There was a time in college when I told my mother that if I were dead she'd hear about it, so could she please stop calling all my friends--I was fine, it was finals week, I had told her about this! She'd been calling me for days, and I'd been either missing her calls or ignoring them, frantic and caffeine-high and sleepless as I wrote one long-delayed finals paper after another, hoping they sounded coherent. My mom had resorted to calling my high school friends whose numbers she still had, and they had called me; their reproachful directive to get in touch with my poor mom had made me irrationally furious. Hanging up, I rolled my eyes at my roommate, who was crosslegged in bed, hunched over her own laptop. She offered me a wan smile before saying, "I'm doomed. You know why? Because I just used the words 'impending doom' in my paper. 'Impending doom!' And the font is size sixteen!'"
"Go take a shower," I said. "A cold one. It'll wake you up."
We took turns shivering under the cold water, and I forgot about my mom. Not once did I consider that she'd confused the days I'd given her for finals, that she thought I had finished them, and that she was worried--the kind of worry I can't know until my own child is unresponsive to me for days. My younger sister, then in high school, was in my parents' room when my mom hung up the phone.
"Is she okay?" Amanda asked.
My mom nodded, bursting into tears.
Except for sad scenes in movies, during which we look at each other and give choked laughs, my mom is not a crier. She's stoic and elegant, her five feet seven inches always seeming taller to me. She's friendly but reserved with acquaintances and cautious with strangers. This was why she feared for me: I love talking to strangers. Hell, it's how I met my husband, a stranger on a plane; it's how I built my career. Though she sometimes can't sleep, gripped with what-ifs for scenarios real and imagined, past, present, and future, she responds to real trouble with action. She grieves privately. When my Poppi--her father--and then my Nanny, her second mother, passed away, I never saw her debilitated. I saw her pale-faced but dry-eyed, slim shoulders pulled back. I saw her comfort others, comfort us. The only person she is completely vulnerable with, or so I imagine, is my dad.
My parents met when they were fourteen, living across the street from each other. They became best friends and then more, labeling their relationship at sixteen when my mom "tricked" my dad, as he says, by asking him what she should have said when a girl at school asked whether they were "going around."
My dad, sixteen years old, skinny with bright black hair and possibly not even my mom's height yet, said, finally, "You should have said yes."
"Good," my mom replied. I see her pleased smile in my mind. "Because that's what I said."
My brother, sister, and I had the rare fortune of being raised by parents who are not only still married, but who still love each other; more than that, they still like each other. That was something my mom said a lot as we grew older: "Make sure you find someone you like." They hold hands and kiss and joke and talk, but they're more than in love: they're partners. My mom was teaching English at Laredo Community College when I was born, a job she started the day after she was accepted for the position. When my dad needed support with his businesses, she quit and began working with him.
I used to wonder if she felt she had sacrified something, leaving the world of words behind in favor of business--contracts and general ledgers and inventory and customer complaints. When I worked with her in the summers, she was dedicated and confident; she taught me how to reconcile, pouring over the thick general ledger containing tiny columns of hand-written numbers, emphasizing that being off by anything more than a few cents was unacceptable--it meant something had gone wrong, either a mistake in calculations or something that needed deeper investigation. (My parents had been burned in business before.) Fridays were payroll days for the lighting showroom they owned, and I didn't understand why they took a solid eight hours to complete. I just saw her tired, happy smile when the printer began dispensing its pages of checks; she let me rip the ribbons off the sides.
During the day, she and my dad called each other for business-related issues. (He worked in a separate building.) They started the conversations with silly, familiar voices and then transitioned into work tones, sharing a language whose cadence I appreciated but couldn't quite interpret. They ate lunch together almost every day. At home, they made a rule: no talking about business after eight p.m. If you were to see them after that, then and now, you'd see them snuggled in bed or on the couch, watching TV and laughing, my mom shrieking as my dad tried to massage her impossibly stiff feet.
My parents are each other's best friend. No one who sees them together, even briefly, even when they are not speaking, can doubt that. There is an invisible cord connecting them; I imagine in the right light, it shimmers like a spider's web, then disappears from sight again. Of course, this doesn't mean they never have problems, that they never argue. But when we were growing up, we didn't see that. We still don't. My parents manage their marriage with dignity and care. If we know about their hard times, it's only because they've told us, usually when we are going through hard times ourselves.
I think it's because they know each other so well, know even unexpressed yearnings, that my dad included helping my mom write her books--including spending one month together, alone, in Maine--in his proposal for me. The years of my mom and I slipping apart, failing to understand each other--or, rather, my failing to understand her--must be stitched in his memory, still saddening him on some level. One more year, I remember him telling me softly. One more year until you leave for college. Live with our rules for one more year. But one year sounded interminable, and when it finished, when my parents dropped me off at my new dorm, I was tearful but ready to leave them. Living four hours apart at seventeen years old probably saved our relationship, though it would go through additional trials first.
Recently, my mom and I sat down across from each other, sharing fried-oyster nachos and a few glasses of wine. We started talking about the stories she'd been sending me for her first book, one she intends only for our family to read. One of her stories referred to that difficult time of ours, only I was a secondary character and my dad was the first. Haltingly, with the kind of hesitation that indicates the recollection of truly painful memories, my mom began to tell me how the fissures in their relationship with me had impacted their relationship with each other. There was no blame, and I could see that she'd never intended to tell me. But here we were, looking at each other--seeing each other--and her hazel-green eyes became vivid with tears.
"I'm glad we're doing this," I said.
She reached across the table for my hand, and I squeezed her long pianist's fingers.
"I am, too," she said.
Also . . . some things never change.