The monster in me

My mother is crying.

I am sitting with my arms around her in a gesture meant to comfort, but it's a perfunctory effort. My arms may as well be made of wood, and my heart, of stone.

It's February and we are in Florida, attempting to celebrate my mother's first birthday without Dad. Mom is raw and unsteady. As brittle and delicate as a fallen leaf. When I arrive at the airport, I hug her and try to find the right thing to say. Saying the wrong thing, even a sincere "how are you?" brings her to tears some days. But my own eyes stay dry.

I am a terrible daughter.

 

It is the night of my mother's birthday and we are with friends at a restaurant with a piano bar.

Mom requests a song, and then another. She asks the piano player if he knows "What I Did For Love" from the Broadway musical A Chorus Line. It has long been Mom's first request--that is, unless my father beat her to it. Dad often requested Mom's favorite song for her before she could do it herself. He was forever striving to unlock the mysteries of the complex woman he loved. Thoughtful, loving gestures showed his eager to please nature.

 

The restaurant is loud so I can't hear the pianist's response to Mom's request, but I read the look on his face as annoyance.

Mom requests more songs she and Dad had loved: "Angel of Music" from Phantom of the Opera, the theme from The Godfather and so on. The pianist plays some of them, but denies others, while we wait for our table. I wish Mom would stop asking, stop crying, stop hurting...just stop.

I'm a monster for feeling these things, I know.

Between the piano and the crowd, the restaurant is noisy. I retreat as deep into my own head as is socially acceptable until our table is ready. We get through dinner and Mom's first birthday without Dad.

There's a bubble forming around me--invisible to others, but impenetrable too. A numbness has found its way inside me, creeping inside my chest and curling around my heart. I seem to have stopped crying for my father and the relief I feel at that sickens and frightens me.

But here's the thing: right now, I'm not crying for Dad because I'm running from my memories of him. And Mom, to her credit, is facing her heartache head on.

It's Mother's Day and I worry that Mom will be missing Dad even more than usual. I buy her flowers. I make a reservation at a New Jersey restaurant housed in a former train station, like we have back home in Scranton. At the table, I give her a pretty card.

And then it's my turn to cry. I tell her how much I miss my father and how hard it is to watch her mourn the same man simultaneously, but differently. I apologize through tears for my arms of wood and my heart of stone.

She takes my hand and tells me my heart could never be cold. My mother, she understands.