By Francesca Grossman
My childhood stairs were carpeted red with little black flecks. The rug was threadbare in places, and I spent hours every day pulling the little wiry strings back to reveal more wood. The stairs always squeaked as they do in old houses, so that later, as a teenager, I knew exactly which side of which step to avoid when I snuck out to meet my boyfriend in the dead of night.
I felt most comfortable on those stairs, perched on the small landing exactly three stairs from the top, where upstairs became downstairs and daytime became nighttime.
I floated down those stairs once; I can still feel the flight in my flesh, the ultimate little girl freedom dream when life had yet to leaden me. That night of the floating dream, I ended up pouring a glass of milk in the kitchen, the cold white liquid overflowing the tall glass, spilling on my hand and then the linoleum floor, waking me up.
One winter afternoon when I was about seven, my father came back from the hospital after having surgery on his hands. He had arthritis, and it was bad enough that he had to “fix his thumbs” in my mother’s words. All I remember was he disappeared rather suddenly, and was gone at least a week.
It was a Saturday morning, and I wore a flannel nightgown with a lace collar and elastic wrists I would pull until they ripped and stretched. I wore my nightgown all day on the weekends, feeling the freedom of a day without pants.
My father was a gorgeous man. Still is. Tan, thin, one part Cary Grant, one part The Man with the Yellow Hat. His mole, black and distinctive, sat right on his cheekbone, below his left eye. When he walked in the front door, which was directly at the bottom of the stairs, my mother had to help him take off his coat. She had driven him home. His thumbs were wrapped in white braces wrapped in Velcro to render them immovable.
“Hey, CiCi,” he said.
“Hi, Daddy,” I said, and came down the stairs from my perch, not knowing whether to hug him in case I would hurt him.
“Miss me?” he asked.
“I missed you,” he said, and ran one finger under my chin, feeling the soft skin there. The Velcro scratched my neck, but I kept that to myself. He kissed my head.
He went into the kitchen to talk to my mother and I stayed in the foyer, the black marbled linoleum cold under my feet.
A little later, after he went upstairs to rest, I crept up after him and sat again on the stairs, slowly inching my way toward his room. The door was closed and no light shone through the crack at the bottom. I reached the doorframe and sat outside. The old floor was hardwood and splintery, and I arranged my nightgown so that I wouldn’t sit directly on the prickly bits.
At first, I thought my father had the TV on. Long low moans punctuated by hiccupping sobs filtered through the doorjamb.
Then it hit me—my father was crying.
I had never heard my father cry before, though I would hear it again in the years to come. But on this day in my childhood, I had never even considered my father crying a possibility. He was a mostly happy man who only seemed to ever get upset when I woke him up from a nap, or when my sister and I would pretend to run away, filling our knapsacks with stuffed animals for dramatic emphasis.
My mother was always the anxious one, the rule maker, the one who checked the stove twice before we left, even though she hadn’t used it that day.
I didn’t know what to do. I scooted closer to the white, peeling door and held my arms wide and flat. I pressed my face up against it, and closed my eyes, smelling the old paint. I stayed there, hugging that door, for a long while, knowing that I couldn’t go in, but not willing to leave.
My narrative on love, marriage and parenting was tight and exact. Everyone in my family met young, married young, and stayed together until they were old. I grew up with parents and grandparents all who were still together and (mostly) happy. The people in my family loved their children fiercely. There was never a doubt in my mind that my parents would do anything for me or for my sister, anything at all. I never wondered if they wanted me, I never felt as though I didn’t fit in the family. There still is no doubt in my mind about that. If I call, they come. It has been tested more than once, even in my darkest days. That’s it.
I think, as a child, my understanding of this kind of love made me feel protected and safe. As I grew up and moved away, I set a goal for myself: give myself to other people, especially my future children, with a feverish protection of love.
So when I heard my dad cry from pain, or I saw my mom anxious and worried, or any sliver of doubt made its way under my fingernails, it unwound me. It shook me to see them shaken, and I didn’t know how to deal with that. What I decided on was probably the worst way to deal with anxiety: stomach it all and not let the unraveling show.
In a sense, it was this self-magnified promise of parental love and safety that rooted something in me that was both good and bad: a deep need to echo my childhood, and an even deeper fear that I wouldn’t be able to.
As long as I can remember, I have been a hopeless maternal. I would mother my friends, my pets, my sister and my stuffed animals. I wanted to be able powerful, multitasking, strong. Like my own mother.
My mother put us before herself at every instance. There was never any doubt in my mind that my sister and I were the best things that had happened to her. There was never any competition with friends, or work, or life, really. As I look back, I realize this may not have been the healthiest reality for her, but for us, it was paradise. And it was the way I learned what motherhood meant—giving everything, all of myself, to everyone else.
Every summer, still now, my family rents a cottage on a beach in Cape Cod. The house is tiny and sparse, but the beach is expansive, spectacular, ours.
Almost every day, we would walk down to the completely desolate part of the beach, about a half a mile from the eighty stairs that took us up the dune and back to our cottage. There was clay that made itself from the water and the sand and the wind and we would paint it on ourselves with our fingers, sure it would do something magical to our skin and soul.
My mother, sister and I were painting with the magic clay when a gust of wind blew by, whipping sand into our faces. My sister got sand in her eyes and she burst into tears. Later in life, my sister’s eyes would get her into or out of anything she wanted, but back then, a child of four or five, they got in her way. Catlike, huge, taking up half of her face, they were quick to catch pinkeye and seemed to always be irritated by something.
“Get it out, get it out,” my sister shrieked, holding her little balled-up hands against her eye sockets, hopping on one foot to the other. I had closed my eyes in time, my seven- or eight-year-old self much more sandstorm savvy. Plus, my eyes were a much smaller target – relatively normal sized, and plainer than my sister’s.
“Stop, wait, stop!” my mother exclaimed as my sister jumped around in agony. We had nothing with us, no towel, not even a tee shirt.
“It hurts,” my sister cried.
My mother paused.
“Ok, hold on.” She kneeled on the sand next to my sister. Her red bathing suit wedged up her bum but she didn’t move to pick it; she was working. The tan line on her rearend made a perfect “V.”
My mother pulled my sister’s head close to her face.
“Here,” she said. And she put her lips right up against one eye, and then the other, licking her eyelids.
“Ew,” I said, but quietly.
She did it again, slowly, making sure to get the sides of the eyes too.
“Ok, now try to open.”
My sister opened one eye slowly, blinking rapidly, then the other. She looked around.
“It’s gone,” she said.
The awe I felt watching my mother lick the sand out of my sister’s eyes was palatable. That was the kind of thing that big love makes. That was motherhood. My mother was a master of motherhood. She put us first always. She’d lick the sand from our eyes.
In that moment, as I watched my mother heal my sister, I knew I needed to have children of my own someday; even then, I wanted the ability to come up with a solution out of thin air. I wanted to love my children with that kind of thick, unconditional, and obvious maternal love. And I’ll be honest: I wanted, of course, to be loved with that kind of awe too. I wanted, I still want, I think, the kind of gratitude that my sister had for my mother in that moment. Her mommy stopped her pain.
I was twenty-nine and had just had surgery to remove my thyroid and the cancer had grown. I was also sick with Crohn’s disease and a peripheral arthritis that brought me to my knees. I was stricken with insomnia and used that time to internally obsess about whether it would be selfish to have a baby in my state, to the point where it’s all I could think about. It was taking over every inch of my headspace, and I was slowly starting to drive myself crazy. What would I do with my life if I didn’t have children? What would my husband do? Would he leave? Should he leave? Should I leave to save him that choice?
There’s no clear prognosis with Crohn’s. Usually, hopefully, it was possible to get it under control and live a long, happy life. Doctors, patients and the internet showed me the gamete of other dire possibilities. Since then, I have heard more varying and optimistic versions. But it’s also very possible that my life could be spent in and out of hospitals, having numerous surgeries, living with very little energy and a low quality of life. Even if I never got worse, living a life I had been living—having to be within a ten-foot vicinity of a clean, private bathroom, hiding my depression from my friends, having a difficult time walking, standing up, sitting down, lying down, turning over—wasn’t a great indication of the life I would lead in the future. I could get better, sure, but what if I didn’t? What if I got worse?
My doctors had told me that the Crohn’s was an indication that I had very severe inflammation response, and the thyroid cancer was just one more confirmation that my immune system was severely off kilter. When foreign agents entered my system, my body tried to kill them. Why would that not happen with a fetus? Why would my body spare those new cells when it won’t anything else?
Also, this disease (and my other autoimmune maladies) was genetic. My father suffered from several ailments, as did my grandmother. What right did I have to pass that on to an innocent child?
I kept overthinking, bringing myself into reality: What would I do if I had children, but I couldn’t care for them? What if the cancer comes barreling back? What if I was too tired to help take care of them? What if my husband, Nick resented how much work of a burden he had to shoulder?
My mouth felt coated in cotton and tasted like play dough. Some of my prescriptions came with a side effect of dry mouth, and the aftertaste of the pills was always salty and surprising. I grabbed the water bottle by my side of the bed and took a long swig.
I knew Nick was sleeping, but I started talking to him anyway.
“What if it doesn’t happen, or maybe worse? What if it does happen but then I kill it?” I said.
“You are not going to kill it,” Nick said sleepily, as if he anticipated me waking him up with that thought. He sighed, turning over to face me.
Our bedroom had one big window right next to the bed. I stared out of it in my insomniac nights, watching the trees. The phone lines and their birds turned from black silhouettes to 3-D as the morning arrived. Pinks and oranges painted the sky. Clouds swirled above the buildings and the trees. It was so big, that sky, it made me feel like I could believe in some sort of God.
“What if I can’t take care of one?” I asked again.
“Well, I think you can, but I know what you’re saying,” he said.
The sunrise was blocked by the building across the street, but I got up and climbed onto the windowsill to peer around it, trying to find the sun.
“We could just try,” Nick said from the bed.
“Yeah, we could.”
I searched the sky for the answer to the real question: could I live with not being a mother? Could I live without giving birth? Could I? Could I really be like my mom on that day on the beach, ready for anything, giving it my all? Or would I be like her in different ways, ones less strong?
We are not supposed to remember things before we are four, but I do, down to the feel of the wallpaper.
I remember my mother, deep in her bed with her socks on, sticking out. She never wore socks, so I remember it surprised me. Her heels were always cracked, like mine are now, and though she perpetually tried to soften them, with creams and gels and special razors, in the summer they immediately toughened up, calloused and yellow and split as soon as she set foot on them. There was nothing wrong with her skin; it was just the way she was put together.
When I was about twenty years old, my mother told me that the best thing she learned in therapy during that period was that at a certain point you get to choose if you want to stay miserable. I’m not sure when that choice happens. After all, we can live inside of sadness for a long time before we see the choice as real.
I remember my father looking for me, I could hear him call, and I realized after a moment that my mother didn’t see me. She was sleeping, maybe. She had been in bed for days, maybe weeks, though at age two I should not have been able to remember anything like this, especially not the feel of time.
It was summer. The big fan in the attic was whirling. The air was heavy and hot. I sat on the coarse bright red and white rug on the floor of my parents’ room and looked at my mother’s face. It looked creased and old, though she was just over thirty. Her long dark brown hair spilled over the side of the bed but a thin piece stuck to her cheek with what I realize now was a glue of dried tears.
Something was different about my mother then. She was skinnier than I remembered, weaker. Her fingers were bare, her plain thick gold wedding ring sat on the mirrored tray on her dresser next to the perfume she didn’t wear anymore.
I heard my father again, this time closer.
He came into the room and scooped me up. My bare legs burned on the rug from the quick movement.
“I lost you, for a second,” he said with a laugh because he didn’t mean it, or didn’t want to scare me, or something.
“Daddy,” I said, reaching up.
He had me on his hip, which was not really a hip for holding children—bony and sharp. His dog tags, actual dog tags because he thought it was funny to wear them, bumped up against an old Talmud pendant in sterling silver in the jingle that always told me he was there.
He perched me again on the other side, and then went over to my mother’s side of the bed, the left side, or the right if you were in it. He looked down at her, and just for a moment, lost his perpetual smile. The jungle wallpaper behind him became 3-D and I reached out my hand over his shoulder to touch it. It was rough, like real leaves, which at the time I imagined it was.
He took the little piece of stuck hair and pulled it gently off my mother’s cheek, placing it back on her head and holding it there.
“You need anything?” he asked, which surprised me because I thought she was sleeping.
“No,” she answered quietly, not opening her eyes. Not sleeping.
He nodded and turned away from her, back towards me.
“Should we get a snack?” he asked me, nuzzling his face into my neck, feeling the underside of my chin with one finger, as he always did.
I don’t remember nodding, but we went to the kitchen anyway for our usual snack of three cookies on a plate washed down with some ice cold milk.
That night, staring out the sunrise, Nick tucked into bed, arguing with me about my chances at motherhood, I realized something. At different times in my life, both my mother and my father were sick in some way. This is true for every child, I suppose. My mother had some times of sadness, like I do, and my father suffered the kind of severe genetic inflammatory disease I have been dealt. He has thyroid disease, and severe arthritis, and stomach problems, at times. I cannot know if the way I see the world is natural or nurtured. I imagine some of both. But I know what love is. And it is bigger than illness, in all its forms. It busts through.
The kind of love my parents have for me and my sister is fiery and absolute. It’s as small as the circumference of our four-person nuclear family and as big as the blue September sky. I have never doubted it for a minute and I can only hope that someday, someone will trust my love like that; that I will be that love that shines through any of my illnesses; that I will be strong enough.
Years later, we are on the beach, the same beach that my family has been going to all my life, the same eighty steps down the bumpy dune from the cottage at the top. I am with my family, my children, and Nick. Theo and Brieza and I are walking towards the surf. It is colder than usual in July, and the waves are rougher than they usually are on Cape Cod.
Nick is perched in a chair out of the way of the water, dressed in a bathing suit and a sweatshirt, holding the rainbow umbrella he just put up with one hand, but having a tough time keeping it still.
My son and my daughter play ahead of me, both only in bathing suits, neither of them cold. I pull a Little Mermaid towel tight around my shoulders, but follow them to the foamy break.
The wind kicks up. Sand whips around us and I throw my towel out against it.
My daughter laughs, but my son cries. He kneels, holding his face in his hands.
Immediately, I know what happened, and I know what to do. I run to him, lift his five-year-old head in my hands, tilt his chin up and peel his balled up fists from his eyes. I lean down and lick the outsides of each of his eyelids, one by one. He is surprised, but doesn’t squirm away.
“Better?” I ask. “Are you OK?”
“Yeah, Mama. I’m OK.”
There is a thin line between having it all and losing it all. It is on that line I balance. I used to think the beat of my life was uneven, stopping and starting with the poison of sickness. But the more I think about it, the more it seems like the beating has been pretty steady all along. I can’t do this, I must do this, I can’t do this, I must do this. And on and on.
Nick and I have landed in our life. It’s not settled, it never will be. We have two healthy children I thought we could never have. We have jobs, we have a home. We are well more often than we are not. We have an old cat that likes to find the square of sun on the edge of the bed. We battle chronic disease.
I used to wonder what would make me whole: what pill, or man, or relationship, or therapist. Now I think it isn’t about adding things to your life to become whole, but instead it’s about taking them away. Like my fear. Like my vanity. Like my need to be healed. Maybe, if I unfurl myself so that the palm of me is naked to the world, and I am here, in my body and in my life, in my remission, then I can finally be complete. Right there is freedom. Right there is absolution. Right there is grace. Right there is me.
Francesca Grossman’s work includes contributions to The New York Times Motherlode, Drunken Boat, Brain, Child Magazine, Ed Week/Teacher, Glasscases.com, S3 Magazine, and Interview Magazine. She graduated from Stanford with a BA and MA in Education and from Harvard with a Doctorate in Educational Leadership, with a focus on writing education and improvement. Francesca lives in Newton, MA with her husband Nick and two children, Theo and Brieza.