they don’t claim much space. This book is unapologetically a mother-daughter memoir.
At home, dealing with her mother’s fluctuating mood changes leaves her confused but leads to the epiphany that “you cannot care for a person without thinking of her dignity and beauty.”
Yet, it is not pure selfless love alone that motivates Maya. She senses that this may be her last chance to clear up the unfinished business of reconciling her image of a mythical perfect mother with the real one who is being revealed to her in bits and pieces.
Maya believed that her mother’s training as a psychiatrist made it possible for her to listen “with exquisite care.” Whenever they encountered former patients in public space who gratefully called Maya’s mother “amazing” or thanked her for saving their life, her mother would shrug it off with a modest “it’s just the medication,” remark.
As her cognitive functions decline, Maya’s mother is unable to consistently hold on to the original story of being the perfect mother. Maya comes to understand that her mother had always listened critically, both to her patients, and to her children. She had never fallen for their stories, but made them believe she had, all the while choosing a course of treatment (or action) that was in the patient’s best interest.
Feeding her mother, buying her new clothes, taking her for a walk, and most importantly, spending time with her help Maya realize that when she was growing up her mother had been distracted and unhappy in her marriage, with little energy left to focus on her children.
“Maybe at our most maternal, we aren’t mothers at all. We’re daughters, reaching back in time for the mothers we wish we’d had and then finding ourselves.”
Taking care of her rapidly deteriorating mother requires Maya to use parenting strategies that she uses with her own daughter—scolding, cajoling, bribing, as the situation demands. But there are differences as well.
After a year of watching her mother’s physical health (weight) improve and her cognitive abilities decline, Maya is forced to consider sending her mother to an assisted living facility under the pretext of house renovation. This decision is made possible by her mother’s shrewd understanding of her own medical condition and early investment in long-term care insurance.
Maya finds herself building scenarios for the caregivers that cover every possible occurrence along with elaborate instructions about her mother’s triggers and fears.
“I have never been a helicopter mom to my daughter. As it turns out, I’m a helicopter mom to my mother.”
The guilt and sadness of handing over her mother’s care is coupled with a sense of freedom that Maya acknowledges without flinching.
The book moves at a rapid pace, in part, to its structure. Short chapters. Lean sentences. Zero sentimentality. Every scene is described and mulled over in a thoughtful way. The language is simple; the insights deep. As a novelist Maya creates excellent visual scenes that move the story along with minimal dialogue.
I first heard the audiobook narrated by the author and then brought home a copy to absorb it more completely. What makes this memoir special to readers and writers is the way it highlights the importance of stories—the ones that we hear and the ones we tell ourselves.
Some of the losses attributed to Alzheimer’s will be familiar to anyone who has lost a loved one in other ways. Unlike Maya who lost her mother even when she was alive, incrementally and inexplicably, I lost mine suddenly, a dozen years ago. Like Maya, I had a mother who was truly interested in my life, who willingly listened to trivial daily details, who gave me her full attention. It is excruciatingly difficult to adjust to living without that vital connection.
“I miss her scowl. I miss her harsh judgments. I miss when she was arrogant, lofty, shrewd. I miss my mom.”
Eighteen months later as Maya’s mother flourishes in the assisted living facility, Maya continues to learn from her mother how to be a mother. And how not to be as well. She tries to be more honest, more human, less of a superwoman, more present.
Throughout the book, Maya turns to the story of the woman in the river. Each time she comes up with different interpretations—perhaps the child is rescued by a bird, perhaps the child learns to swim, perhaps the woman does too. It is possible that their time in the water makes them stronger as they paddle to the shore, even if they reach different shores. Through those interpretations, we sense her awakening awareness of all the ways in which a woman can choose her story.
“What does it mean for a woman to choose herself? It means having the audacity to see her own worth.”
The dedication of What We Carry is simple: “For my mother. Both versions.”