When I was a kid, I thought a lot about my mom.
Not as I knew her – the woman who watched my ballet classes and made a lot of casseroles and got her Masters in Social Work and sewed my winter formal dress – but who she was as a kid. When she was like me.
My mom made a habit of answering my questions honestly, so I asked a lot of them. About her parents, Grandma and Grandpa, and what they were like.
Her parents were well-known and well-respected in their community. My grandpa spent some time in the State Legislature and did community theatre. They owned a local business and my grandma had peaches-and-cream skin. They had four children: aunt, mom, uncle, aunt. If there had been an open call for a poster of The All-American Family, they would have been chosen immediately.
Of course, like every American family, they were dysfunctional. I say this with kindness, because I truly believe no family exists without some amount of dysfunction. People fight and love and hurt each other. Humans are messed up, but that’s often what makes us amazing.
My grandpa really, really wanted a boy. Like a lot of fathers, I imagine he yearned to see himself in another guise. Not unusual. So after their first daughter, my aunt, was born, they did the hoping dance.
And out came my mom.
Denial is an incredible shield. It makes a father give his daughter a boy’s tool set for Christmas, and not out of an enlightened view of her capability as a female. It makes the daughter feel unwanted and unloved for most of her childhood. It makes a mother get up and walk away when that daughter tries to tell her something is wrong.
And decades later, it makes that daughter keep her illness a secret until it’s too late for anyone to do anything.
Of course, there was love. I know my grandparents loved my mom because I saw it. As everyone got older, it became easier, I think. As a kid, I know I witnessed some evolution of forgiveness. I held my breath and watched for it.
But my greatest wish was to somehow be able to go back in time, to when my mom was like me, and be her friend. I would have stuck up for you, I told her. I would have yelled at Grandma and Grandpa. You should have had someone on your side. I would get sweaty and mad just thinking about it. My mom would smile and hug me and check my third grade math homework.
Every parent fucks up. We’re all messy blobs just trying to figure out how to maintain some kind of shape. Before my mom died, I think she came to understand enough of her own mess to forgive that of her parents.
Every once in awhile, growing up, people thought my mom and I were biologically related. The mistake made both of us really happy. Adopting a kid from the other side of the world means risking a sense of displacement, uncertain identity, shaky self-worth. But I was my mom’s daughter, the one she chose, deliberately, to bring into her life. She was always on my side. There was no denying it.
We would have been friends.
We were friends.