The thing about my mother is that I love her. Or: the thing about my mother is that I can’t choose otherwise.
The thing about my mother is that she’ll always be my mother, but I can’t always be a child. The thing is: I am not a child.
When my mother chose my father she also chose me, and I didn’t make it easy but she wouldn’t let me go. When you choose your family, you choose them for life. Many people don’t get to choose, or don’t have to; choosing to love without being obligated has always seemed a most serious business to me. Eventually, I chose her, too. Having chosen, having been chosen, I can’t change my mind. I don’t want to change my mind. I will not stop loving my mother because she is difficult because that is not how love works. That is not how she showed me that love works.
I will not stop loving my mother but I cannot accept as love fear masquerading as love, even if it comes from a place of care. When she says I am worried about you and what your life is like, she means I am worried about you without me, and really I am worried about me without you. She sees a loss where there isn’t one and it scares her. In Judith Butler’s words: What “am” I, without you? What is left of me? I am not gone but I am not a child. She is still a mother, but she must mother me differently.
When I met E, I was afraid of a lot of things but I also wanted a lot of things. I had decided that I could have my heart broken one more time, maybe two, but no more. That’s how many more times I could stand it, before my glass heart shattered for good. I had thought about this. If my heart broke more than that, I would be quiet for a very long time. I would fold in on myself to patch it up, but I wouldn’t give it out again. I would take care of myself and the ones I loved, but I wouldn’t look for more than that. I could be very happy – I knew I could be very happy – without anyone to take care of me. My life would be full and maybe I would get lonely but I had already known love and it had been enough. It had already been too much.
E was too much from the beginning, a big man with a big mind and a big heart. He spilled into my life and had to persuade me that it was okay. There are some things you can’t plan for and some things you can’t compromise on. I couldn’t have planned for him, or how much he loves me or how hard I’d fall, slow dancing in my apartment to “Harvest Moon.” He has had to teach me to be patient with myself, to let go of things I can’t control, to make room in my life for uncertainty. For life’s messiness. Loving him is something I won’t compromise on.
The night E asked me to marry him, we had had a long conversation that brought me to tears. We were about to finish graduate school. Where would we go? What would we do? Was it right to go somewhere together, when it was possible that one day, we would want to be apart? We had talked about moving to Ann Arbor, a place we felt good about that had a university that could conceivably employ us both, with the bonus of proximity to his therapist. But what if everything went south? What if he was meant to be with someone else, and we didn’t work out? What would I do, stranded in a city where I knew no one? E has obsessive-compulsive disorder, which means that his brain never stops. His thoughts chase all possibilities to their most terrifying conclusions, playing on his real fears until even the smallest decision feels monumental and life-altering, hanging everything in the balance. He says his thoughts are like a river, and most of the time he tries to float on top of them but sometimes they pull him down, and he starts to drown. He gets caught, and they pull him under and he can’t breathe and he can’t see a way out, and the more he struggles the more he drowns. Those times can be bad: nights when he curls up on the floor, in the dark, unable to move and barely able to speak, wanting so badly just to be out of his body, out of his head. Nights when I have to coax him back into the light and into my arms, to remind him, as he reminds me, that life can be messy and that messiness is okay. That there are things we can’t plan for that we have to accept anyway.
I had cried because when E told me that this mass of decisions felt like all-or-nothing, I was afraid we were going to be nothing. But he sat, quietly, and after a while he thanked me for listening and said that he’d needed to tell me all those things he was afraid of, to see where he stood and what he wanted. And then he asked me to stand, and got down on a knee and said that he didn’t know what was going to happen next, but the life he wanted was a life with me, and this was his way of promising to try to make it work. I’ve never wanted anything the way I want a life with him in it. I said yes.
Marrying E is something I take very seriously, and even though it’ll be a year or two before we say our vows, there are promises we make to each other every day. The promise not to leave, not to give up, not to stop loving no matter how hard it gets, because love is as much a choice as it is a crapshoot. Marriage is a commitment to keep loving even when we roll the dice and lose.
It will get hard. It has already been hard – harder, I think, than I could have imagined at the start. It will get hard in ways I can’t imagine yet when we’re both working and have children. I can’t say that I’ll never be angry or I’ll never wish that he could just snap out of his illness, but I can say those feelings will never make me leave. I can say that I accept, now, that there are going to be times when his illness means he can’t show up for me or for our children, and I can’t – won’t – hold it against him. Those times do not and will not preclude his being a good father, a good husband, a good man.
E loves me like nothing I’ve ever known: fully, without question, with total acceptance of all my flaws and bad habits. He is tender, thoughtful, passionate; he cares genuinely for my pleasure in all things. (He is the only man I’ve been with where sex has ever felt like making love.) He wants to make me happy and does everything in his power to make sure I do the things I want to do. He is worth everything. He is worth spending a lifetime understanding, caring for, learning with. I love him even though it will be hard. He loves me even though he doesn’t have to.
The thing about my mother is that she has always loved me even though she doesn’t have to, but now loving me right means letting me go. I don’t know what is going to happen but I am asking her to try. I am asking her to let me try.
Much of Hamlet is about the precise kind of slippage the mourner experiences: the difference between being and seeming, the uncertainty about how the inner translates into the outer, the sense that one is expected to perform grief palatably. (If you don’t seem sad, people worry; but if you are grief-stricken, people flinch away from your pain.)