I like to think myself possessed of a certain degree of composure and poise. I work tirelessly at a law firm, dedicating myself entirely to my clients while working on their cases. I stare down grown men on the daily. Regularly repel their verbal insults to my character solely due to my gender and that I dare have the temerity to be better and often more prepared then they are when presenting my cases.
I also have a 7-year-old daughter whose lively and precocious nature keeps me on my toes more than court battles and beleaguered, battle-worn judges who are way too eager to slam down their gavel to refocus my attention to order.
Suffice it to say, I’m rarely caught unawares.
So, while I was distractedly weighing the pros and cons of yet another double shot of espresso from my favorite coffee shop, I didn’t immediately notice the woman walk through the door and stand off to the side. Unfortunately, I also didn’t instantly detect that I was the object of someone’s very close scrutiny. It wasn’t until after I did indeed order another double shot and turned around to leave that I quickly recognized I was unmistakably being observed.
My mind mentally thumbed through old case files to put a name to her face. Familiar in a troubling way, I couldn’t place her. Intuitively, I knew that she was here for me. And, as a lawyer, I know the consequence of not trusting my instincts.
I tightened my grip on my coffee cup, anchoring me to the present, and met her eyes with a questioning glance as if to say, “me?”
She took this as an invitation to come closer. I noticed a free table between us, close to the door. Always acutely aware of my defensible space, I motioned for her to sit, then took the seat facing the exit.
“Can I help you?” I calmly probed. Best to get out the reason for this surprise ambush now. No need to waste time pretending this wasn’t premeditated.
“You don’t recognize me.” Not a question. Just a dejectedly spoken sentiment.
The silence lingered in the space between us. Quickly calculating her curious disappointment, I let the moment process.
“I don’t. Although, I do admit you look strangely familiar. Have we met before?”
Her eyes, an unusual hazel reminiscent of my daughters, turn downward at the outer edges and she looks down at her hands. As a trained observer, I can see the waves of anxiety rolling off her shoulders and down her arms to her unstill hands.
Her hands. I look closer at them. Ink on her left hand near the edge of her pinky. Unmistakable indentations where she’d clearly held a pen for longer than she hadn’t. Her other hand unconsciously rubbing the tough muscle under her thumb. A writer’s hands.
The recognition came upon me suddenly. The groundswell of adrenaline drowning out sound and rendering me momentarily immobile.
Flashes of those hands, stained with smudges of blue and black ink, furiously marking down words I was too young to recognize. Lines and scribbles of unintelligible meaning covering page after page, with no care for margins or organized spacing. Even though young, I could feel the frantic, desperate energy being poured into these sheets of paper, rendering my mother hysterical and hyper-focused. There was nothing else when she was busily devoted to her craft. Hours of neglect and days spent alone. Progress over parenting every time.
It was this mania that ultimately lead to her decision to leave. To abandon her family and abscond with only her notebooks and the unwashed clothes she was already wearing. She was, my father tearfully told me, too fraught with anxiety to continue her role as mother and wife. Her writings came before all else. She was “so close” to completing her masterpiece. There were countless broken promises and empty assurances that she’d get the help she needed when she was finished.
That her frenzied madness was the keystone that allowed her creativity to flow while simultaneously being the very thing that kept her untethered, well, the irony was not lost on me.
Weeks of absence turned into months and then longer. The grief of waiting for my mother to return to me fluctuated like the seasons that ultimately passed. What started as aching throbs of sorrow gradually reformed and reshaped into a sour sort of anger. Betrayal a child can only comprehend as rejection. I felt my father go through similar transitions. He only learned she was seeing her therapist once he got the divorce papers in the mail. He tried in vain to reach her, only to be served with no contact orders. A miasma of despair and bitterness permeated those years of my childhood. I’ll never forget her face the night she left. I remember crying and grasping her pant leg, desperate to hold on to her, to make her see me, remind her that she told me she loved me most. She looked down at me with what I now know as pity. As a liability keeping her from greatness. I was never more to her than that.
In my quiet heartbreak, I never told my father that I had kept one of her writings. It had fallen from her arms during her impulsive escape and I clung to the last vestiges of her presence with a soundless longing. With all the meticulousness of a 6-year-old, I folded the already crumpled paper and gently placed it under my pillow, careful not to let my tears stain the already smudged words. I moved this piece of paper every so often, forbidding myself to read the words as I got older. I can still picture with perfect clarity the hard press of the black pen. Three words scribbled out so firmly that the paper was ripped under the weight. Line after line in her small script, top to bottom. The margins filled with vertical, untidy text. These margins I memorized the most. They looked and felt like afterthoughts. She spent so much time crafting the body of her work, only to realize there were more thoughts she needed to expel from her body, even if they didn’t fit into the narrative. And yet, it did nothing to quell my feelings of rejection to know that she discarded her beloved prose as easily as she did me.
When the momentary shock of seeing her face after so many years passed, I took a few slow, deep breaths and shut my eyes to gather my composure.
When I opened them, she was wearing a look reminiscent of a reprimanded school child. Immediately, I saw no true remorse. So, what was this then?
“I was wondering how long it would take you to recognize your own mother,” she said with an amused chuckle.
“No,” I countered.
“Come again?” Her eyes, always expressive, furrowed in confusion.
“No,” I repeated. “You aren’t my mother. You were, but you relinquished that title a long time ago. Don’t you remember? I do. Clearly.”
She sat across from me, stunned. Undoubtedly, she must have remembered me as a docile child, unable to confront a conflict head on and with strength of conviction.
She cleared her throat. “Very well, then. I must say, you’re a hard woman to track down.”
I could sense my reaction unbalanced her. She was uncomfortable. Good. This was where I thrived in the court room. Subverting others expectations of their authority over me.
I let her sit in the uneasy silence. The guilty always start talking.
“I know you’re probably wondering what I’m doing here,” she ventured. Again, I said nothing.
“Well. I’m getting on in years. My daughter says…”
She abruptly stops midsentence, likely realizing her misstep. So. She has another daughter.
The nerve of this woman.
I see a blush creeping up her neck and staining her face an ugly, mottled red. My scrutiny of her making her physically squirm.
I had always imagined that in this moment of reconciliation, if it ever came, that I’d falter. That I would be hesitant to voice my long held, private pain. But now, watching this unremarkable woman try and saunter back in my life for whatever reason, I felt fueled with the courage to defend my heart.
I throw her what she assumes is a bone.
“Your daughter says…what?” I say evenly. I give nothing away. I am in my element in this moment.
She clears her throat again. Another nervous tick. I wonder if she’s still seeing the same therapist.
“Nevermind about that. I came to find you to apologize. To try to reconcile. To show you I’ve changed and that I’m ready to be the mother I should have been to you.”
I listen to these words that sound scripted. There’s no emotion in them. No heat. No heartfelt declaration of what a lifetime of remorse should be.
“I’m in therapy again. My…daughter…has demanded it. She was never as easy-going as you,” she flashes me a conspiratorial smile meant to convince me this was a compliment.
I finally chime in.
“You mean she doesn’t know her mother’s love is a fleeting thing and that if you dare to object to her every whim you’ll likely be cast aside?” I offer mockingly.
“That’s not fair, Mariah,” she complained. “I only-"
I cut her off before she can finish.
“Marie. I go by Marie now. No one calls me Mariah. But you wouldn’t know that. You don’t know anything about me. You weren’t there to see me grow into the woman I am today. You didn’t help me transition into adulthood. You weren’t there to teach me how to parallel park or when to properly use a semi-colon. You weren’t there to comfort me when I got my heart broken for the first time, or when I became valedictorian and graduated with honors. You weren’t there when I got married, when I miscarried, or when my perfect daughter was born. You have no idea who I am. You surrendered the rights to my life when you walked out on me and dad and never looked back. So no, it isn’t fair. Nothing about this has ever been fair. I have learned to subsist on my own. To drive and vote and love and slowly untangle the twisted perception of self that you left me with. Good for your daughter to get you to own up to your woefully overlooked self-awareness, but there’s nothing for you here. I don’t want you.”
I move to stand. To leave this conversation and keep my boundaries intact.
“Wait. Mariah. Marie. Just, wait,” she pleads, grasping onto my perfectly pressed pants. This certainly feels familiar.
I stare down at her. Waiting. I decide to twist the knife just a bit farther.
“My daughter is 7 now. The thought of leaving her alone to grow up in a world without the unconditional love of her mother is unimaginable. That you think you could stroll so easily back into my life after committing such a treachery is appalling. What is it you even want from me? Forgiveness? No. I’ll not give you that. I won’t change my story to make it right for you. There can be no healing and no change without awareness.” I brush her hands from my legs and stand up straighter.
She looks angry and put out, like I’ve disappointed her. Again.
“I just wanted to apologize. I didn’t think you’d still be so angry. God, Mariah, it’s been years. Holding onto that anger isn’t really good for you. Are you really going to resent me forever?” She practically huffs out.
Wow. The audacity.
“Am I important enough for you to learn how to see me through your shame? Through the lens of the hurt and pain and trauma you’ve caused? Can we have an open and trusting relationship knowing that the first leaks of my heart are from the wounds you carved?” I fume. An impassioned plea from a daughter to a mother.
She looks at me openly then. The first honest expression I see on her lovely face. I let her evaluate me. Marinate in all I had said.
She got up then, brushed off her own pants, and made to move past me.
“Maybe we’re not ready just yet,” she offers as she walks with shaky legs to the door.
“No. I don’t think we are,” I sigh.