I’m lying in bed cuddled up to my 15-year-old daughter listening to her heart. It’s strong even though she thinks it’s broken. When I tell her this, she lets out a soft sob, and I lean into her, closer.
She slept with me last night, the first time in years. I had resigned myself to the fact that cuddling time was over — I’d been told that daughters come back to their mothers eventually, after that long pouty road of adolescence, but I didn’t expect it to happen so soon. My stepdaughter, whom I’ve raised since she was 3, is nearly 21 and only now coming back to me.
So I was secretly grateful for the moment to touch, and yet ridden with guilt because here I was benefiting from her misery. I’m struck by that now: how sorrow and loneliness force your children back into your arms, and how you want that closeness, but you want their happiness more.
I was surprised when she asked me — stated, actually: “I’m going to sleep with you tonight.” Her back hurt and my bed was more comfortable, she reasoned (i.e., “I don’t want to be alone”), and besides, her father was away and there was plenty of room in my king-size bed.
Her face was swollen and she stood slumped over the kitchen counter after a dinner she barely touched, shuffling through the mail, not reading, just shuffling, just as she shuffled through her meal.
“Okay,” I said, resisting the temptation to comment further. She is the last of four kids and I’ve finally figured out when to press and when to let things emerge. (I still tiptoe on eggshells around my children, but somehow they don’t break as much — the shells, not the kids: they still need Band-Aids. Even though they are older, high school and beyond, they still seem as fragile as they were when my husband and I first put each of them, one after another, onto that kindergarten bus, sending them off on a journey into a world they had no choice but to interact with, for better, for worse.)
My daughter looked up at me with a small smile. “What? You’re looking at me weird.”
“No, not at all,” I said, trying to wipe off whatever weirdness was on my face and ending up looking that much stranger in the process. She was misreading me: I was glad for the opportunity to help her heal; I wasn’t poking fun.
“Is that weird for me to want to sleep with you?”
“Absolutely not,” I said, and turned away, biting my lip.
She had come home from school crying. Her boyfriend of several weeks had broken up with her a few days earlier (via text — a cowardly act! — because, as he said, he couldn’t bear seeing her upset). She thought she would be okay. He still wanted to be friends, he just wasn’t “ready” for a girlfriend, and she was willing to wait. But you know the story: the flirtation with other girls in front of you, the humiliation, the heartache of loving someone who doesn’t love you back. You try to forget, but he is everywhere: in the halls, near your locker, in the cafeteria. And isn’t that always the case? But she doesn’t know this. Love for her is still new, still innocent. And maybe that is worse. It isn’t about sex or lies, or jealousy or deceit. Love isn’t attached to anything, just the thick muscle of the heart.
I listened sympathetically as she told me how heartbreaking her day was, and as painful as it was to hear, I was glad for her voice because for years she had been so private, so unwilling to share herself, as if the very act of sharing, of actually expressing what was going on inside her would somehow unravel her world, her identity and connection to it. Often, she would shut herself up in her room, clearly upset about something, and just as often I would end up being a target. Mostly, I didn’t mind that bull’s-eye on my chest (another hard lesson I learned: Don’t take anything your children say personally) if it meant the happy little girl of her youth, the one with the contagious smile, could emerge. Yes, let loose that poison arrow.
And at that moment, she did. But this time I wasn’t the target. She stood at the counter clearly under great distress and expressed herself openly, honestly, purging the hurt from inside her. There was no way she could keep it in any longer and not explode — as it was, her skin, normally a flawless pearl, was splotched, the capillaries at its surface ruptured and raw. The intensity of the emotion was too much for her body to absorb: It needed out.
My first urge was to rush toward her and just hug the hell out of her, but I didn’t want her to feel self-conscious — to turn off, turn away. You can spend years studying daughters, thinking and overthinking, and sometimes you just do everything wrong — always, though, with the best intentions. Get too close and she’ll pull away. Show her you understand but don’t trivialize her experience. She doesn’t want pity; she just wants to stop hurting.
She told me how she thought she had it all together, but when she saw him in the cafeteria rubbing another girl’s leg, she lost it. She ran into the bathroom and hid in the stall crying until the bell rang, her book bag left on the table. “I couldn’t help it, Mom.”
And then I couldn’t help it. “Oh, honey,” I said, and pulled her close and she let me hug her as she did when she was little, and since she was so willing, I held her tighter and longer. But when we separated, I stepped back across that great continental divide — the kitchen counter, that place of communication and quandary, and gave her back her space.
“He packed my bag for me — and even made sure I knew about it. Why would he do that?” Mascara-laden tears slipped down her cheeks. I wanted to take her face in my hands and absorb all her tears. I wanted her to feel my lips on her forehead, just as my mother’s lips once kissed away all my hurts. But my daughter wanted answers, not transference, and at that moment I didn’t have any. Why do people do what they do? How do I explain about the complexities of love without lecturing her, or discouraging her, when I just wanted her to know I understand? She can talk to me. I can relate.
I started slowly, emptying the dishwasher as I told her about my first hurt, picking and choosing details. Robbie broke up with me one day, he was with Mimi the next. She looked up when I said this as if she were interested, really, in what I was saying, and that was a new experience for me too, having my children actually interested in what happened to me — who I was — as a child. And I thought then how the first hurt stays with you the longest, still decades later, and that how you handle it frames everything else you do.
“She has to toughen up,” my husband said on the phone later. It was uncharacteristic of him to say this. For years, I was bad cop to his good cop; I was mean mom to his Daddy Warbucks.
I winced. Toughen up? No. Hardening the heart isn’t the way to heal it. In fact, it’s a bad precedent to follow. The only way through it is through it, letting emotion be as fluid as the blood in your veins, loving, letting go, loving someone else. The heart might be the size of a clenched fist but it needn’t be one. I hung up with my husband, grateful that I had this time with her to myself.
She sleeps in his spot now, in a place you can fall into, the mattress curving around her as if she possessed great weight. Birds scurry along the eave above the window and morning lengthens.
The alarm on her cellphone has gone off several times this morning. I try to get her up for school, but I don’t force. I envision the conversation with Sister So-and-So from the attendance office: “She’s sick,” I’ll tell her, and it won’t be a lie. Lovesickness. We all know the symptoms: anxiety, racing pulse, racing mind, loss of concentration, melancholy, exhaustion, and a sense of emptiness, even depression.
I briefly debate the wisdom of my action — letting her sleep late with me or forcing her to be strong and face the day, but some days aren’t meant to be faced, or forcing upon you. It’s okay to linger in the hurt and explore what that is before moving on again, before moving into that cycle of happiness, hurt, happiness, hurt.
Later, in the car on the way to the nail salon — I know, I know, but what better antidote for lovesickness, that is, other than a big chocolate sundae? — we talked about the fine line between lingering and wallowing, between being affected by emotion and being overwhelmed by it.
“Don’t let it overpower you. Don’t let that be who you are,” I said to her, and she looked at me intently and nodded, “Yeah, I know,” the surface of her skin clearer, nearly back to its pearly pallor.
But for now, we lie together entwined, her head on my husband’s pillow. She faces away from me so I don’t see the tears in her eyes or the anguish on her face, but I feel that as if I had slipped under her skin, as if I were breathing through her wet raspy lungs, just as she once breathed through mine.
Healing your children’s inner hurts isn’t as easy as their physical ailments. A cool cloth on a hot forehead, tea tree oil for a skinned knee, a teaspoon of honey for a sore throat. Over the years I’ve developed my own apothecary for illness, dis-ease. I’ve learned how to use different herbs and tinctures, aromatherapy, meditation, reiki, crystals, and stones. Maybe later she’ll be open to such possibilities, or maybe, she’ll roll her eyes and tell me, “Mom, back off; you’re trying too hard.” And she’ll be right.
For now, I open my heart to hers, sending her love and healing energy to mend the tiny tears she feels in her chest. A soft moan escapes her lips and she pulls my arm around her and sinks into me closer, into that space she came from, once so familiar to her. I breathe in deeply and out fully, and for a moment our breaths once again match.
Jacqueline Henry is a Long Island freelance writer. She is in the process of finishing her first novel, “Sadie’s Passage,” which addresses the issue of assisted suicide, as well as a local history book on Long Island inventors.