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The Secret 

  [a final creative exercise for my Language of Pain class]         

  December, 1987.  First semester of my sophomore year of college was behind me and I was packing to leave the country. While travelling around Europe the previous summer, I’d met and fallen in love with an Austrian man, and now Barnard had granted me permission to study abroad for a year, so I was ready to go: a quick stint at a Goethe Institute in Munich to work on my German and then two gloriously anticipated semesters at The University of Vienna.

My mother, then forty-five, a writer, professor, and independent filmmaker, had been complaining of back pain and a pulled stomach muscle, so the Christmas we’d just spent at her house in the Hudson Valley was quiet, but it had included a wedding – her own, to the man she’d been dating since I was fifteen, a man named Alfred Prettyman. Distinguished, with a well-groomed beard and natty clothes, Alfred embodied years of romantic yearning finally come to fruition.

                 For the ceremony Mom wore a floor-length pink silk dress with a deeply scooped-out back, a dress we’d bought together on a cold, windy day in a Columbus Avenue shop a few weeks prior. She picked me up at school in her mauve Toyota Corolla -- I’d just finished taking a final exam -- and we combed the Upper West Side in search of the perfect dress. Mom had gotten very thin that fall, and was walking with a cane, but I was oblivious – caught up in my own self-absorbed excitement about the year ahead, resentful of her impending marriage to this interloper. We bough the dress and then added a darker pink sash, wrapped around and around her tiny waist, to pull it all together. She would get married barefoot, toes polished, in the living room of our house on Christmas Eve.

                 Everything went as planned, including my own December 28 departure on Lufthansa.

                 We were close. My mother raised my brother Emilio and I alone, and what we may have lost to her bouts of depression and rage, we gained in strength, passion and a straightforward kind of no-bullshit approach to life. Even though I had only gone twenty-five miles south of where she’d raised us, she had had a hard time with my departure for college the year before, so it was lovely for me when suddenly, with this plan for me to study in Europe, she rose to the occasion and started writing affectionate, energetic letters to me with abandon. I’d get two or three a week, written in her half-script/half-print scrawl on that wonderful crinkly blue airmail paper that probably no longer exists, letters full of local gossip, details of Emilio’s high school and wrestling activities, her progress with her work, her new married life, reflections on her love for us and places where she thought she’d failed us – in short, everything under the sun except for the fact that in January, just weeks after she put me on a plane, she started having chemotherapy.

                 Within a few days of landing in Europe I got a call from her telling me that she’d been hospitalized for her ongoing back problems. An excerpt from her letter to me of January 8:

                 Let me give you a serious catch-up or you will worry both too much and unnecessarily. My condition is serious, which is to say I have irritated the bones in my left hip, so that the socket is inflamed and there is even some inflammation in my lower spinal column. These are being treated with antibiotics to clear up the infection. They may have to put a pin-type brace in the left hip to re-normalize my walking on both legs and give the two vertebrae that have come out of alignment time to go back in. I am not in pain. I have gained six pounds. And I am delighted to lie here being utterly pampered! I needed it! To be free of all responsibility and allowed to vegetate and heal! So… you should be both smiling and at ease. Along with a hug and a smile at your mother benignly curled up in her hospital bed reading greedily one spicy, intelligent mystery novel after another…Love, Love MOM.

                 This story doesn’t end well. My mother died that year, a few weeks after my 19th birthday in August. And many years later, unearthed in my basement, I found journals she kept during the last two years of her life. I had already kept all the letters she wrote to me that year, nearly knew them by heart, but now I was able to look at them side by side with the journals, to compare what she was telling me with what she was telling herself during those final months. For example, I find this entry from her journal on January 4, the day she was admitted to the hospital:

                 January 4, 1988

                 What is cancer in my body?  They say it’s attacking the bones and spine. That it’s already eroded one vertebrae. But what’s the exact nature of the erosion – viral, lymphatic – in other words, how does it manifest itself? And is there a relationship between the fluid accumulating in the breasts presently and the degradation of the spine, then bones? How does the lymph system go away? Could it resemble cancer and yet not be cancer? The pattern of the erosion, or rather the nature and the pattern, should dictate the healing procedure. I must clearly be able to envision the pattern if I’m to envision the cure. Nothing is irreversible, but one must find the right trigger so that the system isn’t thrown into greater confusion. I must isolate the mechanism of destruction. Help me Higher Self!

                 So clearly, all fall, while I’d been planning to go away, while we’d been shopping for a wedding dress, while she’d been getting married, she must have known. She knew that whole time that she had cancer. Was she waiting for me to get on the plane?

                 She stayed in the hospital for three weeks and then all spring she wrote to me constantly, reported a swift recovery, was full of chatter and news and love, but her journal entries from the same period are dark; full of pain and fear as she struggled to make sense of what was happening to her body and tried to talk more with, and about, God, the angel Gabriel, even the Tarot.  She’d always been spiritual, but more New Age than religious (my 13th birthday present was an astrological reading; the smell of incense in the air, Mahalia Jackson on the stereo, a dreamcatcher by my bed –this was the set design of my childhood), so the turn to God in her journals came as a bit of a surprise, but I suppose that’s not uncommon when facing death, right?

                 February 5, 1988

                I am the supplicant, oh Divinity, reaching out for thy guidance through the dual energy of desire and knowledge that propels me. Silence my anxiety in order that I may hear thy voice and incline my heart toward thee, confident that in this quiet flow of silence and submission, all problems will be clarified, and a true and perfect solution charted both for my understanding and my victorious release.

                 How am I to understand the depth of this secret she kept? She was dying and she’d sent me away. Her eldest child, her only daughter. I was missing her, but living my life with all the muster and self-absorption of the child I still was. I remember whining during one phone call; I had asked her to send me clothes or extra money, or maybe I wanted unspecified treats. I felt like she was blowing me off, not taking care of me enough, and I called her on it.  Essentially, I was homesick and expecting my mother to send me care packages, as if I were a little kid at sleep-away camp, and I didn’t realize she was losing her hair and vomiting every day, fighting for her life.  We argued and then resolved it in writing, which was her way. 

February 9, 1988

                 Dear Nin,

                 That was a good phone call. The best. Always the best when we get to the TRUTH. It is changing of course. This Mother thing. And just as I, in my unreasonableness, wanted you home every weekend last year – around me – you cling, too, to some custodial definition of CARE-packaging mothering. It is the years, the habits, it is everything. It is refreshing to me to feel every now and then, toward you and Emilio, that the caretaking is finished, and I am free again! Hard to digest, I’m sure. But true. Every step away is both sad and liberating. For you. For me. We will change our relationship a million times as the years move on. And that is because we are committed to change and not to static energy. It is our way. Not many people want growth the way we do. Most people want to settle, find a place of comfort and cling to it. But in all our years of living that is not how we structured things. We lived together, yes, but it was always understood that as some new interest emerged, some new adventure presented itself, it was to be taken advantage of, and if it brought change in its wake, so be it. In that sense I have always loved you and Emilio’s separateness from me, always cherished that I was in fact simply your custodian, so to speak, for a period of time until you had your own wings. I still feel that way. That your flying through life on your own pleasure, your own wits, your own steam, is the true excitement, your true living. And my own flying an equally important thing. And that ultimately it is only delight in another that holds one, that is captivating, all else must be a respect for their freedom. Don’t worry though, as all requests are honored if possible. You only have to say when you need me, momentarily, to offer pure mothering. It is, after all, and after all these years, quite deeply ingrained in me and has given me such an intense pleasure.

Love on top of love, MOM

                  You can see the push and pull: the previous year when I’d started college, she was incredibly sad and I was going off into the world, jealous of her love with Alfred and not looking back. Now, there’s a reversal: I had gone farther afield, across the ocean, and as my childish clinginess emerged, it was her turn to stand firm, to remind me of the sadness but also the liberation of my growing up. I’m dumbfounded in this letter by the irony of her alluding to the truth (in capital letters, no less), when she was keeping from me the biggest secret imaginable, telling a lie far bigger than I could ever imagine. And all that talk about our separateness, our wings -- was that perhaps her subconscious way of preparing us both for her death? Or what if it wasn’t subconscious? One of the many questions I have is about her level of denial. Did she keep the secret partly because she didn’t believe she was dying? That she would just get better, that I didn’t need to be alarmed? Or what if she really knew she was dying and just thought this was the best way to handle it?  Is any one answer better than another?

                 In March of that year I discovered I was pregnant. An accident. Moments after taking the drug store test, I called home in tears. Afternoon in Vienna, the crack of dawn back in New York.

                 “Mom, I’m pregnant.”

                 “Oh damn.”

                 “I know, I fucked up, I didn’t use my diaphragm every time…I have to come home to get an abortion.  I need to see you.”

                 “No honey, you can take care of this in Vienna. I’ll send you money.”

                 “No, Mommy please…I want to come home, just for a couple of weeks?”

                 “We can’t afford the ticket right now. You can do this in Vienna. Michael will help you; we can talk on the phone. You have to stay there.”

                 And then this. As I sobbed, she added:

                 “Honey this is hard, but in the grand scheme of things it’s not. Life will deal you bigger challenges, and you can handle them.”

                 And I did. My boyfriend Michael found me a clinic in a leafy part of town, and there, under the care of starched nurses and full anesthesia, I had an abortion at ten weeks. I was woozy when we left the clinic, and we walked through a park and got a cab home, where Michael put me to bed and my Mom called. I was fine.

                 I suppose that if she had let me come home, the jig would have been up. I’d have seen she was wearing a wig the second I walked in the door, questioned the prescription bottles on her nightstand, noticed the rising stack of hospital and lab bills.  Whatever she had been able to conceal from my fourteen-year old brother, she wouldn’t have been able to hide from me. So she made me stay in Europe.

                 From her journal:

                July 20, 1988

                 Call: I say out loud, oh dear, there is still a lump under my armpit and swollen lymph nodes on my neck, oh dear, I’m going to die…I have pain on the right muscle in my stomach…oh dear, I’m going to die…oh dear, I’ve done wrong, I must be wrong that these are tumors in my body, which mean I’m going to die…somewhere there is something false in this whole chain of reasoning. Help me to see it, that I may find a way out of this dead end into which I sink?

                 Response: Your life, your link to life comes from loving. This is the bread that feeds you, is feeding you into wellness. The bread of loving – to be chewed slowly and absorbed into the body. Death as punishment is one of your false themes (and deductions)—death as punishment and release from the despair implicit in living. Live the despair – without hiding behind death as an escape. Live the despair and leave your body out of it. It is self-healing. It is not your enemy. The notion of punishment, of holding-in, these notions of yours are life-draining.

                 At this point there’s no question that she’s starting to face imminent death. Denial is no longer on the table, but a new theory emerges as she alludes to the idea of illness and death as a punishment. Did she keep her illness a secret because she was ashamed? Was she convinced that her own sadness had made her sick? She clearly believed, for a long time, that recovery was a matter of her mind, that a certain emotional cleansing would rid her body of the cancer.

                 The Healing, a one-act play she wrote in 1984, features a childless black woman named Ellen who seeks out the services of a healer called Joe, a younger white man. The entire play takes place during one healing session in a small office. When he touches her feet, Ellen gets upset and says

I don’t like this part, it smacks of Jesus washing some poor sinner’s feet.

                                                            JOE [laughing]

I have to make sure you’re grounded.

            Is that how you see me?…a sinner?

                                                            JOE [holding her feet]

            I’m a healer, that’s all, don’t read into it other things

But sin must be there somewhere, sins against the body that we call disease.


A few moments later Ellen says

It changes everything to be told you’re diseased…you know it’s your fault, somewhere inside you know it, that it’s a result of things.

                 And then, in a part that really kills me, which is echoed in her journal in many ways, comes this passage as the healing session starts to really get underway:

[She begins to make pulling motions at her body] These are pieces, a dark frame that hides and covers me. These are pieces…breast pieces…arm pieces…leg pieces…diseased…dark first…now dark and diseased…what chord do I pull to release me…[She pulls at herself violently, then stops as a sudden spasm overtakes her]…the place to be healed cries out and bleeds…I offer it my trembling…my shaking body…my tears…I offer it freedom from grief…when I have no idea what that means…           

                 The character Ellen is childless. Did that feel safer as a way to explore this woman full of self-hatred and blame? If a woman has no children to leave orphaned, is it easier to accept her as terminally ill?

I offer it freedom from grief…when I have no idea what that means. Perhaps Ellen didn’t, but her creator certainly did. My maternal grandmother died of pneumonia when my mother was an infant, and as Mom lay dying, me finally by her side, she said “I feel like I’ve waited my whole life to be reunited with my mother.”  To offer freedom from grief had to have been one of the most glorious gifts she could imagine. That longing to feel freedom from grief is the weight that pulls at me constantly, the consistent thread of my adult life. She and I are one on that score.

                I have many theories, and they all hold some weight: she wanted to manage her diagnosis by herself because she didn’t want the burden of other people’s emotion around her illness; she thought that she could heal herself.  There’s the sociological perspective and the question of shame. This was the late 80s, when the disease was still a dread secret, endured in silence and euphemized in obituaries as a “long illness.” As Barbara Ehrenreich wrote “something about the conjecture of “breast,” signifying sexuality and nurturance, and that other word, suggesting the claws of a devouring crustacean, spooked almost everyone.”  True enough, breast cancer then was still a long way from the public, political issue it has become, with pink ribbons and marathons and an entire month devoted to its awareness.

                 Many theories but I don’t have her to ask, so I’ll never really know.


By August, there are signs of surrender in her journal:

                 August 7, 1988

                 The WILL OF HE WHO GUIDES ME is gentle. Feel the thunder of change not only as a brutal awakening but as a softer and softer cushioning. Only under the delusion of separation does life seem harsh and unrelenting. To turn inwards is to feel change as the soft cushion of timely action. I REJOICE IN MY PROBLEMS, FOR THEY STIMULATE MY CONSCIOUSNESS TO OVERCOME ERROR THAT I MAY SEE THE BEAUTY OF THE DIVINE PERFECTION.


On September 2, two weeks before her death, she summoned me home at last.