On a Sunday evening in 2007, I was with my mother, preparing to take her to a chemotherapy treatment the next morning. We lounged around her bedroom, talking about whatever had happened since the last treatment two weeks prior—the latest was that my sister, Lizzie, age twelve at the time, had written a letter to her favorite author.
“It’s in her sock drawer,” she said. “It’s hilarious. You should read it.”
We did not have the kind of mom who respected the inner lives and privacy of her children. If it was about us, she deserved to know it, and if you didn’t want her to know it, it was up to you to destroy the evidence. Any constructive criticism I offered about this aspect of her parenting was met with scorn. I had made it to adulthood under her watch, and I thought she should appreciate my input as to how she might better parent Lizzie, whom we all thought of as our baby—I was fourteen years older than Lizzie, and our other siblings were ten and seven. Our parents happily filled their roles, but on the whole, Lizzie’s childhood could be seen as a sort of collaborative family project. We all delighted in her, celebrated her smarts and her cuteness, answered all of her questions, and encouraged her in whatever she wanted to do.
It was her seventh grade year, and Lizzie, a voracious reader, had been devouring “The Clique” series by Lisi Harrison. Harrison, a former MTV employee, had left her job to chronicle the backbiting ways of wealthy adolescent girls, whose behavior she’d seen glimpses of in her former coworkers. The few times I’d picked up the books, I’d been disgusted by the detailed accounts of each character’s outfit. There had been similar descriptions in the Babysitter’s Club books of my youth, but these were not celebrations of any character’s quirk or creativity—in the Clique, every description was embellished with gratuitous name-dropping of haute couture designers. Not one of these characters owned an article of clothing from Target, and the author wanted you to know it. I wasn’t thrilled about Lizzie’s enthusiasm for these books.
I had mixed feelings about reading the letter to Lisi Harrison—I believed that Lizzie deserved privacy, but I did agree with our Mom that she should find a better hiding place, especially as long as she was relying on others to do her laundry. Eventually I did read the letter, which was sweetly handwritten in pencil on plain lined paper, mainly summarizing conflicts from the book and wondering how Lisi Harrision managed to capture those conflicts in a way that was so true to life. I was relieved to find that her interest lay in human drama, rather than thousand-dollar handbags. Lizzie never mailed the letter. It remained in her sock drawer for months, growing ever more crumpled until it disappeared, presumably into the trash.
It was toward the end of the following school year when Mom alerted me to another humorous communiqué, this time one Lizzie had received from a male classmate. “He says, ‘You’re so beautiful and funny,’ and goes on about what a good boyfriend he’ll be if she lets him,” Mom said. It was an old note, and there was no indication that Lizzie was anything more than friends with this boy. “I wonder what she said to him,” Mom continued. “How she managed not to hurt his feelings.” Together we gazed off into the distance, admiring Lizzie’s tact and imagining her perfectly chosen, kind, compassionate words.
I never came across that note and I probably would have left it alone if I did—it didn’t fall into either of my protected snooping categories. I saw levels of nosiness, and justifications for each level. I read the Lisi Harrison letter because I love Lizzie and I wanted insight into her personality. I wanted to be sure she wasn’t seeing the girls in those books as role models. The other protected snooping category is indulging in overheard conversations and lost documents of strangers, which I do because I love stories. In those cases, I am an impartial, uninvolved observer. This boy was not a stranger to me. I knew who he was and I knew he didn’t get what he asked for in the letter. I would feel wrong making myself privy to his writing, given to Lizzie in trust. It was none of my business, and there was no compelling reason to seek out the letter. I can proudly say that I can restrain myself when it comes to the privacy of a thirteen-year-old boy.
As Lizzie moved into high school, she either found a better hiding place or started destroying personal communications—the only information available to a nosy mother or sister were Christmas cards from her dance friends, tacked to bulletin boards. Notes of love, encouragement, and appreciation. Nothing to hide away in a sock drawer.
Two years passed. Lizzie continued to grow more beautiful and talented, smarter and kinder. Our mother’s cancer progressed and metastasized. Someone gave her a journal as a gift, perhaps imagining that it would be a nice relic for us kids to have after she was gone. It was a hard-cover, spiral bound book in shades of light blue, green, and lavender. She kept it on her bedside table, out in the open for anyone to enjoy a quick read—truly, a quick read. Most entries were limited to a couple lines or very short paragraphs. Even when it got interesting, the journal was maddeningly vague. One frustrating snippet: “I am so proud of my children. Each of them has their own talents.” There is no follow-up to that. Not even a little bulleted list of our individual gifts. She stated symptoms, outcomes of tests and scans, mentioned what doctors she was seeing.
Her journal was honest but slim; I suspect because she was trying to spare us the pain of knowing how hard it really was for her. My education in creative writing had given me a different set of rules and instructions: Spill your blood on the page! Don’t censor yourself. Pay no mind to the voices that try to silence you. Though I hadn’t been doing much of either in recent years, I was stunned by the unabashed lameness of her journal. Where was the anguish, the anger, the grief? The closest she came to my cancer-journal ideal was in late summer 2010, when a brain tumor was forming without our knowledge. Most entries described her sense that something was really wrong, how much she hated being stuck in bed. She wrote, “One of the things I notice is how much people complain. I know it’s normal, but I want to say something which I won’t write here.”
What? What did she want to say? That people who complain should shut up? That they should try having late-stage cancer for a day, or that they should be sentenced to a permanent Freaky Friday-style body switch with a sick person? What is the point of bottling your feelings as you hurtle toward death? I am not a prolific journaler, but what I do write is kept away from the eyes of others and it is honest. It’s an outlet for thinking through complicated relationships and for expressing thoughts that couldn’t be said out loud. It’s important for my own stability as a healthy person, so much so that I can’t imagine not having an outlet during a serious illness. In a sense, she met her own expectation that all written material is public property. But by setting her journal out for us to read, and attempting to make it palatable to us, she missed the mark. She robbed herself of a form of therapy and underestimated her children’s ability to cope with her harsh reality. We would be comforted by knowing her thoughts, even if they were hard to face.
I was not the only one who felt that way. Months later, after the brain tumor was found, and the prognosis was six to eight weeks, Lizzie sat by the bed, paging through the journal.
“Mommy, you need to write more in here.”
Mom smiled. This was not the first time Lizzie expressed her dissatisfaction, and not the last. The six to eight weeks stretched into four months. Her goal was to be alive on Lizzie’s sixteenth birthday. She missed it by one day.
Months later, I was home for a visit. I straightened up Lizzie’s room, putting dirty clothes in the hamper and moving clean ones to their place in the dresser. In the process, I came across my mother’s journal. I had read it so many times when she was alive, but hadn’t really given it a thought since she died. I wondered if there was anything new to learn from this perspective. It didn’t take long to read in full. Over the months, her pretty handwriting grew loose and wobbly. I flipped past the last entry and saw:
I love you so much. Sometimes
I slammed the book shut before I could take in another word and returned it to the dresser drawer. If Lizzie had been adding to the journal, writing to our deceased mother as a way of grieving, the content of those letters was absolutely not my business. It was a comfort to know that she had an outlet. Aside from the occasional wan facial expression, Lizzie had not expressed much to me about her grief or her mental state. I desperately wanted to know that she was fine, that she wasn’t falling apart inside. I didn’t want her to be like our mother—to be, as Mom and her sisters would say, a stuffer—to fail to feel or acknowledge the depths of her feelings. If she journaled, I thought, at least she was working out her feelings somewhere.
I left that weekend feeling superior. Unlike our mother, I could find personal writing and leave it alone. I could respect my sister’s privacy. I could trust her to grieve in her own way.
Still, those words haunted me for months. “I love you so much. Sometimes” Sometimes what? I was sure Lizzie’s journal entries had satisfying details. I wanted to know what they were, but I made several visits to the house and managed to stay out of the sock drawer. I still wanted to know, still felt superior.
Late in the summer, Lizzie had her wisdom teeth pulled and I came home to help look after her. It was stressful and emotional, mainly because it was the first big event where a mom would be handy and there was no mom. I hated to see Lizzie vulnerable and suffering. On top of everything, I’d been diagnosed with a skin infection the week prior, and though it was bandaged, medicated, and under control, I couldn’t control my paranoia that I would somehow infect Lizzie through the gaping holes in the back of her mouth. When I broke down and shared this fear with her, she was dumbfounded.
“Why would you TELL ME that?”
We argued over what snacks were appropriate and how much gauze to put in her mouth. She’d been terrified by the surgeon’s description of dry socket and checked her mouth with a hand mirror on a near-constant basis. Her complexion turned to a light lavender and she still refused to eat.
Under this pressure, I cracked. I returned to the sock drawer, desperate for evidence that things were okay. I read every word.
When I confessed to a friend, he asked, “Well, did you act on anything you read?”
I didn’t. There was nothing to act on. There were no signs of crisis. The writing reflected Lizzie’s placid demeanor. As when I read the author letter, I learned more about Lizzie than she would have told me on her own. Still, it was, in a sense, nothing I didn’t already know, and I had no power to change her grief. I was proud of her genuine love for our mother, and ached for her vulnerability and innocence. But I had already felt that way. Nothing was different, other than the fact that I had violated her privacy.
Despite the large age difference between me and Lizzie, and despite how atypical our relationship was as a result, Mom was the mom and I was the sister. She bristled anytime she perceived me exerting an influence she didn’t approve of. Consequently, I was surprised one afternoon during the brain tumor months, when she closed a conversation about my future with, “You’re going to be busy mothering Lizzie.” She closed her eyes and settled back into her pillow, a slight smile on her face. She did not want to give up her role, but if she could not be here, she did not want Lizzie to be truly motherless. I differ from my mother in many ways, and there are ways in which I don’t aspire to be like her. I know what it’s like to be snooped on, to complain, and be ignored. I believe teenagers deserve privacy. I know that I crossed a line when I read Lizzie’s additions to the journal, one our mother would have skipped over with no problem.
Today, I am able to see the journal’s significance—it shows how relentless late-stage cancer is. Like a Whack-a-Mole game. One miserable symptom is managed, another pops up. If you avert your attention for even a moment, you’re overwhelmed. Ten months after her death, the journal devastated me in a way it couldn’t when she was still here. There was a sort of permanent adrenaline rush I had through her whole illness, one that made it possible to be calm and useful through horrifying moments and situations. Now that the crisis is over, those moments come back to me and I see how desensitized I was. The non-stop discomfort she describes in the journal gets to me in a way it didn’t when we were in the midst of the situation. After a round of radiation to reduce pain from tumors that were growing between her ribs, she wrote that the pain was gone, but she felt that her whole body had been deep-fried. No doctor had mentioned this potential outcome. At the time, I read this with a sense of dread and resignation. Now it makes my insides crumple and burn with sadness and rage.
In what I thought was the lamest journal of all time, I found a life-changing statement: “Every healthy person should be helping a sick person in some way. Otherwise, your life is a waste. I wish I had known.”
I had my own little journal during that era. It became crucial in November and December—the six to eight weeks. I took those weeks off work and lived at home, tending to Mom, getting Lizzie where she needed to go, and welcoming visitors. I had a small notebook that I made a point of writing in upon waking each morning. It was a record of my frustrations, fears, preoccupations, and the odd dreams I was having. Writing it all down was good for my stress level—it was the only time of day when my thoughts were my own. At one point the notebook disappeared and I shuddered to think of anyone reading it. I made a mess searching for it. At times I had left it in the bedside table, a recent acquisition from my Grandpa’s house. Mom had decided she didn’t want the furniture after all and sent it back. I imagined my little book of personal oddities being read by my aunts, and I wanted to sink into the earth. I didn’t call to say, “Hey, don’t read that.” I thought I might make it to his house before anyone came across the notebook, and even if I didn’t, I was becoming an expert at letting go of things beyond my control. Eventually I found it, sandwiched between the bed and the wall. I thought I had looked there. I don’t know how I missed it, but I was happy to find it, to know that my privacy was unmolested.
In the days after my Mom’s death, I wrote on a mini legal pad that I happened to have in my purse. I went to the doctor’s office because of a virus that had been plaguing me for weeks. As I checked off boxes on the form, I felt sick to my stomach. Seeing “widow/widower” as an option for marital status was the first time I thought of my father as a widower. I didn’t like it. I wrote it down. Any time I had a thought that seemed significant, I wrote it down. I didn’t want these moments to be forgotten.
At the funeral home, the room was full of funeral arrangements. My sweet cousins offered to write down the names on all the cards so we could write thank you notes. But no one had a piece of paper. I dug around in my purse and pulled out a pad and pen. Eventually my fifteen-year-old cousin returned it to me, an awkward look on her face. Several pages were flipped over, the list of names written near the back of the pad.
I wondered why she did that.
Later, at home, I took the pad from my purse and flipped through the pages of mom-death-haze jottings I had unwittingly delivered to my aunt’s children. I tore out the list of names and gave it to my Dad. More practice in letting go.
When our mother died, I had a strong awareness that she was still with me in my siblings. When I looked at them I saw the personality traits and physical characteristics they inherited from her in relief, as though they’d been lit with fluorescent dye and the lights were off. I don’t know if they see me that way. For Lizzie, whether she knows it or not, there’s one thing that hasn’t changed. There’s still a woman who loves her desperately snooping in her sock drawer, hoping to find good news, delighting in her words.
Rachel Mack is a writer living in Louisville, Kentucky, where she teaches yoga and works in the public schools. She is working on her novel and writes biographies for Americans Who Tell the Truth. You can read her tweets at @StoryGirl.