To Be A Mother, To Be A Daughter
From The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming, this account of the Leming family’s final vacation together, two months before Ruthie died. The rift between my sister and her teenage daughter hung heavy in the air:
In the car Hannah felt the tension between her mother and herself. It as the same old things: the rebelliousness, the anxiety, the fear, the anger, the boyfriend with a bad attitude. Even if Hannah could have articulated her problems, she couldn’t have spoken them aloud.
“Mom, why can’t we just be happy?” Hannah would say.
“I don’t know,” Ruthie would reply. “Why can’t we be happy?”
They went on like this, all the way to South Carolina.
The Lemings arrived in Charleston, checked into a hotel, and set out to explore the harbor and the historic downtown. One afternoon Ruthie stayed in the upstairs bedroom of their suite, too tired to sightsee. Mike, Claire, and Rebekah went for a walk. Hannah sat alone in the courtyard, overwhelmed by sadness.
There was her mother, upstairs in the hotel suite. There she was, downstairs, alone, isolated. They were on vacation together and couldn’t stand to be in the same room. Why? A fresh wave of anger welled up in Hannah’s heart, and broke across her face in tears.
Ruthie saw her role as fixer of her family’s problems. Hannah wanted her mother to quit trying to fix things and simply to listen to her. Ruthie found this difficult. That afternoon in Charleston Hannah slipped back inside the hotel room and climbed into her bed to sob. Ruthie heard her come in, let herself into her daughter’s room, and sat on the edge of the bed.
Ruthie said nothing, only rubbed her oldest child’s back, just like she had done throughout Hannah’s childhood whenever Hannah was inconsolable. She didn’t try to fix anything. She just caressed the distraught young woman, her firstborn. What must Ruthie have thought, drawing her thin, cold, dry hands across her daughter’s supple back? Did she remember that she too had been in South Carolina in her seventeenth summer, in a hotel room near Fort Jackson, there to see Mike graduate from basic training? How different her life was from Hannah’s at seventeen. Back then Ruthie felt at home in the world as she found it, had met the man she knew she would marry, and had her life set out before her. Ruthie possessed a confidence — rare in a seventeen year old — that comes from knowing who she was and what she wanted from life. And now Ruthie and her family could barely see the road in front of them.Finally, in the cool of her hotel bedroom, Hannah opened her heart to her mother.
She confessed that she had been lying to Ruthie and Mike about where she had been going when she left the house. She had been secretly meeting the boyfriend she had been forbidden to see, and felt guilty about it.
“Mama, I’ve been so ungrateful for you,” she cried. “I know how much you love me, and I’m so ashamed of the way I’ve been acting. Mama I can’t — I just love you so much. I love you so much, Mama.” Hannah also disclosed to Ruthie how much anxiety and self-loathing she lived with. How she would go to bed at night tormented by her sins and failings. Ruthie was shocked.
“I had no idea, I had no idea,” Ruthie said to her daughter. “How do you live like that? I can’t believe you had to go through this, and I didn’t know.”
Things were better after that. That night at dinner they held each other’s hand. They were connected again. Was it perfect? No. But the healing had begun.
It would not be accomplished before Ruthie died suddenly that morning in September. Hannah was a college freshman that fall, and resisted coming home to see her mom. She was afraid. Terrified, actually. Had been so throughout her mother’s cancer fight. And Ruthie abetted Hannah’s flight from her own fear, and from Ruthie’s suffering, which scared Hannah so much. Ruthie loved her girls so much that she didn’t want to be the cause of pain to them. She tried to bear it all herself. If it hurt Hannah too much to see her mother suffer, then she would not force her daughter to see her and be with her, even though she (Ruthie) was desperate to see Hannah in those final weeks. Me, I don’t think that was the right way to handle it — more on this in a moment — but I mention this because there was never the slightest doubt that Ruthie loved Hannah (and all three of her girls) enormously and sacrificially. She loved Hannah so much that she gave up her desire to see her firstborn, even as Ruthie felt her life draining away from her.
When I read this passage above, though, it resonates so deeply with me because I feel that I was once in the place Hannah was around that age. It was my own mother who helped me be okay, by loving me sacrificially — that is, by making a sacrifice that hurt her greatly. I was anxious and miserable at home, not getting along with my father, and in school, with the bullying. My mom could see that I was in a deep hole, and sinking further. She saw how much I needed to leave, and take the opportunity to go to the Louisiana School, a boarding academy. My dad said no, that he did not want me to leave home so early (I was 16). My mom didn’t want to give me up so soon either, but she saw me, saw how much I was hurting, and insisted to my father, who couldn’t or wouldn’t really see me, that no matter what, I had to go.
She was right. That cost her a lot, personally, but it gave me a new life. I will never forget that.
Hannah’s situation was not closely analogous to mine, but when I interviewed her for the book, and heard her talking about how much inner turmoil she was in at the time, and how alone she felt with it — that is, unable to talk to her parents about it — it felt familiar. In Little Way, I write about how much alike my sister and my father were, both good and bad (I share the same good and bad characteristics with our mom). Unlike me, Hannah was a golden girl in school. She was pretty, popular, outgoing, got great grades (she was her class valedictorian), and involved in everything. But that busy-ness gave her things to occupy her mind and her time so she could escape her own tortured self-doubt. By way of contrast, as a teenager, I leaped feet first into tortured self-doubt; Hannah, though, kept up the golden girl façade … until her mother’s cancer diagnosis provoked a crisis.
Today I was thinking about Mother’s Day, and about how much Ruthie loved her children, but how the purity of her love was refracted through the lens of the broken humanity we all share. Ruthie was so incredibly good about seeing the children in her classroom in their individuality, and their needs, but not as skilled at seeing the particular needs in her own teenage child Hannah. To be fair, Hannah told me in our interviews that she would keep things from her mom, figuring that her mom wouldn’t understand, so why talk about them at all? I told her that wasn’t really fair to her mother, but then again, I learned to do the same thing when talking to my dad at that age — not because I wanted to be deceptive, but because I knew that he had a certain idea of me and the way I was supposed to be, and couldn’t deal with information about me that contradicted his strongly held view.
I love the scene above, in which Ruthie stopped trying to fix Hannah, and just … touched her gently on the back, like she used to when Hannah was little. That moment of communion between a mother and her child opened the floodgates of Hannah’s heart, and revealed things to Ruthie that she had not known — that is, the depth and degree of her child’s inner suffering. And Ruthie’s wordless act of love revealed to Hannah how badly she had been behaving toward her mother, running away from her love.
As I said, this tender moment didn’t fix everything, but it was an occasion of intense grace between mother and child. It came because of a touch. Just like that.
Hannah kept running from her mother’s pain, though. After Ruthie’s death, Hannah tried to outrun the guilt feelings over this, but eventually bitterly reproached herself over it. This does have a happy ending, though, or at least as close as this tragic story of a mom gone too soon can get to a happy ending.
I had not asked Hannah to participate this past March in a Little Way advance reading and panel discussion, a fundraising event for the local library. I knew she was still struggling with the agonizing reality of losing her mother, and I didn’t want to put her in a position to hurt even more. To my great surprise, she told me that she wanted to be part of the event. Hannah sat on stage with Dr. Tim Lindsey, Abby Cochran, and me, and talked in front of an audience about the experience of helping write this book.
Readers of Little Way last see Hannah in Paris, 2012, five months after Ruthie’s passing. She and I have an argument on our last night there about whether or not it is right to deny pain and suffering for the sake of maintaining one’s own happiness — something that had undeniably been part of Ruthie’s strategy for coping with terminal illness, though I think it fair to say that none of us really know how much Ruthie knew about her condition, and chose to conceal from everyone around her, for the sake of protecting their feelings. Anyway, Hannah in Paris firmly held to her escapist strategy. We ended on a stalemate.
Yet on this day in March 2013, a year later, this young woman sat on a stage in front of an audience of people who knew her and her mother, and confessed that she had been wrong to run from her mother’s pain and suffering — and from her own. She had thought happiness was something you could have only by ignoring pain. Now, she said, having thought about how she cheated herself out of spending her mother’s last 19 months of life in close communion with her, Hannah could discern the difference between happiness and blessedness.
That brave, brave girl told the audience that she hopes readers of Little Way learn from her mistake, and don’t turn their faces from the sight of a loved one’s suffering, no matter how frightening it can be. (And, I might have added, I hope readers of Little Way learn from what I believe was Ruthie’s mistake in giving Hannah what she wanted — freedom from having to face reality, even though it broke Ruthie’s lonesome maternal heart to do so — rather than what Hannah needed.) Hannah knows now, and she wants the world to know, that if she had not run from her terminally ill mother, but run toward her, she would have sacrificed happiness, but would have discovered something worth far more: joy.
I very nearly cried on that stage, listening to my niece say those words, and share her hard-won wisdom with the audience. Having walked through a refiner’s fire, she didn’t seem like a girl anymore. She seemed to me to be, at last, a woman.
Hannah turns 20 tomorrow. May God grant her many years.
Hey everybody, I’m not going to be blogging on Orthodox Good Friday, though I’ll approve comments as I can. Wanted to say that Susan Davis at Grandmother’s Buttons, which is sold out of the book now, will have a few copies of Little Way in on Monday. If you will please place your order through the Grandmother’s Buttons website by noontime CDT Tuesday, the store will ship them out for Mother’s Day. Be sure to tell me what you would like me to write in the book.