Flannery O’Connor once said, “I don’t know how I feel until I write it.” I’m that same way. So don’t hold me to it if what I’m saying makes no sense right away. Give me time, we’ll get there.
So today I saw it in a brief glance of a little girl as she noticed me over her shoulder.
She had long, dark hair and wore her prettiest outfit. A sweater with large round buttons and ruffles, a skirt also with a ruffle of another color around the hem..a grey fringe on a chocolate brown skirt. Her hair pulled back into a bow on top of her head under which she wore a shy smile. She walked so closely to her mother that she looked as if she wanted to fit in her pocket.
The little girl, with hunching shoulders and an impossibly slow and careful walk not wanting to be more than a half step from her mom appeared to be maybe seven. In the few minutes I saw her she told her mother no less than three times that she loved her. Her mother said nothing.
The mother did not seem to notice the urgent pleading of her little girl as she walked her into her father’s house or her fancy outfit or her, really, at all. I saw the little girls desperation in the tentative steps, in the need to be touching her mother, in her soft voice proclaiming her unanswered call.
I felt her future longing and the singular question without an answer, “I love you?” It sits in the shared air as a permanent bidding which waits in the limbo of not knowing.
I saw my own question still hanging in the air unanswered.
I can remember days when I wore my best dress, where I said the right things, where I walked so close to my mother I could fit in her pocket. I remember the times when I was not the lesser chore between sweeping and mopping, when I spoke and she was not pained by my chatter but smiled and considered my little theories on life. I don’t know how those days hung in the balance to the others when there was no time. We never really know the truth of such things, of our own lives.
I know that finally when I did not race home to show my English paper with a star or a report card with good grades, when I no longer picked wildflowers for a bouquet or wrote her poems my mom became unfettered and interested. I still wanted her. I always wanted my mom. But by then I could not bear to ask, “I love you?” I could not turn around being certain I would turn to a pillar of salt. I continued in my independence. I had to push forward, there was no back. The path had vanished. I figured she had not understood the temperature of my love and it was beyond explaining. I had to let her go.
It’s been said for a daughter to live she must write her mother’s obituary. The bond is so strong that to become her own person she must in a figurative way kill her mother, she must bury what makes her similar so that she no longer thinks of herself in relation to her mother. It’s possible my mother knew this and braced for it as her mother had done before her. Maybe she knew I would only love her and leave her. Maybe the thought was too painful. I could understand that. I chose instead to drown in my sorrow of an empty nest. Perhaps there is more than one way. Perhaps, too, my mother answered I love you with her hand sewn dresses and warm cookies after school. I knew words. Maybe she spoke in other languages.
Now so many years later my mother has dementia. She can not remember her right mind, she can not recall times or dates or locations but somehow in all that confusion she can remember me. When her mind left, her heart re-opened like the tender child I could imagine her being and the name she speaks is mine. Sometimes when I see her she picks me wildflowers or shows me something she has dreamed up, a key to a secret box or a story of an imagined friend.
She tells everyone, “My Julia Anne is coming to see me.” But I cannot. I cannot want to fit in her pocket, to wear my pretty dress to ask that question again. I had to banish myself as that girl with the pleading eyes and the echo on her lips in so many dreams it chased me like a ghost. I still cannot not go back fully. But maybe one day I will.
I told myself it had all ended. I filled myself up until there was no room to ponder such things. Then today the little neighbor girl of a friend whispered over and over craving a response that wouldn’t come. I saw then that in some way everyone was my mother to me. That the man I was falling for had become her, that I was asking the question of him, “I love you?” I saw myself hunching at the shoulders and trying to climb in his pocket. I saw that such hurts cannot heal themselves until examined and the only one who can really answer my question is me.
So as O’Connor said, I didn’t know what I felt until I wrote it. Now I see. I see that my busy mother really did not have time for a fourth child but somehow got through it. I see that my capacity to love is vast and sometimes demanding. I see that, “I love you” is not a question which needs answering. Love may be its own answer. I see that it was never the question I suspected it was because when all else has fallen away from my mother’s mind and lips she says my name. I see that that is my answer. That vast love can be returned vastly but perhaps in its own time and way. We mostly all do our best, sometimes we are more aware than others.
I see that I have always been loved. I have experienced the generosity of my daughter’s laughter and my son’s hug and now my grand daughter’s closeness. She walks next to me, very closely, sometimes and says, “I love you.” I answer her that I have loved her for a thousand years and I’ll love her for a thousand more. I hope that she hears me and knows that if I could fit her in my pocket I would. I hope she knows that I experience her vast love and return it as it comes to me.
I hope that finally I have had my question answered. I hope to go home soon and see my mother and tell her that most certainly I love her. She walks slowly and I walk next to her in no hurry….this is what I see now.