How to Be Your Mother's Daughter

By Priscilla Long

Receive the news. Your mother is not doing well. Your sister has called. Continue nevertheless with plans to travel to Vancouver to celebrate your birthday. Tell yourself there is time. Go to the bank lockbox to get your birth certificate. Bring it home. Look at it, at your name, your mother's name, she 19 years old. Feel disoriented, stirred up, as if some great storm, long forecasted, had begun rattling windows. Drive to Vancouver with your sister and brother-in-law and niece. Cross the border, showing your birth certificate. Walk around Vancouver, see the sights. All the while feeling stirred up, disturbed.

Fly to the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Sit beside her bed. Watch her tiny diapered body. See her at 80 pounds, she who was always stout. Listen to her labored breathing. Keep the nighttime shift, the nighttime vigil. Listen in the dark to her shallow breaths. See how she cannot move at all, how she must be attended at all times. Fall asleep in the chair. When her breathing stops, wake with a start. Listen to the silent room, the room absent the sound of labored breathing. Listen for a long time. When she takes another long, deep breath, take a breath yourself. Lean back in the chair and close your eyes. Wake every time she says "help me." Do what you can for her. Move her. Give her a spoonful of vanilla ice-cream, the thing she can still swallow. Sit back in the chair in the dark and fall asleep again. Hear in your sleep, "help me, help me."

In the morning, lift her tiny body. Shift her position. Go out to the ward refrigerator to get another cup of ice cream. Lift her head and feed her, one spoonful at a time. Sit down again. When she says "help me," tell her to wait just one minute more. Listen when she says, "Okay." Say "Mother, it's Susanne's birthday." Listen when she says, "I know." Wonder how she could know the date, March 26, the birthday of her daughter lost long ago. Look out the high window. See bald eagles soaring overhead. Think about these eagles soaring above the Chester River. Think how in cultures far from hers, in Pacific Northwest Indian cultures, they're messengers between this world and the spirit world. Say nothing to your mother about this. Know your mother would never go along with this eagle idea, she analytic, brilliant, taciturn. A research psychologist, adept at testing, adept at statistical analysis. Feel the majesty of the eagles, messengers, according to you, for her. Sit beside her. Cringe when the nurses call her "sweetie." Cringe when she says, "help me." Move her. Give her another spoonful of ice cream. Sit beside her as the family gathers. Sit beside her knowing you will have to return to your own work and your own life before she has to go. Tell her you must return home to Seattle. Listen when she says "Okay." Leave her with your father and your sisters. Go home. Go back to your teaching.

Think of her every day. Think of her until your sister calls you three weeks later to inform you of her death. Think of her, even today, a decade later. Recite the facts of her life. Young farm wife. Three children before age 20. Mother of five goes to college, graduates summa cum laude. Graduate school. Full professor, chair of her department. Fanatical about educating her children. One or more extra-marital affairs. Clothes mismatched. Ever taciturn.

Keep her photograph, young, brilliant, eyes shining, the one she gave you to keep on your mantelpiece, as if you might forget her. Remember your mother. Remember her forever.


Priscilla Long's science column, Science Frictions, appears each Wednesday on The American Scholar website. Her most recent book is The Writer's Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life. Her poems, stories, and creative nonfictions appear widely in journals such as Under the Sun, The American Scholar, The Southern Review, Raven Chronicles, Web Conjunctions, The Alaska Quarterly, Fourth Genre, Tampa Review, North Dakota Quarterly, and Passages North. Her awards include a National Magazine Award and Seattle and Los Angeles arts commission awards. She teaches writing and is author of a history book, Where the Sun Never Shines: A History of America's Bloody Coal Industry. She serves as Senior Editor for, the online encyclopedia of Washington state history. For more information please visit

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