What My Mother Didn't Talk About

My mother and I were very close, but when she died last year there was still so much I didn’t know about her.

A few weeks after my mother died I searched through her email for evidence of a lie. I input her doctors’ names as keywords, because I knew my mother did not use the word for the illness she was diagnosed with 28 years ago. She had had this disease, at stage 4, for so long and yet she hardly ever used the word for what she had — only saying it for emphasis when she wanted us to understand how severe things were for her. Maybe, I wondered, I had become so desensitized to her condition that I did not take it seriously enough this last time.

A few weeks after my mother died I searched through her email for evidence of a lie. I input her doctors’ names as keywords, because I knew my mother did not use the word for the illness she was diagnosed with 28 years ago. She had had this disease, at stage 4, for so long and yet she hardly ever used the word for what she had — only saying it for emphasis when she wanted us to understand how severe things were for her. Maybe, I wondered, I had become so desensitized to her condition that I did not take it seriously enough this last time.

Twenty-eight years is a long time to be sick. The recurrences were such that each time made me think that my mother had made a deal with the devil and was therefore invincible. I’d say, “You’ll outlive us all.” Or at least some of us. But she didn’t.

When I came home to take care of her in September 2019, I knew things were not good. I told myself things like, I’m not in denial. But by then I really was. When she said, “I want you to come home and take care of me so I don’t have to go to hospice.” I said, “What are you talking about? I thought you were getting better.”

She weighed 99.6 pounds when she died. I had watched as her weight inched down to 100 over the course of a year. Last summer, I came home when she had surgery and watched her writhe in pain in the aftermath and so I went and bought her a new mattress and 10 new pillows. I wanted to make her comfortable.

I’d say, “You’ll outlive us all.” Or at least some of us. But she didn’t.

I massaged her back with moisturizer as she sat against me and my father talked to us. She moaned in pain and I could see the outline of each bone as I did it. I was worried I was hurting her but she told me to keep going. I knew she wasn’t getting better. That fall, I sat with her nurse as she drained the fluids that had collected from my mother’s leaking lungs three times a week. Even then, I knew she wasn’t getting better. I sat across from them both as my mother looked at me, a placid expression on her face, and asked me, “Why are you crying?”

Weeks after her death I was rummaging through her email, looking for some evidence that she had lied to me. That she had conveyed hope about a hopeless condition. That the evidence of the disease was worse than I imagined. As if a chart could explain what I had seen for myself but still chose to deny.

My mother was born in a small village in postwar Poland in a house with no indoor toilet. I pointed this out to people from time to time because I was so proud of how far she had come as an immigrant. She was a person who was born into poverty, along with my father, and together they came to America and did well for themselves. The outhouse was part of the story. It was supposed to illustrate the poverty.

“Everyone had an outhouse,” she’d say. “I wasn’t special.”

In fact, years later, when we visited the country, retracing our flight from Communist Poland in 1981, we stopped at my great-aunt’s farm in the Polish countryside and she still had an outhouse. We marveled at it until we had to use it.

My mother said that on winter nights she would hold a rope to go to the outhouse so she wouldn’t lose her way in the dark. This was the reality of Poland in the 1960s. She went to school in the morning and watched the young women from the overnight shift at the factory coming home and swore she wouldn’t end up like them.

My grandfather, who was captured as a POW and forced into a German labor camp when serving in the Polish army during World War II, told my mother he didn’t see the point in her going to college. She was a woman. She passed the entrance exams and went anyway. She was one of a handful of women in her polytechnic in Łódź. Later, she was only one of a handful of women who had a professional engineering license in Connecticut. She ran her own successful consulting firm and she yelled at bullying male building contractors all day. She never called herself a feminist.

Poland was full of stories of woe. For my parents, it was a place from which to escape. Once, when I asked them both what they had nightmares about, they said being back in Poland on vacation and the borders closing. Being trapped. They looked at each other as they admitted their fears to me. They had no idea they had been having the same nightmare for decades.

To be sick, my mother learned, was a humiliation.

We did not visit Poland often. Only when someone died. I have not been able to bring part of my mother’s ashes to Poland yet because of the pandemic. They sit in my living room, waiting to join my other dead relatives in her village of Bedoń.

I live in California, 3,000 miles away from where I grew up, and when my mother couldn’t sleep she’d call me. I always picked up.

“I think I know how I got sick,” she said once.

My mother had an aversion to being sick and to anyone knowing about it. Her father had tuberculosis and had to be sent to a sanatorium to recover. My mother, her brother, and my grandmother would visit him as he was quarantined. No one in her village would play with her or her brother afterward. They would taunt them that they were sick too. To be sick, my mother learned, was a humiliation. When she became sick this final time, she isolated herself so much that she stopped seeing or talking to her friends, except for a handful of emails I found. Her business associates didn’t even know she was sick. I had to tell them she was dead and listen to their shock and grief. She had worked until a week before she died. 99.6 pounds.

On the phone, late that night, she recounted how her father was vigilant against things like bedbugs. She whispered to me that he would come into her room and spray everything down with DDT. She said he’d even spray down her pillows and sheets. She recounted, with wonder, how the spray looked in the morning light.

“Or maybe I got sick because they made us get X-rays when I was in puberty. To make sure I didn’t have tuberculosis too,” my mother countered.

How would I know for sure? Now that she's gone, I would never know anything at all. There was no finding the truth. There were just stories.

When I asked my mother why my grandfather was orphaned she told me his mother had died when he was young and his father had remarried a woman who didn’t want him or his two sisters. They were shipped off to different orphanages. Later, in his early twenties, he reunited with one of his sisters and even rekindled a relationship with his father. My mother told me that my grandfather had said that at a wedding for his half-sibling after the war, the entire family was poisoned by black market vodka, which my grandfather had taken only a few sips of. They all died except my grandfather. He was left with no one again.

These were the stories of Poland that I grew up with. Fantastical, breathtaking. When I asked my mother why she was so tough — really, a hard-ass — she said that it was because the family had a car. There were maybe only a few other families with cars; they only had one thanks to my grandfather’s job as a mechanic. But the village boys thought my mother, just in elementary school then, was putting on airs. They were all poor but my mother didn’t want to be. So each day they followed her home and harassed her. She learned to run, to take different streets. And she balled up her fists and learned to fight. No one would ever get anything over her, she said. She glared at me. As if I made her remember something painful that she had been intent on forgetting. But I wanted more. I’ll never get to hear more now, at least from her.

My mother hated dwelling on the past: “There was too much sadness there.” And so she concentrated on the future. Except, in the years before her death, she’d started calling me to say things like: “I don’t think we should have left Poland after all.”

This was a shocking admission from a woman who loved America more than anyone I knew. Who believed it was the one country you could build yourself into whoever you wanted to be. A place that accepted a family who had no money, no recognizable name, no understanding of the language, and allowed them to work to be someone else. That didn’t mean it wasn’t difficult or that, in her waning days, my mother perhaps thought it wasn’t quite worth it.

“If I had known that Communism would fall 10 years after we left, I would not have left,” she said. “We just believed it would go on forever.”

My parents were graduate students when they decided to leave. Or rather, the situation had become so untenable that they had to leave. They felt like the country would always be one of food rations and lack of opportunity. So they sewed our birth certificates, their school diplomas, and other important papers into the lining of their suitcases and we left. They only told their parents the night before for fear of someone turning them in.

Twenty-five years after we left Poland as political refugees, we returned, to bury my grandfather, and retrace our steps of leaving the country. My parents, my sister, my brother, and I went through a border crossing in Chałupki, Poland. As my father handed over our American passports, I saw him become more and more agitated, as if he had been plunged into the memory of the time before, when my parents pretended to be going on vacation in order to leave and beg for political asylum in Vienna. The tension and fear was still present in his muscle memory. He only spoke English to the border guard, who insulted him by saying my brother, who had been born in the US, was the only real American of any of us as he returned our passports 30 minutes later.

We crossed into the Czech Republic and then, with ease, into Austria, where I noted the marked difference between the landscape of formerly Communist countries and the verdant hills of this one. The difference felt like a cliché. Bright flowers bloomed outside gingerbread houses, a stark contrast to the gray Eastern bloc apartments that had ruined the landscape of where we had just been. The kind of industrial apartments where I’d been born.

Our destination was the town of Traiskirchen, and the refugee camp that we had been sent to after my father had followed the instructions he was given by people who had previously fled and asked for political asylum at a police station in Vienna. My family and I stood outside the walls of the refugee camp and I couldn’t believe it was still operational. I looked at the armed guards at the gates, at the razor wire lining the top of the redbrick fence. I looked at the long underwear drying outside a window as my parents wept.

“You chased a boy for bread,” my mother said. “You were always hungry.”

We left those memories behind and went to Klam, Austria, a small village where my parents had taken us when we were allowed out of the refugee camp and where we had lived for a few months in a family-run bed and breakfast, paid for by the Austrian government and the United Nations Refugee Agency. The owner remembered my parents. He was their age, and recalled how his father had let us stay there years before. I used to stare at old photos of my sister and I looking at the sky in similarly patterned dresses, or the two of us naked and staring at the ground with our hands cupped, hoping for what? I don’t know.

My parents walked us to the parking lot where those pictures were taken. They took us to other markers from photos I’d spent my life since staring at, trying to piece together where I came from.

I wonder if other children of refugees feel permanently displaced. If we are always looking for a home. I have lived in Poland, Texas, Connecticut, California, New York, and California again. I have never felt a sense of home anywhere I am. In fact, all I feel is a sense of longing for another place. A place I cannot name.

That sense of longing now extends to feeling outside of my body. Someone recently told me that losing your mother is primal. It is the deepest loss. I felt validated in my feelings of being absolutely adrift. I no longer had a planet to orient myself around. Who was I if I could not call my mother nearly every morning on my way to work? Who was I if I could not text her every day? Or ask for her help and advice as I navigated the world? She hadn’t given me enough advice, wisdom, knowledge to make it through the rest of my life. I hadn’t stored any of it away. I didn’t even really know who she was.

My mother came from a hard place where to be vulnerable or to share your feelings could leave you open to threats. It was a sign of weakness. That was a lesson I internalized and one that I still struggle with today. Her fear of seeming weak made her miss out on spending time with people who loved her and who could ease some of her suffering.

Someone recently told me that losing your mother is primal. It is the deepest loss. 

When I came home to take care of her after her final surgery last fall, we tangled like mother and daughter who were too similar. During the surgery her heart had stopped on the operating table. There was some discrepancy between the doctors over whether it had stopped for three minutes or five. Whatever the truth — something else I will never know — it had altered her personality. She became angry and aggressive. The more acerbic parts of the mother I knew were now more pronounced.

I could also feel the desperation. When I sat across from her in her bedroom, looking at her newly shorn hair, I cried.

Again, with that placid look on her face, she asked, “Why are you crying?”

I just shook my head because I couldn’t say it.

“You can save me,” she said. But I knew I couldn’t.

That night, in bed, as we lay next to each other, I asked her something it had taken me hours to muster up the courage to ask: “Are you dying?”

She inhaled and said, sounding surprised, “I don’t know. Do you think I’m dying?”

I knew the answer but to say it out loud meant that I had given up on her. That I didn’t believe she was strong enough to make it through.

“I don’t know,” I said instead. I’m ashamed that I couldn’t tell the truth. And from there I believed the lie. I believed it as we went to doctors and I explained symptoms that she had withheld from them. I believed it even as I saw their alarmed looks or when her lung doctor said she was actually doing well. That she just needed to walk more and work out her lungs. I believed the lie even when she stood on the scale and I saw 99.6 flash on.

I took that lie and went to New York to work for a week, leaving her behind in Connecticut. Something I find it hard to forgive myself for.

When I returned to Connecticut on the day before she died, my father and I went to the Polish store to buy her favorite meats and sausages and she called me on my cellphone. She was having trouble speaking but barked, “When are you coming home?”

We were five minutes away, I told her. When I came home, I was alarmed. Her pupils were huge. She could not get out of bed. I wanted to hug her but I didn’t want to crush her. She was as small as a bird. Still, I told her I had to go back to the store. I wanted to buy her blueberries for oatmeal in the morning. To resume our routine. She looked scared. I had been sleeping with her at night because the night is when the fear came and with me by her side she was less afraid.

I held her hand and said, “I’ll be back and we’ll sleep together again and it will be OK.”

When she smiled at me, the first smile I had seen in weeks, she already looked like a skeleton. She had hardly been eating and yet I wanted to get her blueberries. I drove to the market with the windows open, blasting music and crying.

What I don’t know and will never know now feels infinite. I can ask my father certain things, but her innermost thoughts and who she was as a person beyond what she was willing to tell me are out of my reach for good.

“Why did you think it would have been better to stay in Poland?” I asked her during one of our late-night phone calls. “Because if we did, you would be married with three children by now,” she said. I didn’t like her answer.

She said what she wanted to say no matter who it wounded.

I lay beside her all night as she was dying. We were both scared and even then she tried to protect me from what was happening. She tried to comfort me by hiding the truth of what was happening even as things took a turn for the worse. It was just the two of us. She had brought me into this world and I was helping her out of it.

I stroked her back. I told her not to be afraid, and at some point I fell asleep. Now I wonder, How could I?

I woke up to her calling my father on her cellphone and not saying a word. He ran downstairs and she asked him to help her take a shower. He helped her to the bathroom and then she collapsed. And still, I felt shock. She had called me home to help take care of her as she was dying and I knew what was happening but I could not believe it.

She had called me home once before to help take care of my grandfather as he was dying. He had died in the morning too. I remember lying on the couch in the living room as he was dying in the next room. I didn’t want to leave him and only fell asleep after feeling as though someone had put a blanket over me. In the morning, I rushed to his room and found him cold.

I’m left behind looking for clues. Clues of who my mother was as much as who she wanted me to be.

I had not been vigilant on either occasion and I had missed something. I had missed everything.

How do you piece together what kind of person you are? Your history and where you came from when the people who made you are gone?

I’m left behind looking for clues. Clues of who my mother was as much as who she wanted me to be. She was proud of me. She, after all, worked extra hours so I could take writing classes. She sent me places she could never go herself because she knew the thing you needed to make it in America was access. She fought for her own access first in Poland, and then in America.

And yet she wasn’t sure if it was worth it. What had the struggle been for then? Her admission felt like a betrayal of everything we had grown up believing. Or was it just the offhand remark of a woman who was looking back at her life — all the pleasures and pain — and trying to make sense of it?

I had 28 extra years with my mother. When she was first diagnosed I was only 12. The landscape of my life would have looked dramatically different if I’d lost her then. I would not be who I am without the pieces of her that I have. The stories she did tell me.

There is a photo of her and me that I’ve kept. We are in Texas and I am about 6 years old. She was probably 35 then. I am clutching onto her and my mouth is open in a scream. She’s wearing a khaki top and matching shorts. She has a slight smile and a faraway look, unmoved by my screams. What is she thinking about? I never thought to ask her about the photo or what she was staring at.

It feels like a tidy visual of how I felt about her both when she was alive and now that she is dead. A rageful desire to keep every piece of a woman I obsessed over. She gave me all of herself and it still wasn’t — will never be — enough. I now know she was depressed and anxious. She missed her own mother, a mother she would rarely see until she died at nearly the same age my mother had been when she passed on too.

In the small village of Bedoń where my mother was born, there is a cemetery, much like the cemeteries you find in village centers all over Poland. My grandmother is buried there. We buried my grandfather there too. My mother is interred in Texas and we buried some of her ashes under a mesquite tree on our property. I stare at the cross made of rocks my father, brother, and I assembled to mark it. My parents had begun splitting their time between Connecticut and Texas, hoping to spend their retirement in Texas. Perhaps they also hoped to find some semblance of home as memories of Poland became more and more remote.

I worry I will forget her altogether, and will just have pictures to rely on.

In mourning, I have learned that every version of myself must grieve her loss. Sometimes I find myself walking on the street hearing the refrain “Where is my mother?” playing on a loop in my head as if I am a small child, lost and wailing. I worry about what will happen as my memories of my mother become more remote too. I worry I will forget her altogether, and will just have pictures to rely on, as I try to understand what she was thinking and feeling as she stared off or looked directly at the camera.

Where do I put the memories I do have and want to forget? Her anguished last hours. The guilt I feel at leaving her in her final days, knowing she was waiting for me to return home to fulfill my promise and be with her as she died? When I close my eyes I see her collapsing and opening and closing her mouth searching for air. Those memories are as true as the ones she told me about her life before me and the memories I’ve searched for in photographs I have of her. In me they are forced to coexist.

And yet, writing about her at all feels like a betrayal. Writing about her most vulnerable moments goes against everything she believed in. I can imagine her calling me and making a cutting remark in her accented English. And all I can think is that I can’t get the truth right, her spirit right, anyway. Have I reduced her to a simple immigration story? I feel like I don’t have enough to go on, to know her as much as I wanted to, even though she wasn’t as opaque as I might make her out to be.

My mother’s favorite childhood memory, as she told it to me, was this:

Her family had a cherry tree in their yard. She would climb up in the branches and eat cherries and watch the yard, the street. She said it’s where she felt safe: “No one could reach me up there.”

She wasn’t a person who dwelled on the past, though. She only wanted to look forward.

“The past is too painful,” she said. “It doesn’t help you to look back.”

But looking back is all I want to do. ●

Karolina Waclawiak is the author of the novels Life Events, How to Get into the Twin Palms and The Invaders. Formerly an editor at the Believer, she is the executive editor of culture at BuzzFeed News. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, the Virginia Quarterly Review, Hazlitt, and elsewhere.

What My Mother Didn't Talk About
My mother and I were very close, but when she died last year there was still so much I didn't know about her.
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