I realise Mother’s Day is difficult for many, and to those people I send my sympathies. Please be aware that today’s letter may not be for you. It’s from daughter to mother, written ten years after the latter’s death. It can be found in Letters of Note: Mothers, reprinted by kind permission of Karin Cook.
In 1989, fifty-two-year-old Long Island resident Joan Cook Carpenter died from breast cancer, a disease she had chosen to keep from her family and friends until her final days in an effort to minimise the suffering of those she loved. In 1999, a decade after Joan’s death, her twenty-nine-year-old daughter, Karin Cook, wrote her this letter. She also wrote an award-winning novel partly inspired by the experience, titled What Girls Learn.
What time was I born?
When did I walk?
What was my first word?
My body has begun to look like yours. Suddenly I can see you in me. I have so many questions. I look for answers in the air. Listen for your voice. Anticipate. Find meaning in the example of your life. I imagine what you might have said or done. Sometimes I hear answers in the echo of your absence. The notion of mentor is always a little empty for me. Holding out for the hope of you. My identity has taken shape in spite of that absence. There are women I go to for advice. But advice comes from the outside. Knowing, from within. There is so much I don't know.
What were your secrets?
What was your greatest source of strength?
When did you know you were dying?
I wish I had paid closer attention. The things that really matter you gave me early on—a way of being and loving and imagining. It's the stuff of daily life that is often more challenging. I step unsure into a world of rules and etiquette, not knowing what is expected in many situations. I am lacking a certain kind of confidence. Decisions and departures are difficult. As are dinner parties. Celebrations and ceremony. Any kind of change. Small things become symbolic. Every object matters—that moth-eaten sweater, those photos. Suddenly I care about your silverware. My memory is an album of missed opportunities. The loss of you lingers.
Did you like yourself?
Who was your greatest love?
What did you fear most?
In the weeks before your death, I knew to ask questions. At nineteen, I needed to hear your hopes for me. On your deathbed, you said that you understood my love for women, just as you suggested you would have fought against it. In your absence, I have had to imagine your acceptance.
There are choices I have made that would not have been yours. Somehow that knowledge is harder for me than if I had you to fight with. My motions lack forcefulness. I back into decisions rather than forge ahead. This hesitancy leaves me wondering:
Did you ever doubt me?
Would you have accepted me?
What did you wish for me?
I know that my political choices threatened you. Your way was to keep things looking good on the outside, deny certain feelings, erase unpleasant actions. Since your death, I have exposed many of the things that you would have liked to keep hidden. I can no longer hold the family secrets for you.
I search for information about your life. Each scrapbook, letter, anecdote I come across is crucial to my desire to understand you and the choices you made. I have learned about affairs, abuse, all things you would not have wanted me to know. Yet they explain the missing blanks in my memory bank and round out your humanity.
Who did you dream you would be?
Did you ever live alone?
Why did you divorce?
Did you believe in God?
One thing you said haunts me still. When I asked about motherhood, you said that children don't need as much as you gave. "Eighty percent is probably plenty." I was shocked by your words. Did you regret having given so much of yourself? Now, those words seem like a gift. A way of offering me a model of motherhood, beyond even your own example.
Becoming a mother is something I think about a great deal, almost to the point of preoccupation. I have heard it said that constant dreaming about birth often signals a desire to birth one's self, to come into one's own. My process of grieving the loss of you has been as much about birthing myself as letting you go.
What were your last thoughts?
Were you proud?
Were you at peace?
What is it like to die?
How frightened you must have been shouldering so much of your illness alone. The level of your own isolation is a mystery to me. In my life, I try hard to reach out, to let others in. I fear loss more than anything. I turn on my computer. Make things up. I tell the truth. My daily work is toward connection. All these questions move me to search, less and less for your answers and increasingly for my own.
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