Sometimes, one little word can change everything.
Language has always been tricky for Cathy and I to find the right words to describe what we are experiencing and who we are to each other. Others box us into words that don’t fit very well and the daunting truth remains quietly in flux with our paradox, unattended by the right words. The love that anchors us is stingy with words but we are grounded at the core even without them.
They’re just words. Words to describe us are often are contradictory, bordering on the ironic and suggest complexity bigger than our connection. Mother-daughter. Relinquishment-reunion. Adoption-birthright. Lost-found.
We’ve tried to respond to each other with honesty even when we’re at a loss for words. The people we were when we were younger remind us of where we’ve been as we look for ways to talk about where we are now with others like us and around us. We both go through this, it’s two sides of the experience we share.
After Cathy’s firstborn arrived years ago, she announced to me over brunch that she didn’t want me to use “the M word” anymore in relation to her. In a soft voice she listed the reasons with a firm but practical tone. She was a new mother and now she knew the difference. I hadn’t done any of those things with her. Her mothering came from her adoptive mother and that word belonged only to her. I took in what she said and nodded without argument. “It’s only a word” I said to myself. I asked her if it was okay to continue to call her my daughter. She nodded yes, and said that was fine. I was relieved. She was all that mattered to me in that conversation.
I was careful not to use “the M word” after that day. Nothing closer than the more acceptable (there’s that paradox again) assignations of “birthmother” or “first mother” came from me. I don’t like those names but it didn’t matter. It didn’t change who I was or what I felt. I didn’t care what she called me. I dropped the qualifier and referred to her adoptive mother as her mother from then on, and took my place in the language of our relationship. In my heart I knew what I knew – that we were more – and I didn’t need a name. She would know me by who I was – by my voice, by my laughter, by all we shared – not by a moniker that only reminded her of someone else and who I hadn’t been to her when she needed me most. It made me sad and I understood.
The surprise came on my birthday in late October. I arrived home from work to a lady on my wet doorstep holding a delivery in the rain of an outrageous bouquet of flowers tied up in brown paper from the exotic florist on the corner. Birthdays and holidays were often a source of discomfort for Cathy and I had learned not to expect anything. Mystified, I thanked the woman and carried them into the kitchen and turned on the light. When I saw the card I started to cry.
“Happy birthday, Mama! Love, Cathy” was written with a flourish in a confident hand.
Stunned, I looked again to be sure I was seeing it right. “The florist must have gotten it wrong” I said aloud. It even looked like her handwriting, though I knew it couldn’t be. “Maybe Cathy had a drink and felt mushier than usual and dared to say this because she knew I’d like it?” I knew that wasn’t like her but scratched my head. “Is it a joke? Did she mean to do that?” “Is this real?” I put the flowers in a vase from the cupboard and loosened the arrangement. “Should I call her and thank her, or wait to see if she meant to do this?” “Will she be embarrassed if I love this?” “Did she really say this?””Is this her? Are these her words?” The flowers were incredibly beautiful but my eyes were glued to the card. I went from exhilaration to confusion to doubt and looked again. Yet there it was. The M word.
I didn’t know what to do so I took a picture of it with my phone. My heart lilted as a swift of joy winged up from some secret tunnel deep down under the skin of my heart. Even though I was still uncertain, it’s magic began to sink in. It didn’t matter. What’s in a word, right? Even if this was a mistake or some kind of hoax, something unlocked in that moment. The truth was that the gift had been given. Her acknowledgement was embedded in an armful of flowers on my birthday. It was intentional. She had given me a name. There it was, a boldly written word that had never been uttered before. Mama. I am mama. I’m her mama. She called me mama. Call me Mama. That’s who I am.
One little word can change everything.
To read my daughter’s counterblog, please visit ReunionEyes.