When I Am Asked
by Lisel Mueller
When I am asked
how I began writing poems,
I talk about the indifference of nature.
It was soon after my mother died,
a brilliant June day,
I sat on a gray stone bench
in a lovingly planted garden,
but the day lilies were as deaf
as the ears of drunken sleepers
and the roses curved inward.
Nothing was black or broken
and not a leaf fell
and the sun blared endless commercials
for summer holidays.
I sat on a gray stone bench
ringed with the ingenue faces
of pink and white impatiens
and placed my grief
in the mouth of language,
the only thing that would grieve with me.
My mother died when I was seven and she was 33. She died on her 8th wedding anniversary, though my father was not with her, was not holding her hand as she passed from this life. She died in the hospital where I was born. I can’t begin to imagine how she must have felt; perhaps irony at the moment she realized she was dying, to remember my birth just a few floors away in location, but another lifetime ago in memory. I would have liked to ask her.
She was their only daughter. I am hers. Now I have a daughter. I have a daughter and she scares the hell out of me.
I watched her be caught by the doctor as she came out of me. I heard her come screaming into the world. When they put her perfect, small body into my arms, and she looked at me with her bright and brand-new eyes, I realized I was in trouble. I loved her right away. The fear came later.
“She’s just a baby, how can you be scared of her?”, you might be wondering. Easy. She’s so small, with a vulnerability that is both beautiful and terrifying. She’s needy and impossible to refuse. Most frightening of all, she is mine.
When she emerged from my womb into the world, she knew nothing of it. Except me. I was her one connection to the vast, cold world. Her very first thoughts, perceptions and sensations of this world occurred in my womb. Such is the height of her need that she is utterly dependent on me without knowing a thing about who I am. Can you imagine such a proposition, such an enormous leap of faith?
Even though I loved Maggie from the moment I saw her (and even before that), I have struggled with feeling resentful of just how much she needs me. To be frank, its overwhelming. Her cries pierce through me; her squeaks and sighs while she sleeps make me catch my breath in a prayer that goes something like this:
“Dear God, thank you for this amazing, precious person. But really, what were you thinking?”
I love her so much, but I also know how completely unworthy I am to be her mother. I couldn’t begin to love her as much as she deserves. Since we’ve been home with her, I’ve sensed this hesitation in me, this desire to fight getting “too close” to her. I’m not talking physically, because I spend a lot of time holding her or carrying her with me. Really, it’s something less tangible, but which I would have to describe as a hardness of heart.
I don’t want her to need me too much. I don’t want to feel this needed, this necessary to someone else’s existence. This fear of her needing me too much has been showing itself as resentment. Why should she need me more than anyone else? Why shouldn’t she be just as happy with someone else? Why should I have to feed her from my body?
The thing is, before she was born – breast feeding, snuggling – these were the things I was most looking forward to about being her mother. So imagine my surprise when they made me so uncomfortable. For the life of me I couldn’t figure out why. I thought perhaps I was experiencing postpartum depression. Or maybe I was just going crazy. I thought to myself, “Wouldn’t it be great if I could ask my mom about all this? I wonder if she ever felt like this when I was a baby?” Then it hit me:
My mom, who will be dead 20 years this June.
My mom, Maggie’s other grandmother. The one she’ll never get to meet. The one she’ll only know from pictures and second-hand stories.
Some wounds rip open again that easily. Ones you think have been closed for years and years. All it takes is one off-handed thought, and the pain rises up in your throat like a poison.
I’ve been fighting letting myself get as close to my daughter as my heart really desires because I don’t want her to need me too much. Just in case.
Just in case…
history repeats itself.
I’m not here as long as I want to be.
she HAS to learn to be just as happy with someone else as she is with me.
It’s not that I’m morbid. It’s that I know what can happen. I’ve lived it, so its not as easy for me to pretend I’ll live forever as it is for others who haven’t lived it yet. I’ve been trying to protect Maggie by pushing her away. Just in case.
I don’t want to live that way, keeping my own flesh and blood at arm’s length. People aren’t meant to live in “just in case”. Just in case is what keeps us trapped and living out of only a small corner of our hearts. The fear of “what might happen” is one of the things Jesus came to free us from. To free us from ourselves. To free us for the hope which knows that in the event that what we fear will happen, happens, then we will not suffer alone.
My mother knew this. She must have known this, otherwise how could she have carried a risky pregnancy to term, and why would she have fought so hard for so many years to be with me? She knew she was a sick woman, and that she might not have a very long life. But she took the risk of knowing and loving a child of her own. She chose to live and love out of her entire heart, when it would have been safer and less painful for her to choose otherwise.
Some wounds we think have closed can come open again so easily. But each time this happens, it’s an opportunity to heal a part of the wound. We think it’s all been irrigated, but there’s so much beneath the surface. God tears those wounds open again and again to show us that healing is a process and an invitation.
God opened this wound in me again to invite me to live even more fully, and to give myself even more to the ones I love. Maggie needs me in a way that forces me to confront my fear. Her cries are an invitation to love her until it hurts, in the hope that if I persevere, it won’t hurt anymore. Love will overcome fear. Even though she’s been gone 20 years, my mother continues to teach me these lessons.