02/28/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

That Night

All those tricks to extricate myself from the depths of anxiety came in handy when my mother had emergency surgery after a botched endoscopy. That was four years ago: The beginning of her decline. My father and brother were with her in Boston as I sat in New York, squirming, flipping channels on the television where nothing captured my attention, waiting until 4 a.m. for the "all clear" call...then wondrous at the notion that I could barely wait to go to Boston, see her, touch her, have her ask in that inimitable way, "What is that you're wearing?" I fantasized further, pictured her, in that imperious way, looking me up and down, asking "And those shoes! Don't they hurt your feet? Oh my, they're so pointy."

I longed for her words, all too often laced with what I perceived as criticism, as I felt reduced to 12 again.

That night, her words would have been the proverbial music to my ears. Since then, her words became increasingly absent.

That night, I never really fell asleep. Vignettes of life with my mother passed through my mind, making me alternately angry, melancholy, happy, and frightened. The anger was puzzling until it dawned on me that I literally hated the fact that she was weak and vulnerable. It all distilled: Anger was a form of fear at a safer distance. And then the confession that even in my fifties, I was still my mother's child.

Being a mother is not easy. We can do as much damage as good if we're not careful. Having been a mother now for 25 years, I'm painfully aware of this responsibility. It's a fine line between when to hold on or let go; when to speak or remain silent. Sometimes it feels like no matter what we do or say, it's never the right thing at the right time. The dual threat and promise that "You'll understand once you have children" is quite the truth. Even doing "our best" is often not good enough.

My generation of daughters were determined to be "different" than our mothers. We, the brave ones, kept our last names when we married, forged careers, raised children. We seized a luxurious sense of guarded entitlement, courage, confided in girlfriends, formed women's groups.

The boundaries between my mother and me were often blurred: She was my friend; she was my mother. I was her friend; I was her daughter. I wanted to be like her; I wanted to be like me. Once, she suggested that keeping my "maiden name" might be an affront to my husband - to which I replied hotly, "I was never a maiden." She also asked if my working would "sit well" with my husband. Yet, as the years wore on, my mother became my champion, espousing what she called "feminist causes" to the point where she wanted to burn her bra a generation too late.

Unlike my sons, my daughter alternately sings my praises, and blames me for whom she is and isn't. My sons lack the palpable conflict. "I'm just like you," Ellie will say in a moment of gratitude after she cooks an impromptu dinner for a crowd or writes a logical essay on Nietzsche. Yet when it comes to the emotional, what is not mundane and cerebral, she'll condemn me - especially when her heart feels like it's breaking, and it's right there on her sleeve. As well, she'll condemn me when she sees my heart breaking. Clearly, if I am to shatter, who'll take care of her? Or worse, if I'm too strong, too cavalier, too stoic - where does that leave her when she feels fragile? Does it mean she's not good enough? Not tough enough? Unquestionably, sometimes it's difficult to tell where one of us leaves off and the other begins. With my sons, if I'm crying, they'll throw a sweaty arm around me and joke me out of it.

I called my mother once she got to her room. My brother answered. "She's doing great," he said.

"She's looks pretty damn good," my father said, intercepting the phone.

Then she took the receiver. "I'm really not okay," she said tentatively, her voice no longer her own.

I felt the synapse between anger and compassion. Why wasn't she reassuring? What compelled her to confess her weakness? There was that hazy line between us as she lay in a bed between her son and husband who put the equivalent of the sweaty arm around her.

"I know you're not OK," I said.

Her confession; my concession. She became a mortal woman for a moment. The mother-daughter stuff was put aside. It was only about her, not me as her extension.

Still sawing away at the cord.