Letter to a motherless daughter on Mother’s Day

Dear W,

I was much, much older than you were when my mom died, so I don’t pretend to understand anything about your experience. But, I do remember that I was hungry for stories about my mom after she died, from people who knew her differently than I did. Her other life, the one apart from being my mother, seemed mysterious and terribly important.

This letter is for you, when you’re ready. My stories about your mom aren’t ready for Hallmark. Truly, neither your mom or I was ready for Hallmark either. We were both pretty rough around the edges when we knew each other, before you were born.

Truth is, I hadn’t seen Betsy for years when I saw her just before she died. We struggled with our relationship. It was messy, as these friendships sometimes are. I gave up on it after she sent me a package with all of the letters I’d ever written her. I felt like she was breaking up with me, and so I let it go. I found out later that the gesture meant something entirely different to her.


Betsy in 1990

And, in a nutshell, that’s life. At least it’s one part of life. Things go wrong and fall apart. They don’t always work out. And when they do work out, they’re bumpy and imperfect.

When I heard that your mom had cancer, more than a year and half after she’d been diagnosed, I immediately made plans to go see you guys. I’d never met you and she’d never met my daughter.

Harder even than seeing her so thin and in such pain, was knowing that I had hurt her and that she was feeling that hurt in the midst of dying of cancer. We are weak and imperfect and often don’t get happy endings. There wasn’t really time left to find resolutions. I think we did find some closure, one of the very few gifts that dying slowly bestows.

From my perspective your mom died the way she lived. Brash. Fierce. Blunt. I loved her for that and for many other things. It would have been too much to bear to see her become soft and reticent. She did not go gentle.

She told me that she hated how much time she spent in waiting rooms, waiting for doctors. “Can’t they see I’m dying?” She said that she resented seeing the elderly going in before her because she was so young and you needed her. These older people had already lived twice the amount of time she had.

Cancer doesn’t make you altruistic and loving towards all, as popular culture wants us to believe. Cancer confronts you with some harsh realities. Honestly, is it in any way right that a 40-year-old woman dies, leaving behind an 8-year-old daughter? Is it in any way right that dying people spend so much time in waiting rooms?

I didn’t understand it then, but I do now. How many ways can you say, “I don’t want to die”? That was one of her ways.

Your mom and I both worked for a professor who was a “big deal” in our profession and much loved. We both struggled with her arrogance and smugness, while at the same time feeling so grateful for her generosity and mentoring. Remember the part above about how messy life is.

One of my favorite Betsy/Dr. H stories is being at a conference and riding the escalator with the two of them. As we went up, people going down smiled and waved. Dr. H. smiled and waved back. Your mom said, “They’re not waving at you, they’re waving at me.”

It was hard to be around the sheer wattage the two of them brought into a room. The circuits overloaded when they were together.

That wasn’t Betsy’s only dimension though. She was also the girl who came to my house one afternoon after a bad haircut. She was devastated and, honestly, she sobbed. It was back in graduate school before either of us had ever thought about cancer. Back then, Pepperidge Farm Brussels cookies and coffee made most things better.

I was married to a jerk during grad school, and one night we were eating Brussels and drinking coffee, whispering so we wouldn’t wake him up. (It was, like, 10 p.m.) This was in Texas, and an inch or inch and a half long roach came into sight. It still makes me giggle to remember it.

Betsy ran for the Raid. That damned roach responded to a spritz of poison by flying towards us. We were shrieking, but covering our mouths trying not to wake Mr. Beauty Sleep down the hall.

Betsy emptied the can on top of that cockroach. I’m pretty sure it drowned.

We spent so many hours at my kitchen table. One day we were talking and the television was on in the background. It was a sports channel, a report about a horse race.

Betsy said, “That horse’s name is ‘Very Subtle.”

I said, “Oh really, what is it?”

“It’s ‘Very Subtle.’”

“Yeah, you said that, what’s so subtle about it?”

“Kerri, the horse’s name is ‘Very Subtle.’”

Peals of laughter.

I think that’s what I remember most clearly about our friendship. The laughter.

She once brought a pumpkin cheesecake to a party and told me, “The recipe says you should bake it, but I thought that was stupid, so I just refrigerated it.”

All night I watched people take a big bite of cheesecake and then spit its raw pumpkin goodness back onto the plate.

My weight lifter neighbor had a cat, Bingo, for whom we created a detailed backstory. Bingo was a guy’s guy and every Friday he and muscle man would drink beer, eat steaks and watch porn. We just knew that Bingo roamed the neighborhood, charming all the cute girls and then breaking their hearts.

He would often truck down to Betsy’s house and spend the afternoon with her. She clearly loved the cat more than my neighbor did, and he gave Bingo to Betsy when he moved.

Your mom was a force to contend with. She loved incredibly complex feminist criticism and the movie Beaches. She earned a PhD and religiously kept up with the National Enquirer. Because of her I watched my first soap opera, “All My Children.” She made me promise to watch for two weeks. I ended up watching it for years.

When I said goodbye to your mom that summer, I knew it would be the last time I saw her. I was so glad that she invited me to spend some time with her.

I left knowing that you were surrounded by an amazing number of people who loved your family and would support your dad and you. I knew that she had cultivated these friendships and forged that trust and loyalty.

Among life’s gifts, I treasure the friendship your mom and I had. I will always remember her and always love her.

On this mother’s day, I’m taking time to think about Betsy and to think about you. I’m sending the warmth and love she gave me back out into the universe, like she did with my letters. I hope they reach you.

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