“I realized I had to change or I was going to lose you,” my mother told me. “So I did.”
When I arrived that late September morning in 2005, Mom’s house was cold and quiet, morgue conditions. She lay in a drugged sleep on the hospital bed in her living room, a down comforter half-way on, hiding the edema in her legs and feet. She was dying from pancreatic cancer, and I was making my daily trip to do the things a daughter does for her dying mother: sit with her, feed her, run errands, check her medications, and meet with hospice. The acrid smell of smoke lazed in the air, microscopic particles I could taste, from a fire that had burned itself out in the fireplace as she slept.
Leaning over my sleeping mother, I clicked the thermostat dial and the furnace roared on. While the house warmed, I moved to clean up the remains of the fire. That’s when I saw the color red blazing out among half-burned logs and charred newspaper. It took me several beats to recognize the red leatherette covers of my mother’s diaries, which she had kept since her divorce when I was five. One was mostly burnt, though cold now. Several others were singed. The heavy books must have suffocated the fire.
Next to the fireplace was a black garbage bag filled with close to forty years of those red diaries. It was clear what Mom had wanted to do. It was clear she had failed. Mom’s physical weakness, fatigue, and pain won; the diaries survived. Without thinking, I pulled the burnt diaries out of the fireplace and heaved them in the garbage bag. With one last look deep into the bag, I tied it closed, swung it onto my back, and took it outside, where I dropped it in her trash and walked away.
When people hear this story, they say one of two things, always: “You did the right thing. They were private.” Or, “How could you? Now you’ll never know what your mother’s life was really like.” Except they were never private. Reading them wouldn’t tell me what her life was really like. I know this because I used to read them. She used to read my journals, too. We successively violated one another’s privacy and neither of us ever found anything there that helped us know each other. Instead of any lasting truths about each other, all we found were fears confirmed. And we used those fears to build a silence that lasted from my childhood to my early thirties.
The first time I read my mother’s diaries, I was nine or ten. When the letters from a man my mother had been dating, a man who went to Vietnam, abruptly stopped arriving, she retreated into a half-lit, foggy twilight of prescription pills, sleeping all the time. What now looks to me like grief then looked to me like advancing horror, like death. I told myself I needed to protect her, and to protect her, I needed to know the things she wasn’t saying. Her diaries were, I thought, a path to that information.
I was in her double bed, lying on my stomach and leaning on my elbows with my feet making figure eights in the air. The sharp tips of feathers from her soft pillows poked at my stomach. I had found birth control pills among the silky panties in her underwear drawer, and I had sucked in my breath. I was old enough to know that birth control pills meant men, and from my frightened perspective, men made my mother sick, then sad, and then she ebbed away from me into a fog I couldn’t penetrate. I had to investigate further.
In the diaries, I found the men. She coded her diaries, mostly with stars, which may have meant a good day, but probably meant sex because the starred days—sometimes two or three stars—always tracked with who she was dating. Once, it was a married man, and my antennae went up for a solid year as I followed a secret story I could not alter, but also could not leave unread. It helped me brace myself for the coming periods of sickness, then sadness, and finally slipping into sleep and incoherence.
Through the rest of my childhood and teen years, I would read Mom’s diaries when I felt her slipping. Although she had long periods of being sober, they were inevitably punctuated by self-medication. Looking back now, I see that I solved nothing, changed nothing, regarding her struggle with pills. I only came to see myself as the watchful adult and my mother as the vulnerable child.
In my early twenties, when she was in one of her sober periods, I threw an angry question at her: “Don’t you understand how scared I am you’ll start again?”
And she answered: “Don’t you understand how scared I am I’ll start again?”
Of all the things she could have said, that had never occurred to me. Therapy with a counselor who worked with addicted families convinced me to stop ferreting out hidden drugs, to stop staying awake to make sure she got to bed without falling down the stairs, to stop monitoring her visits to doctors, to take my place as her daughter again, to let her go.
That’s when I quit reading her diaries. The first day I did not search, monitor, or read, I felt air rush into my life and I could breathe.
The first day I did not search, monitor, or read, I felt air rush into my life and I could breathe.
The only way I could afford college was to continue living at home. It was the only gift she could give me and she offered it willingly. After I returned from my junior year on exchange at a university on the east coast, I giddily showed her pictures of me and my “roommate,” pictures that radiated love and sexual attraction.
I felt her stiffen. My coming out was indirect, but effective. After that my very presence seemed to fill her with rage and disgust. I suspected she was reading my journals, because when I wrote about my attractions to other women in my college classes, she wouldn’t speak to me for days, and I began to see a pattern.
The years of reading her diaries taught me how to avoid detection, so I set a trap. I plucked a long hair, placed it between specific paragraphs on a page where it would be sure to fall out if disturbed. And then I waited. Within a few days, the hair disappeared.
I didn’t confront her. I had been equally guilty, equally judging. Instead, I went out and bought a steel box that locked, put my journals in it, and kept the keys with me.
I suppose she read my journals to try to glimpse who I was becoming, to understand me, and to protect me, which are the same reasons I had when reading hers. But as we searched for the “truth,” what each of us found was that it was ourselves we were concerned for.
In my senior year in college, she confronted me, asked me if I was gay, and told me to change or leave. That night, I went to a friend’s house and stayed there until I found an apartment.
Though she’d kicked me out, Mom also cashed in the one small retirement account she had to pay my first and last month’s rent. Her rejection flattened me, but her generosity also amazed me. Sad years followed, where we gave each other birthday presents and observed holidays together in tight silence, and otherwise didn’t speak.
When I was twenty-seven, I moved across the country for graduate school. Over those years, we wrote each other rarely and carefully, sharing nothing of consequence. It was the slenderest of connections, but we kept it alive. Eventually, she began sending care packages, fragrant boxes of Christmas cookies, queen-sized sheets, snow globes she picked out for me. Once, before they went national, I set her six pints of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream packed in dry ice.
When I was thirty-five, I moved back to my home state for a job thirty miles west of my hometown, and seeing each other in person brought with it a freeing acceptance that we couldn’t shape each other into someone who would make the other feel safe. Over the next ten years, we found our way back to each other. Maybe what helped most was that she immediately loved my partner, now my wife. They were kindred spirits; together they enjoyed putting together self-assembly furniture, monitoring the birds that visited our respective yards, munching popcorn and watching animated movies.
I went over to her house once in my late thirties, when she had just adopted two tiny black kittens. Their vulnerability and our tenderness with them made us gentle with each other. Mom kept a cluttered house, and her dinner table bore the brunt of it. So we alternated holding the kittens and consolidating the piles of newspapers, receipts, mail order catalogs, packets of crackers, pens, and scrap paper to make space for plates.
With no preamble, I blurted out, “What happened to you? You had so much trouble with my sexuality. You’ve changed. How did you do it?”
Her answer was simple, and so very hard, too: “I realized I had to change or I was going to lose you. So I did.” I now marvel at that as the single most extravagant act of love I have ever witnessed.
“I realized I had to change or I was going to lose you. So I did.”
I’m fifty-eight now, and my mother has been dead for fourteen years. I still have all of my journals stored on a high closet shelf. Once in a great while, I dig back—not to reread, only to find the date of some event, to clarify who was at a party or whether a conversation took place—and I am ashamed of what I see there: my youth, my self-centeredness, my insistence on my own rightness, my utter indifference to my mom’s pain.
I also know that the process of writing, over years, cured me of most of those things. I sometimes wonder which pages Mom read so long ago, and whether she believed they were the truth about who I was. Those old journals give insights into moments in time, but they tell no enduring story about what my life was “really” like. One day, I’ll throw them away, too.
I don’t know that my mother saw her diaries in the same way I now see my journals, as freezing her in the moments of panic and pain when it was hardest to see the love that underlies our relationship even at its most distant. I do know that she stubbornly believed she could protect me from the searing pain of losing her if she could keep me anchored in my own life.
She worried aloud to her doctor her death would “ruin” my life. She refused to let me move in to care for her. She had spent years nursing her own mother, so she knew the toll it could take. This mother, the one who wanted to shield me even from her death, is the mother I believe tried to burn her diaries.
Had I read them that day, or any of the days or years following her death, I think would have seen the earlier mother in their pages, my middle-aged mother, full of anger at herself and at me, fearful, desperate to control me and fearful of the cost. The mother recorded there is not the mother who grew and changed, who eventually embraced me and whom I eventually embraced.
That is the mother I decided to remember when I threw away her diaries unread. That mother wanted us to stay in the present. I let her give me that last gift.