Have we loved in time?

My relationship with my mom is difficult. She left me with my grandmother in Guyana when I was just three months old so that she could move to New York City, where the public hospital system was heavily recruiting foreign nurses in the early 1970s and through the 80s. True, she did leave so she could give me a better life. And I can’t imagine how she had to steel her heart to leave her newborn behind, an infant she wouldn’t see again except in photographs for nearly three years. It’s not really an unusual immigrant story. And it’s the story that has formed who I am as an artist—I am always excavating that loss, how it has informed every relationship I’ve had since, how it accounts for relationships I cannot seem to start or maintain. Even after four decades, I’m not sure my mother really understands quite how to love me, or even what to make of me. I’m sure I still seem like a foreign object to her. But sometimes, we do connect, and it is clear she is my mother and I am her daughter. When we’re talking about jewelry or perfume, when we’re being smart alecky and making each other laugh on the phone. She’s coming to stay with me for a few days after my surgery, and I’m somewhat anxious. Will this be one of our good times, or will I be counting down the days till she heads home? What follows is a piece I’ve been working on for several years now, about my mother and me in the wake of my hospitalization for pneumonia.


“I saw what a child must love/I saw what love might have done/had we loved in time.” — Mary Oliver

The comb moves in fits and starts through the tangled inches of hair, preceded by the moist shhh of detangler. I sit: my hands have forgotten how to weave braids and even the plastic comb’s weight is too much for the needle-bruised forearms. It is early February. I have been 36 for a month. I have been sick with pneumonia since Thanksgiving, falling from not feeling quite right to walking pneumonia to eight days of a ventilator doing the work my lungs forgot or were too tired or simply didn’t want to do. Even now, the nasal canula leaks oxygen slowly down my nasal cavities to the tender airways to the weary lungs.

After weeks of not eating and not moving, after weeks of lab tests that have bruised my arms the color of eggplant, after consultations by a clown car’s worth of doctors, my muscles no longer work. I can sit up only with the mechanical, imperfect help of the hospital bed. Despite this, the latest nurse has announced that if I don’t comb my hair, she will cut it off.

In a photo from early December, my face glazed with the happiness of my first published book of poetry, my hair hangs past my shoulders, blanketing my neck in loose, glossy ringlets. My mother has stayed out of my hair since I was in second grade, when she discovered that half a thick braid was gone, lopped off in a panic after my awkward attempts at coming my own hair like big girls had left it in what seemed an untamable knot.

My mother’s hands have always seemed to me the hands of a nurse, firm but distant. Now they rake the comb through my sloppy skein of hair, untangling, before weaving the weary strands into several small braids. I sit mutely, comforted by the insistent tugging and scraping. In my mother’s sure fingers there is an antidote to the callousness and carelessness of nurses and aides. “Why can’t you walk?” they ask suspiciously, resentfully even, as I call for assistance in using the bedpan or need my diaper changed.

I have written about my mother and me and illness before, an essay about the cornea transplant in my left eye, a dear friend taking the role of mother. That time, everyone asked, “Is your mother coming for the surgery?” She did not offer, and I did not ask: I didn’t know how to ask those things.

But now, she is here. Β As her nurse’s fingers have bathed me, rubbed lotion into my steroid-swollen fingers, we have relearned the clumsy language of need. We are back to the beginning—baby powder, sponge baths, a daughter literally reborn. That conversation continues even after I am moved to a rehabilitation center where the occupational therapist insists I comb my own hair to regain the strength in my arms, the dexterity in my fingers. I will roll from side to side, inching my sweat pants up my thickened legs. I will struggle to put on my shirt without getting tangled in the cord that still connects me to oxygen. I also will ask my mother to comb my hair every day, let her mow new paths into my scalp. My mother will braid my hair. I will relax into her hands. We will see what love might do, and we will love in time.

Posted on January 11, 2013, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 53 Comments.

  1. You get me every time, Paulette, with both the message and the beautifully lyrical prose that could only come from a poet.

  2. eugene holley jr

    Beautiful and poignant. I lost my mom in 2011. So this resonants with me. Date: Fri, 11 Jan 2013 11:55:25 +0000 To: eholley@hotmail.com

  3. Beautiful and poignant. I lost my my in 2011. So I understand.

  4. Happy Tuesday to you! Whoa-beautiful writing and story telling-as I was reading it felt like I was sitting in your living room listening.
    Just read through the post here on your blog and love the freshness of it. You have a fun and witty writing style too! Keep up the good work and when you get a chance, come visit my take on how to stay healthy during the media tombed β€˜flu pandemic of 2013’. Cheers to your health and success!
    Ciao ciao for now~
    @Cherelynn on Twitter

  5. Insightful reflection on understanding love. Many of us have had to heal our mother’s unskillfulness by befriending our own heart, forgiveness, and learning to love the mother who is present in every one of our cells.

  6. My mother was also a nurse. Odd, isn’t it, how nurses are sometimes the least compassionate with their own family. Almost as if they’re immune to the pain of others after seeing it for so long. My ex also was left by his mother in another country when very young so she could help her husband start out in U.S. I think that’s had ramifications throughout his emotional life that he’s not fully fathomed. I applaud you for being brave enough to face it.

  7. DAMN THAT WAS GOOD! So beautiful and descriptive that was.

    And I just love how you used your sensory words, “shhh of detangler”, “needle-bruised forearms”, “work my lungs forgot to do…”, that was so good! And I also love how you compared the treatment from your mother to that of what happens to an infant, being “reborn”.

    You really deserve a lot of credit for this, and if you make a book out of it or a longer, published version, I am so there!

    Please do more; that was great and I’m subscribing!


    Raven Vinnie


  8. I love this. People in the USA and Uk often speak as if immigration from the caribbean is so easy for the immigrant . They quotenumbers – immigrants, deportations, job losses to their economy, remittances., etc But who measures love cuts and love repairs which occur between parents and children; siblings, parents etc.

  9. Beautifully written. Just beautiful.

  10. Wow. Mixed feelings. I pray you get well soon. πŸ™‚

  11. This really made my stop and think for a second. Beautiful writing, thanks for sharing!

  12. Thanks for this and know that love is never too late.

  13. Here’s to you and your mother loving in time.
    Thank you for your brave words. Enjoyed every minute.

  14. Lovely writing. πŸ™‚ I had to follow you πŸ™‚

  15. Created ~ Create.it

    You just told my story to a great degree of accuracy. Glad someone out there can relate. Thank you for sharing πŸ™‚

  16. I really enjoyed this! The connecting elements of the mother’s hands, the hair – wow, the hair! – and the tangle of the cord, reminiscent of the umbilical cord, but also the relationship. Is it cut? Should it be? All so vivid, with just the right amount of questions woven into the narrative. And the ending is so lovely. Well done!

  17. This is so very powerful, so numbly, hauntingly beautiful. Thank you for sharing your work; I look forward to be further haunted.

  18. **WOW you paint such a vivid picture of pain and love…You’ve shown me a side of motherhood that I can’t relate to & therefore yearn for you to work towards a deeper love relationship with your Mother. Mother-daughter relationships can be all that I feel (from reading your words) wish for it to be. Keeping you uplifted in positive thought N prayer and I know you’ll get there…

  19. Beautifully written. You captivated me from the very beginning… Though I don’t know the rest of your story yet, what I’ve already read tells me that you’ve been through a lot. You are a brave soul and a talented writer…

  20. Very good flow of writing.

  21. Raw, real . . . and beautifully written.

  22. beautiful….some loves are incoherent and that’s what makes them so pure πŸ™‚
    good luck!!!

  23. Beautiful writing… i pray we all learn to love in time…while we can.

  24. You write with such an effortlessness, such an smoothness in the flow of words.. It was a delight reading. Thank you. πŸ™‚

  25. Love is such a powerful expression and there is no end to it’s revelation… beautiful! thank u for such a write up…

  26. what a lovely, touching post! My mom is a nurse too and she had to leave me at 4 years old to work at a military hospital in the middle east, I grew up without her but I wish I was as close to her as I am to my dad, we’re still trying to bridge that gap, in time… ❀ following your blog from now on! πŸ™‚

  27. Yes, you will definitely love in time. Get well fast. :=)

  28. Very deep post, good writting right there. If you want to visit my blog anytime my name is Carlos and my blog is about Surfski (Ocean paddling). Regards and take care!

  29. WOW!! This is powerful. First I wish you the best for a your own physical health and the health of the relationship with your mom. Family dynamics can be fragile and very often they will evolve into forms we never expected to have to deal with. Believe me…I know.

  30. I say life is complex. Live, love, forgive, and repeat.

  31. Beautifully written. It is a scary feeling to be hauntingly alone and in need. It is scarier still to fear the rejection of the words “I cannot”- so we simply do not ask. I am so glad that your mother came and is giving the love you deserve a peace offering. Knowing your heart will be her treat. I am wishing you a speedy recovery.

  32. Many people have similar issues with relationships, so your having been left behind by your mom may or may not be the culprit. Artists are known to be fickle too. πŸ˜‰ I’m speaking from experience… To love and be committed is scary business. The other day I learnt something so profound from Marianne Williamson’s The Age of Miracles: you can love unreservedly, even if you know that this love could be lost any day. As this is always so, one does not have to fear the loss.

  33. Really outstanding! πŸ™‚

  34. hoping you get well soon.

  35. Well written post and well deserved on FP. Mother’s love is the best! I’m glad she’s there with you when you needed her the most. The best luck for your recovery πŸ˜‰

  36. I concur with the uses of the above words: ‘beautiful’, ‘outstanding’, ‘poignant’. It had the desired effect and also made me think about my relationship with my own Mother. Very well written.

  37. A poignant moving story written from the heart.

  38. A very beautiful post! Relationship with your mother is the most beautiful, the most complicated and the most important one…

  39. http://newauthoronamazon.wordpress.com

    Hi …. You may or may not like what I have to say …. but what I say is for your own good. We can never undo the past .. but we definitely need to learn to place it firmly in the past .. what you do not acknowledge is the love given to you by your grandmother do not shortchange yourself of that. We all come into this world alone and even when we live with family … we truly only live in our minds …. so get over these hangovers that you are clinging to … for it is preventing you moving on in your life … you are forever stuck in the past and the past is what it was … that’s not gonna change … what you can change is your present and through it your future. Be strong internally and you will overcome everything in your life … besides at 36 .. its absolutely the last thing you should be doing. From the tone of your work it is apparent that your mom is still a stranger to you and at some level that is true for everybody … you can never know another as well as you know yourself so start focussing on your own self … take your own power into your own hands … for as long as you keep feeling sorry for yourself … you do not have the power to help yourself. So many just write nice words and leave … but in the end you will have to live with yourself …. so how do you want to see yourself … is the question … and only you can answer that.
    Genuine help is one that lifts the receiver out of their problems by helping them look into the mirror of their lives …. then you get to decide what you like and what you must change.

  40. Fantastic! You’ve got to continue writing this!


  41. A very heartwarming story , thank you for sharing. My mother also left me when I was three weeks old in the care of my grandmother , except in my case , once my grandmother was no longer able to care for me , my mother sent me to an orphanage . Needless to say , we never bonded and she continued to reject me until the day she passed away.

  42. A very powerful, touching piece.

  43. Reblogged this on Oyia Brown.

  44. So beautifully written. So detailed. So much emotion. I loved it! I felt as though I was experiencing this right along with you. Me and my two younger sisters moved in with my Grandmother when we were young. My mom moved away. Nothing quite like your situation, but a lot of other things going that we had to deal with. I saw that you mentioned having a intimate relationship with Jesus. That will definitely help with your mom. She will see Jesus in you, in turn, she will feel loved, and she will then know how to love you. May you and your mom be extremely blessed my friend, Sheri Haskins : )

  45. Beautifully written. As a parent/father, it made me think of what my kids (specially my daughter) really think of me.

  46. very inspiring.. love conquers all indeed..

  47. good for both you and your mom, paulette! πŸ™‚

  1. Pingback: A letter to my daughter about love, men and a wooden comb - Wealthy Single Mommy

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: