Twenty years ago last month, I was in the daze of my first weeks without my mother. I had been attending San Francisco Lesbian Avenger meetings during the summer, and then dropped off during the weeks before and after her early September death.
Finally I called fellow Avenger Masha Gessen. I had to acknowledge what had become evident: that I wasn’t going to be able to come through with whatever commitment I had made at the last meeting I attended – back when I knew my mother was mysteriously ailing, but didn’t know it was a terminal metastasis of her breast cancer, in its final stages.
I told Masha what had just happened – that my mother had died a week or two back, and that all I could do was struggle each day to remember how to breathe and sip and swallow and walk. Masha said: “Come over. My mother died less than a year ago. Breast cancer. Come over right now.” I was staying at my parents’ place in the East Bay, and Masha was in San Francisco. It was late in the evening already, but something in her tone told me I needed to go. I was spinning in an abyss, and her voice was the first thing I had encountered that sounded like it might arrest the spinning, maybe even establish a marker by which I could begin to navigate deep space.
I got to her Duboce Park apartment within the hour. She and her then-partner Mimi greeted me with full-hearted hugs, long, meaningful looks, and a mug of hot tea. Then, with a mixture of intensity and compassion, Masha began to map out the barren, unrecognizable landscape I found myself in: a world in which my mother was memory. What would it feel like a month in, when each day was a bewildering eternity? How about in two months? Four? A half a year? What could I expect of myself and those around me; what should I simply let go of, and watch drift away?
Twenty years later, I don’t remember Masha’s exact words (that I would survive, perhaps? in spite of my disbelief?). Twenty years later, what I recall is simply a sense that the sum total of what she had to say, when she was saying it, and how, all added up to what I needed more than anything else in my life then, and I was infinitely thankful for it. When it was becoming clear that my mother was indeed dying and there was nothing we could do to stop it, I remember thinking that my father, my sister, and I were like turtles flipped on our backs, waving our limbs out of habit, but now pointlessly, in futile attempt to find some solid surface against which to right ourselves. And yet there was none: all around us was air, as far as we could see in every direction.