You'll regret this when I'm gone, plays like the chorus of my personal theme song, ranging in pitch from my mother's maudlin singsong refrain to my internal panicked staccato of indecision, emitted at a decibel level only perceptible to dogs. The day I found out my mother was dying was a chaotic onslaught of pain deeper than I thought existed; but since then, it has been more of a chronic ache, invasive and unrelenting, tinged with the sting of what's next.

At my mother's request, I started to keep a journal about this experience (to keep track of good memoir material, she instructed). That lasted exactly one full day. Writing about myself has always made me squirm, and truthfully, the only reason I'm doing it now, is because, well, my mother asked me to. So here I go: To avoid the gut-wrenching futility of words, I've chronicled this experience through a form of disengaged introspection I've developed, whereby I remove my self from my focus, and concentrate on all of the interesting new feelings (emotional exhaustion, awesome nothing-could-possibly-hurt-me-more invincibility, mean-spirited anger toward cancer survivors) I have. The combination of this intense self-scrutiny and the sheer enormity of the situation has affected both my feelings and how I experience them, and I now live in a heightened state of emotional engagement that has changed me so much, I'm amazed that people recognize me.

So I take much perverse comfort in something that has, remarkably, stayed constant since the bomb dropped: My family. Eight months ago, I hadn't given much thought about what kind of work being a daughter entailed; my daughterhood seemed limited to the perception of what I considered my "real" character, by specific family members, that changed as I did. Now, I see daughterhood as a separate but interconnected entity, a palpable part of my identity played (now on a full-time, on-call basis) in relation to the analogous roles of three others. However I change as "me," my daughterhood is of a fixed quality and quantity, internally calibrated to balance out the other three. No matter what happens inside or outside the family, our dynamic appears to be set.

So we each play our roles, according to those deeply embedded notions that keep the psychiatric industry flush with patients, but seem to me a very useful instinctual tool for dealing with trauma of the physical, emotional and psychological varieties. When everything else around me became bloated with tragic meaning, and even the simplest choices (Watch The West Wing at my apartment or theirs? Make plans for New Year's or see how things go?) are wrought with an unfamiliar menacing undertone, I was relieved to see that our family drama marched on with the same cast of characters. All the world's a stage, and the four of us are playing our parts with the same idiosyncratic motivations that we have operated under since we started together. And so it goes: I am still the responsible eldest, depended on to be sane enough to take care of myself; my brother, my mother's restless prodigal baby; my father, solid and aloof inside a much-needed protective shell. Each role has its pros and cons: My self-sufficiency is rather a lot of pressure, but has allowed me to slip under the radar when I've needed to. My precocious baby genius brother has violent ambivalence about how much he needs (and wants) to be taken care of. My father's shell is hard to crack, but it's equally hard to break out of. But this experience has convinced me that the devils that I know are always better than the ones I don't.

Which brings me to the most appealing detail of this morbid stability: My mother. Hereditary stubbornness combined with a rash sensibility that I've always found a little wacky have enabled her in the most astonishing way to keep her character solidly intact as her physical body betrays her. While I'm sure that there are plenty of people whose mothers have been known to change their minds, mine is no flip-flopper. (In the recent election she cast another vote for Nader.) There have been no talks of trips to exotic lands, no new pastimes, and her skeptical (to put it VERY nicely) view of religion has only strengthened. My mother, who stopped the chemotherapy because she felt like aliens were invading her body, has stayed her clutter-hating, DVD-buying, aggressively opinionated self, determined to live her life exactly as she had been. Perhaps because of the situation's gravity, she has, in a way, become even more herself than she ever has been, as if character is the only medicine she's willing to be on. Terrified of being motherless, her familiar presence has supported me the same way it always has, and I take ironic comfort in knowing that there is no way I can get through this without her.

Right before I found out about my mother, I wrote an article for this magazine about wedding announcements, a topic I chose because I loved to read them. For a while afterwards, I couldn't stomach them, because what were once fantasy fictions to me began to symbolize something deeply upsetting about my own life. Thinking about the future in any context beyond the next hour became a trauma that left me gasping for breath. My mother will not be at my wedding. My mother will not be a grandmother. She will not see me win a Pulitzer, or get a Ph.D. It was very comforting when I eventually realized that she very well might not see any of these things even if she lived to 103; the shape of time, I understand now, is constantly changing, and to prepare yourself for the un-experienced eventual is a torturous waste of time. But I've also started to bolster myself with another wonderfully immutable fact about my identity that I realized: I will always be my mother's daughter.

Mothers Issue Features:

{ She's Having a Baby: The Lesbian Gayby Boom }
{ Universal Mother: An Interview With Writer Ariel Gore }
{ All About My Mother: The Greatest Movie Moms }
{ Somebody's Mother: A Photo Essay }
{ Losing the Almighty Mother }
{ A Grandmother's Lament }
{ Are You Going to Eat That? Mother's Cooking }

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