‘The Most Difficult Essay I’ve Ever Written’: Meghan Daum on Her Mother

If you asked me what my central grievance with my mother was, I would tell you that I had a hard time not seeing her as a fraud. I would tell you that her transformation, at around the age of 45, from a slightly frumpy, slightly depressed, slightly angry but mostly unassuming wife, mother, and occasional private piano teacher into a flashy, imperious, hyperbolic theatre person had ignited in her a phoniness that I was allergic to on every level. I might try to explain how the theatre in question was the one at my very high school, a place she’d essentially followed me to from the day I matriculated and then proceeded to use as the training ground and later backdrop for her new self. I might throw in the fact that she was deeply concerned with what kind of person I was in high school because it would surely be a direct reflection of the kind of person she was […]

It was September. Autumn, New York’s most flattering season, was preparing to make its entrance. I had just got engaged to my longtime boyfriend, which had made my mother very happy.

“Our recommendation would be to transfer to another level of care,” the oncologist said.

Hearing this, I moved my chair closer and grabbed my mother’s hand under the blanket. I did this because I felt that if we were in a play this would surely be part of the stage directions. I was also afraid the doctor would judge me if I didn’t. If I just sat there with my arms crossed against my chest, as I was inclined to, the doctor would make a note in the file suggesting that I might not be capable of offering sufficient support to the patient.

I retrieved her hand from under the blanket and squeezed it in my own. She did not reciprocate. She didn’t pull away, but there was enough awkwardness and ambivalence coming from both sides that it was not unlike being on a date at the movies and trying to hold hands with someone who’d rather not. I think we were both relieved when I let go.

In the Guardian, Meghan Daum explores how to live and love in the wake of her mother’s dramatic, calculated persona and imminent death. “All About My Mother” is excerpted from Daum’s new essay collection, The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion, released November 18.

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