This essay is excerpted from the author’s memoir-in-progress, The Vulgar American.
In May of 2019, I’d been living in the U.K. for four months, and suddenly I was hearing a lot less frequently from my mom. She wasn’t feeling well. She was often at the doctors. She was losing weight. Having trouble keeping food down. They kept prescribing her things for stomach ulcers and sending her home.
But nothing about your diet has changed, I said.
I took a lot of Advil the other day, she said.
You always take Advil.
I know, but this was a lot. And with wine.
I don’t think so, Mom. I knew that when she said wine, she meant one glass, two at most. Are you stressed about something?
No, she said.
Then it doesn’t make sense.
I was taught that an easy way to write fiction was to create a character who wants something. And then to place obstacles in front of that character. And watch them overcome those obstacles
Every time I tried to write fiction this way, I failed.
Sometimes I didn’t understand a person wanting something that wasn’t achievable. Sometimes I didn’t understand an obstacle that could be overcome.
The obstacles life threw at me were disasters that couldn’t be faced or overcome or fixed. They stopped me. They stopped me and on the other side of obstacles like that, I no longer wanted the things I wanted before.
And what was it that I wanted? I wanted to go to grad school, so I applied to many and went to the one program that offered me a full ride (both times). I wanted to go to Canada, so I applied to grad school again, and I didn’t get in, so my family didn’t get to go. I had to want something else, something new, because the things I wanted had clear paths and clear dead ends.
Was I supposed to dream bigger? Was I supposed to dream more abstractly? Was I supposed to be pining after someone or something unlikely? Was I supposed to, in the end, surprise myself?
When I wrote Naamah, she didn’t want anything. She was set on a path by her husband and had to make the best of it.
As her author, I offered her things, escapes, gifts, friendships, lovers—the opposite of obstacles. I could never have sat down to the page and offered that woman obstacles, forced them on her.
I felt like No-Face in Spirited Away, holding out handfuls of gold to Chihiro, making a gentle noise, uh, uh.
And as I was not offering gold or greed, as I was not judging her, ever, Naamah took her time and considered her gifts, and often gently refused them, just as Chihiro had.
A woman often cannot want.
A woman makes do.
A woman makes do well, but that is not to be confused with a woman who is happy.
I often considered the happiness of a woman who wants and pursues. But I did not write about that woman because I had never met a woman like that.
When my mother was getting sick, I was running out of my medicine. The doctors in the U.K. gave me the exact prescriptions as I’d had before, but when I went to the pharmacy, the Trazadone wasn’t there.
What do you mean?
We don’t have it.
Yes. I understand that. When will you have it?
We don’t know.
I stopped myself from asking What do you mean? again. Instead I said, What do I do?
We’ll call you when we have it.
But you don’t know when that will be?
No. I said it to myself.
The day I found out my mother’s pancreatic cancer diagnosis, I walked into my doctor’s practice and said I needed grief counseling. They made me the appointment to discuss that with my doctor for 10 minutes.
I’m changing so many words to Americanize my language. I went to my surgery. They made an appointment for me to see my GP. I lived in a flat. My son went to primary school. Next he would go to secondary school. I said ground floor to get around not saying first floor. And so on. And so on.
I was living a life I almost recognized in a language I almost recognized. The new words and appropriate contexts weren’t hard to learn, and yet they made everything seem slightly off, like Britain was the other side of a shimmering field that separated two parallel universes, and the big differences were in the healthcare system and the thing I missed most was Target.
I learned how to sleep without the Trazadone. I didn’t fall asleep immediately anymore, but it happened. Perhaps because my first response to my mother’s sickness was that I was much more prone to sleep. At night. During the day. Anytime no one needed anything of me.
I no longer needed anything of myself. Not to eat or write or amuse myself or feel purpose. Nothing.
I’d tell myself that I’d enjoy going to see a movie, and then I’d sleep in the theater. I was like the old man in the back row. I should have sat next to him. My snoring woke me up.
At another point in my life, I would have been embarrassed. Not then.
I was most awake from 3:30 pm to 6:30 pm—the hours between when my son came home from school and my husband came home from work. For three hours every day I was alive and brimming and engaged. That was what I could handle.
And those hours brought me joy.
I was living for those hours and those hours made me understand what I was living for and what life was and what I wanted more of, the most of. Though this is more about what happened after she died, and not about early that summer when she got sick.
My mother read more than anyone I knew. More than any English teacher, more than any writer, more than any student of writing. She read the Booker Prize winner every year and then she’d read the finalists and then she’d go back and read the winners from the ‘70s when she got bored.
She’d fall in love with an author and read every book they’d ever written. I remember when she did this with Atwood, and I fell in love with the dust jacket of The Blind Assassin with its thick paper and gold lettering. I was 16.
She’d read all the classics—everything by Dickens, Tolstoy, Hemingway. And she’d read the less literary, too. She knew when to give me The Clan of the Cave Bear. When to give me The Thorn Birds. When to give me The Fountainhead.
And when I wanted literary: The Source, Mila 18, Marjorie Morningstar. My whole reading life was guided by her. Often I’d already read the books assigned in English class a few years before at her recommendation. The Catcher in the Rye, A Separate Peace, Of Mice and Men.
She didn’t mind when I didn’t like something—like For Whom the Bell Tolls. She gave me the next book. Sometimes we read a breakout hit one right after the other. She’d finish and then the copy would become mine. This is how we read the Best American Short Stories collection every year, too.
She was honest and frank about the books and their shortcomings, but she always read them to the end. She could always find something to admire.
When she got sick she couldn’t read, and she didn’t want to talk about books either. We were both thinking it. I was bringing up books she would never get to read.
I didn’t think about whether my mother was a woman who wanted things unless she asked me to.
Do you think I should have been a teacher? she asked.
I don’t know. You loved teaching.
This was after she retired. She had taken more and more classes about different art forms since then. Sculpture, upholstery, basket-weaving.
I think I should have been an artist. or I think I could have been an artist. or Do you think I should have been an artist?
Artists don’t make much money. It’s not a good life.
She knew when I spoke like this, I was speaking about my own life, but she didn’t comment on that part of what I was saying, that underlying simmer.
I think I could have, she said.
When I was very young, I realized my mother hadn’t done things because she had had me. She often talked about the travel she had thought she would do. I cried.
Why are you crying? she asked me.
I tried to explain that I’d kept her from what she wanted. I’d changed her. I’d held her up. I’d stopped her.
No, she said. Well, yes, she said. Of course you did, she said. But because I wanted you to. Because I wanted you.
It wasn’t easy to explain for either of us.
My mother didn’t say—Don’t worry. We can still do those things. Or I can still do those things.
I swore to myself that when I had a child, I would still do everything I wanted to do. I would strap him to me and take him with me and off we would go.
It was a naïve way to think about life and children and wants. But it helped me to have the child I wanted, and then keep living.
I also thought about my mother differently after that, as if she had submitted to her life. Given in and given up.
That, too, was naïve.
She had shaped her life. She had filled it with the things she wanted—her children—and then provided for us. And she’d done it better than I ever could.
And when we got older she traveled and made art and had her musings about her what-ifs.
Life is long and different parts of it capture us, and that can look like resignation, but it’s the impositions of the things we want, and the needs of those things change, and life changes again. And if you never felt resigned to it, then you weren’t. You were waiting.
Naamah, and all the women in my books, are apologies to my mother, for misunderstanding.
How did you teach a life like that to fiction writers? How did you teach a woman’s life?
Was the craft of fiction around desire and obstacle taught by men and for men, for men protagonists and men readers? Was fiction part of the patriarchy? Was the craft of fiction part of the patriarchy?
The answers were all yes, and the answers were always surprising only because I had never thought of the questions before.
The pharmacy called two months later and said they had my Trazadone.
I don’t want it, I said. Even though I did want it. I wanted it badly. But I didn’t want to come to rely on it again, and then be told I could not have it.
My whole life was a reminder of everything I had come to rely on that was no longer mine to have.
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