It's One Big Happy Family season here at This Writer's Life. In celebration of the book's paperback release I have asked a number of the writers from "One Big Happy Family: 18 Writers Talk About Open Adoption, Mixed Marriage, Polyamory, Househusbandry, Single Motherhood, and Other Realities of Truly Modern Love," to reflect upon how things have changed (or remained the same) in their own lives since they wrote their essays over a year ago. Further, I've also asked various writers I admire to discuss their wild, messy, loving, non-traditional families as well. Below, Lily Diamond talks about her happy family:
After Mom, Dad.
Exactly one year and eight months after my mom died, I dream that I am having sex with her, or some version of her that has a huge phallus. We are in my childhood bed, and my dad pokes his head around the corner to see what's happening. His eyes widen and his eyebrows rise. "What's going on here?" He questions tentatively, confused. I don't say anything, but look back and forth between he and my strange mother-phallus figure and feel a nauseating, whole-body rejection of the incestuous intimacy my dream has proposed.
The dream arrived on the eve of an evidently productive therapy session. I went in complaining of a strange numbness, an inability to feel anything except a cloying, angsty, foot-stomping grief for my mom. I was in a haze, where everything--a stubbed toe, a restaurant running out of the soup I wanted for lunch, my chronic despair over being single--morphed into the sad, dense fog of my mother's absence. I began losing sleep in my sudden fear that I, the one who always laughed, cried, and felt too much, was actually not feeling anything at all.
"You can get the kind of love and support you received from your mother again," my therapist insisted. "Just not in the same way." I looked at her askance, and imagined to whom I would go for mothering: older female friends, teachers, a romantic partner, or my father? The idea seemed somehow spiteful, a betrayal of my mother's capacity to mother me, even after her own unexpected departure from my life. There again was that obstinate wall of numbness in me, the other side of which was the suspicion that I didn't really want to let anyone else do my mother's job. I just wanted to keep missing her, maintaining the illusion that she might come back. That she might not have really left me.
But my dream shocked me into readiness for change. As an only child entwined in the codependent love-magic of an almost too-good mother, I suddenly knew I could not keep living as though she might magically return to shower me with unconditional mother's milk. Since her death, I had begun to look to Dad for the loving sensitivity that used to come from Mom. And most of the time, I ended up a crushed petunia, bludgeoned by the reality that my father would not ever be able to replace my mother.
I struggled to understand the new and irreparably askew version of our family, sans mom. It felt unwieldy and hopeless to me at times. My father set about building a whole new life, renovating the termite-ridden farmhouse where I grew up, selling the business he built with my mom, and finding a new girlfriend. I felt so left behind in my own grief that I balked at his seemingly insensitive ability to move forward. Although I wanted him to be happy, it also felt completely unfair that he was able to replace the role my mother held in his life, or at least approximate the partnership. Each step forward of his seemed like a step away from me and my mom, apart from what the three of us were together.
My father and I did try to support each other, asking, "How are you?" and "Do you want to talk about it?" But our attempts always fizzled out with disappointment or erupted into tearful arguments about his inability to parrot to me the comforting words I wished he'd use. His way of communicating, so unlike the intuitive, soothing reinforcement I used to receive from my mom, only made me miss her more. I kept wanting him to be just like her, and kept getting banged up along the way to realizing he would never be.
In my dream, though, I was ready to respond to my father's question, his desire to help me individuate. Perhaps I was ready to drop the shield of my mother's loss and actually see my father for who he was. I knew I had to stop wishing he were more like my mother and actually find out what he himself was offering me--who he was as a father. Instead of lashing out at him in my own anger and grief every time he failed to be the mother I was wanting, I decided to try being patient. I no longer wanted to bear the burden of expecting him to understand everything I felt, or even to miss my mom in the same way that I did. I was done with the tit for tat of grieving, comparatively quantifying our losses and pains. Most of all, I wanted us to feel like a family again, even though I didn't know how that would really look or feel.
Now, as we each do our own unique dance around my mother's absence, we find a strange new balance in our lives. At his seasoned age of seventy-two and my utterly green twenty-six, my mother's passing thrust us into death's inescapable finality. In that darkness, we doggedly grope to regain our selves, to possibly know each other as individuals, and to awaken together as a family without her.
Lily Diamond was raised on Maui and educated at Yale University. She likes pomegranates, yoga, mixed metaphors, and other curiosities of being a human animal. She is a Jivamukti Yoga® teacher, yoga therapist, and freelance editor. Lily is the author of a forthcoming collection of essays about death, family, and a girl's search for perfection.