We are watching a movie, a romantic comedy, and I don’t even remember the title right now because the movie doesn’t matter; the movie never mattered, it is just the thing we are doing together when I look up to see that Jessica is crying. I have no idea why; there is nothing we have said or done today that would provoke this.
I say, “My goodness, what happened, darlin’ girl?”
“I am so afraid that you will die,” she says.
It shocks me into silence, that she could articulate this. Someone has died in the movie, a minor character, and so I can see why she is thinking of death, but not why she would relate it to her life or to me. As far as I know she doesn’t have the slightest conception of what death is, although she has experienced the loss of people who matter to her.
But to Jessica, losing someone to death is like . . . . birds; they fly south for the winter and as far as she knows they’ll return again some day. She does not understand permanence or forever.
Why should she? Nothing is permanent for her, but that does not mean it is lost. She cannot remember what happened last week but that does not mean it never took place. It is just waiting somewhere for her to find it and she never knows when she might happen upon it again.
But I am taken aback by her weeping. She does not want to lose me. In all of my calculations about the world and What I Will Do About Jessica, it has never once occurred to me that she would mind so very much.
I’m a single mother in my late forties, and years ago I did all the things I was supposed to do to ensure my daughter would be cared for in the event of my death. I took out a life insurance policy, and I made a will, and a healthcare proxy, and a supplemental needs trust. I have named executors and trustees and who I want to be Jessica’s guardian in the event that her father dies at the same time I do, reasonable and rational through it all, not even flinching when the attorney asks me, “How likely is it that she’ll survive you, anyway?”
I don’t know. If you had asked me when she was nine months old, I would have said, “Not at all,” but these days I think she might surprise everyone. In any case, I have always known, then and now, that I will have to outlive her.
When she is in the hospital, and the neurosurgeon is speaking unpronounceable words to me, I cannot bear the thought that she will leave this world, I cannot even contemplate my life without her. But I know that it would be best if someday I were to hear those words: I am sorry but she did not survive. Years from now, of course, decades. But someday.
It is the best thing possible, you see, for her to live a good long life, but not too long. Just long enough that I can share it all with her, to the very end, before I succumb to Alzheimer’s or the infirmities of advanced old age. It would be best for her to go before I do.
If I have one thing to reproach myself for, it is in not having her sooner. I am more than thirty years older than she, and I would have been wiser to have had her at eighteen. The odds would be better, then.
I know that most mothers don’t want to outlive their children, but I do. I know what will happen to her when I die, and it isn’t pretty. It isn’t just that there will be no more trips to Rome, or lunch at Ingredient; no more George Strait on the radio while we make blueberry muffins. It is that they will take away her autonomy, her ability to choose who she will be in this world. They will make her fit into their rules and regulations, and she is a compliant girl, and she will go quietly and die by degrees, and her conversations will go unrecorded by anyone. They will turn her into nothing, bone and ash, and I have struggled so hard to reveal her worth.
There will be a home, I don’t think even the state government of Kansas is so lacking in compassion that she would be forced to live on the streets, although give the governor another twenty years, and who knows. But there will be a group home, I think that is probably true. I have seen how they are run, even by the people who try their hardest and with the best of intentions. They are warehouses for the less-than. It could hardly be another way. There is only so much money, and so much time, and almost no one cares.
I will have to live forever, I tell my friends but what I mean is I will have to outlive my daughter by just one day.
I have never thought this was too much to ask, but I know the universe by now and I will not be surprised if it has no intention of granting my plea. So far it has never granted one single pardon. So I put money in the bank and I say to friends, if you are here after I am gone, please look out for my baby girl.
Jessica does not know about these calculations, or what I talk about when I visit the lawyer. She does not imagine herself in the future at all. I tell her that after she graduates from high school in two years she will need to have a job to do, and even that is so much an abstraction that she can barely understand what I mean.
But she is crying now; she is imagining herself without me and it is deeply upsetting to her. Not because she is concerned about blueberry muffins or no more trips to Ingredient, but because she loves me and cannot imagine herself without me, just exactly as I cannot imagine myself without her.
She has never been a child given to demonstrations of emotion, and even so I have always known that she loves me. But I have always suspected that this is because children love their parents, they can hardly help it, it is part of the pact.
My love for Jessica is raw and bloody and violent and feral and deeply possessive, and if provoked even I do not know what I might do, but I would not be surprised to find it violated every tenet of every law ever laid down by a righteous man.
That is how much I love my daughter, and it has never once occurred to me that she might love me just as well.
Calmly, I tell her that if I die, her father will take care of her, and if he dies, then her grandparents will, and if they die, then our friends will. I name them one by one, a litany meant to reassure her that she will be okay, thinking I need younger friends.
It doesn’t occur to me to lie to her, not till the end when I realize that is what she wants to hear, a lie. I have never lied to her.
“I don’t want you to die,” she sobs and I don’t know what to say. This is not our agreement, somehow. I know the reasons I don’t want me to die, and they are practical, mostly. I want someone to take care of her because she will not be able to take care of herself, and since no one loves her as much as I do, then that person should be me. Only I can’t be sure that will happen and so I make careful plans, and try not to think too far ahead.
I have always thought she loves me insofar as I am her mother, and I take care of her and see her off to school, and take her out to dinner now and then and to lunch on Saturdays. I know what her favorite foods are and how to prepare them, and I know that she likes to go asparagus picking in the spring, and to the zoo in the last light of October.
I love every part of her, the literal part that can only identify sarcasm after careful consideration, the stubborn part that makes her intractable when faced with a challenge she doesn’t care to face, the slow pace she goes, planting one foot carefully in front of the other, because the world is full of dangers for a girl who does not experience it the same way anyone else does.
The asparagus picking and the learning to make risotto are all signs that I love her, they’re the way I show it, but I have never really thought she returns the feeling in the same way. I have made the mistake of thinking she is like anyone’s child, rooted lightly in the soil, and ready for a life away from home.
But she is not that child, and if her love is rooted in dependency, then that is true of mine as well. She is the one who believes in the stories I tell, and helps me bring them into being. She is the one who has never once lost sight of what we are to each other. She knows what our agreement is: that we will take care of each other until the end of our days.
She holds me tight while she cries, and I realize with a shock that she is the only one I have ever loved who has never let me go.
My collection of travel stories, Travels with Jessica, is now available! Kindle and paperback here; other ebook formats here. And I’ve published my essay “For Jessica” as a small book. Kindle and paperback here; other ebook formats here.
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