Last night, J. and I talk about our mothers. Hers: daily visits to ensure that medication is taken, that meals are eaten. For the confirmation of what is real and what is imagined. “Her dreams are so vivid sometimes, they bleed into her days,” she says. “This person – is he alive or dead?” Her mother will ask. “Alive,” J. will tell her, “very much alive.”
I tell her about my mother, about sitting by her bedside as she died. It is a story I return to over and over again. I am trying to get it right.
“She had a tumor in her appendix that burst,” I tell J. And then the cancer spread through her abdomen. She did not live long after that. And then I tell her the part of the story that I rarely ever tell:
As the cancer grew, it made her bloated so that in the last weeks of her life, she looked as though she were pregnant. She would shuffle through the house in her bathrobe, stand in the doorway to the kitchen and watch me while I made toast or tea. She would rest her hands on the top of her distended stomach and pat it like an expectant mother. “Look,” she’d say, “baby’s getting bigger.”
Another friend tells me about the fig tree she is growing. “Isn’t it too cold here for figs?” I ask. “It is more a case of the wind,” she tells me. “In the city, the closeness of the buildings can protect them, but out where we are, we have to be a little more careful. They cannot withstand the wind.”
She tells me that when the tree is small, it can be kept in a pot, and brought inside over the winter. “In your basement,” she says, “away from any extremes of heat or cold.”
But when it gets bigger, you have to put it in the ground, and dig it up in the fall. You have to dig it up and then bury it. “What do you mean?” I ask.
She tells me you have to make it a long trench and lay it down, then bury it with dirt, to keep it warm over the winter. “Like a grave,” she says. “And then in the spring, you dig it up and replant it.”
On my way home, I get a message from my other friend J. She is moving back to Providence. “Because that is where I want to raise a child,” she had said, months earlier when contemplating the decision. “And I don’t have much time left. I have to do this now.”
My mother was nearly forty when she married my father. They learned early into their marriage that they could not have children. It has never been clear to me what, exactly, they learned, or how, but I can remember on one occasion, at least, overhearing my mother – in a rage – calling my father certain names that I cannot bear to repeat here. Her choice of insults suggests that she believed him to be the source of their infertility.
In the years following their divorce, she grew increasingly rancorous and angry. As I grew into my teens she considered me – and perhaps any child not raised by birth parents – to be damaged in significant ways. “No one will want you,” she’d say, when I came home too late from a high school party. “Because they will know you are just like your mother was.” Again, it seems gratuitous to repeat her language here, but the insults typically leveled against teenaged girls are designed, it seems, to strike them where they are most vulnerable. To uproot any budding sense of worth. To target the still shaky foundations of womanhood.
Perhaps she never really got over not being able to have children of her own, my wise friend L. suggested some time ago. And that disappointment, that anger, that grief – is what she carried with her for the rest of her life. I think of how difficult it was for her to see me fall in love – hard, fast – for the first time. How much she warned me about the perils of sex and desire. Her overwhelming anxiety about the possibility of my becoming pregnant, unwed and alone. How she made it seem that pregnancy was inevitable. And that it was a condition from which a young woman could never recover.
I tell M. that I have fallen in the love with the idea of the fig tree. Of the tender care it requires to thrive here, in non-native soil. I imagine preparing a site for it in the spring – a spot that will shield it from the wind. Wrapping its branches in burlap, bringing it inside for the winter.
And when it gets bigger, I will dig a bed for it each fall. I will dig it deep and wide so it can rest. I will lay it down like a child in her bed. I will cover it with soft earth, gently – with my own hands. A blanket of pine branches over it. And in the spring, when all the conditions are right, I will bring it back out into the light where it can spread its branches to the sun and bring forth its sweet fruit.