Years and years ago when I was young and busy and my mother was alive, I would rarely call home. So when I did, it was a sign. If my father answered, he wouldn’t stay on the line for longer than a minute because he knew something was up, and my mother would have walked into the kitchen and looked at him questioningly.
“It’s Karen,” he’d say as he handed her the receiver.
Then she would get on the line and say, “Karen.”
And just like that she was there, all of her, for me, which was why I called, and I would start crying.
I called because I was going to make a C in Contemporary American Poetry. Because I’d totaled my car. Because I was going to get married. Because I was going to get a divorce. I had called because I needed her, which happened a lot more than just the times I called, but I was the one who isolated herself, the quiet one, the one who stayed away. And she always let me.
One time in my early 30s, I had to have surgery for endometriosis. This is a diagnosis that doesn’t need major surgery these days, but in those days it meant a week in the hospital and six weeks at home. When I woke up a day after surgery she was sitting in a chair opposite me and although I’m sure this was part of the plan I couldn’t imagine how she had transported herself to my side. She had a bag of books or magazines or work papers with her and she was settled in and I knew that she wouldn’t leave. She stayed a week with me in the hospital and a week at home where she brought me soup and crackers in bed like it was nothing and she asked nothing. She always knew how to ask for nothing.
Later on, older and married again, I moved to another state and I was for some time unbearably sad and afraid of what I’d done. I called that time and asked if she would come for a visit.
“I was just waiting for you to ask,” she said.
When I go to a retreat like the one last weekend in Massachusetts, the group of us, mostly strangers, sit with one another in a silent room for five or six or eight hours a day, and there isn’t any conversation. We sit in the quiet, and walk around in the quiet, and follow the schedule to show up at certain times and be quiet together again. And after awhile or certainly by the end you might realize that you have been sitting in a net, and that you are actually part of the net that’s holding you and everyone else up. After all that time and right before you go home you have the chance to speak. Someone will say something like this:
This is the first time I’ve ever done this. I had no idea what I was doing. I’ve read all of your books and they’ve helped me so much and I always told myself that if I ever had the chance I would come to one of your retreats and then I saw that you’d actually be here and I couldn’t believe it and I had to come.
There are usually tears by then and not much more to say, but so much more you can’t even say, and I want them to know everything my mother wanted me to know if I ever asked.