Nonfiction Editors’ Pick: Absolution

“Are you pretty or are you ugly?” my father asked.

I looked up at his soft brown eyes, his pink lips pursed in a half-smile, and I guessed, hoping, “Pretty?” I was five.

My father blinked a few times, slowly, as if he were in deep contemplation, before he said, “No, you’re pretty ugly.” Then he laughed hysterically.

At first I was confused—was “pretty ugly” good?—because my father was laughing. But then something deep inside me fell and I knew it—I—was bad.

For years, my father would ask me this question again, and again.

 

In fifth grade, my teacher, Mrs. Tramantana, held a contest to see how many “dollar words” our class could come up with. Each letter of a word was assigned a numerical amount corresponding to its placement in the alphabet. For example, the letter “A” equaled one cent, the letter “B” equaled two cents, and so forth. My contribution to the list was the word “Virgin.” I remember how Mrs. Tramantana came over to me, her hands like blinders, shielding the sides of her lips, as she mouthed just to me, “Virgin.” She’d noticed that I’d posted it on the “dollar word” chart up on the wall. I, along with my fellow ten- and eleven-year-old female classmates, had just seen the girls’ guide to maturation film the previous week. Mrs. Tramantana smiled as if it was our little secret, as if I was budding into a beautiful young woman. I felt my cheeks turn red.

That afternoon I went home and asked my mother what a virgin was. She told me to look it up in Webster’s dictionary, which was located on the shelf in my older brother Neal’s bedroom. Of course I already knew the definition, but I pretended I didn’t. My mother sat on Neal’s bed with the dictionary splayed in her lap as she told me, “It’s a woman who’s never been touched by a man.” My body felt stiff and warm as she told me that a woman shouldn’t allow herself to be touched by a man until she is married.

 

Later that year, for my father’s fortieth birthday, my parents’ closest friends filmed and produced a surprise “gag” gift, a movie called “A Bank Officer and a Gentleman.” In the movie, one of them played the role of a television reporter while the other acted out the character of my father, portraying him as a Manhattan banker who barely performed his job, because all he was interested in doing was playing with a doll, a plastic little girl whose panties he loved to take a peek down. Whenever the doll was withheld from him, he’d demand to have her back, and he’d ultimately get his way. In the movie, he was called “a degenerate.” At the end, his obsession with his girl doll caused him to lose his job, his home, and his wife.

As a family, we watched this video over and over again, sometimes multiple times a night, never growing tired of the story. Everybody laughed hysterically, especially my father. Back then, I didn’t know what “a degenerate” was—all I knew was that everyone thought it was funny, and I was glad that we were with each other, and happy. When I became a teenager, and throughout my adolescence, I believed the story, with its humor, kept us together. My father couldn’t really be a pervert; if he were, I thought, somebody would’ve done something to stop him. My mother would’ve made him leave the house, or called the police. People wouldn’t be watching and laughing.

When I was growing up, no one acknowledged that I was being sexually abused, not even me. As a girl, I learned to go about my days believing in a different and false reality, the validity of which nobody challenged. Until I was twenty-nine years old, when I began to face the truth, it was as if it had never happened.

 

After I was diagnosed with PTSD, in March 2003, I sat alone with my long-divorced mother in her condo living room, the framed photos of my brother and me as children watching from the mantel like witnesses as I first spoke of the truth, took the lid off the silence of our family. My mother’s first response: “I think you were too sensitive, some other little girl would’ve liked it.” My breath left me as if I’d been sucker punched. She mustn’t have said what she had—my mother wouldn’t, couldn’t—I thought. At the same time, I wondered if she was right.

My mother’s eyes appeared sober as she continued: “The most important thing in my life,” she said, “was to raise my children. If your father sexually abused you then my whole life’s work is a failure.”

She stood and left the room for the hallway alcove just outside her bedroom, where she began busying herself with her laundry. I followed, the space between us filled with a static hush, until, as my mother focused her gaze deep inside the mouth of the washing machine, transferring her clothes to the dryer, she spoke: “I remember,” she said very quietly, “when I caught you masturbating in your bed.”

“What?” I said. My breath grew shallow. “What are you talking about? When?”

“You don’t remember?” she said, her fingers grasping at her wet underwear. “You were seven or eight, I think.”

My mind began to spin. “I don’t remember that at all,” I said, shocked. “What was I doing?”

“I don’t know,” my mother sighed, her eyes remaining on the task at hand: she reached into the washer basin, unfolded a bunched up handful of clothing, then tossed it into the dryer with the flick of her wrist. “It was after you had been put to bed. I walked by your room.” Her voice escalated: “You had the comforter between your legs and you were riding it!”

“What did you do when you saw?”

“I asked you what you were doing,” she said. “I asked you if you liked it.”

“What did I say?” I pressed. Why did I have to ask these questions? Why didn’t she just offer up everything she knew? What was she afraid of? What was she withholding?

“Nothing,” she said, as her hands rummaged through her cotton nightgown, which she then buried in the dryer. Her eyes remained fixed on the laundry. “You just laughed.”

I crossed my arms, feeling a chill. “I didn’t say anything?”

“No,” she said, her tone pushing back. “You don’t remember?” For a brief moment she looked at me. “I told you to stop but you kept doing it.” Then she looked back at the underwear, which she untwisted and threw into the dryer. “So I got you a book to read about it. For all I knew you were going to get your period early or something. Sometimes girls feel ashamed about that kind of thing.”

As I watched my mother clean the lint trap, I wondered if she believed I should have felt ashamed then, and if I should feel ashamed now in the presence of this memory. This bothered me, but what upset me more was that I didn’t remember the event my mother had clearly witnessed, though my therapist had explained to me the coping mechanism of dissociation: a person could “go somewhere else” in her mind to escape a reality that was too painful to bear, or compartmentalize and forget about a traumatic event until it was safe to recall it—that was how I survived, psychologically, all those years. That was how I kept my mind intact.

My mother reminded me that I frequently left my room in the night, sleepwalking. “Maybe you were trying to escape.” She threw up her hands.

“Did you tell anyone about it?” I asked.

“No.” She fumbled with more laundry. “Like who?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “If you thought it was abnormal or something, maybe you’d check it out with your friends who had little girls? Or the pediatrician?”

“When we saw the pediatrician,” my mother said, “I had too many things to discuss with him regarding Neal’s problems adjusting to school, the way he isolated himself in his room. I didn’t have time for anything else.”

“When I was really little,” I said, “I had trouble going to the bathroom—”

My mother interrupted. “I fixed that,” she said quickly, her eyes darting. “I took care of that.”

“Sometimes I’d tell you I was sore between my legs,” I added, remembering when I was three and four years old, how it especially hurt to pee.

“Yes,” she said, tossing a fabric softener sheet into the dryer, then closing the lid. “Children have all sorts of issues. It doesn’t mean they’re being sexually abused. I would’ve known if something was going on. I was your mother.”

She began to place another load of laundry into the washer, this time colored clothes—pants, shirts, socks—which she methodically arranged. She could not just let it all tumble out of the basket and into the washer bin. She could never allow the color clothes, however light, to mix with the underwear, unless they were as white as the panties, which she bleached, despite the stains I glimpsed in all the crotches.

My mother wiped her hands on her thighs. She turned towards me, her eyes suddenly searching mine. Her face crumpled and she began to sob. “I know it happened!” she said, flinging her body upon mine as if she were letting go of herself. I stepped back in a kind of stupor. My mother felt smaller in my arms than I remembered, her body delicate. “I wish it happened to me instead!”

I held my mother as I would a child.

“No,” I said, as a strange sense of death came over me. I heard my voice outside myself, without emotion. “It’s okay,” I said. The more my mother’s body shook in mine, the more my voice went softer, inward.

“If there’s anything I can do—” she started but then stopped, as if she were unwilling or unable. She grew very still. Then she asked me not to talk any further about what had happened to me. “Otherwise,” she said, “I won’t be able to function.” Hearing the truth would cause her to become unable to handle basic daily life. Looking at the reality of what had happened could kill her.

For my mother, denial and its accompanying silence was the only way to live. But to me, this way of living was a way of dying. I didn’t want to succumb.

We engaged in a tug-of-war: my mother’s need for my silence versus my need to speak the truth. We became estranged.

 

I’d once thought my mother and I had a close relationship. As a little girl, I felt safe with her as we sat on the black-and-white pinstriped couch in our living room, next to the bright white globe lamp, with Frog and Toad Are Friends spread across our laps and my head leaning into the crook of her arm.

When I was older, we spent time talking together, sitting side-by-side in a wide-seated recliner chair until those quiet moments when my mother asked me about my thoughts and goals and dreams turned into periods of my listening to her problems with my father. She couldn’t share such thoughts outside the home. If anyone knew what was going on, she said, they’d talk behind our backs. Nobody would like us anymore. She’d been happy in the marriage for the first ten years, but then something changed, perhaps it was that my brother and I were growing up and she was evolving along with us and my father wasn’t, she said. He put on a “Mr. Nice Guy” act for everyone on the outside to see, she said, so nobody would ever believe how, in private, he was such a different person, sarcastic and demeaning. He expected her to serve him; she couldn’t be her own person. He was withholding money, and his feelings. She said they no longer had a relationship.

“Sometimes I forget,” she stopped after a while, “that you’re only fourteen.”

When I was fifteen she said, “Your father’s face lights up when you come into the room.”

My father no longer “lit up” for her.

Her observation made me feel ugly.

When I was in high school, as the tension between my parents grew into an impasse, I kept my mother company until she fell asleep on a cot she bought for the tiny spare room down the hall, which she’d converted a few years earlier from our childhood playroom into an office space where she’d complete the copy editing assignments she brought home from work, busying herself on weekends. She slept there after she stopped sleeping with my father. I remember the night she left their master bedroom: as I lay in my bed across the hall, I could see the door to my parents’ room was shut. Everything was still until I heard a sudden rustling from within, and, a few moments later, my mother exited the room, carrying her pillow and a blanket, her feet rushed and angry on the carpeted floor as she made her way down the hall. I imagined my father had tried to hurt her physically, perhaps sexually, or else had taunted her with his words (as I’d heard him do frequently in our kitchen) until she finally left their bed. I was terrified he’d go after her and retaliate. When he didn’t, I held my breath in the dark quiet, waiting for him to act out his desires for her with me, since now I was the closest in proximity.

 

I felt responsible.

I’m sixteen years old, I’d think on a Saturday night while the other kids I knew were out, but I can’t leave my mother. I worried when I went to the prom, when I left home for college, who’ll take care of her now? She told me she’d be okay, that she could take care of herself. “Don’t worry about me,” she always said with a smile, but there was something about the pitch of her voice, the dash of her eyes, the movement of her lips, the way her shoulders turned inward, that made me believe that underneath it all she wasn’t telling me what she really thought and felt.

 

After I disclosed the abuse, the distance between us grew for years until 2010, when my mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

I felt culpable.

Part of me wondered if my mother developed a rare and aggressive gynecological cancer because of her marriage to my father, because I’d been sexually abused, because my body had responded favorably to touch, because my father’s ejaculate was somehow poisonous, because of all those years of denial, because I brought the truth out into the open by speaking, unleashing a lifetime of toxicity that then ran rampant inside my mother’s body like a thousand assassins.

My mother’s cancer was thought to have begun in the fallopian tubes, the passage that stretches from the ovaries to the uterus, where the egg and sperm meet for fertilization, where I came into being. If the egg doesn’t become fertilized, it deteriorates and is removed from the body by the immune system, during the process of menstruation.

Similar to my mother, I began menstruating when I was thirteen.

I’d been home from school during winter break, eating lunch with my mother and Neal, when my abdomen began to ache badly and I left the table to go to the bathroom. When I pulled down my pants I saw a deep brown-red blotch on my underwear. My heart raced.

“Mom!” I yelled. “Mom!”

She came rushing to the bathroom door.

“What is it?” she asked.

I let her in.

“I think I got my period,” I said, showing her my underwear and then looking at the floor. Blood coming from that part of my body made my face turn hot. I saw it as a non-removable stain, a shameful announcement to the world that I was a sexual being, that I was dirty, bad.

My mother gasped with joy. “Oh, Tracy!”

“I know what happened!” I heard Neal call from the kitchen table.

My mother washed my underwear, gave me a clean pair along with a sanitary napkin, and pinched my cheeks.

“You’ve become a woman,” she told me, her eyes enlivened. Then she called my father at his office to tell him the news.

That afternoon, for a long while I sat on my bed in my room with my knees drawn close, feeling a sense of danger. “You have to be very careful now to not get raped,” I thought to myself, even as I blocked from my awareness the ongoing sexual abuse. “You could get pregnant.”

That night, my father didn’t come home until after I had gone to bed, but when he did he came into my room with a box of Hershey’s kisses and set them on my dresser. I could feel him staring at me as he stood there, his body blending in with the darkness. I thought he could see right through the blankets and my nightgown, to my sexual parts.

“How are you feeling?” he murmured.

“Okay,” I whispered.

I could smell the chocolate, see the way the silver wrappers glistened. My father tousled my hair with an uncomfortable brevity, gave me a brief peck on the top of my head, and then he pulled away, said “get some sleep,” and left the room, and I lay back down in bed, feeling a little like a baby doll put back on the shelf or buried in the closet, beneath the new toys, too old to play such games now.

What was supposed to be a life symbol seemed to be a token of death.

 

A week after the removal of her quarter- and dime-sized tumors, along with her ovaries, fallopian tubes, uterus, two lymph nodes, and part of her omentum, my mother revealed to me that her doctors had tested her for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations, a genetic lineage common among Ashkenazi Jews.

She was positive for BRCA1.

We now knew that from the day of her birth my mother’s lifetime risk of developing cancer was high: her chances of developing breast cancer were 87 percent versus the general public’s 7 percent, and 44–66 percent for ovarian cancer versus the general public’s 2 percent.

Because I might’ve inherited my mother’s mutation, I decided to undergo my own BRCA genetic testing, as my gynecologist had recommended for my own protection, for prevention: I didn’t want to stick my head in the sand.

When I asked my mother for a copy of her BRCA genetic test results, which the cancer prevention clinic informed me I’d need to have in hand at my appointment, she hesitated.

“It’s an invasion of my privacy,” she stated over the phone.

I felt as if I were violating my mother with my request for information. At the same time, I felt let down by her desire to protect herself at my possible expense.

“But this is for my health,” I said.

Since my mother hadn’t signed the HIPPA form, I knew that if she refused to give me her test result there’d be nothing I’d be able to do about it.

Throughout my mother’s one-year battle with cancer, she kept the truth to herself, allowing only a couple of close friends, my brother and me in on the secret. She shared only the barest of facts. When she died, I had to inform her boss that she would not be returning to work: “But I had no idea,” her boss said. Neither did any of her coworkers, or neighbors, or dentist.

Whenever I visited, if we were sitting outside or inside near an opened window and the subject of her cancer came up, my mother would shush me, her eyes wide with concern. “Lower your voice,” she’d whisper. “I don’t want anyone to hear.”

With each new hospital visit and body scan, my mother became angry when I asked for details.

“You always have to know the whole story,” she said brusquely. “I need to handle things piecemeal, otherwise I won’t be able to function.”

I tried as best as I could to obey my mother’s wishes without compromising the integrity of the line separating truth from denial.

She lashed out at me for speaking to the emergency room doctor after she was rushed to the hospital for a bowel obstruction caused by scar tissue from her initial surgery. I’d been speaking with her on the phone from her gurney when she began vomiting uncontrollably and became unresponsive. I thought she was dying. I hung up and called the emergency room desk and insisted the doctor, someone, help her immediately.

I will tell you information,” my mother raised her voice, “when I am ready to tell you!”

“But what if you’re unable to tell me?” I asked, beginning to cry.

“Do you tell me everything?” she asked with a sharpness that made me shrink.

“No,” I answered, hearing my voice sound small. I thought she hated me.

“And why is that?” she countered.

Case closed. Discussion over.

 

Now, I pressed my mother to send me a copy of her BRCA test results, reiterating that I needed them in order to have the genetic testing.

“What will you do if you have the mutation?” she demanded. “Will you have your breasts and ovaries removed?”

“I don’t know,” I said. I really couldn’t imagine what I would do, not yet. All I knew was this was a matter of life and death, and I wanted to acquire whatever information I needed to protect myself, and my future. I wanted to save my life.

“It’s all a business, this testing,” my mother practically spit over the phone. “They can find a pill to fix erectile dysfunction but they can’t find an adequate test to detect ovarian cancer?”

I listened to her express her rage. I thought it made her feel strong, though I saw her becoming weak. I wondered how she really felt about the loss of control over her body, the violation of the surgery, the profound grief she didn’t share.

What I didn’t share was my own deep worry that I’d inherited the BRCA mutation, that I’d end up just like my mother.

“I don’t want you to have to deal with this,” my mother said before finally agreeing to send me a copy of her results, though I could still hear the resistance and resentment in her voice. I imagined she might be wondering, what if I’d been spared while she hadn’t?

Would that be fair?

A few days later, my mother mailed me her pathology report instead of her genetic test results. When I called to let her know, she became flustered.

“I misunderstood what you wanted,” she said.

When I mentioned the discrepancy to my therapist, he suggested that perhaps this wasn’t my mother’s mistake at all but rather her wish to tell me the truth, to circumvent her own denial.

By now it was too close to my genetic testing appointment for my mother to mail me the information, so she read it to me over the phone.

“187DELAGBRCA1,” she enunciated the numbers and letters as I wrote them on a piece of paper. Her voice was clear and sober. “Deleterious. Deadly.”

 

Later, when I examined my mother’s pathology report, I read that her cancer was a “high grade peritoneal mullerian carcinoma, mixed transitional and clear cell type.”

In his cover letter, the pathologist described my mother as “the poor patient” with “clear cell carcinoma so beautifully seen on the slide.” Although the letter was addressed to my mother’s surgeon, and not to my mother, my mother had it in her possession. I knew she’d taken in his words because she’d underlined and circled much of it with a pen. As I read the closing paragraph, I became angry, certain that such an objectification of my mother’s body had only compounded her suffering: “Most interesting morphology and your slides are very well stained,” the pathologist wrote. “I would be delighted if I could keep one…as it is such a good example of this form of carcinoma. I have taken the liberty of doing so on the hope that you do not mind getting superficial results.”

To me, the pathologist was posturing as some kind of Dr. Frankenstein and I wanted to take down what I saw as his egomaniacal stance. I wrote a scathing letter in response, which I copied to my mother’s surgeon and to the head of the pathology department, who’d been copied on the original report, recommending that in the future he watch his word choice, pointing out that there was a real person reading his letter from inside the body he so described.

I was surprised to receive a note of apology the following week from the pathologist, in which he explained that he’d been writing for a medical audience and that he understood from personal experience what it was like to have a family member stricken by cancer. The next time I saw my mother, I gave her the apology to keep. When she took the letter in her hands, I noticed the smallest tinge of a grin spread across her cheeks.

Although my mother told me she was going to be fine, when my own gynecologist read the pathology report just before I went for my genetic appointment at a cancer prevention clinic located at a nearby hospital—I wanted to ask her medical opinion on my mother’s (and in foresight of the testing, my own) prognosis—her countenance grew grave.

“I’m sorry to tell you,” my gynecologist said, “that this is a very aggressive form of ovarian cancer that does not respond well to treatment. You should encourage your mother to do the things she wants to do in the time she has left.”

For several moments, I lost my breath.

My mother insisted that my gynecologist was wrong.

“My doctors aren’t worried,” she said testily. “And they are the specialists.”

My mother was still working, and going about her normal daily life (and, in fact, continued to do so until a few days before she died). I wondered if her doctors were really telling her she was going to be fine, or if she just didn’t want to hear the truth. I didn’t blame her.

I blamed myself.

 

A week later, I sat, feeling paralyzed, in the cancer prevention clinic. Caught in a whirlwind of past, present, and future losses, I focused on the sterile-white tile floor where my face and body reflected as an undefined mass, a gray blur. Turning for a moment to look over my shoulder, out the window, I peered at a park and tennis courts down below, devoid of people, flooded by rain. Staring out at the vast expanse of green, an uncommon sight in the city, I wondered what it would feel like for my body to smash through the glass and plummet to the ground.

As a prerequisite for my genetic test, a simple blood draw, I had to attend a one-hour meeting with a genetic counselor, a young brunette woman who delivered the facts as if she’d freshly memorized them for an exam: “187DelAg means deletion at gene 187,” she said.

Seated across from me at a small conference room table, the counselor explained: every gene has two copies. If you lose one to mutation, you have another copy so you’re still okay, but if both are lost then cancer happens. You can lose a gene from environmental factors or by inheriting a mutation.

“There’s a fifty percent chance you have inherited this mutation,” she said. “It’s the flip of a coin.”

I knew that twenty-five percent—one quarter—of girls become victims of sexual abuse. The chance that I’d inherited a gene mutation, a death-marker, was double.

The flip of a coin: yes or no. Life or death: if I tested positive for the mutation, my future, I concluded, would vanish.

Management included surveillance—ovarian ultrasound, the cancer-marker CA-125 test every six months, annual mammogram, yearly breast MRI, a clinical exam twice a year, prophylactic mastectomy, chemoprevention, and ovarian removal “after you have your children,” the counselor stated, “between the ages of thirty-five and forty.”

“But I’m already thirty-six,” I said, feeling the panic rise and push through my voice. Still single, it occurred to me like a death announcement that I might’ve missed my window. I thought to myself, if I was marked by a genetic mutation, I might not ever be able to experience childbirth. I might not ever be what I thought it meant to be “normal” as a woman.

At this point, I’d been in therapy for several years, working to wrap my mind around what had happened to me as a child, in my family, to understand how in response I’d isolated myself from platonic and romantic relationships, narrowed my adult life. Every day, with every interaction, I struggled to overcome my inheritance, to reclaim myself, to live. But none of that could counter a gene mutation that would cause my premature death, which I could prevent only by ninety-eight percent, according to the counselor, if I chose to have my sexual organs removed.

What I couldn’t bear to face was the way I felt as if my intimate parts had already been taken.

My past flashed before me: I saw myself as a child, as my father and I spent our special time together in my bedroom or in our basement; I saw my mother sitting on the black-and-white pinstriped couch in our living room upstairs, reading The New York Times with the soft white lamplight shining on the newspaper, which she held open in front of her, one side grasped in each hand, so that the publication surrounded her entire upper body as if it were a shield from the life that went on around her.

Denial blanketed our home.

“They call it the silent killer,” the counselor said, her eyes leaving mine for the surface of her large diamond engagement ring, and then to the oval table, where she placed a large pink slip of paper on which my family tree was neatly printed. With her red pen, she circled names and traced the cancer line: my mother, her sister, my grandfather, his sister, their mother. Next to my name, she drew a question mark.

It was the flip of a coin, but it was more than that to me. I didn’t want to have my mother’s legacy. I didn’t want to die as I thought she already had, in spirit.

“By deciding to take this test you can forge a different path,” the counselor said. “One of knowledge.”

She led me, finally, to the phlebotomist. As my upper arm was tied with the tourniquet-like rubber band, I turned my head away so as not to see my vein bulge or the needle penetrate my blue-red skin. I held my breath, waiting to feel the prick, then counted through the brief sensation of tightness until I heard the clink of the vial on the counter and the slap of the rubber releasing its hold.

Processing the result would take between one and three weeks. Then I’d have another appointment with the counselor as such information was only to be disclosed in the presence of a professional.

I assumed the test would find me marked, doomed. My inner makeup could not be changed; the facts of my genes were out of my hands. I could do nothing but wait for the shoe to drop, anticipate the imminent end.

I left the clinic, the soles of my feet slap-slapping the wet pavement as I traveled the four blocks to the T, feeling like a girl running home to a mother who wasn’t there. Forty-five minutes later, I reached my apartment, shut the door behind me and tried to catch my breath as my body went weak and I slumped down onto the living room floor, vomiting up sobs.

My rescue cat Hannah trotted over, meowing softly. She blotted my cheeks with her calico tail, then ran her nose across my forehead. I noticed how, once timid and withdrawn from her own life in an abusive home, she now flopped on her side to expose her pure white belly, to offer her sweet, healing affirmations. I wept for the salvaged life I saw in her.

 

Anxiously awaiting my BRCA results, I visited my mother. She sat, looking frail and smaller than I remembered, on her condo deck, with an umbrella shading her full head of hair, which, she lamented, she would soon lose from the chemotherapy.

She’d asked for me to bring along a story that I’d very recently published in The Southampton Review, a nonfiction piece that chronicled our family drives out to the east end of Long Island for our vacations when I was a girl, portraying the way, on Old Montauk Highway, my father accelerated up and down the steep hills as if we were at the beach riding the waves, only it was the road, not the ocean, and, with each tarred drop, my stomach fell, making me feel sick and sad and mad and scared. I asked my father to stop. He watched my expression in the rearview mirror as he said, “Beg me.” Please, I said, please stop. But my father kept going, laughing to himself. My mother, sitting in the front passenger seat, asked my father to refrain from his behavior. He didn’t. After a while, resigning herself, my mother turned her head to look out the side window while my world went spinning.

The editor-in-chief had invited me to read my story at a publication launch in Southampton, Long Island, a location very close to that of the scenes I’d written. I’d made arrangements to attend, but then a week prior to the launch my mother was initially diagnosed with cancer and I was driving from Boston to the hospital in New York, where I found her post-surgery, sitting beside her gurney-like bed, eating her breakfast, her hospital gown like a large cloth napkin draped around her shoulders.

“Hi Mom.” I heard my voice float outside myself as the back of my mouth became a quivering dam. I found myself trying to hold back an overwhelming grief I hadn’t known was there.

“You’re early,” she said, as if she weren’t ready.

I approached to hug her, and she pushed herself up and stood. As I wrapped my arms around her thinness, I tucked my chin over her shoulder and started to weep, feeling my chest shake and thump against her collarbones, my muscles and bones crying mommy, mommy.

“It’s okay, it’s okay,” my mother repeated softly through her own tearful gulps as she embraced me, then pulled herself back, as if none of it—the cancer, the surgery, the past, this interchange, our show of emotions—had ever happened.

Although I seriously considered canceling my trip to Southampton, distressed my mother would see my reading, speaking of the truth, as an act of abandonment and betrayal, I ultimately decided to go. My friends and my therapist encouraged me: “You’ll regret it for the rest of your life if you don’t,” they all said. And, deep in my heart, I knew they were right.

While battling flashbacks—on my way to the site of the reading I recognized some familiar landmarks from the site of the story—and a cold that had lodged itself in my throat, I read as clearly as I could to an auditorium full of strangers, feeling the heat of the light from above on my skin, hearing my voice embark from the silent interior of myself as it launched into a world of other voices, my story like a highway connector, linking person to person.

When I finished, applause reverberated in the auditorium, through my gut, surrounding my ribs, and my collarbones, before the affirming vibration spread down my arms and across my face. As the audience dispersed, a young man approached me at the podium and shook my hand.

“I was hooked by your story from start to finish,” he said. I was taken aback by the way his eyes were so alive with interest. “You’ve inspired me to work on my own story,” he continued. “Thank you for reading.”

His reaction surprised me, turned me speechless for several moments. For the first time, I believed I’d done something true and right.

 

Now, just a couple of weeks later, I was sitting with my mother on her condo deck, worried she perceived I’d done something wrong. At her request for my story, I reluctantly handed it to her. She put on her glasses and pushed her chair back, the legs scraping against the dull gray slabs of condo deck wood beneath her feet. I watched as she fingered the edges of my pages. Her head bowed as her wide eyes moved back and forth across my words.

“You’re going to read it now?” I asked, hoping she’d wait until after I was gone.

My mother’s face turned towards me. “You don’t want me to?” she asked with a touch of disbelief.

“It might be upsetting,” I said, apprehensive about her reaction. “This might not be the time.”

She held the pages tightly in her grasp, insisting, “I want to read it now.”

“Okay,” I said, sitting back, resigning myself to whatever came next. This was my mother’s decision, I reminded myself, this was my mother’s choice, for which I was not responsible.

I stared at my fingertips, as if willing myself to disappear through the transparency of my nails, while my mother read in silence.

When she came to the end, she began to cry softly. Standing up, she linked her arms around my body, and, for a moment, hung onto me like a heavy, worn coat. My fingers rested lightly on her back.

Her voice came from a deep part of herself: “I’m so sorry,” she said, “that I was not there for you.”

Out of habit, I brushed her words aside. “It’s okay,” I said, trying to console her.

“No, it’s not okay,” she said, pulling back and sitting down, her blue eyes suddenly bright and looking directly into me. “You captured it accurately on the page,” she spoke with conviction. She pointed her forefinger at me: “None of it was your fault.”

Then she changed the subject, as if she’d said nothing, read nothing, at all.

In that moment, I chose to linger at that window my mother had unlocked, to stop time, to sit with that fleeting peace, to open it down deep.

In that moment, I didn’t know my future: my genetic test result was negative. I had not inherited my mother’s legacy. I was already free.

3 Responses to “Nonfiction Editors’ Pick: Absolution”

  1. Mardith Louisell

    It was a thought-provoking story, honestly told, with sympathy given to both your mother and you in an honest way that didn’t minimize the terrible truths.

  2. Latorial

    Very well done and very brave of you. I’m glad I took the time to read it. It’s not always easy to capture this reality at first, but as time goes by, we can be like stories that never end, not until we’re truly gone. Best wishes to you!

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