I was 8 when my mother died. She died at 35 of breast cancer, though it would be years before I knew that.
Over time, I developed the belief that because she was dead, certain knowledge eluded me. If I had a mother, I’d think, I’d know how to walk in heels and sit like a girl. I’d know what to carry in a purse or how to operate a curling iron. I’d probably know the difference between shampoo and conditioner, and I’d certainly know that breastfeeding mothers offered only milk, not milk through one breast, orange juice through the other. These were small things, but later, I’d want to know what to say to boys, the specific mechanics of sex and how to alleviate cramps. I felt sure that girls with mothers knew everything.
My father remarried two years after my mom died, so in a way I recouped a mother. But I did not see her as a mother figure. I did not see her as anyone other than the person my father married. We fought, all of us, my father, my stepmother, my two stepsiblings. We fought in words and sometimes with our fists. And the fighting finally got to be too much because one day, in 1985, my stepmother and father lined up suitcases in our foyer and told us kids to leave because we could not live by God’s rules and therefore, we could not live in their house. My brother, David, was nearly 17. My stepsiblings were 20 and 17. I was 16.
And then I was off, and in the world, living at first out of my car, and then on friends’ couches, and then finally, once I was old enough to sign a lease, in apartments of my own. I worked low-wage jobs, got my G.E.D., went to college and eventually traveled. My stepmother was neither in nor out of my life. I didn’t go out of my way to ignore her, but I also did not seek her or my father out. My parents were evangelical. I was a nonbeliever. Though that word suggests a lack of belief, the truth is, I hold many beliefs — just not the same ones they held.
My travels eventually took me to live in Cambodia. Many Khmer people believe that there is a world of spirits who live parallel to our human world. Spirits can inhabit the tops of tall trees, make trouble in the life of the living, inhabit the bodies of dogs. The spirits are not those of spooky monsters and creaky homes. They are often ancestors to which we the living must pay homage, to remember them and give them offerings so that they don’t suffer in their next life.
As an American, I rejected such beliefs. As the years went by, though, I began to hear more stories of ghosts, not just from Cambodians but also from expat friends. There was the ghost who’d shake my friend Wynne awake in the night and not stop until Wynne said soothing things out loud: “You’ll be OK. I mean you no harm.” There was the State Department friend who woke in a hotel room one night to see a man walk across the floor and disappear. In the morning, her husband told her he’d seen him, too.
And then one afternoon, 30 years after my mother’s death, her spirit came to me in my Phnom Penh apartment. It was monsoon season, the light in my living room a mustardy yellow, and I was alone. What do you say when the person you love most in the world returns? I told my mom how much of my life she’d missed. I told her of relatives who’d died. I spoke aloud, into the humid air.
And then I knew there was only one question I truly had for her. “I wish you were here,” I said, “to help me decide if I should have a child.”
Hearing her answer, I felt a kind of tremor in my body, some long-held artifice beginning to crumble. It was what friends with living mothers had told me for years: that there are no real guidelines, that the answers must come from inside us. It seems so obvious now, and yet to hear her say it was to disengage from a belief about my own deficits that had guided so much of my life. I had been holding on to an idea that said I was ignorant and would always be ignorant about myself, that I had lost my chance to live as a woman shaped by intention rather than loss.
This is what my mother said: Even if I were, I couldn’t help you with that decision.
I gave birth to my daughter two years later, at a hospital in Bangkok. We returned to America when she was a toddler. And upon our return, I decided that my daughter would know her grandparents. My dad and stepmother and I had fought and caused each other so much pain over the years, but I did not think it fair to let my daughter inherit these fights. She could choose to love her grandparents or not, but the choice would be hers.
So we visited annually. My father would take my daughter to the Walmart Supercenter to wander the aisles, and then they would have ice cream.
My stepmother’s cancer came in 2015. Colorectal. My dad called me and said, “We could use some help.” I went as soon as I could. I was cooking mushroom soup for them to freeze when they came to my brother’s house, where I was staying. My stepmother had tubes coming from so many different places that I couldn’t track them all, but I heard them gently slap against each other. She carried her own pillow. She ran her hand through her hair, then looked in her palm and her face crumpled.
“Your mother was so brave, Rachel,” she whispered.
I had never heard her speak of my mother. It immediately felt sacred, women whispering to each other from other universes, other realms, other lives.
I asked her what cancer felt like in her body. It was an audacious question from someone who had maybe not earned the right to such intimacies. But she didn’t look surprised or refuse to answer. Instead, she began to talk. She told me that it wasn’t her body anymore, that even if she somehow miraculously recovered, it would never be her body again, not the body she had once known. She talked more to me that first night than in many previous years combined.
We talked regularly after that, several times a week. I’d fly out with or without my daughter. I saw her month after month as the cancer claimed more of her. Her body was a sapling, her knees like floodlights. She weighed 95.6 pounds.
My father and I ran errands one day, and I said to him, “No one talked about Mom,” meaning my real mother. “I didn’t know she died of cancer for years.”
“You didn’t? But all those trips in and out of the hospital. All that chemo.”
“I knew she was sick. I only ever thought she’d be sick. I didn’t know she could die.”
I understood then what my stepmother had known all along: that she was allowing me to ask all the questions I could never ask my real mother. She’d said once, “I’m so sorry you’re going through this again.” I felt a gratitude for this mobius strip of mothers, how one led me to the other, and that other led me right back.
I asked my stepmother, “Are you afraid?” She had just returned home from yet another hospital visit.
“I was afraid,” she told me. But then a chaplain came and talked to her and my father, and finally, she told my father: no more. She told him he could still hope, and she would hope, too, for a miracle. But in the meantime, she said she felt ready and she needed him to be with her. She said her angel had been in her room all week; she could see him as clearly as she could see me now. I thought of how in Cambodia death is just the end of a cycle, making space to start all over again.
I helped her to the toilet and she pointed to her C-section scars, all four of them. Then she asked if I had one. I unbuttoned my jeans, pulled them down slightly. “They’ve gotten better, haven’t they?” she said. This is where we meet, women and our bodies. I told her the story of my daughter’s birth in Bangkok and she said, “I like that story, Rache.” I sank down to my knees on the floor, laid my head on her hospital bed beside her hip. She put her hand on me.
Then she said, “Can I talk to you about the Lord? I just have to because he’s my life.”
Jesus was on her right side at that moment and her guardian angel was on her left. She could see them. They didn’t talk, except once to say that everything would be all right. She just wanted me to know she could see them, her angel and her Jesus, that they had come to help her on her journey to wherever and whatever came next.
I nodded, listening. I believed her. Of course I did. We travel with our ghosts. Who better to lead us to what comes next? Our next life, our heaven, the birth of a daughter, a new mother, an old one.
I understood then. She wasn’t telling me a story of Christianity or faith or spirituality. She wasn’t even telling me a story about God. She was just telling me a love story. And I was part of it.
Rachel Louise Snyder (@RLSWrites), a professor at American University, is the author of the forthcoming memoir “Women We Buried, Women We Burned.”
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